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My cargo ship briefly lost power at sea. Here's how merchant mariners are trained to deal with it.

Bryan Boyle on board a container ship in Alaska.
Bryan Boyle onboard a container ship in Alaska.Courtesy of Bryan Boyle
  • Bryan Boyle, a YouTuber and second mate on a cargo ship, detailed how workers are trained to deal with emergencies.

  • The merchant mariner said incidents like the Baltimore bridge collapse are incredibly rare at sea.

  • Boyle said he was on a ship that lost power briefly and his training kicked in.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with second mate Bryan Boyle, a merchant mariner and YouTuber who has worked as a deck officer on various cargo ships for over a decade. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

I've been a deck officer for almost 12 years. I'm responsible for watching out for the safety of the crew, cargo, and the ship itself by helping navigate and maneuver the ship, as well as facilitating communications and security.

Emergency situations like the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse are rare at sea. I've never faced any major emergencies while working aboard a cargo ship, aside from a minor fire and an instance where my ship temporarily lost power.

Back in 2019, I was on a cargo ship in the North Sea. I was a second mate and assigned to keep watch from midnight to 4 a.m. Around 2 a.m., the whole ship went dark.

We had temporarily lost all power.

It can get pretty chaotic when the ship goes dark — especially if it's already dark outside. Without the lights, it's completely pitch black on the bridge, a platform on the ship where you can navigate the vessel. The darkness was followed by the chaos of all of the electronics booting back up and the engine alarm sounding.

It only took a few moments for the backup emergency diesel generator to turn on. It's programmed to automatically turn on. It controls all the navigation equipment and the emergency lighting. It also powers the steering. But, the main engine won't run off the emergency generator. We also have multiple battery backup stations on the ship that will keep some equipment, like the navigation equipment, powered on but with limited performance.

It can be a lot to deal with at once

When we're operating these vessels outside of water areas that require a pilot, like a port or bridge, it's usually just the officer and the helmsman or lookout who are keeping watch on the bridge. So it was just the two of us up there when the power went out.

One of the very first things you do in a situation where the power goes out — before you even call the captain — you're making sure: Do I still have steering here? Do I need to switch over the steering to emergency steering? Switching the steering isn't as simple as flipping a switch and it requires coordinating with another worker in the steering room who can take control.

When you lose power, your immediate main focus is to avoid hitting anybody else or running aground.

The next thing you do is notify the captain. If you have no power, your phone lines aren't going to work so we're trained to tap the general alarm a couple of times. The general alarm is on a battery backup system, so that's exactly what I did.

At the time, the captain came up to the bridge and I briefed him on what was going on. The first thing he wanted to know was if there was any traffic or anything around us. In that case, fortunately, the closest vessel to us was about a mile away, which seems like a lot but it's actually not — a lot of times that's the minimum distance you'd want for a point of approach from another vessel.

The ships can be sluggish to maneuver, especially when you've lost your power. You're going to start losing speed so your rotors become less and less effective. Or, God forbid, you actually lose full control of your steering, now you're at the whim of wherever it went down. That could be disastrous if it were turning because the ship would hold that turn and build up more and more momentum.

Luckily, in my situation, I still had steering power. At the time, the helmsman confirmed we had proper steering. And I was looking at my radars. I was also already visually aware of my surroundings and where we were in terms of the depth of the water. So we just kind of carried out the watch as normal. We were in communication with the engine room, trying to get an update on when to expect to have the power back on. We also communicated with the nearby ship. I radioed into that other vessel just to inform him that we had lost power but we still had steering. I did it just to avoid him coming too close.

Since we still had steering, the main focus was figuring out why we lost power.

It took about five to 10 minutes for power to be restored.

We train for emergencies all the time

In general, life at sea can be pretty calm.

Mostly, you get used to your watch being pretty similar, unless you're in a more high-risk situation like coming into port. Because emergencies don't happen that often, the prudent thing to do is to play different emergencies out in your head or to open up the emergency procedures binder and periodically read through it just to make sure that how you'd handle the situation coincides with what the manual says.

We have weekly mandatory drills on everything from abandoning the ship and dealing with fires and power loss, to responding to security concerns like bomb threats or piracy. We regularly practice various emergency situations.

For example, the ship's engineers will practice several scenarios involving power loss. One of the power loss drills we do as deck officers is practice doing emergency steering drills, and that involves all the deck officers and the captain up on the bridge going through the procedures for switching the steering gear.

We regularly reconfirm the procedures and how to do them. Then we do a drill where we practice communicating with an engineer who will actually go from the engine room to the steering gear room. The steering gear room is usually below the aft mooring deck, that's where the big electro-hydraulic rams are that move the rudder. You can manually control that entire hydraulic from the steering room using different control levers.

So, during the drill, an engineer will go back there and put on a headset that's connected to a sound-powered phone. We have sound-powered phones on board as a backup in case we lose power.

Ships use sound-powered phones to communicate in the event of a power loss.
Ships use sound-powered phones to communicate in the event of a power loss.Portland Press Herald

So the engineer will put on the sound-powered phone and we will talk to him from the bridge on our own sound-powered phone. We will tell him something like: "Put the rudder starboard to right five or right 10" and he will manually push the buttons. There's a little rudder angle indicator back there so he can push the button and hold it until it gets to the rudder command he was issued. When we're out in open water away from other vessels, we'll practice that drill.

The drills are important, but it's not enough. As a deck officer, the captain often expects you to prepare on your own as well. One way we'll prepare is by studying previous accidents at sea.

My colleagues and I in the industry have talked about the Baltimore incident: what could have gone wrong or what we'd have done ourselves.

Maersk often trains us based on previous shipping incidents, so I'm sure one day it will end up in some kind of training at the academies or in a ship drill.

For now, it's an important reminder for those of us who work at sea to always stay vigilant.

Read the original article on Business Insider