MAIB Report: Elbe Collision & Grounding

MAIB Report: Collision on the Elbe off Brunsbuttel Lock.

Vessels: Sunny Blossom, Arctic Ocean, Maritime Lady

Last December the MAIB released a report into a collision, subsequent sinking followed by another collision of the entrance to the Kiel Kanal off Brunsbuttel, all under the Elbe VTS control tower. In my opinion this particular MAIB report is of interest to pilots in that I believe that it is the first report to examine the roles of a vessel excluded from pilotage, a vessel with a PEC holder, VTS and subsequently a piloted vessel. As mentioned in my editorial neither the Master of the British vessel involved nor the VTS authority participated in the enquiry and the report has some interesting comments on that policy.

The full report is available from the following link:

Link to the original illustrated magazine article (pdf):


At 1955 on 5 December 2005, the UK registered 6326gt container feeder vessel, Arctic Ocean, was leaving Brunsbüttel Lock to turn east across the westbound fairway of the Elbe River to head for Hamburg. At the same time, the Gibraltar registered 1857gt general cargo vessel Maritime Lady was in the westbound fairway heading for the North Sea. The two vessels collided at 1957, with the result that Maritime Lady capsized. The master of Arctic Ocean held a Pilotage Exemption certificate and Maritime Lady was below the size where regulation required a pilot to be carried. The MAIB report states that “Both masters were attempting to carry out the duties of pilot and watchkeeping officer. This caused them both to be overloaded at a critical stage of their vessel’s passage, leading to misjudgements”.

The capsized wreck of Maritime Lady drifted until it came to rest in a position 0.75miles south-west of the exit basin of Brunsbüttel Locks.

After the collision, Brunsbüttel Locks were closed until 2100. The first vessel to then leave the locks was the 11598gt chemical tanker, Sunny Blossom. She had a pilot on board and was to head west, to the North Sea, after leaving the lock’s exit basin.

After leaving the lock basin, Sunny Blossom was attempting to make the turn to the west, when her stern struck the wreck of Maritime lady, causing serious propeller damage and a total loss of propulsion. She then continued south across the Elbe River, until she grounded on the south bank. There was only slight damage to her hull and no pollution. Sunny Blossom’s ability to make the westerly turn and clear the wreck of Maritime Lady was hampered by a strong ebb tide, the effects of shallow water, some cropping of her propeller all combined with her effective rudder area being at the lower end of acceptable limits.

The Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Affairs has therefore been recommended to review requirements for bridge manning levels on vessels in its pilotage waters, emergency procedures, procedures covering the briefing of vessels leaving Brunsbüttel Locks and the prioritisation of VTS operators’ tasks.

Sequence of events.

At 1941 the Arctic Ocean made a routine call to Brunsbuttel Elbe Traffic VTS (BETVTS) providing vessel details and advising them that upon leaving the lock he would be proceeding inwards to Hamburg. It would appear from the narrative that no traffic information was provided to the Master and that no further communication with VTS was held with BETVTS until after the collision!

At about 1950, having let go, the Master who was alone on the bridge, set the engine to half ahead and proceeded out of the lock and commenced swinging to port into the river to cross the Westbound fairway to proceed to Hamburg (see chart). His speed on clearing the lock was estimated at 8 – 10 kts. It was at this stage that the master saw the green navigation light and masthead light of an outward bound vessel which he identified as Maritime Lady from the AIS, and he judged her range as 1.5 miles. This subsequently turned out to be erroneous with the actual range being half that distance at 7.5 cables. Crossing the Westbound lane the Master of the Arctic Ocean noticed that Maritime Lady was still showing a green sidelight. A subsequent VHF exchange between the two vessels confirmed red to red passing but shortly afterwards the Maritime Lady called again on VHF stating that he had steering problems and requested a green to green passing. Both vessels then attempted to take emergency action but the Arctic Ocean collided with the starboard side of Maritime Lady.

Due to the fact that the Master of the Maritime Lady didn’t cooperate with the enquiry the MAIB were unable to obtain an account of his actions. However, examination of the vessel revealed no problems with the rudder or steering gear and it was therefore assumed that the reported steering problems resulted from the Master’s unfamiliarity with using a Becker rudder rather than a mechanical defect. One very relevant point made by the investigators regarding the Maritime Lady is the following important observation on the practice of two man watchkeeping:

Another reason the master was alone on the bridge was that Maritime Lady,

was not required to take a pilot for the river passage. Had a pilot been required, then it is reasonable to suppose that the pilot would have had either the master or the chief officer on the bridge with him. Thus, two qualified navigators would have been on the bridge, offering assurance that neither was overloaded.

The master of any vessel, carrying only a master and one other deck officer, is

likely to be faced with a dilemma in pilotage waters where his vessel is not required to take a pilot. Either the vessel is navigated, often in busy and restricted waters, by just one officer or both officers are on the bridgefor the passage and they risk exceeding the allowable hours of work. Neither is desirable.

BETVTS, having observed the collision, sent out a MAYDAY alert and requested that tugs proceed to the area. The Arctic Ocean broke clear of the Maritime Lady and BETVTS directed her to anchor. An inspection revealed minimal damage.

