AN investigation into an engine malfunction onboard a bulk carrier has reinforced the need for effective communication and resource management onboard vessels.

Singapore-flagged log carrier Funing lost power while departing New Zealand’s Port of Tauranga in July 2020.

New Zealand’s Transport Accident Investigation Commission has this week published its final report on the incident.

When Funing’s main engine, a Wärtsilä RT-Flex model, was tested prior to departure, the main engine fault log indicated there was a fuel injection quantity piston failure.

The engineering team attempted to rectify the fault but were unable to do so before the vessel departed its berth just after midnight on 6 July.

According to the report, the engineers did not tell the master about the faulty unit or its repair status, and they did not conduct a final pre-departure test.

On the understanding that the engine was in working order, the master told the Tauranga pilot the engine was free of defects. The pilot ordered full ahead, but the main engine did not deliver power and the vessel slowed to a halt, drifting with the current.

Losing manoeuvrability while leaving the port, the ship deviated from the channel, its rudder and propellor becoming tangled in a marker buoy.

The TAIC report found the ship could not generate enough propulsive power to overcome the adverse environmental conditions at the time while under pilotage.

It found environmental conditions were at the upper end of the allowable limits, which meant optimal engine power was required for the vessel to navigate the channel safely.

The analysis identified three safety issues central to the incident.

Firstly, ineffective communication between the master and chief engineer meant the bridge team was not fully aware of the problem with the main engine, nor its implications for vessel manoeuvrability.

“Good communication between departments is a core principle that may, had it been implemented on this occasion, have caused the master to reconsider the planned departure time,” TAIC said in a statement.

Secondly, the vessel’s main engine malfunction, combined with the prevailing environmental conditions, exceeded the safety considerations in the pilotage plan, and the vessel’s navigational control was rendered ineffective.

Thirdly, the vessel’s management and planned maintenance systems did not incorporate adequate guidance on the impact low-sulphur fuel has on the performance of marine diesel engines.

“The role that bridge resource management and engine room resource management play in respect of the safety of a vessel cannot be overstated,” TAIC said.

The main engine fault was likely due to the effect of low-sulphur fuel on the injection control unit (ICU).

Although Wärtsilä had provided guidance on the effects of using these fuels in its ICUs, there was no comprehensive guidance document available to the vessel’s engineers to address these effects in ICU maintenance.

TAIC has made a recommendation to Wärtsilä that it take further steps to ensure users of its RT-Flex engines are fully aware of the IMO sulphur cap and its operational effects on ICU performance, maintenance, and lifetime service.

Ship manager Thome Ship Management has reportedly put new procedures in place to guide masters and chief engineers in communicating safety-critical information. 

Its safety management system documents now capture and integrate maintenance and safety updates from equipment manufacturers.

Port of Tauranga has also changed its procedures to reduce the risk of an unescorted ship suffering main engine failure in the port entrance.