This article has taken awhile for me to write. Part of the reason is that things have been busy lately, but a larger part is because it’s a difficult story to write about.
As the Shipster, I try to focus on stories that have a human element, and the M/V Flare has that in spades. This wreck happened because of negligence, a focus on profits, and corners getting cut until there were none left. I can only imagine the horror these men faced on the night their ship went down, and it’s all the more heartbreaking when you read through the post-accident investigation, you realize that it could have been avoided.
Still, it’s an important story to tell, so today I bring you the M/V Flare.
Length: 180.8 metres
Beam: 23.1 metres
Draught: 6.93 metres
Depth: 14.5 metres
Tonnage: 16,398 gross tonnes
Speed: 15.1 knots
In mid-December 1997, 12 new crew arrived alongside a ship in Rotterdam, Netherlands. The ship they were joining - the bulk carrier MV/Flare - was readying for a regular trans-Atlantic journey to Montréal, QC.
Originally built in 1972 at the Hakodate Dock Co., Ltd. in Japan, the ship had travelled the world and was beginning to show her age. Small holes and corrosion had sprouted up and needed to be addressed, but it was nothing deemed worth delaying the trip over. Rather than taking advantage of the shipyard facilities in Rotterdam, the crew brought a welding machine and extra pieces of steel plating and flat bars on board. One of the crew members was a certified fitter and welder who would complete the repairs while they were at sea. On December 30th, with everyone and everything on board, the Flare left Rotterdam, and her crew rang in 1998 while crossing the English Channel.
On January 1st, Flare entered the treacherous winter waters of the North Atlantic. Almost immediately, the weather turned - gale force winds whipped 16+ metre waves into a frenzy, making the ship pitch, pound, and slam as she made her way slowly towards her destination. The crew added extra lashings to the equipment on deck and tried to go about their daily tasks as the hull flexed and groaned around them. At one point, a crew member reported that the main deck twisted so severely the deck cranes appeared to be touching. Another crew member spent his time in his cabin with his lights on, practicing dressing in warm clothes as quickly as possible in case something happened.
The weather followed the Flare as she continued on. The fitter worked on the repairs when weather permitted - which wasn’t very often. Corrosion sites inside the front ballast tanks were top priority for repair, with the damage having begun to compromise the surrounding steel. This meant that the tanks were emptied and the ballast shifted so crew members could get inside. This, in turn, lightened the bow, making her even more susceptible to pounding, slamming, and vibration as she pushed through the waves.
At 4:00am on January 16th, a loud band rang throughout the ship, startling the crew. The hull reaction that followed made the ship twist and shudder under their feet. Four hours later, another loud band was heard, followed by more shuddering. As the crew tried to figure out what had caused the severe vibration, the general alarm rang out through the ship. The Flare was in trouble.
The men rushed topside and found a horrifying sight. The ship had split in two, and the stern - the location of the crew quarters and the bridge - was now adrift in the open ocean.
Almost immediately, the severed stern began to take on water. No man had grabbed an immersion suit (it would later come to light that no one was entirely sure where the six suits were located), so there was a rush to unlash the lifeboats and get them into the water. A list to starboard put those boats out of service, so the portside boat was their only hope. The extra lashings that had been attached during the journey slowed the process, but eventually they were able to free the boat and shift it down the deck and over the stern rail. As the men made to board the boat they were stopped by the Master - the propellor was still turning, pushing the stern forward. If the men launched the boat, they would launch it directly into the prop blades. While the crew tried to come up with another option, the rope holding the boat to the stern rail chafed. The lifeboat drifted away.
Suddenly, a call rang out from a couple of the crew. There was hope! They had spotted the bow of a ship coming through the waves towards them. Someone had heard the truncated MAYDAY that had been sent before the ship lost power! They were going to be saved!
Their hope dissolved into horror, however, as the bow came into clearer view. The words on the front clearly read FLARE. The stern had driven itself in an erratic circle and had come back around to its own wreckage.
No one was coming. They were on their own.
Half an hour after the initial separation, the stern disappeared and sent all 25 crew members into the freezing waters. Six were able to make it to a capsized lifeboat and clung to it. All they could do now was hope that someone, somewhere, had heard their MAYDAY and was sending help.
In Newfoundland, at the Coast Guard base CCGS Stephenville, a MAYDAY was blasting out on all channels to all vessels - a ship was in trouble and needed immediate assistance. The problem was that the name of the vessel hadn’t transmitted, and the message itself was incomplete. It took hours to correctly identify the Flare, but a commercial vessel, M/V Stolt Aspiration, was 30 kilometres from the last reported position and offered assistance. When no radar contact could be made, they set a course for the location, hoping to find out what happened to the ship.
A mix up between the Coast Guard and a radio tower in the States provided additional confusion - there was a discrepancy that placed the Flare 72 kilometres south of the initial MAYDAY. Since the message was broken to begin with, SAR resources and the Stolt Aspiration were sent to the second site. Air support was given an 161 square kilometre radius to search.
