General cargo ship Rhosus passing through Istanbul on 30 July 2011. The vessel was later abandoned in Beirut and sank in 2018. Its cargo, stowed in a nearby warehouse, caused the 2020 Beirut explosion. Image Acknowledgement: Frank Behrends

Rhosus – The Vessel That Carried The Beirut Ammonium Nitrate

The Rhosus, built in 1986 by Tokuoka Zosen KK, Naruto, Tokushima on the island of Shikoku, South West Japan, was 27-years old when she arrived in Beirut with her cargo of ammonium nitrate in 2013.

Shipping Safety by Special Surveys

It appears her first Japanese Owner named her Daifuku Maru No. 8 and kept her for 16 years before selling her soon after a third Special Survey had became due at about 15 years.  Special Surveys, or Continuous Surveys, of merchant ships are held by the Classification Societies on a 5-yearly cycle. They require that all compartments and essential machinery are surveyed once in that period and repaired or replaced as found necessary.

Little is usually found wrong during the first 5-year cycle but the second Special Survey at 10 years usually results in ships being sold on by the reputable companies such as A.P. Møller – Mærsk – this being the sweet spot as maintenance bills start mounting afterwards. However, many Greek owners have made a very successful job of operating ships sold at this time. The end of the third cycle at 15 years is usually expensive, because of the amount of corroded steel-work needing replacement and many vessels are then scrapped. At this time, ships also often leave the major Classification Societies, such as Lloyd’s Register or Det Norkse Veritas-Germanischer Lloyd, and transfer to less well-known local inspection authorities. Very few ships survive the fourth Special Survey at 20 years and are generally only fit for a one-way trip to the scrapyard!

Rust Bucket

M.V. Rhosus looks like a particularly dubious ship with 7 subsequent changes of name and owner: often an indicator that a ship is in poor condition and it’s not worth spending money to keep her trading. Salt-water is an excellent electrolyte for the corrosion of steel in a ship’s ballast tanks and many bulk cargoes can corrode the steel in cargo holds too. It would have been surprising if a significant part of the hull plating and framing was much thicker than paper, or even existed. It’s therefore not surprising that she sank at her Beirut moorings in 2018.

The machinery side is unlikely to have been any better, typically giving rise to numerous “technical problems” such as: the main engine moving parts would have been a rattling fit; fuel leaking from pipe unions; there were probably no spare parts onboard (sold); lots of cement boxes and epoxy patches around valves and pipes; perished rubber hoses around the pipes; a non-starting emergency generator; jammed emergency shut-off valves and ventilators.

Port Inspections

Very few ships are as bad as this but vessels do fall “off the radar” in regions of the world where state authority is either weak or non-existent, for example the Lebanon. Port state inspection authorities elsewhere detain sub-standard ships. Rhosus had been detained in Spain but still managed to sail.

Port state authorities and Classification Societies are independent organisations but co-operation does occur: I had my authorisation to carry out a safety survey on a Bulgarian tanker in Rotterdam withdrawn, after it became apparent I was doing it as it should be done (I put my hammer through the side of one her wooden lifeboats)!  A phone call to the Port Authorities managed to get the vessel detained for a month or so.

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About the Author: Peter Filcek

Peter Filcek joined the Newcomen Society in about 1995, joined Council in 2016 and was volunteered into becoming Honorary Treasurer in 2019. He is a Marine Engineer. This is no accident: he first went deep-sea aged 5 and remembers the boilers and triple-expansion main engine on the 1929 Redheads-built s.s. Gorjistan, Peter Filcek, senior, Master. He graduated in Marine Engineering from the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1972 when ships were still being built on the Tyne and Clyde. One summer was spent in the apprentice training school at Mirrlees Blackstone, Hazel Grove, learning about Diesel engines and how to use tools – invaluable knowledge- and another summer working for ship-repairers Green and Silley Weir & Co. in the Royal Docks, London – an altogether different experience. 1972 was not a good year to graduate and find a job. Containerships were being introduced and traditional ships, shipping companies, and jobs were disappearing fast. Peter detoured into the power station business to commission and test conventional and nuclear boilers for the Gateshead company, Clarke Chapman. The sea wasn’t neglected and Peter joined Tyne Division RNR, HMS Calliope. Coming off night shift at Inverkip PS, after severely testing the resilience off the National Grid one night, his interest in the sea was rekindled when he saw a Bank Line ship sailing down the Clyde. Luckily he soon saw and successfully applied for a job advertised in a very small notice stating that “Lloyd’s Register of Shipping requires Engineer Surveyors”. The training was excellent, especially the year spent in Rotterdam undertaking all sorts of machinery and hull surveys: learning very quickly on one’s feet is perhaps the best description. Peter, with some trepidation, then joined Lloyd’s Register’s (LR) Technical Investigation Department (TID). TID had a formidable reputation in the shipping world. It had been set up 1947 by LR’s Chief Engineer Surveyor, Dr.S.F.Dorey, to investigate failures and provide research on the numerous problems exposed by war-time conditions, including the Liberty ship (EC2-S-C.1) propeller shaft failures identified by Dr. Simon Archer. The department reviewed the capabilities of the UK marine gearing industry whilst Dorey and Smedley undertook pioneering full-scale fatigue testing of propulsion shafting. Peter’s failure investigations were varied, wide-ranging, worldwide and encompassed most, if not all aspects of a ship: Diesel engines (properly heavy-oil engines in LR parlance), steam turbines, boilers, propellers, shaft alignment, fatigue, corrosion, structure, strength, vibration, noise, maneuvering, ship performance and sea trials. It was all demanding and tremendous “fun”. Colleagues were excellent. The unexpected help and kindliness offered by people around the world is memorable (there was some at the other end of spectrum as well). LR embodies the industry’s wisdom in its Rule Book, which as good a compendium of engineering knowledge and practice as any. Changes to the Rules need to happen but it is as well to understand why something is done the way it is before making changes. Peter’s interest in the history of engineering came from a desire to understand the origin of some of these practices. Peter accepted voluntary redundancy as Technical Manager of TID in 2014 after managing not to drop too many clangers.

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