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USCG issues propulsion alert after El Faro

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The U.S. Coast Guard has issued a marine safety alert based on its investigation of the 2015 sinking of the American cargo ship SS El Faro, in which 33 lives were lost.

According to the Coast Guard Marine Board Report on the investigation, bridge audio recordings indicate that the vessel lost lube oil pressure to the main propulsion turbine and reduction gear bearings, resulting in loss of propulsion during extremely heavy weather. It is believed that the vessel’s substantial list, coupled with trim by the bow, caused the main engine lube oil pump to lose suction. Detailed modeling and static analysis of El Faro’s lube oil system during the investigation confirmed that a severe inclination of the ship, coupled with a relatively low volume of oil in the sump, would likely result in a loss of pump suction.

Although the El Faro’s engineering plant configuration was similar in design to most steam turbine ships of a similar age, the USCG notes that failure of a vessel’s lube oil system generally means a loss of propulsion for all types of engineering plants, including when marine diesel engines are the primary source of ship propulsion.

As a result, the USCG alert strongly recommends that:

  • Operators verify that their main propulsion machinery, essential auxiliary systems and emergency generators are designed in compliance with the CFR, SOLAS and classification society requirements for operation in static and dynamic conditions of list and trim.
  • Engineering personnel review the design, arrangement, limiting angles of inclination, normal and limiting high/low lubricating oil sump levels, and casualty control procedures for all systems vital to the propulsion and safety of the vessel to better understand the possible ways to mitigate the effects of heavy weather on vessel operations.
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