Collision at sea

I have no knowledge of the specifics of this collision.  The following comments are just the observations and opinions of an ancient mariner.

We have had radar on commercial ships since the 40s and 50s.  Bridge to bridge VHF came into use in the 70s.  ARPA showed up in the 80s.  Now, we have AIS and DSC radios so we can talk to a specific vessel, instead of calling to a “vessel in position•”  And collisions still occur.

So, in spite of great advances in electronic devices on the bridge, and more STCW training requirements for watchstanders, collisions still occur.  The common factor in all of these accidents is people making bad decisions.  Not complying with Rules of the Road, not making a course alteration soon enough, not making the decision to maneuver because the give way vessel has not made an adequate course change, not maintaining a safe speed, trying to cut CPA margins too close, watch officers not clear on his/her authority to act if the master is not on the bridge, unwillingness to make a decision, and so forth.

When teaching ship handling on the simulator, I have often seen students looking at the ECDIS screen instead of looking out the windows when maneuvering in a close in situation.  The screen is replete with colors and arrows, but there is an immense amount of accurate, real time information to be gotten by a glance outside.  The aviation world calls this “getting your head out of the cockpit.”  Those guys do have some occasional good ideas, though I would never admit that to a pilot.

We need to take a hard look at problem of watchstanders getting overloaded with data and tasks.  All these blinking magic boxes seem to require that some attention be paid to them.  The GMDSS alarm goes off and you have to look at that, and the Navtex starts spewing paper.  It is very easy to get visually locked onto the boxes and not look out the bridge windows.  An inexperienced watchstander may deal with tasks in the order that they appear, not the order of their importance.  There is no higher priority than collision avoidance.  

Captain Carl Smith

Master, SSDV Ocean Courage and instructor at Mid-Atlantic Maritime Academy
By Professional Mariner Staff