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Failed Relay Causes $6M in Damages

A 623-foot-long bulk carrier lost steering while headed straight into an office barge because of a single component.

On July 12, 2021 at about 3:23 a.m., the Jalma Topic, a bulk carrier with 20 people aboard was moving up the Lower Mississippi River, headed to a grain terminal near New Orleans. The vessel suddenly lost the ability to steer and crashed into a stationary barge that was being used for office space. No injuries were reported in the accident, but it caused more than $6 million in damages.

The Jalma Topic was headed upriver at about 9.1 knots (about 10.5 mph) when the pilot noticed that the rudder was stuck at 10 degrees port and not responding. He did what he could to warn the three people aboard the office barge and slow down the vessel, but he was unable to prevent the crash. 

A pair of dispatchers, one line handler and one for tugs, and a cleaner were aboard the barge at the time. The Jalma Topic's pilot previously worked for the tug company and knew that people were working on the vessel, and not monitoring the necessary frequencies to hear the distress call. He called the New Orleans Vessel Traffic Center urging them to help get the workers out. 

One of the dispatchers was able to get up from his desk but only made it a few steps before the ship struck the barge. Still, no one was injured when the Jalma Topic hit the barge at going 6.2 knots (7.1 mph). 

The Jalma Topic's bow only sustained some $215,000 in damages, which was good news for the vessel valued at $14.7 million. The office barge saw the worst of the damage. The superstructure and hull were damaged. The electrical, plumbing and communications systems were severed. The HVAC and mooring systems and all gangways and catwalks were damaged or destroyed. After everything was assessed, the damage tally reached $6 million. 

The National Transportation Safety Board launched an investigation into the accident and traced the problem back to a failed solid-state relay on the operating steering control system servo control board. The component failure caused the steering loss.

In December 2014, YDK Technologies, formerly known as Yokogawa, the steering control system manufacturer, created a caution sticker as part of a notice to all vessels with PT500 autopilot systems. The sticker addressed what to do in the event of a failure like the one experienced on the Jalma Topic. However, the vessel’s operator said they were not notified of the 2014 notice and caution sticker until after the accident. 

​​The NTSB determined the accident's probable cause to be a loss of steering due to the failure of the electrical solid-state relay, but a contributing factor was the lack of specific procedures the crew could use during a steering control system failure.

The Liberian-flagged Jalma Topic is a 623-foot-long steel-hulled bulk carrier built in 2006, owned by Lotina Navigation Company, and operated by Marfin Management. The boat remains afloat, and is currently somewhere in the Celtic Sea.

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