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Health and safety

Nautilus welcomes French report on cross-Channel ferry fire

25 April 2024

A cross-Channel ferry had to be towed to safety by a French emergency tug after it suffered an engine control room (ECR) fire and lost power and propulsion while running between Dover and Calais in March last year.

An investigation into the incident, which involved the Cyprus-flagged ro-ro Isle of Innisfree, found that electrical and engineer officers had been trying to resolve an overspeed problem with one of the diesel generators for more than a fortnight before it caused a power surge and an electrical arc in the ERC main switchboard circuit-breaker.

They had made repeated requests for assistance from two shore-based specialist service firms but had been told that they would not be able to send technicians to the ship for two to three weeks.

The 28,833gt Irish Ferries vessel had 94 passengers, and 89 crew of 12 different nationalities, onboard when the fire broke out, and electrical faults caused by the power surge led to a blackout around half an hour after the ship left Dover.

Crew members managed to extinguish the blaze within an hour and 20 minutes and Isle of Innisfree was later towed into Calais by the French ETV Abeille Normandie.

The French investigation agency BEAMer found that the overspeed problems were caused by inadequate wiring of the load sharing and speed control regulator and incorrect speed control parameter settings for the generator's regulator.

In a report on the incident, it says that the failure of the shore-based companies to provide a timely response to the 'insistent requests' from the crew had been a contributing factor.

Attempts by the crew to resolve the problem – including swapping the regulators and circuit breakers between two of the four diesel generators – had been carried out without a proper risk assessment of the troubleshooting procedure, the report adds.

'As the onboard software was not suitable for checking (and resetting) the regulator settings, DG1 was started repeatedly without the possibility to check the nominal operating data,' the report states.

'The last attempt to start the DG1, with the speed sensor disconnected, resulted in the engine overspeeding and a voltage higher than 2000 volts on the busbars and on the DG1 circuit breaker at the main switchboard, causing a fire.'

BEAMer notes that the ship's owners have taken a series of measures to improve safety in response to the accident. However, the report recommends that the operators, Matrix Ship Management, negotiate new contracts for external assistance with 'short response times for matters which could lead the onboard crew to handle complex breakdowns'.

The report also highlights a potentially serious safety issue which rendered Isle of Innisfree's emergency towing plan 'inappropriate for its use' by the French ETV. The design of the forward manoeuvring station, consisting of a platform without fairleads resting at its foremost point on two pillars, 'presents a high risk of damage, which could be caused by the tug towing pennant wire, in case of yawing during towing on high seas,' the report warns.

The problem applied to ships with a similar fore deck arrangement, BEAMer points out.

Nautilus represented members involved in the incident during the investigation, and head of industrial Micky Smyth welcomed the French report.

'It is a thorough piece of work and highlights the very serious issue about the availability of shore-based support for dealing with serious and complex technical problems,' he said.

'The safety issues associated with towing ships of this design covered in this report also need to be addressed with urgency.'


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