Twelve sailors have died and another three are feared dead, after two separate fatal collisions in the Singapore Strait.
That the accidents occurred within a month – on Aug 21 and Sept 13 – have raised safety concerns, especially since the Republic has plans to further its push to be a major maritime hub.
Every year, there are about 130,000 vessel calls at the Port of Singapore. It translates to a vessel arriving or leaving every two to three minutes, making Singapore’s sea lanes one of the world’s busiest. With plans for a new port at Tuas, which will be able to handle even more and bigger ships when it opens in phases from 2021, Singapore waters will become busier and more challenging to navigate.
But before that happens, safety or other operational gaps that may exist, must be quickly addressed to ensure incident-free passage for all ships calling at the Singapore port or passing through her waters.
Concerns first surfaced on Aug 21 when a United States warship, USS John S. McCain, collided with an oil tanker, killing 10 sailors. Even as Singapore’s Transport Safety Investigation Bureau is in the midst of a probe into the incident, Indonesian-registered tanker Kartika Segara and Dominican- registered dredger JBB De Rong 19 were involved in an accident that has left two dead and three missing.
According to the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA), its Vessel Traffic Information System had alerted both vessels to take actions to avoid a collision. The information was received but disaster could not be averted.
The probe into both accidents, which happened in the early morning when visibility was reduced, will have to address key questions. Is the Singapore Strait more accident-prone than other sea lanes? If it is, are there enough measures in place to mitigate the risks? Is enough being done to drive home the safety message to ship owners and crew? Is there more the Singapore authorities can do?
To say that the Singapore Strait is busy is an “understatement”, says Dr Collin Koh, research fellow at the Maritime Security Programme of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. “It’s not just dense in traffic, but we are looking at numerous vessels of wildly varying sizes plying the same narrow water space”, he pointed out, adding that navigating the lane becomes even more challenging when visibility is low. At its narrowest, ships are sometimes separated by just under one nautical mile, or about 1.85km.
To sail safely, vessels are – as mandated by international law – equipped with radar, and other monitoring and tracking devices. Regulators like MPA that manage busy waters also have state-of-the- art technology and systems in place to monitor vessel movement.
In the end though, the technology is only as good as the people using it and this is where the shipping industry faces its biggest challenge, industry players say.
There is a lack of a strong safety culture within the sector, says Captain Raymond Ambrose, president of the Singapore Nautical Institute, who has been in the industry for over 40 years. “The big problem is that the top management in some shipping firms… view safety initiatives and programmes as a cost they do not wish to incur. This mindset has to change if we want to reduce incidents at sea.”
Inadequate training and poor practices, such as a lack of vigilance at sea, undermine the advances in radar and other technology.
Organisations like the naval institute and regulators can and should play a key role in getting the safety message out. Last year, MPA released The Safe Passage in the Singapore Strait package, with videos and computer-based learning programmes. The kit, distributed free to shipping firms, provides information about navigating the congested shipping lane. It was produced jointly with the maritime authorities of Indonesia and Malaysia.
More of such efforts and initiatives are needed.
When it comes to safety, the shipping industry can also learn a thing or two from the aviation sector and, in particular, how flights are handled.
In the air, air traffic controllers decide how high or low an aircraft should fly, how fast, and the distance it must keep from other planes in the vicinity. This allows safe separation even in busy skies.
At sea, there has historically been no such system. Captains and their crew rely mainly on their own experience and on-board equipment to navigate safely. MPA’s vessel tracking system, for example, steps in and issues alerts only when a collision is known to be imminent. It is only when vessels are near the port that a marine pilot boards to guide the ship to berth.
With the number of ship movements in Singapore waters expected to increase, there is room for MPA to consider taking on a wider role in managing and directing vessels, even if this is not the industry norm.
Singapore can also work more closely with neighbouring regulators and agencies, as well as the International Maritime Organisation – the United Nations arm that oversees the commercial shipping sector – to increase safety awareness among industry practitioners.
While the recent incidents are unlikely to tarnish Singapore’s reputation as a preferred port of call and maritime hub, improving safety standards will ensure smooth sailing for years to come.