A cargo ship ran aground on the Co Antrim coast after the watchkeeper fell asleep in his seat, an accident investigation report revealed today.
There was no dedicated lookout on duty either as the vessel loaded with 2,360 tonnes of scrap metal sailed on for over three hours with nobody on board awake before ending up on a gently sloping beach three miles north of Larne.
Officials of the Marine Accident Investigation Branch have already called on the organisation responsible for international shipping standards to take action to deal with unacceptable levels of fatigue involving crews working long hours.
And following a probe into this incident in the North Channel of the Irish Sea last June, a report warned: "It can only be a matter of time before these 'unguided missiles' cause a catastrophic accident."
The Antari was on its way from Corpach, Scotland to Ghent, Belgium when the chief officer fell asleep shortly after taking over the watch at midnight on June 28 as the ship passed the peninsula of Kintyre. He had been working a six hours on, six hours off watchkeeping regime with the master.
There was no lookout on the bridge throughout the night and the watch alarm had not been switched on - safety requirements which should have been routinely applied. It was a moonless night and the sea was calm with a slightly westerly swell.
The officer fell asleep in his chair on the starboard side of the wheelhouse, in front of one of the radar sets, and was still asleep over three hours later when the ship grounded at 0321 hours on the beach close to the road at St. Drumnagreagh Port between Larne and Glenarm. Coastguards in Belfast were alerted by a passing motorist.
It was not until 0612 hours that the 2,466 tonne ship, almost 90 metres in length, managed to be refloated. Over 70% of the bottom of the hull was damaged and repairs involved 25 tonnes of new steelwork.
The unnamed master and the sleeping chief officer both held Russian certificates of competency. With five other members of crew on board at the time, both worked as watchkeepers, but according to records on some days during May and June last year they were not achieving the hours of rest necessary to meet the proper requirements.
Hours of work and rest records were found to be inaccurate, and the report also disclosed that it was an hour before the master informed the coastguards that the ship was in trouble. By that stage the coastguards had already been alerted.
The watch alarm had been switched off to avoid disturbing off-duty watchkeepers.
The report said fatigue of bridge watchkeepers and lack of dedicated lookouts had long been identified as critical safety issues, particularly in vessels trading in near-coastal waters.
But so far the UK had been unable to garner sufficient international support to introduce more robust standards, even though the Marine Accident Investigation Branch in 2004 called for changes to end the practice of long working weeks involving an incredible 91 hours and which continued for many months without leave or even days off.
The Department for Transport and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency have now been recommended to press for an urgent review and in the meantime introduce tough new measures to address watchkeeping fatigue in UK waters and ensure dedicated lookouts were always posted at night
A statement said: "From the number of accidents that have occurred from lone officers falling asleep on watch at night, it is possible to extrapolate that there are very many other unreported occasions that have not resulted in accident, of ships travelling in UK waters with only one awake onboard. It can only be a matter of time before these "unguided missiles" cause a catastrophic accident."