Stolt Aspiration arrived at the first set of coordinates, but was unable to find any trace of the Flare - no oil slick, no debris, nothing. They set off for the second location, where they were joined by the French Naval Vessel Fulmar, responding from St. Pierre-Miquelon, the CCGSV W.G. George, and the HMCS Montreal.
At just after 2pm, a chartered aircraft from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans had proceeded to a new area in the search grid. There, it was able to identify the bow of the Flare floating adrift. An SAR helicopter was close by and responded. Starting from the bow, it followed an oil slick that stretched 8 kilometres southwest. A small, orange dot was spotted on the surface. They had found the capsized lifeboat, with four individuals still clinging to the sides.
The SAR helicopter immediately began a difficult but successful rescue. After spending six hours in water, the four survivors were pulled to safety dressed in light clothes and lifejackets. Three were severely hypothermic and could barely move their limbs. As they came around, the survivors said that two of their fellows had become too weak and had been swept away in the heavy seas about three hours before the helicopter arrived. SAR officials arriving on the scene later would discover a body caught under the life raft, tangled in her ropes.
SAR vessels and aircraft descended on the area, and over the next few hours 13 bodies were spotted in the oil slick. The helicopters tried to recover them, but were only able to retrieve four. Technicians did not have dry suits or face protection, and quickly became nauseous from the fumes. Helicopter gear became coated in oil and dangerous to operate. Instead, it was decided they would plot the bodies on a map, and the vessels below would venture in and retrieve them.
CCGSV W.G. George was able to recover four bodies with great difficulty, her decks becoming oil soaked and her crew not able to operate safely on the pitching and rolling vessel. She remained on standby as the HMCS Montreal ventured into the slick, recovering another three. All the bodies were lightly clothed, some without shoes. The search continued for people in the water, but after 8pm was called off. The final count was four survivors, 15 bodies recovered, and six unaccounted for.
The bow of the Flare stayed adrift for four days, monitored by the M/V Atlantic Maple. Sometime on January 20th, they reported that the hull up-ended and sank off Cape Breton.
The Flare broke up and sank in Canadian waters, giving Transport Canada the authority to complete an investigation into the tragedy. The final report was damning. Under the Standards of Training, Certification and Watch-keeping in Seafarers (1995), the onboard language of communication should have been English, using the existing IMO Standard Marine Communication vocabulary. Although many crew members were proficient enough in English to not require a translator, it was not the case with all of them. As the survivor from Yugoslavia reported, safety drills were conducted in English but his grasp of the language wasn’t strong enough to follow along; he had to rely on the chief engineer’s translations.
Further, it came to light that the Flare had already flagged as being in poor condition. Pilots from the Laurentian Pilotage Authority commented that while the navigation equipment and actual steering of the vessel was satisfactory, the overall housekeeping of her was not. The survivors also stated that small holes of corrosion had formed on the upper decks, and in some places the water from the ballast tanks could be seen sloshing up onto the deck.
When it came to the separation of the vessel and her eventual sinking, her poor housekeeping came into play. The relocation of ballast in order to complete repairs left the area of the ship just forward of the superstructure particularly vulnerable to vibration. Micro fissures formed along the sides and deck, which eventually cracked under the ruthless pounding of the waves. The final straw was when she encountered a rouge wave - the existence of which was confirmed by another commercial vessel in the area. That was what caused the final bang, shudder, and separation of the ship.
As a result of the investigation’s findings, a warning was issued to all states that had similar style vessels operating under their flags. It was determined that these vessels were at risk of a similar catastrophic failure, and the necessary authorities were urged to inspect them. Later that year, Transport Canada Marine Safety detained two vessels in Canadian waters that were on the warning list. One had structural defects similar to the Flare, while the other had defective navigation equipment, life-saving equipment, and tank remote shut offs. Both were held until necessary repairs were made.
Finally, the “Code of Practice for the Safe Loading and Unloading of Bulk Carriers” was developed by the International Maritime Organization. The purpose of this document was to create consistency in loading practices, and encourage overall safety aboard bulk carriers. More frequent inspections, stricter regulations, and improved training curricula were also introduced.
The hardest thing for me when it comes to the Flare is that it could have been avoided. In 2000, a $7.5 million lawsuit was brought against the operating company in the Federal Court of Canada. Survivors and families of the victims joined together to seek compensation, arguing that the owners willingly ignored rules that could have made the vessel seaworthy. The Transport Canada investigation supports this, acknowledging that the owners should have put the Flare in for repair before she had left Rotterdam, since the issues were already well known. Unfortunately, as is usually the case with many of these stories I write, a catastrophe had to occur before any change was brought forward. Those men perished in the North Atlantic because someone miles away was worried about their bottom dollar.
We can only hope that something like the Flare never happens again.