Grounding of NOAA vessel result of operator error

The April grounding of the research vessel Ronald H. Brown on Canada’s Inside Passage was the result of a maneuvering error on the part of the vessel’s officer of the deck (OOD), according to an internal report by NOAA officials.

The 274-foot Ronald H. Brown grounded off Hewitt Island at 0316 on April 23, 2000 (see PM Issue No. 50). The vessel suffered damage to the stem and forefoot plating and had the port bilge keel torn apart.

“We had an extremely talented bunch of people on the bridge that night,” said Adm. Nicholas Prahl, director of NOAA’s Marine Operations Center in Norfolk, Va. “This was definitely a case of human error, though.”

The vessel was reportedly being maneuvered through a tight turn in the vicinity of Hiekish Narrows in British Columbia when the OOD apparently misjudged the vessel’s handling characteristics and allowed the vessel to slide aground. Ronald H. Brown is equipped with two z-drive units aft, and standard practice during maneuvers, according to Prahl, is to use one unit to steer and leave the other set amidships.

“They had a strong following current and basically the vessel didn’t turn fast enough,” Prahl said. “The master intervened, but it was too late, about 30 to 45 second too late.”

An investigation determined that the OOD had significant experience navigating the Inside Passage. But he apparently did not have extensive experience handling a z-drive vessel, according to the investigation. “This was an experienced mariner and NOAA has been navigating ships through the Inside Passage for the last 50 to 60 years without incident. The bottom line is, no matter how good you think you are if you turn attention away for even 15 seconds you can get into trouble,” Prahl added.

In its conclusion, the NOAA report laid final blame on the vessel’s master: “[E]ach command is the final authority to certify watchstanders for his/her ship and for the geographic area and circumstances in which they are operating. Complex ships with unusual handling characteristics (such as BROWN), and unfamiliar, restricted waters (such as the Inside Passage), clearly require special consideration of watchstander qualifications and experience. In hindsight, it is not clear that any one of us would have done anything differently in the case of BROWN. The Marine Operations Center, the Pacific Pilotage Authority of Canada, and the Commanding Officer, NOAA ship RONALD H. BROWN, all felt confident that the ship was safely manned for the intended transit. Nevertheless, a grounding event did occur, and this event was largely based on human error.”

The report recommended that each C.O. carefully review the facts of the case to ensure that the incident was not repeated.

The vessel is back in service, operating out of Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

By Professional Mariner Staff