The master of a ferry currently being used for lifeline islandservices fell asleep a matter of seconds before it crashed causing injuries to 41 passengers and crew, an investigation has found.

The Marine Accident Investigation Branch  (MAIB) has further said that MV Alfred, run by Pentland Ferries which is currently being used as a  £1m-a-month emergency ferry routinely passed too close to land before the crash in July, 2022

After the accident it emerged that six of the passenger who were injured when the Pentland Ferries ferry ran aground on an uninhabited island off the north coast of Scotland were seeking compensation.

After an investigation, the MAIB said that master of the vessel had "almost certainly" fallen asleep 70 seconds before the accident allowing the ferry to swing towards land.

MV Alfred, once described as the most environmentally friendly ferry in Scotland, had 84 passengers and 13 crew on board when it partially ran aground on the Isle of Swona, the more northerly of two islands in the Pentland Firth between the Orkney Islands and Caithness on the Scottish mainland.

RNLI lifeboats were called to evacuate the Vietnam-built £14m catamaran – with one person being rushed to hospital with a fractured shoulder.

The Herald: MV Alfred

Dozens were feared to have suffered mental trauma and physical injuries including fractures, sprains and soft tissue damage.

The ferry has since been brought in by Transport Scotland as an 'emergency vessel from April, 2023 with Pentland Ferries operating the services on behalf of the state-owned ferry company CalMac.

READ MORE: Six passengers sue over MV Alfred ferry crash

All crew have been provided by Pentland Ferries who are responsible for delivery of service and the operational, technical and safety management of the vessel, including maintenance, repair, overhaul and provision of crew throughout the charter period. It comes amidst widespread disruption to services because of issues with vessels discovered during the annual overhaul process.

The investigation into the crash found that Alfred grounded because the master experienced a "temporary loss of awareness" while helming the ship very close to shore.

When the master became aware of the vessel’s predicament, he was unable to prevent the vessel striking the rocks.

The MAIB said the master's sleep went unnoticed, and he was neither awoken nor alerted because there was no bridge lookout and the BNWAS (Bridge Navigational Watch Alarm System) was switched off.

The investigators also found that despite the vessel being aground for over an hour neither the crew nor the Pentland Ferries ERT (emergency response team) sought to obtain a nominal list of people on board, their injuries, or whether they had been evacuated to the lifeboat.

And the MAIB said the number and severity of injuries suffered by Alfred’s passengers and crew was almost certainly increased because they were not warned to brace for impact before the vessel grounded at a speed.

The impact of the grounding caused part of the galley range, catering equipment and other heavy items to break free of their mountings, risking injury to those on board.

The Herald:

Almost all the vehicles on board Alfred were probably damaged by the impact of the grounding because they had not been secured in accordance with the vessel’s cargo securing manual.

In the wake of the crash the Maritime and Coastguard Agency,  the publicly funded official UK Government agency responsible for safety at sea,  issued a "major non-conformity because the Pentland Ferries safety management procedures for bridge manning and passage planning were not being followed.

Pentland Ferries had amended procedures to improve passage planning procedures, bridge manning and the use of the Bridge Navigational Watch Alarm System.

The MAIB said it had also improved the quality and detail of emergency drills and exercises and the emergency response check-off cards; vehicle deck securing; the securing of interior heavy objects and the identification of passenger muster points.

The investigators said it had recommended that Pentland Ferries reviews its emergency response team procedures to ensure that it captures passenger details and injuries post-accident.

Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents, Andrew Moll OBE, said: "Lots of safety action has been taken as a result of this accident and I am encouraged by the actions taken by Pentland Ferries to address the issues raised in this report. However, this accident offers a wider opportunity for lessons to be learned across the maritime industry.

"Alfred’s master routinely operated very close to the coast leaving little margin for error when they found themselves in an unsafe situation. Regardless of the type of vessel you are operating, it is critical that a safe passage plan is made and that it is followed. Always allow sufficient sea room to enable action to be taken in good time if things are not going to plan.

" On the afternoon of 5 July 2022, the master almost certainly fell asleep and allowed the ferry to swing towards land. Crew should always be sufficiently well rested when coming on duty.

"Finally, this case highlights the importance of management assuring themselves that plans and procedures they have put in place are actually being followed. If you have management oversight of a vessel or maritime operation, ask yourself; do I know that our crews and front-line staff are following our procedures, and are our plans fit for purpose in a real-life emergency situation?"

Pentland Ferries said it welcomed the investigation report and was continuing to digest its contents.

Managing director, Helen Inkster, said:  “We stand by the premise of the report, which is not to assign blame or liability, but rather to ensure future accidents across the marine industry are prevented. 

“While we will never be complacent, we are satisfied that all the actions that could be taken by Pentland Ferries to ensure passenger safety have already been taken.  We will always ensure that our vessels have detailed procedural plans, the right people, and rigorous training regimes in place.”

A Transport Scotland spokesman said: “CalMac engaged with Pentland Ferries to ensure all necessary approvals and certification were in place prior to entering into the charter period. We note that the report highlights the actions taken by Pentland Ferries to address the issues in the report.” 

They said the  grounding happened prior to CalMac’s entry into charter.

Prior to entering charter, CalMac held a meeting with Pentland Ferries (PF) to understand its perspective and the steps it was taking to prevent recurrence.

Transport Scotland said that CalMac was content that appropriate steps were being taken.

It said that Pentland Ferries sought the services of an independent third-party which reviewed its procedures and identified a series of actions.