The Weekly Reflektion 51/2022

The Helge Ingstad sinking involved three parties, the Helge Ingstad itself, the tanker Sola TS, and the local marine vessel traffic service. The incident illustrates some of the challenges associated with people, the way people communicate and the assumptions they have when they are trying to make sense of the world around them. People in our experience try to do a good job and make decisions accordingly. 

Why did people act as they did, and what can we learn from this?

On 8th November 2018 the Norwegian Royal Navy frigate Helge Ingstad was in collision with an oil tanker, the Sola TS in Hjeltefjord near Bergen in Norway. The collision tore a 45 m long hole in the hull of the frigate while the Sola TS suffered only minor damage. Helge Ingstad lost propulsion and ran aground as can be seen in the photo above. There were 137 crew onboard, and 8 of these were slightly injured.

The Helge Ingstad was travelling south along the fjord, while the tanker was leaving the Sture oil refining terminal travelling north. The crew on Helge Ingstad thought that the Sola TS was stationary and did not identify it as a vessel. The crew on Sola TS saw the Helge Ingstad and communicated with the bridge, but the misunderstanding by the Helge Ingstad crew was not clarified. The crew on Helge Ingstad realised the Sola TS was a vessel travelling north too late to avoid a collision. The people manning the local vessel traffic service were passive during the incident.

In May 2019 a Ministry of Defence report concluded that a repair of Helge Ingstad would cost between 12-14 billion NOK (1,3-1,5 billion US$) and take more than 5 years. The cost of a new similar ship was estimated to 11-13 billion NOK (1,2-1,4 billion US$) with a construction time of over 5 years. The decision was made not to repair the ship.

The Norwegian Safety Investigation Authority (Statens Havarikommisjon) together with the military, the Maltese Marine Safety Investigation unit from the Sola TS flag state, and the Spanish Investigation Authority CAIM as the Helge Ingstad was built at a Spanish shipyard, performed the investigation into the collision. The Norwegian Navy and the local police also carried out investigations.

The police investigation recommended to the authorities that the Officer in Charge of the bridge on Helge Ingstad be charged with negligence and found that the entire crew on the bridge acted negligently and fined the Norwegian Armed Forces 10 million NOK.

In our next Reflektions we will look at the decisions made by the three units involved in the collision, the Helge Ingstad, the tanker Sola TS, and the local vessel traffic service (VTS) responsible for coordinating marine traffic. When humans are involved, there will always be a ‘variability of performance’, where the way an activity is carried out varies from time to time, and person to person, and this gives us a challenge. How do we consider this variation when the people are an important barrier to accidents and incidents? Punishing one person in such a complex incident seems odd, and may even be counterproductive, where so many barriers failed. We shall try to understand why people did what they did and extract learning from the incident rather than share out the blame.

Reflekt AS