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Revealed: blunders that caused Tristan da Cunha wreck disaster

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Last year’s shipwreck disaster on Tristan da Cunha was caused by a drowsy officer who thought Nightingale Island was a rain cloud, an investigation has revealed.

The chief mate of the MS Oliva failed to change course when Tristan’s sister island showed up on radar, and the ship ploughed on to rocks.

People on Tristan spent weeks trying to save the lives of rockhopper penguins that were plucked from rocks after the cargo ship broke up in heavy swell.

Last month the entire 260-strong community was awarded a medal by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

It took a week for salvage crews to make the 1,700-mile voyage across the South Atlantic to the wreck, while the captain and crew were sheltered in homes.

The 75,300-tonne Oliva was wrecked on uninhabited Nightingale in the early hours of 16 March 2011.

Now a report by the Marine Safety Investigation Unit in Malta, where the ship was registered, has revealed a succession of human failures.

The ship’s officers knew they would pass close to some islands on their voyage from South America to Singapore, but not when. They failed to follow their route properly on charts, relying mainly on a satellite navigation system.

Just after four in the morning, the ship passed only 3.25 nautical miles from Inaccessible Island – a World Heritage Site that was later polluted by escaped oil.

The second mate saw its radar echo but “assumed it was either rain clouds or an iceberg”, says the report.

Soon after 0500, the chief mate “noticed a large echo on the radar screen, very close ahead. He assumed it was a heavy storm cloud and thereafter, he felt the vessel’s impact of running aground.

“The vibration of the vessel running aground and the change in the main engine noise woke up most of the crew, including the master.”

The ship slid on the sea bottom as conditions worsened and at about 0300 the next day, a rock pierced one of the holds. The engine room flooded and an oil slick appeared.

The unnamed Greek captain and the Filippino crew were taken off by a trawler and boats from a cruise ship.

Nearly 48 hours after the collision, Oliva broke in two in heavy swells, spilling 1,500 tonnes of oil into the sea, and most of its cargo of soya beans.

The investigation report says the chief mate had been unable to sleep until five hours before he was due on night watch, because of a cold, and had taken medicine.

“He required two wake-up calls before he arrived on the bridge to take over his watch.

“The combination of the cold, medication, lack of sleep, the time of the day and reaction to the ship’s grounding suggested that the chief mate was probably not fit to stand a navigational watch.”

The report also says that bridge management systems were not followed. Charts were not marked with a “no go” area around the islands, and a plotting error meant that the ship’s projected route took it straight over the mile-wide Nightingale Island.

The RSPB has praised the Tristanians for a “phenomenal” response to the resulting ecological disaster.

The fishing vessel Edinburgh transported 3,718 penguins to Tristan da Cunha, where 80 islanders worked for three months to clean and feed the birds. Conservation workers arrived from South Africa to help, bringing medicines.

A works shed was transformed into a penguin hospital, and recovering birds took over the island’s swimming pool.

Chief islander Ian Lavarello said: “Many of us are descendants of shipwrecked sailors who settled on Tristan, so it was natural for us to shelter the rescued men from the Oliva and at the same time, turn to saving as many of the affected penguins as possible.”

But only 12 per cent of those taken to the main island survived to be released into the sea. It is thought most of Nightingale’s penguins had already left the island after breeding when the ship broke up.

Dr Ross Wanless of Birdlife South Africa, who called the outcome “an unmitigated disaster”, criticised insurers for delay in sending bird experts to join the clean-up.

Months after the incident, scientists found rotting soya beans had killed sea creatures and caused severe damage to the lobster fishery that provides islanders with most of their income.

Seventeen months after the incident, the Nightingale fishery remained closed and the quota at Inaccessible Island had been halved.

In September 2012, the ship’s owners agreed to pay compensation to the islanders.

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