Royal Navy submarine errors led to near-miss with ferry

An investigation has identified the errors that led to a Royal Navy submarine being in a near miss with a passenger ferry that had to take emergency evasive action.

It has revealed that similar failings were responsible for at least two previous collisions between submarines and surface vessels in the past four years.

And the report recommends the Royal Navy undertakes an independent review of the actions its already taken to reduce the risk of collision between dived submarines and surface vessels.

The ferry involved was the Stena Superfast VII ’ – a roll-on roll off vehicle and passenger ferry service in the North Channel between Belfast in Northern Ireland and Cairnryan in west Scotland. The Royal Navy submarine involved in the incident is not identified in the report.

The ferry had to take urgent action to avoid the submerged submarine after its officer of the watch spotted the RN vessel’s periscope.

One of the similar incidents cited in the report was when a dived Royal Navy submarine snagged the fishing gear of the UK registered trawler, the Karen, in east of Ardglass, Northern Ireland on April 15, 2015.

It comes as families who believe a submarine was involved in the sinking of the Bugaled Breizh and the deaths of French fishermen off the coast of Cornwall are still waiting for answers – more than 15 years later.

Similarly, the co-owner of Plymouth based scalloper The Pescado remains convinced that his 70-foot vessel went down – with the loss of six lives – after a collision with a submarine in 1991.

His claims have consistently been denied by the Ministry of Defence, which has always insisted that it has co-operated fully. And an Marine Accident Investigation Bureau (MAIB) report in 1998 concluded that the Pescado heeled over, flooded and sank because her fishing gear fouled.

Now, an MAIB report has revealed a number of failings after a near miss with a ferry in the North Channel – and that the “Royal Navy has taken a series of actions in response to this and similar previous accidents”/

These failings included problems with the sub’s electronic tactical display which could have caused the control room team to underestimate the ferry’s speed and overestimate its range.

The report summary says: “At 1256 on 6 November 2018, Stena Superfast VII ’s officer of the watch took urgent action to avoid a submerged submarine after its periscope had been spotted close ahead of the ferry.

“Post-event analysis showed that, prior to the ferry’s course alteration, there had been a serious risk of collision.

“This near miss happened because the submarine’s control room team had underestimated the ferry’s speed and overestimated its range, resulting in an unsafe situation developing.

“However, the submarine’s control room electronic tactical display presented a picture of a safer situation than reality; this meant that safety-critical decisions made on board the submarine may have appeared rational at the time.”

The submarine’s periscope as seen from the Stena Superfast VII ferry (Image: Stena Line/MAIB.)

The report’s synopsis said: “Two previous collisions between Royal Navy submarines and surface vessels show a similarity in that key decisions on board the submarines were made based on an insufficient appreciation of the location of surface ships in the vicinity. The Royal Navy has taken a series of actions in response to this incident, and previous similar accidents.

“As a result,this report makes a safety recommendation to the Royal Navy to undertake an independent review of its actions taken to ensure that such actions have been effective in reducing the risk of collision between dived submarines and surface vessels.”

The key safety issues identified in the report included:

  • Safety-critical decisions need to be made based on accurate information.
  • Passage planning should identify all potential hazards and effective mitigations.
  • Maintaining a good lookout is vital for the safety of all vessels.

In ‘safety recommendations’ the MAIB said: “The Royal Navy has taken a series of actions in response to this and similar previous accidents. As a result, a safety recommendation has been made to the Royal Navy to undertake an independent review to ensure that the actions taken have been effective in reducing the risk of further collision.”

Andrew Moll, Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents said: On 6 November 2018, the lookout on board the ferry Stena Superfast VII spotted a submarine’s periscope close ahead. The officer of the watch then took immediate and effective action, turning the ferry to avoid a genuine risk of collision with a submerged submarine. The incident happened because the submarine’s control room team had underestimated the ferry’s speed and overestimated its range, resulting in safety-critical decisions being made based on inaccurate information.

“Although there was no collision, this was the third accident or incident between a dived Royal Navy submarine and a surface vessel in four years, which is a matter of significant concern.

“The Royal Navy co-operated with the MAIB’s investigation into this near miss and has taken a series of actions, intended to prevent recurrence, in response to this and the other similar incidents.

“However, I have today recommended that the Royal Navy undertakes an independent review of the actions that have been taken, in order to ensure that the risk of similar collisions has been reduced to as low as possible.”

In 2019, an inquest heard that fishermen had said they saw a submarine when a French fishing vessel sank 14 years ago off the Cornish coast, with the loss of five lives.

However the inquest was adjourned until a date still yet to be set in 2020. Acting senior coroner for Cornwall Andrew Cox said: “There are a lot of conspiracy theories around this case and I want to work hard to dispel as many of these as possible.”

Relatives believe that a submarine became snagged in the fishing boat’s nets and that the sinking happened a day before Nato military exercises officially began in the area.

Nearly 30 years ago, six people died when the Plymouth-based scalloper The Pescado sailed sank off the coast of Cornwall in 1991.

How they came to be killed is still disputed, despite two court cases, a marine accident report and a police investigation.

The boat’s co-owner remains convinced that the 70-foot vessel went down after a collision with a submarine.

His claims have consistently been denied by the Ministry of Defence, which has always insisted that it has co-operated fully.

A report by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) in 1998 concluded that the Pescado heeled over, flooded and sank because her fishing gear fouled.

“A lack of a properly qualified and experienced crew” and inadequate life-saving equipment contributed to the loss of the boat and the six lives, the MAIB report said.

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However, a lawyer involved in the case told The Herald that the MoD’s refusal to fully disclose “critical documentation” about warships in the area when the Pescado sank remained a key point.

“It is very, very disappointing,” said Charles Hattersley, who represented the family of Jo-Ann Thomas from Plymouth, one of the six.

Plymouth Live