How Cargo Ship Workers Prepare for Emergencies

  • YouTuber and cargo ship mate Bryan Boyle detailed how workers are trained to deal with emergencies.
  • The merchant seaman said incidents such as the Baltimore bridge collapse are incredibly rare at sea.
  • Boyle said he was on a ship that briefly lost power and his training began.

This essay as told is based on a conversation with Chief Mate Bryan Boyle, a merchant seaman and YouTuber who worked as a deck officer on various cargo ships for over a decade. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

I have been a deck officer for almost 12 years. I am responsible for ensuring the safety of the crew, cargo and the vessel itself by helping to navigate and maneuver the vessel, as well as facilitating communications and security.

Emergencies like the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge are rare at sea. I have never encountered a major emergency while working aboard a cargo ship, other than a minor fire and one instance where my ship temporarily lost power.

In 2019, I was on a cargo ship in the North Sea. I was second in command and responsible for doing the midnight to 4 a.m. shift. Around 2 a.m. the whole ship went dark.

We had temporarily lost all power.

It can get pretty chaotic when the ship gets dark, especially if it’s already dark outside. Without the lights, it’s completely dark on the bridge, a platform on the ship that you can sail on. Darkness was followed by the chaos of all the electronics restarting and the engine alarm going off.

It took only moments for the emergency diesel generator to turn on. It is programmed to turn on automatically. It controls all navigation equipment and emergency lighting. It also feeds into management. But the main engine will not work with the emergency generator. We also have several battery backup stations on the ship that will keep certain equipment, such as navigation equipment, powered up, but with limited performance.

This can be a lot to handle at once

When we operate these vessels outside of sea areas that require a pilot, such as a port or bridge, it is generally only the officer and the helmsman or lookout who maintains watch on the bridge. So there were just two of us up there when the power went out.

One of the very first things you do in a power outage, before you even call the captain, is to make sure: Do I still have the helm here? Should I shift into emergency direction? Changing direction is not as simple as flipping a switch and requires coordination with another worker in the control room who can take control.

When you lose power, your immediate primary goal is to avoid hitting anyone else or running aground.

The next thing to do is to inform the captain. If you don’t have power, your phone lines won’t work, so we are trained to press the general alarm several times. The general alarm is on a battery backup system, so that’s exactly what I did.

At this point the captain approached the bridge and I informed him of what was happening. The first thing he wanted to know was if there was traffic or anything around us. In this case, luckily the closest ship to us was about a mile away, which sounds like a lot, but it actually isn’t – it’s often the minimum distance you’d want for a point of approach of another vessel.

Ships can be slow to maneuver, especially when you’ve lost your power. You will start to lose speed and your rotors will become less and less efficient. Or, God forbid, you lose complete control of your direction, now you are at the mercy of where it falls. This could be disastrous if it turned, as the ship would hold that turn and gain more and more momentum.

Luckily, in my situation, I still had power steering. At that point the helmsman confirmed that we had a good helm. And I looked at my radars. I was also already visually aware of my surroundings and where we were in terms of water depth. So we kind of did the monitoring normally. We were in communication with the engine room, trying to get an update on when we expected power to be restored. We also communicated with the neighboring ship. I radioed this other ship just to inform them that we had lost power but still had the helm. I did it just to keep him from getting too close.

Since we still had steering, the main goal was to understand why we lost power.

It took about five to ten minutes for power to be restored.

We train in emergencies all the time

In general, life at sea can be quite calm.

Most of the time, you get used to your watch being pretty similar, unless you find yourself in a more risky situation, like entering a port. Because emergencies don’t happen that often, the prudent thing to do is to visualize different emergencies in your head or open the emergency procedures binder and read it periodically just to make sure how you will handle the situation coincides with what the manual says.

We hold mandatory weekly drills on everything from abandoning ship to dealing with fires and power outages to responding to security issues like bomb threats or piracy. We regularly practice various emergency situations.

For example, the ship’s engineers will practice several scenarios involving a loss of power. One of the loss of power exercises we do as deck officers is to carry out emergency pilotage drills, and this involves all deck officers and the captain on the bridge following the switching procedures of the steering gear.

We regularly reconfirm the procedures and how to carry them out. Then we do an exercise where we practice communicating with an engineer who will actually go from the engine room to the steering gear room. The steering gear room is usually below the aft mooring deck, this is where the large electro-hydraulic cylinders that move the rudder are located. You can manually control all hydraulics from the cockpit using various control levers.

So during the exercise, an engineer will go back and put on a headset connected to a sound-powered phone. We have sound powered phones on board as a backup in the event of a power outage.

Ships use sound-activated telephones to communicate in the event of a power outage.

Ships use sound-activated telephones to communicate in the event of a power outage.

Portland Press Herald

So the engineer will turn on the sound powered phone and we will talk to him from the gateway on our own sound powered phone. We’ll tell it something like: “Put the starboard rudder to right five or right 10” and it will manually press the buttons. There is a little rudder angle indicator there so he can press the button and hold it until he reaches the rudder command issued to him. When we are in open water, away from other vessels, we practice this exercise.

Exercise is important, but it’s not enough. As a deck officer, the captain often expects you to prepare yourself as well. One way to prepare is to study past marine accidents.

My colleagues and I talked about the Baltimore incident: what could have gone wrong or what we ourselves would have done.

Maersk often trains us based on previous sailing incidents, so I’m sure one day this will result in some sort of training at the academies or a naval exercise.

For now, this is an important reminder for those of us who work at sea to always remain vigilant.


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