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Avoiding wet damage by hold bilges on board container ship

Water entered into vessel cargo holds may cause wet damage to the cargo inside containers especially stowed on the bottom, unless the bilge water is drained in a proper and swift manner.

Regular sounding of bilge well or monitoring bilge alarm must be one of very important or rather basic routine jobs on board. However this job requires special attention on board. All bilge alarm need to be tested regularly.

Manholes checks.
Basis on past events and general industry shared experiences, leakages due to poor water tightens of the manholes of the various tanks (WB, Fuel, Diesel, Void spaces etc.) located inside the cargo holds is a major source of cargo damage and flooding in general.

As such, every time a manhole is opened for any reason and later restored in position (especially after DD) the water tightens is to be checked by filling/ pressurizing the relevant tank and visually inspecting the condition of the manhole. Obviously, gaskets that are not in good condition should be renewed and adequate spares need to be maintained onboard at all times. Closing / sealing of opened manholes should be executed under Ch. Officer’s personal supervision.

Hold bilge systems

Prior to loading a bulk or general cargo, crewmembers should always conduct inspection of the hold bilge systems in order to ensure that everything is in good working order.

Container ship loaded condition
Fig: Container ship loaded condition

Debris from most bulk and general cargoes often finds its way into the hold bilge areas and should be removed manually. After cleaning the bilge area, it is important that the bilge sounding pipes, bilge suctions and bilge non return valves are tested and verified as working correctly.

Sounding pipes often get blocked and become unusable as a result of cargo residues being left in the bilge well and entering the bottom of the sounding pipe, where over a period of time the cargo residue dries out and solidifies. This problem can be prevented if the sounding pipes are hosed out with water from deck level after the hold has been washed and bilges have been cleaned. Alternatively an airline can be used to clear out blocked sounding pipes.

Broken sounding rods left in the sounding pipe are also a problem; therefore it is essential that they be removed on time. Sounding caps left off or not fully secured during loading or discharging operations increase the risk of cargo entering the sounding pipe and causing a blockage. Striking plates for the sounding pipes are situated in the hold bilge well and should be checked for wastage when the bilges have been cleaned.

Masters responsibility - Cargo Hold Bilges(C/H Bilges)

The Master is responsible for ensuring that all cargo hold bilges are in operating condition and for monitoring the daily soundings. It must also be ensured that at all times bilge wells, including strainers, are clean. The Chief Officer is responsible for the proper maintenance and operation of cargo hold bilges and for monitoring the daily soundings.

The Officer of the Watch at Sea and in Port is responsible for monitoring the Cargo Hold Bilge Alarm Systems, alerting the Master and Ch. Officer when an alarm is activated and keeping the relevant records. He is also responsible to be fully aware for the operational condition of vessel’s C/H Bilge Alarm System and for ensuring, in case of malfunction of the main system, that all alternate methods have been utilized for him to be alerted in case of flooding. Anything abnormal must be immediately reported to the Master. The Officer of the Watch is entitled to use any additional equipment & system and/or to request additional manpower in order to perform his duties efficiently.

C/H bilge soundings and record keeping

Deck ratings must carry out daily soundings of all cargo hold bilges and report accordingly to the Chief Officer. The C/H bilges must also be subject to visual inspection (at sea and in port). The readings should be recorded in the “C/H Bilge Soundings Log” without delay. The C/H Bilge Soundings Log should be a permanently binded / hard cover notebook with serialized pages. i.e. No electronic files and no loose page folders are accepted for record keeping. The daily records (usually in the forms of notes) from the Bosun will be transferred to this log by the C/O without delay and the same notes (Bosun notes) will be maintained for three months by the C/O readily available for inspection on request.

The C/H Bilge Soundings Log should be retained in the Cargo Office when at port and in the bridge when the vessel is underway, enabling the Officer of the Watch and the Master to have immediate access to the latest readings if needed.

Furthermore, the daily soundings will be followed by daily visual inspections as well. Under no circumstances the vessel is to consider the daily checks are completed unless the visual inspection is done.

Master’s Confirmation: In order to ensure these records are properly completed and kept, the Master is to countersign the log at the end of each month by stating “Having reviewed the records of this log, I verify that they are truthful, accurate and correct” Name–Rank–Date and Signature.

Record Keeping Interference. These records in general will not be affected by any other document kept already as a requirement of the VMSV.Group Management System. The Bridge Log Book (SAF20) for example, already contains a number of fields for recording the same data. The vessel is to maintain both records.

Function Tests of C/H Bilge Alarm System

The cargo hold bilge alarm system, being a critical sub system, is to be tested exercising utmost care on a weekly basis by manual activation of the high-level sensors and latest every 2nd week by filling all cargo hold bilge wells via the sounding pipes (or other equivalent access if more suitable) with sea water and awaiting the actual activation of the sensor and the subsequent alarm.

The activation of the sensors by hand is only an indicative method of testing, as it has proved in many cases that even though the system was activated by hand, failed to respond during the simulation of actual conditions (by filling the bilge wells with water). In this regard, we have to highlight the importance of the bi-weekly testing of the system by filling with water the bilge wells via the sounding pipes. The test should be included in the vessel’s PMS. Cargo Hold bilge alarms must be included in the list of equipment identified as critical.


The general condition and the maintenance of the cargo hold bilges should be of the highest quality, maintain at the operational level as described in the relevant drawings/manuals. If any of the above requirements is not met, the Technical Managers must be notified at the soonest opportunity and the vessel is to arrange immediate repairs and condition upgrade.

Actions after a C/H bilge alarm is activated.

The first thing that the Officer of the Watch should do (at port or at sea) after a C/H bilge alarm is activated is to notify the Master and the C/O at any time of the day or night. Once this done the same is to be recorded to the Deck Log Book and Cargo Holds Bilge Alarm Monitoring with a permanent pen.

You are reminded that in all locations where a C/H Bilge Alarm Panel is fitted, a laminated poster with the below wording in red / bold capital letters should be exhibited next to the Panel: “ON EACH OCCASION OF C/H BILGE ALARM ACTIVATION THE MASTER AND THE CH. OFFICER SHOULD BE ALERTED WITHOUT DELAY AT ANY TIME, DAY OR NIGHT”

A visual inspection of the relevant Cargo Hold is to be completed immediately to accurately identify the actual conditions for the activation of the bilge alarm.

Only after the visual inspection is completed and only after the crew is absolutely certain that the alarm was activated by clean water we can start pumping out water via the OB, this is to rule out that the alarm was not activated by leaking fuels/lubs/hydraulic oil/dangerous cargo or any other pollutant. The same is to be recorded in the Deck Log Book and with a permanent pen. When possible the above discharge is to be monitored by someone from the main deck, in order to ensure that no oily traces appear near the OB discharge. In general, it is recommended to not discharge bilges OB when at port.

If the bilge wells are not accessible and/or the crew cannot decisively determine if the water is clean or contains any pollutants, the bilges content is to be transferred to the Bilge Holding Tank. The same is to be recorded in the Deck Log Book, and the ORB (using the proper entry code as per IMO MEPC 736 Rev.2) with a permanent pen. Pumping / handling of cargo hold bilge water should not be delegated to ratings.

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