A vessel lost control of its steering gear due to leakage through the Karm fork seals, leading to uncontrolled flooding in the steering compartment. The engine room received a steering gear compartment bilge high level alarm and the bilge pump was started. After fifteen minutes of pumping out, the alarm was still active, and only then were the Chief Engineer and Captain informed. The Chief Engineer went to the steering gear compartment and found water below the floor plates.
The vessel was facing heavy seas and rolling heavily. After thirty minutes, the bilge alarm went off, the bilge pump lost suction, and it was stopped. On the bridge, there was a power failure alarm on the steering control panel, and vessel steering was lost. The steering gear compartment was found flooded to 30cm above the floor plates. The bilge pump was started again and the equipment in the steering gear compartment isolated.
An announcement was made on the PA system regarding the steering gear failure; the client was informed and vessel assistance was requested. The Chief Engineer also found the bilge alarm float level-arms in broken condition (see rightmost image). A submersible pump was used to pump out water from the flooded compartment. Also, steps were taken to lighten the vessel by pumping out a number of freshwater tanks.
What went wrong? What were the causes?
The main cause of the flooding was found to be the worn-out condition of the towing pin/Karm fork seal. Due to the rough weather, water was coming onto the deck and entered the steering compartment through the leaking seal.
What lessons were learnt?
- Immediate action should always be taken when any alarm sounds. Alarms should not be reset as a routine. The cause of the alarm should always be investigated and rectified;
- The steering compartment was not part of any crew inspection rounds – compartments such as steering gear, bow thruster, shaft spaces etc. should be regularly inspected and the inspection logged;
- Appropriate precautionary measures for heavy weather conditions had not been taken;
- The condition of the towing pin and Karm fork seals had not been monitored or noticed.
What actions were taken?
- A thorough check was made of the condition of the covers of control panels, starters etc. in the steering gear compartment;
- A schedule of regular and logged checks was put in place for compartments below the waterline, with any deficiencies/observations reported to the office;
The operation of the bilge level sensors was checked, as per PMS recommendations.
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