A Turning Point

At 18:50 on Friday 26 November 1999, the fast catamaran MS Sleipner was on its way from Haugesund to Bergen, Norway. Stormy conditions, driving rain and 2–3 metre waves made things difficult for the captain on the open seas. At around 19:08 the vessel collided with the rock Store Bloksen and the captain sent out a distress call. Sleipner had run aground with 85 people on board, and sank quickly. The terrible accident is today seen as a turning point in the history of claims handling at Norwegian Hull Club.

I think it was something of an eye-opener and a sneak peak at how such incidents would be dealt with in the future. – Åge Solberg

They say that the accident strikes when you expect it the least. A month before Christmas – it ought to be a night of festivities. NHC's top management group was having a Christmas dinner with German clients that night. The Claims Director was eating lutefisk at a local restaurant in Bergen. Then the phone rang at the office in Olav Kyrres gate. Claims handler Åge Solberg answered and his immediate reaction is “disaster”. He made the necessary calls and began to work. “It was one of the worst shipping disasters in recent times, a tragedy that claimed 16 lives. In addition, the wife of one of our colleagues was on board so it made a real impact on us at Norwegian Hull Club, he says

Emergency Response Mode

"At the NHC offices, we immediately went into emergency response mode. The problem was that the ship had sunk, so there was nothing for us as the hull insurer to salvage. Nevertheless, we knew that it was important for us to support the shipping company with our crisis management skills. The only question was precisely what we could contribute,” relates Åge Solberg, now Director of Claims Handling. He refers to the Sleipner disaster as a turning point for the company, because it was an accident where information had to be collected in a different way than through the usual channels. Moreover, it was a situation where staff could contribute actively to helping the rescue personnel make good decisions by participating in the emergency response.

“As we had previously participated in the emergency response programme run by the Bergen Hull Club and HSD, we were asked to join the shipping company’s emergency response team at the company’s premises. As a result, I found myself sitting in the emergency control room at HSD, playing an active role in their organisation. At the suggestion of our company, it became my task to monitor the media and use the Internet to collect information from selected media sources", he comments.

Media and Communication Systems

News and updates about the accident were flying in from all sides – more information than the shipping company itself had in many cases. "For example, the newspaper Dagbladet was the first to report that some passengers had lost their lives, which the police confirmed when we contacted them. It was this type of information that I could share with the others, and I think it was something of an eye-opener and a sneak peak at how such incidents would be dealt with in the future. The media are often the leading source of information, particularly in the very earliest hours when it isn’t possible to communicate with the vessel itself,” relates Åge Solberg.

Developments in the field of communication and the growth of the company over the past decade have had a major effect on the accident processing. “There was a time when we simply received telexes listing ‘today’s accidents’, but today we have access to real-time satellite images and AIS tracking of our vessels. Developments in the field of communication have radically changed our business, and the development shows no sign of stopping,” says Jostein Egeland, Claims Director.

“For example, there was a big difference between the Sleipner disaster in 1999 and a more recent incident, where we used AIS Live to pinpoint the position of the vessel and then monitored events with onshore webcams. In fact, we could even play an active role in helping the captain to find the best way to deal with the situation. The barriers between onshore office and vessel have been eroded in many ways because there are many more ways to maintain direct communication with the vessel today. It is now often the case that we know the exact status of the damage and can pretty much deal with the situation on an ongoing basis,” he adds.

More Film Documentation

Since 1997 Geir Skoglund, Client Services director, has been involved in establishing a working relationship between the claims department and an operational emergency response team, Client Services. He is convinced that this development has brought them closer to NHC’s overarching goal: to prevent injuries to people and damage to property and the environment.

“In the future, communication will be a standard part of the ‘toolbox’ on vessels. Just like it is a habit to put on a seatbelt in a car, everyone will be using cameras as documentation tools. It will be easier and more common for us to recommend courses of action to captains in a variety of situations. In addition, technological developments are making it increasingly common for the vessels themselves – rather than their crews – to report deviations,” says Geir Skoglund.

Significant Information Load

However, the emergency response team admits that the ever-increasing flow of information and the pressure that is put on everyone to take it all in when something happens – and to separate what is important from what is not – can also make things more difficult.

“We are constantly experiencing one crisis or another, and find ourselves having to send out Opintel (Operational Intelligence reports) almost on a daily basis. This is due not only to the volume of information we receive, but also to the fact that the number of vessels in our portfolio has increased significantly. And even though it may not always be a question of ‘red alert’ and ‘all hands on deck’, it is difficult not to let yourself get caught up in events when a message arrives on your mobile phone. Personally, I love my job so much that the first thing I do in the morning is to check to see how things are going with the case, whether the vessel has been salvaged,” he adds with a smile. 

“Previously, no-one even raised the question of whether we should have a contingency plan for earthquakes – no-one asked whether we had any vessels at risk in these areas. That all changed with the earthquake in Chile. We found out that we had access to information sources, which, at the touch of a button or two, could let us know which vessels we had at risk in the area. This knowledge has proved very useful subsequently, particularly in connection with the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan,” says Åge Solberg.

A Local Presence Worldwide

All three of our interviewees are convinced that the increased volume of information puts NHC in an even better position to give the shipping companies even more accurate advice and guidance. In addition, it allows the company to maintain local presence worldwide, not just in situations that arise outside its front door.,

“And we have dedicated employees who possess a great deal of knowledge and who work hard to challenge the shipping companies with practice drills, etc. For our Client Services team, coming up with new, intricate scenarios for our drills has almost become a sport in itself,” grins Geir Skoglund.

“Of course, we have to make sure that we don’t start thinking we know everything in this sector – or, in particular, that we are on top of the information flow. Information that was previously reserved for the shipping companies has become public knowledge, and no two scenarios are alike. Fortunately we'll never experience the "Sleipner" accident again, and, I like to think that we are better equipped to share our experience with the shipping companies in the event of new incidents and that we have employees committed to following the development of information flows in the future,” concludes Jostein Egeland. 

2012 1 turningpoint3

The investigation revealed that the accident was caused by a number of factors: navigational error, heavy weather and new equipment on board with which the crew was inexperienced.

In the Aftermath of "Sleipner"

A direct consequence of the "Sleipner" accident was that the required response time was reduced to 15 minutes. It took 38 minutes from the time that the rescue centre was alerted to the time that the rescue helicopter was in the air. The crew now lives at the base and a team is on call 24 hours a day. The emergency response system has been improved, and response times to accidents are now much shorter.

Another change is that the maritime declaration, which in 1999 was normal procedure, was repealed and a new amendment was set: for the first time in Norwegian maritime history, a board of inquiry was established and replaced the maritime declaration. This board was to be the forerunner for what today is known as Accident Investigation Board Norway. 

1. Dec. 2012