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Long Read People and Leadership Sea

Mayday in The Magellan; Part 2 – Priorities

Ten years ago, the Royal Navy’s Ice Patrol Vessel HMS Endurance catastrophically flooded. Her main engine room filled to the deckhead within 30 minutes. Such was our remoteness our Mayday call went unanswered. The crew and I spent the next 24 hours fighting for our lives.

This article is the second of a three part series focusing on leadership, culture and priorities.  Part one can be found here. More detail is found at the end of this page on part three. This part covers the tow to Punta Arenas, the tow to the Falklands and the ship-lift back to the UK. It also discusses the resulting investigations, media coverage and medal allocation. The analysis focuses on how my priorities shifted from the immediate aftermath of the incident to managing a crew for whom uncertainty and worry became the dominant feature.

Situation

HMS Endurance had flooded the previous day in the Western Magellan Strait and had drifted over a seamount to which both our anchors were now precariously clinging. Between going to anchor and Tug Beagle arriving from Punta Arenas, we had about 11 hours in which to try and control our situation. The anchored ship now sat head into wind rather than beam-on thus the crippling roll had been replaced by a much more manageable pitching motion. A cruise-liner arrived on the scene early in the morning, alerted by Northwood Headquarters. Until the anchor held, they were our greatest hope and their Captain and I had had some sensible conversations about our options as they steamed towards us. Even at anchor, it was reassuring to have something of that size standing close-by. As we winched the British Schools Exploration Society (BSES) personnel off via a commercial helicopter we were able to transfer on some pumps and an officer from theChilean Navy corvette that was now with us. Captain Pritchard, leave interrupted, was now at the Fleet Headquarters in Portsmouth and doing what he could to help there whilst events unfolded before heading straight to RAF Brize Norton to start the long flight south.

Cut the Anchors

Tug Beagle arrived at 1100 on 17 December 2008, 19 hours after the start of the incident. We weren’t sure what to expect – reports from Northwood indicated that they would have pumps, salvage gear and even a salvage team to transfer across. What we got was an expertly handled tug with a non-English speaking crew, no salvage team, and no kit. Fortunately, between me, the Spanish speaking staff member of the BSES I’d asked to stay behind and the Chilean Naval officer I’d ‘borrowed’ during the onload of various pumps, we could communicate effectively.

The weather was getting worse. Winds funnelling down the strait at a steady 50 knots were set to increase to 70—hurricane force. We were still badly exposed whilst the sheltered section of the Magellan was no more than ten miles away – we could see it and it looked inviting. Meanwhile, I was coming under increasing pressure to wait for a second tug which wasn’t due for another five hours. I had to weigh up the redundancy and control the second vessel would provide under tow with the desire to go with what I had and get ahead, and clear of, the worsening weather. All my instincts said to go now, however, the weight of the advice (order?) I was getting from Northwood to wait caused me enough uncertainty to delay cutting the anchors by about an hour by which time the sea, had indeed got worse. I still think that my decision to effectively disobey that direction, gas-axe our lifelines and go with only one tug remains one of my better ones through this incident.

Despite knowing it was the right thing to do, giving the final order to cut our anchor cables was a difficult one – they had kept us safe, against the odds, all night. By the time the second anchor was cut, it was holding the ship against near hurricane force winds. The cable’s departure through the hawespipe was explosive to say the least. Luckily the Chief Stoker had his safety goggles on, so that was fine.

Underway

We then had to start the long and slow process of being turned 180 degrees to head into the Magellan narrows. Putting us beam on to the sea made us roll violently again and re-flooded areas that had been cleared overnight. There was a scare mid-turn as the fo’c’sle reported that the tow had parted – exactly the worst-case scenario fuelling the advice to wait for the second tug. Fortunately that report was incorrect, just a trick of the waves causing the line to suddenly lose tension as if it had parted. We missed a couple of routine calls to Northwood whilst all this was going on. I gather that our next report putting us in a significantly different position and making six knots in a south-easterly direction caused some confusion. Eventually the second tug Aguilla arrived, strapped on to our starboard quarter, straightened our course as expected, and we maintained a steady six knots for the next 36 hours to Punta Arenas.

Standing on the bridge roof as the sun came up one couldn’t help but be struck by the beauty of the place and what a shame it was that we weren’t doing this passage in the normal course.

I remember this period for a few reasons. By I now had established a regular dialogue with the Captain. His support was very welcome: not once did he lean-in; rather, he offered thoughts  and counsel during a difficult period for us both. He also took the time to ring wives and partners – a very nice touch. Getting people into a sustainable routine proved interesting, as there were a few who didn’t want to stand down. An experienced warfare officer with years of catnapping practice, I had no such issue so I was pretty fresh when we came alongside. The lack of fresh water onboard became a critical issue and so we landed one of our helicopters on to resupply. With the ship listing 14 degrees to port and with 20 knot wind from dead astern, we were a long way outside of recommended flying parameters. I invited the Flight Commander to the bridge afterwards to say ‘well done’ for the landing and to thank him for bringing water to a sinking ship. He mentioned something about Newton having been in charge for the last part of the landing.

