Fatigue Led to Grounding in Alaska

Freyja grounded

Published Mar 18, 2020 6:22 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has released a Marine Accident Brief about the March 9, 2019, grounding of the longliner Freyja, citing fatigue as the cause.

The vessel was in the Bering Sea near Point Tebenkof, Unalaska Island, Alaska, when she grounded and remained stranded on the rocks. The four crewmembers abandoned the vessel and swam to a nearby Good Samaritan vessel. The vessel was considered a total loss, with damage estimates at $550,000. 

The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the grounding was the failure of the deckhand on watch to monitor the vessel’s track as a result of falling asleep due to an accumulated sleep deficit and the vessel owner’s lack of countermeasures to mitigate crewmember fatigue.

The deckhand stated that he remembered that he had about 10 minutes remaining on his watch (which was to have ended by 2330) when he fell asleep. He was awakened, nearly three hours later, when the Freyja struck the rocks. He believed the bridge watch alarm in the wheelhouse was set and recalled that the time interval for the alarm was 10–15 minutes. He stated that the bridge alarm did not wake him, and he had set his phone alarm as well, but he did not hear it.

A deckhand who was in the galley awaiting his turn to take watch, said that he fell asleep while watching television, and the next thing he remembered was waking up when the Freyja hit the rocks. 

One of the crewmembers said that in the weeks prior to the accident, the crew were averaging three hours of sleep per 24-hour period, though he stated that they had been “getting a little more than normal” in the days just prior to the accident. Although the captain stated that he gave the crew four hours of rest at a time when he could, he did not have a formal policy for work and rest that would have ensured the crew had the opportunity for uninterrupted sleep during their off-duty hours. 

The NTSB points out that this irregular watchstanding schedule, where crewmembers stood watch for random short shifts and were responsible for waking their relief when their watch was ending, compounded the likelihood of a single point of failure, where, if the on-duty watchstander became incapacitated for any reason (sleep, medical emergency, etc.), he could not notify his relief, and the wheelhouse would be left unattended. 

Additionally, the grounding of the Freyja occurred at 01:55, which, studies have concluded is a time where circadian rhythm is at a low. The circadian rhythm dips and rises at different times of the day, and, according to research, an individual’s strongest sleep drive generally occurs between 0100-0500 and 1300–1500. 

Three of the four crewmembers, including the captain and the deckhand on watch, tested positive for tetrahydrocannabinol, a marijuana metabolite. The NTSB says that significant performance impairments are usually observed for at least one to two hours following marijuana use, and residual effects have been reported up to 24 hours.

The NTSB has investigated several fishing vessel accidents in which fatigue played a primary role. The latest investigation was the grounding of the Imperial, where the crew worked for four consecutive days with minimal and fragmented sleep periods, similar to the Freyja grounding. 

The NTSB’s investigation of the capsizing and sinking of the fishing vessel Destination in 2017 similarly described the long hours of working in the derby-style cod and opilio crab fisheries. That accident resulted in the loss of all six crew. 

In the groundings of the Savannah Ray and the St. Dominick, the crews worked similar hours in the Alaska cod fishery. The St. Dominick crewmembers stated that the rules for the cod fishery promoted around-the-clock operations and contributed to inadequate rest. In these accidents, as well as the Freyja grounding, the economic pressure to operate continuously encourages working longer hours with little to no sleep in order to fill quotas. 

This open-access, derby-style fishing inherently leads to fatigued crew, states the NTSB.

The Freyja report is available here.