WASHINGTON – The bridge watch team on the stricken Norwegian frigate Helge Ingstad was distracted, inadequately trained and failed to take adequate precautions while transiting close to land, according to an accident report released Friday by the Norwegian government.
The watch standers on Helge Ingstad, which collided with the Maltese-flagged tanker Sola TS and subsequently sunk outside Sture Terminal near the mouth of the North Sea, were busy conducting a watch turnover and attempting to conduct training during the navigation in the channel, which it was conducting at 17-18 knots.
“The Navy lacked competence requirements for instructors. The Navy had assigned the officer of the watch a role as instructor which the officer of the watch had limited competence and experience to fill,” the report reads. “Furthermore, the Navy had not given the officer of the watch assistant sufficient training and competence to operate important bridge systems while training the officer of the watch assistant trainee at the same time.”
The Norwegian publication VG reported last December that the ship’s captain, Capt. Preben Østheim, was asleep in his cabin during the transit through the strait near Sture, which is less than three miles across at its narrowest point.
The report, which also faulted the tanker for failing to mitigate potential risks and the vessel traffic control service for inadequate monitoring, takes special aim at the Navy for a lack of qualified navigators, and for short-changing the training of junior officer, leaving bridge watch teams underqualified.
“As a consequence of the clearance process, the career ladder for fleet officers in the Navy and the shortage of qualified navigators to man the frigates, officers of the watch had been granted clearance sooner, had a lower level of experience and had less time as officer of the watch than used to be the case,” the report found. “This had also resulted in inexperienced officers of the watch being assigned responsibility for training. The level of competence and experience required for the lean manning concept (LMC), was apparently not met.”
The accident report shows that the bridge team confused the Sola TS for a stationary object on land, and because the watch standers were distracted with training, they were not fully engaged with monitoring the communications on the radio.
“A more coordinated bridge team with more information sharing would have been more capable of detecting the tanker sooner,” the report said. “Achieving good teamwork is particularly challenging in the case of bridge teams whose members are constantly being replaced.
“Furthermore, the bridge team was part of a culture characterized by great confidence in each other’s skills, and this may have contributed to the perception of them being in full control of the situation and thus less vigilant and sensitive to weak signals of danger.”
The report is part one of a two-part report and only encompasses the actions that led to the collision. Further findings about the actions after the collision will be released as part of a second report to be released later.
‘Not Particularly Demanding’
According to the report, the transit through the body of water known as the Hjeltefjord “was not considered particularly demanding, as the fairway is open and offers a good view all around,” the report found, which likely contributed to a sense of complacence among the crew.
That echoes the sentiments of the Capt. Østheim, who told VG he didn’t think he needed to be on the bridge during that transit.
“After 12 years at sea, I know the coast as my own pocket, so I know exactly when I need to be on the bridge and when I can rest,” Østheim told VG.
There is generally little traffic through the channel and there is no traffic separation scheme.
The Sola TS, which the report said was likely creating some visual confusion for Ingstad’s watchstanders because of its illuminated deck lights at night, announced it was underway on the radio during the exact time that Ingstad’s watchstanders were turning over, likely causing them to miss the transmission, the report reads.
“At the same time as Sola TS notified of her departure from the Sture Terminal, the watch handover between the officers of the watch started on HNoMS Helge Ingstad, while the officer of the watch trainee continued to navigate the frigate,” the report reads.
“During the watch handover, the officer of the watch being relieved and the relieving officer of the watch observed an object at the Sture Terminal, to starboard of the frigate’s course line. The ‘object’ was observed both visually and on the radar display in the form of a radar echo and AIS symbol. The two officers of the watch discussed, but did not clarify, what the ‘object’ might be.
“Both officers of the watch had formed the clear perception that the ‘object’ was stationary near the shore and thus of no risk to the frigate’s safe passage.”
The situation was made even more perilous by the fact that Ingstad did not have its Automatic Identification System on, which would have notified traffic service and Sola TS of Ingstand’s location. Traffic Service lost track of Ingstad because operators had their displays zoomed in too far, the report found.
As the Ingstad came closer to the terminal, the Sola TS, which the officer was convinced was a stationary object by the terminal, was appearing on radar to have made some distance between the pier and the water, but the officer was still not sure it wasn’t a stationary object becoming more clear on the radar screen because Ingstad was closer to it.
“A more experienced officer of the watch would probably have had greater capacity to pick up on weak signals of danger and be better equipped to suspect that his/her own situational awareness suffered from misconceptions,” the report read. “The officer of the watch thought, however, that the course had to be adjusted slightly to port to increase the passing distance to the ‘object’.”
In the minutes before the collision, the Sola TS established contact with Ingstad’s officer of the watch to get them to take an avoidance maneuver by turning to starboard. But the watch still thought that the Sola was a stationary object and that turning to starboard would run into it.
“When HNoMS Helge Ingstad did not alter course, the master on Sola TS ordered ‘stop engines’ and, shortly afterwards, the pilot ordered full speed astern on the engines,” the report read. “These two measures were carried out only short time before the collision, and were therefore without material effect.
“When the officer of the watch on HNoMS Helge Ingstad understood that the ‘object’ giving off light was moving and on direct course to collide, it was too late to avoid the collision.”
‘I don’t feel shame’
The decision of the captain to not be on the bridge or, at the very least, to have posted a special navigation detail with the ship so close to land is perplexing, said retired U.S. Navy cruiser skipper Capt. Rick Hoffman, a career surface warfare officer.
“If I’m within five miles of land I’m going to have some kind of navigation detail posted,” which in the U.S. Navy means a team of more qualified watch standers, extra lookouts and more than likely either the Commanding Officer, Executive Officer or both, would be on the bridge overseeing the watch.
It’s further perplexing as to why the officer of the deck, or officer of the watch, was conducting training during a transit so close to land, Hoffman said.
“[The officer of the deck should be] looking out the window and completely focused on the transit,” he said. “We would not use that as a training opportunity. The OOD and the Conning Officer has no other task.”
However, Østheim told VG in December he has no regrets about his actions, though he accepts that he was overall responsible for the ship.
“I don’t feel any shame,” he said. “As the ship’s chief, I of course have the overall responsibility for the ship and its crew. It’s extremely sad that this happened. It’s an accident that should not happen, but I don’t feel any shame.”
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News. Before that, he reported for Navy Times.