MAC Answers: I was wondering if investigations such as that for the Explorer are ever open to the public

Paul Hulford, who says he’s a ‘sub-Antarctic sailor’ asks:

I was wondering if investigations such as that for the Explorer are ever open to the public or are they always held behind closed doors. By the way how does one get to read the findings?”

MAC Answers:
Much depends on the vessel’s registry, ie. flag the ship flies, and the state which has jurisdiction where the incident occurred, both of which will normall conduct an enquiry. As well as these, the ship’s classification society may have its own investigation so will its owner’s P&I Club. If there is a pilot on board the ship, as was the case with the recent Cosco Busan contact with the San Francisco-Oakland Bridge, then the pilotage authority may carry out its own investigation.

Of these, usually only the flag state and the territorial state reports are made publicly available.

The Bransfield Strait, where the Explorer went down, is disputed territory claimed by Britain, Argentina and Chile. The flag state is Liberia and an investigation is underway. Britain’s Maritime Accident Investigation Branch, MAIB, says it is not investigating the incident but Liberian authorities say that MAIB has expressed an interest in the investigation and they are co-operating, so it’s fairly confusing at the moment.

In times past it was common, at least in the UK, to hold a Board of Inquiry which would study the incident, call witnesses and so forth to determine what happened and why and who was responsible. When the Titanic sank in 1912 Boards of Inquiry were set up in the UK and the US. It was rather like a law court and if you can ever find a copy of BP’s excellent ‘Fire Down Below’ film, narrated by Allan Whicker, you’ll get an idea of how they worked.

These days Boards of Inquiry are rare and only called in exceptional cases. One example is the inquiry into the capsizing of the Bourbon Dolphin in Norway, which is open to the public.

I doubt there will be a Board of Inquiry for the Explorer so there won’t be anything physical for the public to attend.

Normally the terroitorial state and the flag state will carry out independent inquiries carried out by a team of investigators which conducts interviews, studies recorded data and whatever physical evidence is relevant. The Maritime Accident Investigators International Forum, MAIIF, has an excellent manual on its website (New link).

Investigators cannot normally subpoena witnesses etc. and their reports are intended to establish how and why something happened, not to establish liability.

If the ship’s on the bottom the physical evidence might be hard to get. Divers might be sent down, or an ROV if it’s too deep for divers, which may be done for the Explorer, which is around 600 metres down, or side-scan sonar (We’ll have an example of an investigation using side-scan sonar in the first of the new series of MAC episodes in January).

Don’t hold you breath, though, these investigations take months.

The outcome will be a draft report which is distributed to those who were involved, for instance the crew, the shipowner and so forth for their comments and a final report is then issued.

Depending on the investigating agency the report may be put online and you can find some examples at the Maritime Accident Investigation Branch, MAIB, Austrlian Transport Safety Board ATSB and National Transportation Safety Board NTSB websites.

In other cases, such as the Bahamas and Liberian registry, only hard copies are available and are usually in limited numbers. In my experience it’s only taken an email to get a copy sent for free. So these are publicly available ‘while stocks last’.

We are in contact with the Liberian registry so, with luck, we’ll be able to get a copy of the report when it comes out. Watch this space.

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