Crew behaviour was against established practices, official says

The ill-fated oil tanker, MT Pratibha Cauvery, that ran aground off Chennai coast, on Wednesday, steered towards cyclone ‘Nilam’ instead of moving away from it.

This was revealed by defence sources on Thursday. The Coast Guard and Naval authorities received inputs that the ship was drifting close to the shore around noon on Wednesday. The ship had 356 tonnes of furnace oil and two tonnes of diesel, but it was not clear if it was enough to propel the vessel to safety.

Though defence officials suggested the port deployed tugs to tow the tanker, stormy weather conditions went against the idea.

Dismissing reports that the defence agencies did not respond to distress calls, an official said all possible efforts were made to ensure the safety of the crew. Asked why neither helicopters nor ships could access the oil tanker between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Wednesday, he said the parameters of safe helicopter operation did not allow any aerial mission.

“The crew started the engines around 1 p.m. (on Wednesday) and steered the ship southwards towards the cyclone instead of moving away from it. This was against all established actions of mariners. Despite repeated warnings not to abandon the ship, they lowered the life boats,” he said.

Confirming that the ship moved towards the cyclone, deputy inspector-general of Coast Guard (region east) Gurupdesh Singh said there was no communication gap and the Coast Guard was constantly monitoring the tanker’s movement since the distress call came and was planning the rescue. However, the exact circumstances that led to the mishap would be known only after the enquiry.

According to Commodore (retd.) R.S. Vasan, former regional commander (east), if the ship was without power and needed help, the port should have provided the help as soon as possible.

“The ship could have been moved inside to safer areas well before the storm hit the city. However, this may not have been done due to financial/operational reasons,” he said. There were also some unanswered questions about the master’s decision to abandon the ship.

“He was close to the shore and it is difficult to say if the ship would have floundered in shallow waters. However, in all such cases, it is the Master’s call and he is at liberty to choose the option to abandon the ship if in his opinion, the ship and the crew were in danger. In the worst case scenario, it could be an error of judgement. Only a joint investigation can establish the root cause,” Mr. Vasan said.

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