Internal investigation of boat incident concluded

Top image: Crew from the coast guard ship KV Svalbard board the damaged vessel UNIS Polaris. Photo: The Norwegian Coast Guard/KV Svalbard.

The internal investigation into the boat incident on 27 January 2017 is now concluded and the investigation group has delivered their report to the UNIS director.

17 February 2017
Press release from the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS)

The investigation committee was led by Ann Christin Auestad, manager of the Arctic Safety Centre at UNIS, and also included one scientific staff member, the main safety delegate and one student representative. The overall objective with this internal investigation was to contribute to a constructive learning process to prevent future such incidents, contribute to the improvement of the HSE work at UNIS and ensure safety of students and staff executing fieldwork. The work of the committee has been based upon available documentation and interviews with students and staff. The committee submitted the report to UNIS director Harald Ellingsen on 16 February.

– The committee has done a thorough investigation into the incident and the committee’s recommendations will be implemented in our field work procedures, says Harald Ellingsen.

On Friday 27 January a polarcirkel boat, UNIS Polaris, had a motor malfunction during a transportation assignment between Barentsburg and Longyearbyen. On board was a group from the UNIS course AT-324/824, consisting of eight students, two field assistants, the course leader and the captain.

The group was initially transported to Barentsburg 23 January 2017 to perform toxicological analyses, and was to be transported back to Longyearbyen on Friday 27 January.

The original plan was to use a belt wagon from UNIS, but because of avalanche danger and the technical condition of the belt wagon, it was decided some weeks prior to the field trip to use the UNIS boat RV “Viking Explorer” instead. The equipment was packed according to this vessel. Prior to the field trip, the students and field assistants participated in the UNIS safety course “Two day winter safety course”, but this course does not include safety at sea.

During the safety briefing before departure on 23 January the group was informed that there had been a change of vessel, and that they would be transported by the UNIS Polaris. The reason for the change was that Viking Explorer was without ballast. The UNIS Polaris is a 10.5 meter long polarcirkel with a pilot house and the capacity to transport 12 people. The pilot house is not large enough to contain all passengers and some passengers have to sit outside on the aft deck.

The transit with UNIS Polaris to Barentsburg on 23 January went without any problems. Meteorological data from the UNIS weather station at Bohemanneset show an air temperature of -10°C and wind speed of 5.8 mps at the time.

On 27 January the air temperature was -15 °C and the wind speed was 7 mps. There were sea swells and the current was strong, so the sea was relatively rough with a wave height of approximately one meter. UNIS Polaris docked at the quay in Barentsburg at 10:45 and the field group immediately started to load equipment onboard the boat.

At 11:15 the UNIS Polaris left Barentsburg. The sea was rough approaching Heerodden, but east of Heerodden the sea became calmer. Students sitting outside quickly became cold and wet due to sea spray and wind chill. While passing by Colesbukta the captain noticed that the boat did not respond as usual when steering and that one engine was not functional. A call was made at 13:06 to the section leader at UNIS logistics, who then called the Governor of Svalbard to notify about the situation. Twenty minutes later the second engine failed, and water was starting to come in and the Governor was updated on the situation. The coast guard ship KV Svalbard was dispatched to the disabled vessel. The UNIS Polaris captain instructed some of the students to start pumping out the water and remove snow and ice from the deck. At this point it also became clear that some luggage and equipment was lost.

At approximately 15:00 the coast guard reached the UNIS Polaris and started evacuating people. By 20:00 the coast guard was back in Longyearbyen with the students and staff.

The incident did not lead to any physical injury of personnel, but resulted in damage and loss of both personal and field equipment. Four persons were sent to hospital for check-up.

Direct cause
An investigation of the boat was done by the local firm Ingeniør G. Paulsen. In their report they conclude that the direct cause of the incident was most likely a weakness in the design of the boat. In the bow, there is a tube with a cableway from the hydraulic crane on the front deck that runs inside the boat. Around the cables, there are no sealants and water may pass freely. With the sea conditions on 27 January, a lot of water accumulated on the front deck, and may have entered the cableway inside the boat. The amount of water may have resulted in the first engine failing, and the lack of engine power may have led to an increase in the amount of water inside the boat.

Contributing factors
Change of transportation: The initial plan of transportation by land was changed to transportation by sea, for which the field party had not been trained. The packing of equipment had been planned and prepared according to RV Viking Explorer.

Weather: The weather was challenging. The air temperature was -15 °C and wind speed 7 mps. In addition, the trip was in the dark season with no daylight and with a wave height of one meter. The current was strong and there were sea swells.

Regulations: UNIS does not comply with “Forskrift om drift av fartøy som fører 12 eller færre passasjerer mv”. It has been interpreted that this regulation is not applicable due to UNIS not performing commercial activities, but only use the vessel for research and educational purposes. It’s unclear if this interpretation of the regulation is correct.

The overall conclusion about why this incident happened is as follows:

  • Technical weakness in the design of the vessel
  • Late change in means of transportation
  • Lack of sufficient safety training of the field group

The committee points out that UNIS needs to clarify with the Norwegian Maritime Authority if UNIS’ maritime operations in general need to comply with “Forskrift om drift av fartøy som fører 12 eller færre passasjerer mv.” The vessel did not have room for all passengers to sit inside the pilot house. UNIS has stated that they shall follow “Forskrift om drift av fartøy som fører 12 eller færre passasjerer mv.” According to regulation § 7 the pilot house shall have room for all passengers.

The committee notes that the UNIS “Safety instructions for fieldwork and excursions & instructions for use of field equipment” is not updated to include the use of UNIS Polaris. UNIS need to ensure that this procedure is updated and applicable.

Several changes to the mode of transportation, and the last one on the day of departure, put a higher risk for both the passengers and the equipment.

The committee gives the following recommendations:

UNIS needs to clarify with the Norwegian Maritime Authority whether or not the institution is formally obliged to comply with “Forskrift om drift av fartøy som fører 12 eller færre passasjerer mv.” UNIS needs to update internal procedures and ensure that safety instructions for fieldwork is both up to date and includes new equipment and activities. UNIS needs to ensure that there is a system in place to ensure that persons involved in a serious incident like this are followed up both immediately and more long term after an incident. UNIS needs to ensure that last minute changes are included in the risk assessment.

– I would like to thank the committee for their thorough work. It will be important for UNIS to take lessons from and implement their recommendations to ensure safe fieldwork conditions for our students and staff, says director Ellingsen.

– Our goal is that such an incident will not occur in the future. Safety will be the paramount aspect in our fieldwork plans and procedures. We are grateful that this serious incident did not result in personal injury for those involved, concludes Ellingsen.

Media contact:
Harald Ellingsen, +47 926 60 973.

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