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Series / Disasters at Sea

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Disasters at Sea is a Canadian documentary series that first aired in 2018, centering around real-life shipping disasters. Each episode begins with a reenactment of the disaster, then of the investigation into it, and ending with an explanation of safety measures meant to prevent these disasters from repeating.

Disasters at Sea contains examples of:

  • Abandon Ship: Very frequent. Even if the ship isn't actually sinking, it usually becomes the crew's first priority to get everyone off ASAP so that rescue workers can get to them. The phrase can even be heard in the show's title sequence.
    • It can become all the more notable when this trope doesn't come into effect. One particular example being the Derbyshire, as the question on everyone's minds after she sank was how such an enormous bulk carrier could go down with all hands before the crew could evacuate.
    • An unusual example is the Norman Atlantic, in which case, the bulk of the survivors were those who remained onboard and were picked up by helicopter, as the disorganized crew gave the passengers little assistance in properly launching lifeboats. This resulted in only one lifeboat being launched – without any crew to help them – and several passengers dying of hypothermia in improperly launched life rafts. Additionally, by the time the Norman Atlantic's crew gave the order to abandon ship, the fire had been going on for four hours.
  • Bungled Suicide: The Assistant Captain of the Andrew J. Barberi attempts suicide with a pellet gun and drugs over his role in its collision with a maintenance pier.
  • Cutting Corners: Shoddy, cheap, and even simply ignored repairwork is shown to be a contributing factor in the sinking of the Marine Electric, as demonstrated under No OSHA Compliance.
  • Deadly Gas: The ignited gas aboard the Bow Mariner was so suffocating that it was not only a challenge for survivors, but for Coast Guard rescue workers – to the point where one of the rescuers remarked that if the Bow Mariner had been further out to sea, there was a good chance the rescue helicopter's pilots would have been impaired by the fumes and it would have crashed on the way back.
  • Disaster Dominoes:
    • When a ship takes on water in one area, that's likely to weigh the vessel down, allowing water to get into other areas.
      • One example being the sinking of the MV Derbyshire, where water entering a ventilation shaft pulled the bow downward, resulting in water being able to enter Hatch #1, which dipped the bow enough for waves to reach Hatch #2, then Hatch #3, then Hatch #4, and so on, causing the ship to sink in as little as two minutes.
      • The Marine Electric suffered a similar fate to the Derbyshire, not helped by the fact that her hatch covers were shoddily maintained.
    • The capsizing of the Rocknes is another example. First, the ship's cargo of gravel was improperly loaded, leading it to make the ship list to starboard. Instead of shifting the cargo by hand, which would have taken time, they fill the ballast tanks on one side to crudely level it out. Then, while at sea, the gravel shifts further to starboard, causing the ship to list further. The Rocknes's pilot, wanting to avoid sharp turns with these stability issues, orders the ship to turn too late, and it moves into nearby shallows. Then, a rocky shoreline that hadn't been clearly marked on charts tears open the ship's hull, causing it to capsize within minutes.
  • Everybody Lives: Every now and then – one example being the MV Explorer, which, despite sinking in cold Antarctic waters, lost none of her passengers and crew.
  • Failsafe Failure: What sank the Flying Phantom was the fact that her emergency tow-line release took 6-8 seconds to work. As a result, it didn't release her line in time to avoid getting towed under by the Red Jasmine.
  • Green Aesop: One of the concerns when the MSC Napoli started sinking was that she would leak oil into the English Channel, making her a challenge for salvagers.
  • Had the Silly Thing in Reverse: Played for Horror in "Shipwrecked in Alaska." When the rising water levels in the Alaska Ranger caused the ship's power to go out, her controllable-pitch propellers went into reverse, and her Captain was either unaware that the engines were still going or unable to shut them off. And since the Alaska Ranger was sinking from the stern, this accelerated her sinking.
  • Lethal Negligence: Rears its head frequently.
    • One particularly nasty example is the Marine Electric. As detailed under No OSHA Compliance, the ship was all but falling apart at the seams due to deferred or half-assed repairwork. Additionally, the agencies that were supposed to catch the reason for this plan didn't do so because their inspections were rushed.
    • A couple examples from "Death on the Staten Island Ferry:"
      • Assistant Captain Smith's doctor signed off on certification that he was fit for duty, while knowing that he had been prescribed medication that had side effects that could affect his performance, resulting in the loss of life aboard the Andrew J. Barberi.
      • Similarly, both the Captain and the Assistant Captain are supposed to be at the controls together during docking, but this rule was frequently flouted, with one of the two being in the pilothouse at the other end of the Barberi to speed up the turnaround in port. Had Captain Gansas been in the pilothouse with Assistant Captain Smith, he could have intervened when Smith blacked out and thus averted the collision.
  • Making Love in All the Wrong Places: Downplayed, but implied as a possible contributing factor in the sinking of the Queen of the North, since the ship's Fourth Officer and Quartermaster had previously had an affair. Whether or not the affair played a role in the accident was never proven, so whether they were doing anything improper wasn't established. What the investigation could prove was what they were not doing, which was making sure the Queen of the North was staying on course and not sailing toward rocky shores…
