Did A Comms Blackout Lead Mauritius Oil Spill Ship To Search For Emergency Phone Signal?

Did A Comms Blackout Lead Mauritius Oil Spill Ship To Search For Emergency Phone Signal?

New analysis by U.K.-based geospatial intelligence company, Geollect, is revealing more about the circumstances surrounding the grounding and oil spill by the large Japanese Bulk Carrier, The Wakashio, on the Indian Island of Mauritius this summer.

On Friday, the CEO of Japanese shipping giant, MOL, had reported that the Wakashio had been searching for an emergency phone signal. However, the circumstances behind this have not been disclosed.

Ahead of the grounding, serious communication system failures had already been discovered on the Wakashio. In particular:

  • The Emergency Radio Frequency that the Mauritius Coastguard reportedly used to reach the incoming vessel (a radio channel called VHF) was not picked up or responded to by the Wakashio. This has become a major talking point in Mauritius’ parliament.
  • The Wakashio’s ‘Black Box’ Voyage Data Recorder appears not to have recorded any audio in the vessel’s final 48 hours. Was this indicative of the broad communications blackout faced by the Wakashio?

The communications blackout is raising questions whether the Wakashio had been instructed to head toward Mauritius to try make emergency phone contact and seek urgent guidance over engine difficulties the large bulk carrier could have been facing in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Navigation difficulties due to engine troubles?

The Wakashio’s navigation challenges could have been exacerbated by engine troubles that would have made the bulk carrier difficult to control. These engine difficulties are now being revealed through the new satellite analysis by Geollect. With a breakdown in the ship’s communications systems in the middle of the ocean, the Wakashio would have had no choice (or was instructed) to divert to Mauritius to share more details about the engine difficulties it was facing, and receive guidance on how to resolve it.

The Wakashio was just starting out on a journey half way across the world (from Singapore to Brazil) that would have kept it at sea for weeks on end. Having no working communications systems on board would have been very serious indeed.

The incident in Mauritius this summer was highly unusual and abnormal. For context, Mauritius is an 8 million year old former volcanic island. The Wakashio is one of the largest ships in the world (as large as a U.S. aircraft carrier). With the modern sophistication of today’s anti-collision technologies for ships, there was no way such a large ship should have collided with a large, stationary island in relatively calm weather. Something had been going badly wrong for four days on board. And it was not a birthday party.

Wakashio experiencing engine problems

A special report in Forbes earlier this week revealed that the Wakashio was carrying a particularly troublesome batch of contaminated fuel. This fuel – called Very Low Sulfur Fuel Oil (or VLSFO) – has been identified in a series of confidential industry reports to be causing ship failures around the world.

Now U.K. based satellite analytics company, Geollect, was able to use their proprietary analysis tools and conduct a diagnostic of the engine speed of the Wakashio, just prior to it turning and heading toward Mauritius on 21 July.

It reveals the Wakashio’s engines appeared to be experiencing difficulties consistent with having faulty VLSFO fuel on board.

Wakashio’s engines slowed down 15% over 8 hours prior to turn

The Geollect analysis (shown above) reveals that the Wakashio’s engines had systematically slowed down by around 15% over the course of 8 hours. It was in the hour prior to the turn that the vessel experienced an even sharper slowdown (seen by red arrows in the top chart), when the Wakashio made the significant course adjustment (seen in the bottom chart). This could have been an indication that something more serious was about to occur with the ship’s engines.

It was this change in course on 21 July at 2am Mauritius time, that put the Wakashio on a collision course for Mauritius.

The combination of a faulty engine, a faulty communications system as well as a faulty navigation system (which the Panama Authorities have already identified in September), would have made these three factors a deadly combination as the giant bulk carrier headed toward the tropical tourist island.

Geollect’s capabilities

Co-founder and COO of Geollect, Richard Gwilliam, describes the U.K. technology company’s mission. “As the U.K. leader in geospatial intelligence technologies. Our mission is to empower clients to make faster, more accurate and informed decisions. We are creating a paradigm shift in the way clients approach complex operational problems with creative, technological interventions, which deliver enduring meaning and value. We deliver answers and bring clarity to what should be trusted. We call this: The Internet of Where, Know where, know first, know more.”

Geollect was able to develop unique insight into the final journey of the Wakashio, due to its highly advanced capabilities. Gwilliam goes on to describe this.

“Geollect is comprised of experienced professionals, formerly of the U.K. and U.S. Intelligence Communities, and academics with advanced geospatial data and intelligence analytic capabilities, creating a potent blend of tech-intelligence authority. We employ an intelligence-led approach to data science and take a data science approach to intelligence collection, resulting in a higher degree of clarity and confidence in real-time decision management.

