Navigating a Curious Course

Jan 25, 2012, 10:44AM EST
Navigating a Curious Course
Strange course lines – and the reasons for charting them – are not the exclusive domain of cruise liners. The latest high-profile disaster therefore signals the beginning of a new era in shore-based oversight of mariners. And, that’s not speculation.

Last week, I insisted that the story line for the tragic Costa Concordia grounding would change numerous times before the matter was ultimately adjudicated. That said and still being true, I don’t think anyone should be surprised at the newest speculation that the ship’s operators were aware of the practice of bringing the vessel close to shore for so-called “salutes.” Eventually, this part of the story may be central to the Master’s defense of what actually happened. The development sets up the inevitable “He said, she said” difference(s) in stories.

 

  • Curious Course Lines

 

When it is all said and done, it will likely come down (as most maritime disagreements do) to who has the better documentation. The practice of cruise ships passing near to shore to perform what is now being coined "tourist navigation" apparently isn’t unheard of, but it is news to me. I’ve only been on one cruise, and that trip involved a much smaller platform – 225’  LOA and a total of 53 passengers and naturalists – around the Galapagos Islands. During the pleasant week that I spent on that vessel, I can assure you that the ship’s command didn’t perform anything even remotely similar to “tourist navigation” and I’m guessing that had they done so, they’d probably be fired. They frown on that kind of thing in Ecuador, apparently.

 

On the other hand, ships do stray closer to land than they are supposed to; rarely is there a good reason for it. I’m guessing many deck officers have seen it happen and done it themselves. Fortunately, you don’t very often hear of it causing groundings, followed by the capsizing of the ship and multiple deaths as a direct result.

 

In the mid 1980’s, I was shipping out on a coastwise chemical tanker, running out of Sabine Pass, Texas and up to various discharge ports on the East Coast and on both sides of Florida. “Tourist Navigation” wasn’t part of our protocol. Indeed, most folks weren’t usually thrilled to see our rusty, 40-year old hull lurching around the coast, in and out of port. That’s not to say we didn’t venture too close to land – we did. Predictably, it was for all the wrong reasons.

 

Coming around the Florida Keys northbound, the goal was always to find the sweet spot in the Gulf Stream, where sometimes we could achieve 18 or 19 knots for a few hours, far better than our usual, plodding speed of 14 or 15 knots. Back then, nobody was too worried about stack emissions (aside from the guy in Valdez, AK with the binoculars waiting for the engineers on visiting ships to make a smoky mistake while changing tips). You went as fast as you could for as long as you could – time was money and the operator (a multi-national oil & refining company) was always pushing us to find ways to save time: at sea, in port and everywhere else.

 

Coming back around in ballast, we clung to the coast, inside the Gulf Stream and did the best we could. On one evening, my first transiting the Keys with a particular Master, I arrived on the bridge to relieve the watch at about 2345 hours. After examining the chart, I wandered into the darkened wheelhouse to find the mate on watch. Looking out the starboard bridge wing, I did a momentary double take at what I saw. We were REALLY close to the lighthouse just coming abeam and when the light came around, it could have been noon out there, it was so bright. I greeted him by saying, “Geez, are we really one half mile off that thing?” He shook his head ‘No’ and beckoned me to come into the chartroom.

 

Away from the lookout, he told me quietly, “Old man says to run ‘here’ (jabbing a finger on the course line) and I always show my fix right on the money. We’re really about 0.5 miles to the outside of it.” Never having sailed with this particular Captain before, I asked him, “Does he ever check it? Is this standard practice?” He replied evenly, “No, and yes, he insists we run as close as possible to save time.” I digested that for a few seconds and then told him that I wasn’t comfortable running even a mile off the Keys. As he departed down the stairs, he threw over his shoulder, “Nobody is – stay as far out as you want. Just mark the chart to indicate that you are complying with the night orders and his course line.” Great; just great, I thought.

 

  • Fast Forward to 2012

 

In the mid-1980’s, there was no AIS to track our course from afar. Nowadays, and in the distant wake of several high-profile groundings that damaged some sensitive reefs in and around those same Keys, nobody runs that close. If you did, you’d be risking a significant fine, or worse. Big brother is watching, to be sure. This sort of thing still happens more often that you would probably want to know. And, as we found out recently, it happens for all sorts of goofy reasons.

 

In the case of the Costa Concordia, it has been reported that this wasn’t the first time that this sort of close pass to shore had occurred. And if so, the AIS tracks should have been available to the vessel’s operators to document that event. The lingering question, therefore, is who (if anyone) knew about it, and if they did, why wasn’t something done to stop it, if it wasn’t official policy. Perhaps there is a simple explanation for all of this, but there is also no denying that the toothpaste is out of the tube now. It is a fair question to ask and one that should be answered.

 

  • Big Brother Arrives

 

I recently toured the offices of a large flag state. This eventually took me by a really big, high-resolution backlit display monitor, on which was a depiction of the globe. The screen had to be 50” or more. On it was superimposed the positions of virtually every one of their flag state ships, tracked by LRIT signatures, I think. It is an impressive thing to see. And, the software can be programmed to set off alarms if a vessel, for example, strays into an area where it is not supposed to be or perhaps, a dangerous one – like a known piracy region. Arguably, there isn’t any reason why every operator can’t do the same thing; tracking anomalies via ‘set’ parameters that alert operations staff as to potential issues. Maybe that’s the new regulatory “fallout” from this casualty – commercial VTS from afar. Maybe not.

 

The path of the cruise ship that led to this disaster was the wrong one to take. That much we know. Just who, if anyone, ultimately authorized this sort of behavior is still very much in question. So is the issue of how much leeway is given to ship’s officers, at this company and every other one that operates so much as a twenty-foot launch with an outboard anywhere else in the world. The event also closes in quickly on the issue of how closely maritime professionals will be monitored in the future. Are we headed to a world when the wheelhouse and engine room are monitored externally via video feed and AIS signatures on a 24/7 basis? Is that a good thing?

 

Today’s mariners will chafe at any additional oversight. In reality, this mode of transportation is far behind most others. Truckers know that they better stop and pull off at the appointed time lest they be seen on GPS driving too many hours in a given day, too fast, or deviating from their intended routes. Airline pilots now know that it just isn’t a good idea to have personal, private or political conversations that might be picked up by the voice recorders. And today’s oil and commodity traders routinely tape every single conversation they have with their opposite numbers. There is a perfectly good reason for all of it.

 

Looking back, I wonder if the 1980’s-era Master was subtly pushed too far by his oil company superiors. Or, was he acting on his own? What about the Captain of the Costa Concordia? Leave aside – for a moment – whatever you might think of his actions occurring after the grounding. Behavior can and often is driven by the culture at the highest levels of the workplace. Did that happen off the coast of Italy? I don’t know and neither does anyone else, just yet.

 

Nobody likes to be watched. I certainly wouldn’t. And yet, it is already here. Pre-employment skills vettings are now commonplace in the marine industry, taking place in realistic simulator environments everywhere. The technology exists to do this in a hundred other ways, as well. Regardless of how the investigation of the Costa Concordia shakes out, that technology is probably coming soon to a ship near you. – MarPro. 

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Joseph Keefe is the lead commentator of MaritimeProfessional.com. Additionally, he is Editor of both Maritime Professional and MarineNews print magazines. He can be reached at jkeefe@maritimeprofessional.com or at Keefe@marinelink.com. MaritimeProfessional.com is the largest business networking site devoted to the marine industry. Each day thousands of industry professionals around the world log on to network, connect, and communicate.

 
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