Six weeks after Norway’s doomed frigate KNM Helge Ingstad collided with a tanker and sank, its commander Preben Ottesen has finally granted an interview. He told Oslo newspaper VG newspaper that he doesn’t feel he shirked his duty, nor does he feel any shame, only sadness over seeing his warship badly damaged, tipping over and mostly disappearing under water.
“When you’re standing on land and watch your own ship sink … it’s completely surreal,” Ottesen told VG. “It’s difficult to understand. To see the ship you love, just lying there and struggling, is the world’s saddest sight.”
The 49-year-old Ottesen is known as the frigate’s skipssjef in Norwegian (literally, ship’s chief), but formally as the frigate’s commander and captain. He said he still wasn’t sure the reality of the loss has fully registered with him. He’s been reporting for work now in his office at the Norwegian naval base Haakonsvern in Bergen. VG described him as both calm and resolute as he spoke, in line with expectations of a captain who was responsible for a vessel worth NOK 4.3 billion (nearly USD 500 million) of the Norwegian taxpayers’ money, along with the 137 people who were on board.
Asleep in his cabin
He told VG that he was sleeping when the frigate, sailing south at what’s been called a high speed of 17-18 knots in the busy Hjelte Fjord northwest of Bergen, collided with the fully laden tanker Sola TS in the early morning hours of November 8. The heavy tanker had just left the Sture oil terminal, escorted by a tug boat and with a pilot on board, bound for the UK. The collision woke Ottesen up with the proverbial bang.
His cabin was located high up on the frigate, just behind the bridge, and he was thrown out of his bed. He said he was initially “super confused” but realized something was very wrong. He admitted to a moment of fear, but then adrenalin took over. Years of training and being drilled on emergency routines clicked in, he told VG. He quickly dressed in his work uniform that portrays his military distinctions and the frigate’s own shield, and ran to the operations room.
Ottesen said he was briefly relieved when a radar screen showed the vessel was in the middle of the fjord, and thought his warship must have hit a container or something else that was floating in the water. It didn’t take long to realize the collision was far more serious. The first priority was to gain oversight and control over everyone on board, all of whom were later evacuated after it proved impossible to gain control over the vessel itself. The crew lost steering, water was pouring in and the vessel was drifting towards land.
He then headed for the bridge, but then lost contact with the operations room because of a power failure. After eventually grounding, with all the movement and noise that involved, there was little choice left. “We understood there wasn’t much more we could do for KNM Helge Ingstad,” Ottesen told VG. “We left the ship.” In line with tradition, he was the last to leave. There were no casualties and only a few crew members suffered minor injuries.
Won’t discuss the cause of the collision
It didn’t take long for speculation to start flying over how and why such a collision could have occurred, in calm seas and clear weather. Investigations were launched immediately and then came word that the frigate’s crew on the bridge had been warned it was on a collision course with the tanker. A few days later, VG obtained and published dramatic tapes of the radio communication between the tanker and maritime traffic officials when the frigate didn’t respond. Defense officials were charged with shielding the frigate’s crew, and being remarkably reluctant to discuss the cause of the collision or answer questions. No blame was assigned, nor was anyone facing punitive consequences, and that irked a long line of maritime experts who took to writing angry commentaries in newspapers and online.
Ottesen claims he still has no idea how such a serious collision and its aftermath could have occurred. Like all other top military officials from Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen (who has appeared preoccupied over who leaked the tapes to VG) to Defense Chief and Admiral Haakon Bruun Hanssen, the Helge Ingstad’s captain wouldn’t answer any questions about what caused it. They all defer to the ongoing investigations by local police and the state accident investigations board (Havarikommisjonen). The latter’s preliminary report has been harshly criticized for downplaying and even clouding the responsibility of the crew on the bridge of the frigate, and overplaying the role of the tanker. The navy’s own internal investigation of the collision is being kept secret, at least so far. VG reported that Ottesen’s refusal to discuss possible reasons for the collision “clearly” is based on orders from his superiors.
Ottesen went so far as to claim that those on board have spoken both with the police and the commission, but they allegedly haven’t spoken so much together about what they think caused the collision. That’s been a conscious decision, VG reported, to hinder anyone being influenced by what others think.
“There hasn’t been any need to talk about cause either, I feel,” Ottesen told VG. “We have talked more about our own impressions than about why this happened.”
Criticized for failing to show leadership
Both he and other naval officials have also been publicly and privately criticized, however, for staying mum and not admitting to any mistakes or assuming responsibility. They’re criticized for thus “failing to show leadership,” according to one retired naval officer. Instead there seems to have been a concerted effort to gloss over blame and stress the positive aspects of the collision’s aftermath; that no one was seriously injured or killed, and that the evacuation went well. Ottesen is the latest to claim that he’s actually “proud” of how well his crew responded to the collision, and he boasted of how well he thinks the Navy has offered support and follow-up.
Ottesen admitted only to being pre-occupied with “what if” types of questions. He won’t respond to criticism that the vessel was sailing much too fast, that a duty shift change just before the collision disrupted procedures, or that crew on the bridge simply weren’t paying attention to either marine radio traffic or their radar screens. They have told accident investigators they thought the lights of the oncoming tanker were actually lights of a stationary object at the oil terminal. Several maritime experts believe the frigate’s crew on the bridge had no idea where they were.
The Helge Ingstad’s captain, who had hosted the US admiral in charge of NATO’s huge Trident Juncture exercise on board the frigate just a week earlier, would only explain why he was sleeping when the collision occurred: Hjelte Fjord is familiar territory to all five of Norway’s frigates, which sail in or out of it when leaving or arriving at home port at Haakonsvern. Most all traffic runs north-south, with little cross-fjord traffic, and the fjord is viewed as a relatively simple area in which to maneuver. After being up on the bridge several times between Kristiansund and Hjelte Fjord, Ottesen felt that the final leg of the frigate’s voyage through the fjord in the middle of the night was a good opportunity for him to get some sleep. “I have to sleep now and then also,” he told VG. “After 12 years at sea I know this coast like the back of my hand, and exactly when I must be on the bridge and when I can rest.” He said he left the bridge around 2am. The collision occurred two hours later, just after 4am.
Asked whether he feels any shame over what happened, Ottesen said he does not feel he failed at his duty or was derelict in any way. “This is of course difficult for me, too, but I think I handled it well,” Ottesen told VG. “I don’t have any problems sleeping or talking about it,” he added, apart from all the “why” and “what if…” questions.
“I don’t feel any shame,” he said. “As the ship’s chief, I of course have the overall responsibility for the ship and its crew. It’s extremely sad that this happened. It’s an accident that should not happen, but I don’t feel any shame.”
See VG’s own cover here (external link, in Norwegian).