The report into the 2008 flooding of HMS Endurance has highlighted the serious effects of undermanning in the Royal Navy. The report can be found here.
On 16 Deceme 2008 HMS Endurance, the Royal Navy’s ice patrol ship, suffered serious engine room flooding off the southern tip of Chile that very nearly resulted in the loss of the ship. At the time of the incident the crew were cleaning a seawater inlet strainer. During the operation a remotely operated valve opened, causing flooding.
However, the roots of the incident can be traced back to the decision to deploy Endurance to the South Atlantic for 18 months, in order to save money – the report suggesting that she deploy for such a long stretch identified financial cost as the only caveat. The challenge of meeting such a long deployment was met by implementing a crew rotation described as ‘between managed gapping and a formal three watch system’ – euphemisms for undermanning. As a result at times the ship would be short of key personnel. At the time of the planned 18 month deployment a need was identified for an additional Petty Officer Engineer, but this need was no met due to fleet-wide shortages of this role.
In October 2007 Endurance completed her Operational Sea Training, and apparently performed well. During this period, however, she had not adopted her new manning regime, so the assessment was effectively meaningless. Surely if the ship had been inspected while operating the new manning regime, the Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST) would have identified problems?
Apparently during the deployment Endurance was producing much less fresh water than was considered normal (one of the ships laundries was closed down, and the crew were told to conserve water) and the engineering department attempted to identify why and rectify the problem. A blocked inlet strainer was identified. However, after cleaning two pipes were re-connected incorrectly.
The panel found that there was not enough expertise onboard regarding the fresh water system, and the Engineering Officer was not sufficiently aware of how the system worked. The panel also found that lack of manpower meant that Senior Ratings who were supposed to be acting in a supervisory role were having to be involved in manual maintenance tasks. This lack of senior ratings also led to poor co-ordination and risk assessment. The recently arrived CO also told the panel that he felt the Engineering Department was ‘set in its ways’ as too many of its personnel had been on Endurance for a long time.
That the ships crew managed to save the ship in such challenging circumstances is testament to their inherent professionalism. It is just a shame that they and HMS Endurance were put in such a position, primarily due to financial constraints. We should remember as well that this is an ice patrol ship operating in peacetime conditions – what sort of conditions are there on Warships, and what effect would this undermanning and cost-cutting have during wartime?
The report did not recommend any charges to be brought against the ships crew. Surely this is a tacit admission that the causes of the incident were based on cost-cutting from above. As a result, 2 years later, Endurance is still laid up in Portsmouth, awaiting a decision on whether she will be repaired or scrapped.