The call to investigate the safety of the cruise ship Viking Sky after the rescue of 479 passengers comes at a time when maritime safety inspections of passenger vessels and commercial ships are increasingly under fire because they are said to miss obvious and basic system deficiencies.
The Viking Sky suffered engine trouble during a storm and was drifting toward a rocky coast last week. Norway’s Accident Investigations Board said it will investigate the incident.
But Norway’s inquiry is not the first recent investigation nor is the Viking Sky the only recent major ship casualty.
How critical is the problem?
The US Coast Guard, in a memo from the Commandant, ordered a “stand down” in marine inspections of US Flag ships until Coast Guard personnel have mastered new standards and assignments. These followed in the wake of the loss of the SS El Faro in 2015 with 33 dead, and a tragic DUKW boat accident in Missouri on Table Rock Lake where 17 died.
Also, the Grimaldi Grande America cargo ship sank off the coast of France earlier this month — the fourth big ship fire in the past four months.
Moreover, US military leaders have said the very old merchant marine ships under lease to them are in very poor condition because inspections have not been adequate.
The US Coast Guard toughened inspection standards and oversight of the American Bureau of Shipping— a private contractor that performs most safety inspections of US ships — after testimony at the Marine Board of Investigation revealed that 38 percent of ABS inspections were deficient.
The ABS, the board said, was simply missing major problems on the ships. For example, the Coat Guard Traveling Inspectors found that the sister ship of the SS El Faro was deficient with rusted ventilation ducts that could cause flooding. The sister ship, the SS El Yunque, was forced into scrap yards by the Coast Guard crackdown — but only after regular ABS inspectors gave it a greenlight, even after El Faro had sunk.
The conditions of vessels serving the military now has reached crisis proportions and is said to threaten national security and the nation’s ability to wage a sustained oversea war. Studies have shown that ABS and the Coast Guard have delayed requiring repairs to the ships in military services.
One military study said that the problem with old unsafe ships has now reached crisis mode.
“By 2034, 70% of the organic fleet will be over 60 years old — well past its economic useful life; further degrading the Army’s ability to deploy forces,” one document reads.
The sealift fleet is made up of 26 Military Sealift Command pre-positioning ships, 46 ships in the Ready Reserve Force and 15 command-owned roll-on/roll-off “ urge force ships.” Many of the roll-on/roll-off ships are so old they are steam-operated. The old equipment causes manning issues.
In August, a Government Accountability Office report revealed an increase in casualties for ships that provide at-sea resupplies of fuel, ammo among other essentials.
The 29 ships of the resupply fleet experienced 69 equipment casualties in 2012 that limited at-sea mission capability, according to the GAO. In 2016, that number rose to 122.
The rise in casualties is alarming because many of them are occurring in “first world” countries — not on Flag of Convenience ships run by cut-rate operators. This is doubly disturbing for passenger ships because the mass clientele for such vessels are told repeatedly what high standards the vessels maintain.