Shortly before arriving in Punta, the Captain arrived back onboard and we gathered everyone together for a quick talk before getting alongside. I don’t remember too much of what was said other than asking everyone to get back into uniform (borrowed if lost in the flood) and to generally smarten up. I got some looks that suggested not everyone agreed with me on this. I was also clear to communicate that whilst we had achieved something remarkable we were the only ones who would truly understand it. Most would not find out, or even care.

Punta Arenas is a bleak, windy and charmless port. My first impression was just how many massive tugs were alongside there. Presumably some were for escorting large ships through the Magellan Straits. However, many were ocean going salvage tugs. An entire industry centres on rescuing ships in the deep south. We arrived alongside just before midnight on 18 Dec, some 56 hours after the initial valve failure, and were now safe, relatively and temporarily at least.

Alongside in Punta Arenas

Punta was to be our home for the next month, so it only seemed reasonable to head to the nearest pub and make sure that they were suitably stocked. Most of the ship arrived at the same conclusion and so it was that the stories started. Humour, relief and fatigue prevailed; close-calls and anecdotes were pieced together.Two have stuck in my mind from that first night ashore. The first was myExecutive Warrant Officer who, in tried and tested military fashion, gave me an excellent compliment via the medium of a thinly veiled insult:

Sir, do you know what you did well?” … “[Here we go…] What’s that Mr P?” … “Nothing.”

What he meant (I subsequently established) was that I hadn’t interfered in anyone’s business. I’d remained calm, interjected at the right times and in the right manner and kept myself free to make the big decisions as required. He may have then have bought me a pint – even more remarkable. The second was more significant and involved one of the engineers who had been in the engine room at the time of the breach coming up and seemingly confessing to having caused it. All I could do at that stage was ensure that he was first in the queue for the investigation that was due to start the next day. I was pretty sure that what actually caused the flood would be far more complex than the actions of a single individual do so we left it at that.

Horizons inevitably expanded to discuss what to do with the ship in the coming weeks and months whilst my focus remained on keeping everyone safe during the clean-up and looking out for anyone affected by the incident.

No one was unmoved by the state of the portions of the ship that had been submerged for over a week. By the time the affected cabins could be re-entered, their inhabitants had lost everything. The engine room was an oily mess with huge items of equipment out of place. First into it were the investigation team as that process started almost immediately. A post trauma team was sent from the UK which was unobtrusive and effective; nevertheless, the ship’s company, buoyed by what they had just achieved, the teamwork that was still needed to prepare the ship for towing and being kept together in a relatively small town, largely looked after themselves. To give an idea of the complexity of the salvage task, it took a week to totally clear the ship of water. We were declared watertight on Christmas Day before we cleared the ship of everyone who could be spared and moved to a hastily decorated log cabin for a rather surreal Christmas lunch.

To the Falklands

Another week later and the ship was ready to be towed to the Falklands where the remainder of the preparations required to ship-lift her to the UK could be completed. The period in the Falklands was particularly difficult. Team cohesion started to erode as people were already being drafted off the ship. Additionally, Mare Harbour’s infrastructure is not geared for this type or scale of operation. Hazardous items that can happily live adjacent to each other in a ship, once ashore are subject to different regulations and suddenly have to be separated by 100s of meters. Lots of coffee changed hands with our RAF brethren during this period as we managed the challenges together.

Piggyback to the UK

It was now clear that the ship was to be loaded onto MV Target and transported back to the UK. Preparations for this were arduous as anything allowed to remain inside of the ship had to be secured to an extreme level. A steaming crew was then selected to be onboard the Target for the long voyage back. As the Captain poignantly said at the end of the Ice Patrol documentary, ships returning from an 18 month deployment should do so to a joyous family reception and a Royal Marine Band. In this case a rather forlorn and listing-again Endurance was towed into Portsmouth with just a handful of us to greet her in the pouring rain. It was now Easter and the ship’s future remained uncertain.

Media

The flood attracted almost no media scrutiny. Somewhere between the Fleet Headquarters and the MoD press office a decision was taken to suppress all coverage. Achieving this was made easier by the remoteness of the location, proximity to Christmas and, brutally, because no one was badly hurt or worse. The reason was clear: avoid causing naval embarrassment. I remain certain that proactive dialogue with the national press could have enabled a distinction between ‘pre-flood circumstances which “due to the ongoing investigations would be inappropriate to comment”’ and ‘post-flood actions to save the ship’ to have been made.

Media suppression resulted in the documentary team that we’d had embarked for the last four months; being treated as pariahs. When their documentary, Ice Patrol was released on various channels, including National Geographic, it was not proactively pushed by the Navy and the online links to it were removed sighting sub judice and the ongoing investigations. Whether or not this suppression was the right decision, the end result was a lack of recognition for what the ship’s company had accomplished.