The rapid advancement of technology has led to an overwhelming volume, veracity, variety, and velocity of data requiring analysis.

Outdated trend analysis involving historic statistics to map future challenges leave organizations ill-prepared to recognize and deal with emerging risks. Geollect transforms historical and live data into action, so our clients know what is happening today and are prepared for tomorrow.”

Geollect was able to collate data from various satellite and land-based sources to develop these new and additional insights into the Wakashio’s final movements and performance.

Questions about the Wakashio’s fuel

At the center of the Wakashio puzzle is what damage was the fuel causing to the engine. It had last refueled in Singapore on July 14, before heading on its journey to Brazil.

The Wakashio was in the middle of the Indian Ocean when it suddenly changed course on July 21. This change in direction has remained a mystery and was not explained by MOL in their statement last week. At that moment, Mauritius was the closest land to the Wakashio, and only an emergency would have diverted the large bulk carrier from its agreed path around South Africa and toward Brazil. Experiencing an emergency on board, the island of Mauritius would have been the only way to communicate to Tokyo in the event of a communications blackout.

An emergency mobile connection would have perhaps been the only way for the Wakashio to make contact with Tokyo if all other communication systems were down.

Something else then went clearly wrong as the vessel ploughed into Mauritius’ reefs at cruising speed.

Engineers have already identified at least four possible explanations for how the faulty fuel could have caused the slow down in the Wakashio’s engines over the course of July 20 and 21, and would have led to the decision to turn toward Mauritius to make the emergency phone connection.

These include risks with clogged air filters and malfunctioning fuel injectors, all of which could lead to the slow but noticeable degradation of speed. Issues linked to the lubricants being used (which increases due to the VLSFO fuel being used to power the ship), as well as the risk of a ‘runaway engine’ could have made the Wakashio unstoppable as it headed toward Mauritius, unable to slow down or be diverted to a safe location.

These are all issues that have been identified and associated with the faulty low sulfur fuel, batches of which were being mixed with aircraft fuel and which had been identified to cause shipping disasters around the world.

Had the Wakashio’s engineers not been able to fix the engine problems in the middle of the ocean due to the VLSFO ‘Frankenstein Fuels’ that were being used and mixed, then the Captain and crew may have had little choice but to find the closest available point of land to attempt to save the crew and the ship.

Unfortunately, in this case that appeared to have been Mauritius.

Errors with Wakashio’s maps also to blame

Upon approaching Mauritius, another series of flaws clearly occurred. The Panama Maritime Authorities (where the vessel is registered) have already reported that there were serious defects with the Wakashio’s electronic map systems.

MOL has not confirmed whether one of its subsidiary companies was the provider of the mapping hardware, software and maps used on board the Wakashio. Neither has MOL confirmed whether the crew were trained in this particular version of the mapping software that was on board. Whereas cell phones currently have two dominant players providing operating systems (Apple’s

iOS and Google’s Android), electronic chart systems have up to 40 providers and proprietary software, each requiring additional training to learn the full capabilities of each system.

Wakashio’s Captain in court this week

The Captain of the Wakashio and his number two were in court on Tuesday 22 December. Mauritius Director of Public Prosecutions changed the charges from violation of Safe Passage to violation of Innocent Passage.

This is a small but subtle difference in how the U.N. Law of the Sea is interpreted and applied in Mauritius. The court hearings are likely to continue into the New Year. The current court hearings cover just the provisional charges against the actions of the Captain and First Officer.

Several larger investigations are currently taking place into the root cause of the incident. The Panama Maritime Authorities (where the vessel is registered to) is obligated to submit an official accident report to the U.N. Shipping Regulator, the IMO. Mauritius is also conducting a separate set of hearings under a local judge, who will be convening witnesses in the New Year.

Despite several important operational questions being put to MOL by Forbes to understand the root cause and prevent such an incident from happening again, there has not been any response from the Japanese shipping giant.

Complex insurance case

The insurance case for the Wakashio is likely to be highly complex, given that it was not just the question of how the Wakashio ended up on Mauritius’ reefs that will be explored, but the myriad of decisions that led to the 12 day delay to remove the Wakashio from Mauritius’ coral reefs, major errors with the salvage operation that led to the vessel snapping in two, and the opaque and more damaging impact the clean up operations appears to have had in Mauritius.

2020 is unlikely to be the last year that the world hears of the Wakashio.

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