The Princess of the Stars’ Sinking

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The Princess of the Stars which sank off Romblon was by no means a “floating coffin” as some quarters alleged.  It isn’t a rust bucket either.  It is in fact the flagship of Sulpicio Lines and it can easily match the amenities and comfort of any local ship.  However, Sulpicio ships never match the cleanliness of the SuperFerry ships.  It was the biggest local passenger ship ever, both in terms of Gross Registered Tonnes and in dimensions.

It is also not an old ship by local standards.  Actually it is one of the newest among the local ferries. At 24 years it is not really that old even by international standards.  Even in Europe, where standards are stringest by continental comparisons, a ship must be over 35 years old before it is refused registration.

The Bureau Veritas (BV), an international ship inspection and certification organization recognized worldwide confirmed that the ship was BV-certificated.  It was also IMO (International Maritime Organization, a UN agency)-compliant according to a report.  Most local ships are not internationally certificated.  I don’t think there’s a about the seaworthiness of the ship. 

So what went wrong?

I don’t think the fault lies in the lack of government regulations.  As it is, government rules regarding sailing of ships when there is a weather disturbance are already over-restrictive.  Small ferries can’t sail when storm signal #1 is hoisted.  One must understand that storm signal indicates not just storm strength but also distance.  The typhoon might be strong but it is still of some distance so only signal # 1 is raised.  So you always have the scenario that it is still calm and shining in Matnog, Sorsogon and Allen, Northern Samar but the ferries are already grounded and the passengers are stranded on both sides of San Bernardino Strait.

I think our local weather service, the PAGASA is already passe.  In a world where local weather conditions to the level of barangays can already be predicted (like http://www.fallingrain.com) and where predictions are changed every 3 hours or even more often PAGASA forecasts are already an anachronism.  One does not need PAGASA to track storms.  So many weather agencies, government and private do forecasts and it is available on the Net.  Even our own Mike Padua can do a better and more timely forecast than PAGASA at much, much lesser cost.  I do not know if PAGASA responds to text inquiries but Mike Padua’s service certainly does.

It is clear from 2007 government guidelines that the final responsibility in sailing under storm conditions lies with the master (or captain) of the ship.  PAGASA, JMA and JWTC has storm trackings from 3am and  every 6 hours thereafter and it is available on the Net.  aside from these satellites pictures are available almost every hour and it is also available on the Net. 

When the ship sailed out of Manila on Friday at 8pm it still had the chance to check the 9pm weather bulletin.  The ship then was still near Corregidor island.  At 3am Saturday it is still just leaving Mindoro island of the coast of the municipality of Pinamalayan, Oriental Mindoro. By plotting the known positions of the typhoon from the late afternoon of Friday to Friday evening and Saturday dawn, the ship’s navigators should have already sensed that the typhoon has changed course.  The ship could then have turned back and hide somewhere in Batangas and Mindoro (yes, the Princess of the Stars is faster than the eye of the typhoon because it has a speed of 20 knots or about 37 kph whereas a typhoon seldom moves faster than 20 kph) or it could have turned south towards Antique.  Many ships going to Cebu take a detour and pass around the southern tip of Panay island when there is a weather disturbance in Eastern Visayas or in Bicol.

In here one must already suspect negligence on the part of the navigation crew and on the Sulpicio port captains who also have authority to change the course of the vessel.  I do not know if there was a gung-ho attitude on the part of the ship’s navigation crew especially the captain.  They must have known that in Japan ships of that size and construction are designed to sail in near-gale conditions.  But signal #3 typhoons in the Philippines are much stronger than near-gale conditions.

I have plotted the course of the typhoon and the ship.  At 7:30am when the ship was buffeted by very strong winds and mountainous waves it was just 70kms from the eye of the typhoon and definitely within the storm radius and they were in a collision course.  Maybe the ship’s navigation crew was lulled just before that time because they were being partially sheltered by the island of Sibuyan.  They might not have known it but they were already in danger then.  At that point I am not sure if they can still safely turn back.

At 12:30pm when the ship sank the typhoon’s eye was just 35kms away from the wounded ship.  At 3pm when the ship already sank, the storm’s center passed very near the ship’s grave.

I cannot express my appallment at such kind of navigation both on the part of the captain and on the part of the port captain.  They are on the path of the typhoon and the ship and the company does not know it?  And now they have the gall to blame PAGASA? And attribute it as an “act og God”?  Who’s God, by the way?

Did the ship’s engine conk out during the storm and as such is the proximate cause of the sinking as others asked?  No, it isn’t as simple as that.

The ferry was a Ro-ro (short for roll on-roll off) vessel.  But more exactly it is a Ro-pax (roll on-passenger) vessel.  Ro-ro vessels have one critical weakness.  It has a flush cargo deck inside the ship just above the water line.  It is designed for ease in loading and unloading rolling cargoes (such as container vans mounted on truck chassis and vehicles).  It might be convenient to load a Ro-ro but its design does not permit compartmentalization of the ship.  Thus, when water enters the ship it cannot be localized and under a storm if the rolling cargoes break its lashings the cargoes will move.

When the ship was hit by monstrous waves, it tilted to one side.  Obviously the lashings broke when that happened and the cargoes moved.  That’s why the ship cannot recover from lying on its side.  When this happened it is finis to the ship no matter what the crew does.  It is just a matter of time before it sinks.

Why? 

When the ship lies on its side and cannot recover, only half of the water pumps will be effective because the other half is already out of suction with the water.  And lying on its side the ship will take in water faster because some of the openings will then be in the water.  In a short time the remaining pumps will become submerged in water conking them out.  Soon the engine room will flood and the main and auxiliary engines will fail.  All the power of the ship will then be gone and there is no way anymore to steer the ship.  Actually, having a ship lying on its side is already very difficult to steer especially if one propeller is sticking out of the water and the rudder is also partially sticking out.  Tha’s why a ship lying on its side is already a dead ship.

A Ro-pax is more top-heavy than a normal ship because of the relatively empty cargo deck below and several passenger decks have to be built above.  A Ro-ro lying on its side when it capsized has the tendency to sink upside-down if it is top-heavy.  A passenger ship that capsizes upside-down has the tendency to trap passengers inside.

Once trapped the portholes (windows) and doors are very difficult to open because it is designed to open to the outside and the weight of water is simply too heavy to push.  The passenger areas are then very dark because it is already under water and the ship’s lights are no longer working.  It is simply a matter of time before the trapped inside the ship is exhausted.

It is a grim death.

 

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