Never Mind Power Loss – Why Did The Ship That Hit The Key Bridge Lose Steering?

In the wake of the tragic events in Baltimore, it has been widely reported that the M/V Dali, the ship that hit the Francis Scott key Bridge on March 26, 2024, had a complete power loss approximately three minutes before hitting the bridge’s pylon.  Many are naturally asking what caused the ship to lose power, which is an important question.  But a sudden loss of power should not lead to this type of catastrophe with a well-equipped and fully manned ship with a well-trained crew.  M/V Dali maintained propulsion and had emergency power, which should have given the crew options to steer the vessel safely under the bridge.


So, the real question is: why did the ship lose steerage?


Container ships such as the M/V Dali are sophisticated vessels engineered to withstand system failures.  Power outages on ships are common.  Ships of this type generate their own power and the electricity is run through a complex electrical system.  Unlike electrical systems on shore that use Earthed Neutral systems for electrical grounding, ships use Insulated Neutral distribution systems because the metal hull cannot be used for grounding.  The systems are also exposed to constant movement and a saltwater environment that is hard on any mechanical or electrical system.  Over the years, power outages will occur.


Ships are, therefore, designed with redundant features to ensure safe operation during power losses.  All ships have emergency generators that power essential elements of the vessel.  According to reports, the M/V Dali’s emergency generators were operational and kicked on automatically after the ship lost power.   Emergency generators should power the steerage system so the crew can continue to control the vessel from the pilot house, but it is clear from the reports of the pilot frantically giving orders that the crew was unable to steer the ship from the pilot house.


There is a redundancy system for this type of failure, too.  It is called the Emergency Steering System (ESS).  The ESS, known on U.S. Navy vessels as After Steering or Aft Steering, is found in the aft of the vessel where the electromechanical steering gear is located.  ESS allows a sailor to move the rudder at the source.  The compartment is fitted with the ship’s internal radio telephone and a compass repeater so the helmsman can communicate with the bridge to receive orders and see the ship’s heading.   Typically, two crew members operate the ESS: one to operate the helm (or rudder input controls) and one to communicate with the bridge.


Even with a power outage, the ESS is designed to remain operational.  The international maritime treaty International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea, known by the anacronym SOLAS, requires emergency generators to power ESS.  Therefore, even if the M/V Dali suffered a complete loss of ship’s power and a loss of steering control from the bridge, the vessel should be able to be steered.


So, why was it not?


It is possible that the steerage system also failed, but a three-level systems failure is nearly unimaginable for a modern containership getting underway from a sheltered harbor in calm seas.  It is also possible that the crew was not trained to use ESS in an emergency.  Certainly, ESS is a rarely used system that may not garner the attention that other ship’s systems receive.  Still, it is unlikely that professional sailors would not know how to use the ESS, which is a relatively simple system to operate.


Most likely, there was not a crew member in close enough proximity to the ESS to get it operational in the three minutes between the ship’s power loss and its collision with the bridge.  Modern container ships are sufficiently automated that a near-skeleton crew can operate them without issue in most circumstances.  This means, however, that there can be a shortage of crew members to man all emergency stations.  This would not be an issue for M/V Dali if it lost power and steerage at sea, where a five-to-ten-minute delay would not endanger the vessel and even if there were other vessels in the area they would have time and space to maneuver out of the way.


In a crowded harbor approaching a bridge, however, every second counts.


If ESS was not manned and a crew member had to travel from the engine room to the ESS, there would not be time to turn on the system, receive input from the bridge, and move the rudder in enough time to turn the massive vessel.


This is speculation, of course.  Multiple investigations will show in a second-by-second timeline what happened during those fateful three minutes.   It is a stark reminder, however, how important it is for all vessels to have proper maintenance, adequate and redundant emergency systems, and perhaps most importantly a well-trained and adequate crew who can use those emergency systems to operate the ship to safety.  As this tragedy reminds us, it is not just the ship’s crew who face danger when the vessel endures operational failure.


Bowen Painter represents victims of maritime injuries, the families of those lost in maritime accidents, and those whose livelihood is impacted by maritime accidents.