The ‘mind-boggling modification' on the Miroshga
Cape Town - A litany of irresponsible modifications, failing equipment and bad decision-making set off a series of events that lead to the capsizing of a tourist whale-watching vessel near Hout Bay in which two people died, initial findings by the SA Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa) suggest.
In a statement, Samsa noted that the vessel was modified in 2010 by removing the inboard diesel engines and replacing them with two 205-horse power outboard engines. This revelation has left the boat’s manufacturer dumbfounded.
The Miroshga capsized near Hout Bay on October 13. Welsh tourist Peter Hyett and Hangberg resident and crew member John Roberts died in the incident.
“The vessel’s last stability book, which was approved for the Miroshga’s previous configuration with inboard engines, does not identify flood points as observed on the vessel. These flood points are compartment vents for the previous engine arrangements, which potentially allow substantial amounts of water to enter into the compartment,” said the Samsa statement.
The Cape Argus forwarded the report to the vessel’s manufacturer for comment.
Roy Finkelstein’s company, Port Elizabeth based AMFI Craft, built the Miroshga and he personally sailed it on its maiden voyage from Port Elizabeth to St Francis Bay in 2003.
“The modifications are mind-boggling. These designs are very particular. The buoyancy of the boat depends greatly on specifications of length, width and weight distribution. The relationship between these specs needs to be fairly exact to create an equilibrium. By removing the engines [which weighed over a ton] from the hull and attaching ones to the back, you fundamentally alter this relationship,” said Finkelstein.
Finkelstein said the modification could have worked had heavy-duty foam been used to fill the cavity left by the removal of the inboard engines. This was not done, and the empty compartment took on an abnormal amount of water every time the vessel went to sea.
The Samsa statement said the modification actually damaged the boat: “Watertight sub-division arrangement within the hull were compromised [in the modification process] allowing sea water to cross flood to adjacent compartments”.
This meant that a large part of the hull of the ship was taking on water continuously.
This problem was known to the owners and crew of the vessel, said Samsa. To manage this, bilge pumps were routinely run to empty out the accumulating water. Again, this baffled Finkelstein.
“Bilge pumps are there as back up, to pump out small amounts of water at a time. They are not designed to keep the vessel afloat by pumping out water constantly, even on the packaging of these pumps this is clearly stated,” he said.
One of the bilge pumps was wired incorrectly. This resulted in the pump’s circuitry being tripped, rendering it useless as water rose in the hull.
Also, the alarm system, which was supposed to alert crew to the failure of the pump, was disconnected. The rising water resulted in the engines cutting out and the boat drifting into shallow water where it capsized.
“Here we move from the modification to standard maintenance. That the wiring was wrong, that the pump was inactive and that the alarms were off… well, it all speaks of gross negligence in the standard upkeep of the boat,” said Finkelstein.
Samsa also noted that the skipper was not properly endorsed to command a passenger vessel.
Despite repeated promises to the Cape Argus that it would avail itself for comment on Wednesday, the company which owned the Miroshga refused to answer any questions pertaining to Samsa’s statement.
“Our lawyers are engaging with Samsa, and we will not comment on the report at present,” said Greg Louw, co-owner of Southern Ambition Marine Safaris.
Transport MEC Robin Carlisle said that if the report was accurate, the deaths of Roberts and Hyett amounted to culpable homicide.
“It’s tragic, but I’m not entirely surprised. Harbours in this country are disgracefully managed. The cracks [for unseaworthy ships to slip through] are as wide as stable doors,” he said.
Dave Colly, regional manager for Samsa in the Western Cape, “openly” admitted that the authority’s surveyors failed to pick up the potential for the accident when they certified the vessel.
“Although we use a standard way above the minimum requirements, it is possible for something to go unnoticed. How do we know, for instance, when the owner goes and jippos a switch?” he said, adding that a final report on the incident would be completed in two weeks.
Tzvi Brivik, a Cape Town lawyer specialising in personal injury, said it would be possible for family members of the victims to sue the owner of the vessel, provided the findings are reproduced in Samsa’s final report.
“Absolutely. Family members and dependants of the victims would be able to sue on the basis of loss of income and financial support. It would have to be proved in court that the modifications and the way that the boat was operated were out of sync with prescribed safety protocols and that they contributed directly to the capsizing on the day.”
How it happened:
On the afternoon of Saturday, October 13, the Miroshga, a small whale-watching boat operating from Hout Bay, went on a tour with three crew and 35 passengers on board. In the course of the voyage engine failure resulted in the vessel drifting towards shallow waters.
A small charter fishing vessel arrived on the scene, the skipper of which instructed passengers of the distressed Miroshga to jump into the water and swim towards the fishing boat.
Shortly afterwards the Miroshga capsized in breaking waves, trapping some passengers and crew underneath the deck of the boat.
Divers who were nearby helped them escape. The NSRI and other rescue vessels took most passengers back to Hout Bay. Two people could not be saved: a Welsh tourist and a crewman from Hangberg drowned.
The tug Smit Amandla recovered and took the boat to Cape Town harbour to be inspected as part of the SA Maritime Safety Authority’s investigation.
Summary of ship’s shortfalls
Samsa’s preliminary findings on the causes of the accident:
* The flood points of the vessel were too low, allowing substantial amounts of water to enter into the compartment while at sea. The problem was known to owners and crew.
* One of the bilge pumps (used to pump water from the hull) was not correctly wired, causing a trip in the circuit.
* Alarms that were intended to alert crew to bilge pump failures were disconnected. The skipper and crew were thus not aware of the of the flooded aft compartments.
* When inboard engines were replaced by outboard engines (in a 2010 modification), the water-tight subdivisions arrangements in the hull were compromised, allowing sea water to cross flood between compartments.
* An electrical failure and flooding respectively resulted in the vessel’s two engines cutting out.
* With propulsion lost, the vessel drifted closer to inshore shallow waters. The skipper did not appreciate the danger of this, and there was a delay in deploying the anchor.
* The skipper’s competency certificate was not endorsed to allow him to command a small passenger ship. The endorsement is the only assurance that a skipper holds specific training in life raft use, radio procedures, first-aid and fire fighting.
* The vessel was fitted with a 50-man life raft. This raft drifted away without inflating after passengers cut the canister-retaining straps. A member of the crew dived in and attempted to retrieve the raft, but the wind swept both the crew member and the raft away.