It happened in the early hours of the morning on 22 August 2016.

With a moderate south-westerly breeze and a strong east-flowing tide, the CMA CGM Vasco de Gama – a British-flagged ultra container ship – grounded on the western side of the Thorn Channel on its approach into the Port of Southampton.

The ship ran aground on a flat shingle seabed. While a relatively mild incident – the vessel was re-floated soon after through a combination of tugs and the ship’s engines – the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) was alerted soon after.

In October 2017, MAIB published the findings of its year-long inquiry into the grounding of the 399m-long Vasco de Gama. It occurred because the vessel was too far north of its intended track when it began its turn into the Thorn Channel.

This, in turn, reduced the space available for the manoeuvre, with the Vasco de Gama unable to sustain the rate of turn needed to remain in the dredged channel.

“There was an “absence of a shared understanding of the pilot’s intentions”.”

At the time of the incident, two pilots from the Port of Southampton were onboard the ship as it entered the Solent. Together with the Vasco de Gama’s bridge team, the pilots were equipped with “the experience, knowledge and resources available to plan and execute the passage effectively”, noted MAIB’s 64-page report.

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Furthermore, the merchant vessel’s standards of navigation, communication and use of electronic charting aids “fell short of the standards” of both the Port of Southampton and CMA CGM group, a France-headquartered company with 445 vessels to its name.

MAIB also found the execution of the ship’s turn around Bramble Bank to be “not in accordance with the port’s guidance for large inbound vessels”. Consequently, the Vasco de Gama’s bridge team, assistant pilot and the vessel traffic services were unable to properly monitor the lead pilot’s actions as the vessel progressed through the Solent.

Poor planning and overconfidence: the MAIB’s main findings

If there is one takeaway point from the inquiry it is that poor planning was at play.

Investigators discovered the lead pilot had not informed the bridge team of his plan for the turn around Bramble Bank. There was an “absence of a shared understanding of the pilot’s intentions for passing other vessels or for making the critical turns during the passage”.

Elsewhere, the master and port pilots were blamed for “complacency and a degree of over-confidence”.

CMA CGM, which took delivery of the Vasco de Gama in July 2015, has acknowledged MAIB’s findings, and claims to be addressing the aforementioned issues raised in the report.

“Following this grounding, CMA CGM and ABP [Associated British Ports] Southampton have been working together,” said a spokesperson for the company in an email.

“As mentioned in the MAIB official report, CMA CGM has already taken measures to prevent this type of incident to happen again. CMA CGM is strongly committed to ensuring the safety of its operations and its crews in accordance with local and international regulations.”

All straight-bat stuff. ABP could not be reached for comment.

Unavoidable inquiry: why the MAIB inquiry needed to happen

Simon Boxall, a maritime expert from the University of Southampton, believes MAIB’s findings to be fair, despite Bramble Bank’s reputation as “a navigation hazard” due to it susceptibility to “slight movement after major storms”.

“Looking through the report there was no evidence of unforeseen mechanical failure on the ship, nor of abnormal weather conditions,” he says.

“On that basis, the two pilots and the ship’s master should have been in a position to safely navigate the vessel into port. It would appear to be user error – which is what the report says in so many words.

“In light of this, introducing ways of reducing user error can only be seen as a good move.”

“MAIB’s findings will form the backbone of a safety study.”

Boxall also acknowledges things could have been a lot worse. As the Vasco de Gama was re-floated relatively quickly, the port didn’t suffer any kind of blockage – which, given the vessel’s size, would have brought Southampton to “a standstill”.

Neither did the vessel endure any serious damage. Nonetheless, an investigation was still necessary.

“If reports such as this are not produced then the safe navigation of shipping is not improved,” says Boxall.

“In the same way an airline near-miss is thoroughly investigated, it is important that the same is done for shipping – not as a witch hunt, but as a fact finding investigation to improve safety.”

Hitting the beach: other vessels find trouble on the Bramble Bank

The Bramble Bank is something of hotbed for groundings. Aside from the Vasco de Gama, in the last two years both the cargo ship Hoegh Osaka and container vessel APL Vanda have run aground in the Solent – although in the latter cases, the beachings were deliberate as part of safety measures.

In order to prevent the incidents such as those experienced by the Vasco de Gama, some believe it might be worth dredging the bank out. Boxall disagrees.

“First of all, the scale would be substantial,” he explains. “Secondly, the bank would return after a short period, and in the intervening time cause significant and possibly rapid changes to the existing navigation channels. The Bramble Bank is a natural form that will reform.”

There’s also the increasing size of ships to take into consideration, with MAIB warning that leviathan-sized vessels operating within restricted waterways are creating reduced margins of operation safety.

In the meantime, MAIB’s findings will form the backbone of a safety study into the use of modern electronic navigation aids on board merchant vessels, and their impact on navigation practices.

Such research is welcome. The case of the Vasco de Gama should be held up as cautionary tale of a grounding that could have been easily avoided.