On board the Maritime Lady the situation rapidly became serious as a starboard list developed as soon as the Arctic Lady drifted clear. Fortunately, all the crew members had lifejackets and launched two liferafts, one of which failed to inflate. The Master contacted BETVTS and requested a location to berth or ground the vessel but the list increased so much that it was decided to abandon the ship. By this time there were two pilot cutters on the scene and all the crew were rescued. The now capsized hull drifted West on the ebb tide to ground just west of the entrance of the lock entrance just South of buoy 58a. The BETVTS closed the river to navigation whilst the situation was assessed and subsequently took the decision to reopen the river to navigation at around 2100. The MAIB report criticises this decision on two grounds. Firstly after only one hour the stability of the grounded wreck could not be realistically assessed and secondly because no risk assessment was undertaken for vessels leaving the lock on the ebb tide despite a history of several vessels having collided with the Buoy 58a close to the North of the wreck!

Sunny Blossom

Sunny Blossom was a 20,000 dwt products tanker 161m long with a draft of 9.3m. bound from Klaipeda to the USA. She had secured in the lock shortly after the collision in the river and her river pilot boarded at around 2040. During the exchange, the pilot sighted the pilot card and at the same time explained the situation regarding the collision and that when they departed the lock that there would be a strong ebb tide setting to the West but with no other shipping movements expected it was agreed that upon leaving the lock that they would alter course to port to clear the wreck to the South. As soon as the river was opened the Sunny Blossom started to leave the lock, clearing the entrance at a speed of about 4.5 kts at 2110. At this point, in anticipation of the tidal effects the pilot ordered the wheel to be put hard to port and the engine order of full ahead was given. Sunny Blossom gained speed but failed to clear the wreck and having damaged her propeller went aground on the south side of the river. She was refloated early the next morning and towed to Elbe Harbour at Brunsbuttel.

During the subsequent dry dock inspection it was noticed that two of the propeller blades had previously been cropped of around 60cm of the tips.

The investigation also discovered that the Sunny Blossom had been involved in two previous groundings and investigations into those had revealed that her rudder was at the lower end of acceptable performance, a restricting factor which would be enhanced with small under keel clearances. The Master did not advise the pilot of either the recognised poor steering characteristic or the cropped propeller blades. The MAIB report has determined that if the propeller blades had been complete then the pilots’ orders would have resulted in the vessel clearing the wreck.


Since the VTS authority refused to cooperate with the MAIB enquiry its role in the incident cannot be analysed. However in common with the majority of port VTS systems its function appears to be mainly as an information service but with a duty pilot on watch at all times to offer navigational assistance if required by any vessels.

On the evening in question it would appear that the Master of the Arctic Ocean failed to comply with the reporting procedure to notify BETVTS that she was actually departing from the lock. However, since BETVTS failed to advise the Master of the presence of the Maritime Lady proceeding down river at the time of his pre departure report the Master assumed that there was no traffic likely to affect his departure. Although not included in the official procedures for departure the enquiry revealed the existence of a letter issued following a similar collision recommending that VTS provided vessels intending to depart from the lock with relevant traffic movements. Although the VTS refused to cooperate with the MAIB enquiry an internal enquiry, which has not been made public, apparently cleared the VTS operators of any blame and confirmed that correct VTS procedures had been followed.


Arctic Ocean

The Master of the Arctic Ocean’s made a significant misjudgement in underestimating the distance from the Maritime Lady and since he had no assistance on the bridge the report concluded that the workload was unreasonable and significantly contributed to him misjudging the range of Maritime Lady and since the Mate could have been available considered that he had not properly managed watchkeeper resources.

Maritime Lady

By the stage Maritime Lady was approaching Brunsbüttel, her master’s tiredness might have been sufficient to have resulted in poor judgment and decision making.

Waterway regulations gave Maritime Lady right of way, as she was the vessel in the fairway.

Maritime Lady’s master, with only one other navigating officer on board, did not have the resources to operate with a second navigator on the bridge.

Sunny Blossom

Sunny Blossom’s master did not consider the propeller’s state to be significant and, could not have given the pilot any information on the effect on the vessel’s performance due to the cropped blades.

Sunny Blossom’s sluggish response to her rudder was due to several factors, including: insufficient rudder area and reduced flow over the rudder caused by cropped propeller blades.


There were fundamental VHF procedural errors made by the masters of Arctic Ocean and Maritime Lady that had the potential to cause confusion.


Arctic Ocean’s master wasn’t provided with a traffic report when he reported in and therefore assumed that the river was clear. VTS should have informed him of traffic at the time of the initial report.

At the time Brunsbüttel Locks were reopened to traffic, there was no certainty that the wreck of Maritime Lady was not going to move again.

The level of risk to traffic from the wreck of Maritime Lady was not recognised or assessed against predetermined criteria procedures before Brunsbüttel Locks were reopened to traffic. The hazard posed by contact with the wreck was significantly greater than of hitting buoy 58a. It appears, however, that this increased level of risk was not fully recognised or assessed before the locks were re-opened to traffic.

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