Friday, September 30, 2011

What really grinds my gears

Some of you might remember the news last year about the sudden sinking of the Sailing School Vessel (SSV) Concordia off the coast of Brazil.  All 64 people onboard survived after an annoying stint in the ship's liferafts.  The Canadian Transportation Safety Board released its report yesterday, blaming human error due to insufficient training standards.  The investigation found that the officer on watch had several opportunities to avoid the capsizing, including tracking the very squall that did them in visually and on radar.  The master of the ship was below sleeping, but had fully identified the threat of increasingly inclement weather.

Now, a sail training professional I am not, but a maritime professional I am.  I hold a US merchant mariner's license (chief mate unlimited tonnage) and have been a commissioned Naval Officer for 5 years (qualified OOD in two weeks and SWO in 5 months, for those who understand what that entails).  I've sailed aboard a half dozen tall ships, volunteering my time as a deckhand.  But all of that aside, this is relatively simple common sense stuff.  After all, as one of my early mentors pointed out, there is nothing in seafaring that is overly complicated, it's putting those simple things together and making good and timely decisions that makes or breaks your value.  In the simplest of terms, this has EPIC FAIL written all over it, and there is more than one person who ought to have their knickers hoisted for this.
Before reading further, go read the report.  Take your time and digest it thoroughly.

First, this is a perfect example of a failure in operational risk management. The master stands a watch? sure, okay, fine.  But that doesn't absolve him from his total and complete responsibility for the safety of the ship = always.  If he knew that squalls were imminent, shouldn't he at least remain topside to ensure his instructions are carried out? or maybe order that he be called up when they're detected?  After Exxon Valdez and innumerable other case studies, don't you think that captains would have learned that the one critical evolution they decide not to pay attention to is the one that is going to pose the problem?  And while I'm not saying that masters shouldn't trust their mates - but in the Navy there is a saying - trust, but verify.  A little of that might have gone a long way in this situation.

The other question that I've had, and continually since I read it, is that on a sailing school ship, why're you using an Iron Mike (auto pilot)?  Sounds like laziness.  The principles of good watch standing and seamanship begin with such seemingly mundane functions as keeping a course.  Walk away from that wheel and there are immediate consequences.  The same holds true elsewhere.  And on a sail training ship - why something like an auto pilot would ever be substituted - especially when foul weather that could require you to maneuver quickly.  Add to that the problem that the mate clearly didn't seem to grasp how to use it to change course quickly, and you've got more problems.

Another point - and this extends to other ships I've sailed aboard as well - did you ever drill your crew in what to do in a squall?  Strike sails often?  I've never seen a ship do this.  You cannot expect what you do not inspect.  More trust, but verify, really - simple.

The bottom line is this - basic watchstanding and accountability dictate that you know how to use your equipment.  Don't know?  well FIND OUT.  Challenge your subordinates to prove that they know it.  This goes waaaaaay beyond the issue of understanding stability, down to factors that are much more basic.  And - this is for you TSB Canada - if you do not hold individual mariners accountable for their own personal failings then you're risking pushing the ill effects of their stupidity and negligence on everybody else.  This was not a freak accident, this was preventable.  You're partially right, the training standards may be lax, but no amount of regulation or standards of training will fix this kind of negligence.  As Ron White likes to say, you can't fix stupid.  The captain and mate on watch ought to lose their licenses, without question.

I'm done ranting, except to say that with incidents like this, I understand perfectly why influencers think tall ships are such a hazard.


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