Background of the Tanker Safety project
The project was initiated after the Greek tanker Propontis, carrying 100,000 tons of crude oil, touched ground west of Suursaari in February 2007. The captain had authorised the route through the shallows, where the vessel touched ground. Even though the outer hull of the tanker was ripped open a long way, no oil escaped into the sea due to the double hull construction of the ship.
Luckily, the Propontis case was just a wake-up call. Nevertheless, small amounts of oil escape – by accident or on purpose – into the Gulf of Finland dozens of times every year.
From 1997 to 2006, accident statistics show that majority of tanker accidents in the Gulf of Finland were caused by striking ground. Most of the time when a ship strikes ground, the cause is attributed to human error, and in 40% of these cases the crew was unsure about the actual position of the ship. Moreover, ice increases the risk of accidents, especially among inexperienced crews. For this reason, the decision has been made to focus the project on improvement of navigation practices.
In maritime traffic, vessels operate independently under the captain’s command. The vessels are required to draw up a route plan, but it is known only by the bridge crew.
The most significant maritime traffic guidance services which are used to improve safety and protect the environment of seafaring are VTS (Vessel Traffic Service) and GOFREP (Gulf of Finland Reporting). VTS follows traffic in coastal sea-lanes and provides vessels with notifications, organises vessel traffic and gives navigational support if required. GOFREP is a mandatory reporting system for maritime traffic, and it covers the international sea area of the Gulf of Finland. Monitoring and guidance of the ships is carried out in cooperation between the Finnish, Estonian and Russian traffic centres. The VTS centres of the Gulf of Finland operate in the maritime traffic centre, situated in Helsinki, where the vessel traffic controllers maintain a real-time traffic overview based on the information they receive. The monitoring of the Finnish GOFREP area is also conducted there.
Along with other officials, both VTS and GOFREP make use of the AIS (Automatic Identification System) automatic vessel identification system, which is required by the IMO in all vessels with a gross tonnage of over 300 tonnes. The AIS system uses VHF radio and allows the acquisition of real-time information from vessels, such as the position, bearing, cargo and port of destination of the vessel. The vessel’s AIS device automatically and continuously sends vessel-related information and receives information sent by other ships. Officials receive the information from base stations on land, through which they can also send short safety notifications to the ships.
Currently, the vessel traffic controllers do not have the precise route plans of vessels. This means that they cannot check the plan in advance or monitor how the plan is being followed. It is possible to form a better overview of the traffic and to intervene on time in case of possible hazards using route plans sent in advance.