Investigations

There were five investigations conducted into the flood starting the day after the ship reached Punta Arenas. In order:

InvestigationLead
Immediate Ship’s InvestigationLieutenant Commander
Technical Investigation Commander
Service Inquiry   Commodore
Service Police Investigation Lieutenant
Final Investigation Flag Rank

There was a new directive out that determined these had to be conducted sequentially; altogether, they took 15 months. A Rear Admiral in the Fleet Headquarters took the trouble to explain this to me, however, ‘personally affected people’ – those for whom the findings could affect their career – had a lot to endure for along time. Some fared better than others.

But here is the sum of it. Despite the length and apparent depth of the investigations the final reckoning was lightweight. Compare Haddon Cave’s report with the Endurance Service Inquiry if you want to see the difference between an independent, post coroner report and a service led inquiry. Our report over-focused on trying to identify how the valve failed. This was unsuccessful for a number of reasons but primarily because by the time the Service Police got involved, a year had passed and both physical and anecdotal evidence had been irreparably contaminated. Part 3 of this blog will look at this in more depth and discuss all the causes, many of which pre-date the Service Inquiry findings by a considerable time.

Bonus Investigation

Whilst the main investigations were progressing, I had to lead one of my own. On the night of the incident, it turns out our ‘record of people onboard’ was out of date. This is partly because the latitude at which we had been operating prevented effective satellite connectivity and partly because we were using a new(ish)system whose back-up modes were not fully understood. The net result of this were a couple of rather embarrassing phone calls to next-of-kin during the incident along these lines,

“Are you the legal next-of-kin of Able Seaman xxx. I’m afraid that HMS Endurance is suffering from a flood…” etc etc.

“You can tell him yourself if you’d like – he’s just next to me

Quite an amusing anecdote after the event; not so much at the time. It’s worth pausing for a second to reflect what the families had to endure whilst this was ongoing. Not only were we deployed for 18 months, hard enough on its own, we were in real trouble the extent of which was not fully understood in anywhere other than a handful of places. It was hard enough to know onboard if we were going to make it – I can only imagine how that uncertainty and worry played out in various homes across the country. 10 years on I wanted to thank the families of those involved as their support, the bedrock of any deployed operation, was severely tested for the duration of the incident.

Medals

I was disappointed with our medal count that resulted from this incident. This is contentious (medals always are) because it’s based on my assumption that the shadow cast by the ongoing investigations lessened the chances of some that were written up. I could be entirely wrong and it’s worth remembering that this was at the height of operations in Afghanistan. We did achieve some success, myself included for which I am very grateful. But there were some outstanding actions and achievements executed in the most demanding of circumstances that in my view went unrecognised or were but not at the right level. No system is perfect and ours is as good as any, but there it is.

One ray of light for me in this rather grim period was calling on Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, the then Commander in Chief Fleet. This was shortly after returning from the Falklands so there was still over a year of investigations to run, but I was summoned for a pre-emptive ‘well done’. The Admiral had clearly delineated in his mind between pre-incident difficulties and post incident decision making. This sounds simple but many others had not. He was very clear that this didn’t absolve me of anything that the investigations might subsequently throw-up but a pat on the back for my decision making during the flood itself gave me a lot of strength as I sat through months of discussions and investigations that hopefully I was able to transmit to some of the remaining ship’s company.

Repair HMS Endurance or Procure HMS Protector?

The next nine months was dominated by discussions on the future of the ship and managing a now much reduced crew, some of whom were the subject of the ongoing investigations. One of my major roles was reminding various authorities that there were still humans at the end of all this decision making and financial planning.

As for that decision making, quotes for repair, from UK-based companies at least, were coming in and were broadly comparable to the price of a new vessel, so the hope of restoring Endurance gradually vanished. The Captain had been whisked off to take command of HMS Bulwark and as the newly appointed Commanding Officer, one of my roles became to assist with assessing replacement options. MV Polar Bjorn started to emerge as a natural successor – broadly similar dimensions and ice-breaking capability, but much improved in many other respects such as internal storage, craneage and dynamic propulsion. She was eventually leased and then bought from Rieber shipping, the same company who built Endurance. I was able to assist with the long process of shaping how she should be crewed, where she should be based and even what she could be named, but more on this in the third and final part of this blog.

This article is the second part of a three-part blog focusing on leadership, culture and priorities. 

Part 1 – Leadership was published in Dec 18 can be found here.
Part III – Culture will be published soon.
Part II – Priorities takes up the story from when salvage tug arrived on the scene.

About the author

Commander Tom G Sharpe OBE RN (Retd)

Tom Sharpe is a freelance communications consultant specialising in managing reputations and capacity building for complex and often contested organisations. Prior to this he spent 27 years in the Royal Navy, 20 of which were at sea. He commanded four different warships; Northern Ireland, Fishery Protection, a Type 23 Frigate and the Ice Patrol Vessel, HMS Endurance.

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