Thursday, 23 February 2012

Helicopter saves ship as another drunken Captain falls asleep on watch

The Danish navy seems to have its hands full with drunk Masters and crews falling asleep while on watch in their waters. In the early hours of February 17, a rescue officer had to be lowered from a helicopter to try to wake up the Russian Captain of a cargo ship passing through the Great Belt straits; he had either fallen asleep or passed out in a chair on the bridge. The incident has remarkable similarities with another we reported in October last year, where a F16 fighter plane was scrambled in almost identical circumstances. ( See F16 scrambled.....    )

Admiral Fleet Denmark (SOK) observed the Bahamas-flagged vessel following an erratic course dangerously close to the coast and dispatched a helicopter to investigate. The Great Belt- where the incident took place- is the largest and most important of the three straits of Denmark that connect the Kattegat to the Baltic Sea. The 82-metre cargo freighter 'Danica Hav', on a ballast passage from Sweden to Lubeck, was heading straight for land around Sj√¶llands Odde when a rescue officer was lowered to her deck- this was after bright lights were shone on the Captain on the bridge in a desperate attempt to wake him up; they did not work.  “The helicopter flew alongside the ship and shone its light right into the captain’s face. He was sitting in a chair fast asleep,” said an officer of the Central and West Zealand Police. 

 “He (the rescue officer) went on deck and tried to wake the captain but couldn’t. The captain just kept falling asleep again.” The Chief Officer was woken up instead, who managed to turn the ship minutes before it ran aground. 

The Russian captain was subsequently arrested since there was a strong smell of alcohol around him. Flown ashore, a blood test taken eight hours after the arrest showed a reading of 2.18 grams of alcohol per litre. A judge in Holbaek ordered that he be kept in custody until a hearing on March 13.

In the earlier October incident, the Danish Navy Operational Command had scrambled a F 16 fighter plane, a helicopter and a surface vessel after failing to contact the cargo vessel "Ranafjord" for six hours during which she maintained an 'abnormal course'; the Captain was so drunk that he had left the bridge to go to sleep in his cabin. Many of the crew were found to be drunk later.  The ship was close to running aground when the F16 finally got some of the crews' attention and she was turned around. Officials found the Captain- who was supposed to be on the bridge- dead drunk and asleep in his cabin.  He tried to blame his equally drunk First Officer, but the logbook showed that he had gone off duty.

The situation would be comic if it were not so serious. It is a well-known fact that industry wide alcohol policies do not seem to apply on European owned and manned coasters. Unfortunately, they are often desperately short manned as well, and on very hectic runs where fatigue and alcohol combine to make a lethal cocktail. While the former is acknowledged somewhat, the latter- near alcoholism in crews from certain countries- is equally dangerous, as these incidents show. 


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