  • Never My Fault: Marine Transport Lines, the owners of the Marine Electric, tried to pin the blame for her sinking on the crew, saying that she had gone off course and hit rocks when in fact, the company's shoddy maintenance of the vessel was what doomed her.
  • No OSHA Compliance: Rears its head quite a bit.
    • One egregious example being the Marine Electric, which – thanks to penny-pinching owners – had hatch covers that were allowed to deteriorate past the point they should have been replaced, and repaired using second-rate materials that were only meant to be used as stopgaps. It got to the point that there were holes in the deck that were simply circled so that no one tripped over them.
      • The owners weren't the only ones to blame for the disaster; the only reason all this went undetected was because inspections from two separate agencies that were supposed to detect problems like this were rushed – conducting them in half an hour when they should have taken days.
    • The Alaska Ranger's propeller duct design meant that the ducts were simply welded directly onto the outside of the hull (as opposed to attached to the ship's internal framework). As a result, vibrations from the propellers resulted in one duct breaking, causing a catastrophic leak. This leak was exacerbated by poor watertight compartment integrity caused by poor maintenance, resulting in the Ranger sinking.
    • The vehicles stored on El Faro's car decks were supposed to be secured directly to fasteners on the deck, but instead, cars were attached to long chains that ran across the width of the deck, which would have made it easier for the cars to break free, and thus make the El Faro unstable.
    • The Flying Phantom is another example. Her emergency line release system was insufficiently tested, so no one knew that it didn't work fast enough. Additionally, one of the tug's engine room doors was left lashed open, so she capsized much faster.
    • The Bow Mariner's Captain made the decision to clean the ship's tanks while the ship was underway, without flooding them with inert gasses that would have prevented any vapours in the tanks from igniting. This, coupled with the no less ill-advised decision to leave them open longer than was necessary, allowed the deck to be flooded with flammable vapours that only needed one spark to ignite. The ship's owners' lawyers even instructed the crew to not cooperate with accident investigators (they later caved when the Philippine government threatened to not allow them to come home if they didn't talk).
    • The Destination hadn't done a stability report in 20 years, during which time, more weight had been added to the boat in refits. Furthermore, stability reports throughout the industry hadn't accounted for the fact that crab-pots had become heavier over time.
    • The culture at Townsend Thoresen encouraged a "go-go-go" mentality that caused making sure the bow doors had been shut to lose priority because that was the first officer's job but he had to be on the bridge for the ship to launch, resulting in at least two instances of the bow doors being left open by mistake... the second known instance of which resulted in the capsizing of the MV Herald of Free Enterprise.
  • Poor Communication Kills:
    • The fire control system on the Norman Atlantic had a confusing numbering system that resulted in the crew pumping water to the wrong deck, which only allowed the fire to grow.
    • The shoal that caused the Rocknes to capsize was marked on navigation charts, but in such a way that it was hard to see, and local mariners weren't informed that it was there after it was discovered.
  • Recycled In Space: It's Mayday with ships!
  • Salvage Pirates: When the MSC Napoli wrecked off of southwest England, some of her containers broke off and washed ashore. Crowds of locals flocked to the scene and made off with some of the containers' contents – everything from nappies (which puzzled one investigator because they'd be soggy with seawater) to wine barrels to motorbikes.
  • Sinking Ship Scenario: Frequently the Ship Of The Week sinks, but this is to be expected, given the show's subject matter. However, there are a number of aversions in the show (e.g. the Norman Atlantic or the Andrew J. Barberi).
  • Sole Survivor: Only one of the Flying Phantom's crew survived her capsizing.
  • Wham Line: In "Shipwrecked in Alaska," when discussing that there were two ways that the Alaska Ranger's propeller ducts could have been safely attached to the ship:
    "So, which one did they use?"
  • What a Drag: "Towed Under" demonstrates an unusual variant of this with "girting," which basically happens when the load a tug is pulling violently moves to the tug's side, yanking the smaller boat hard enough to capsize it. In the case of the Flying Phantom, the crew did have a mechanism to cut off the line connecting her to the Red Jasmine, but it turned out to have not worked fast enough to stop the girting.
  • Wrong Assumption: Overconfidence on the part of Captains has been a contributing factor more than once.
    • The Captain of the MV Explorer thought that he was dealing with first-year ice – which he was experienced in contending with from his years operating ships in the Baltic Sea. However, he was inexperienced with the Antarctic Ocean, which has a tendency to create thicker, multi-year ice. One bit of overconfidence later and the Explorer was sinking.
    • Similarly, the Captain of the El Faro may have been operating off of a weather forecast that was six hours old. So when his Second Mate suggested a course change to avoid a hurricane that was rapidly changing direction, the Captain overruled her and ordered the El Faro to maintain its original heading – sending it right into the heart of the hurricane.