NTSB asks academies to teach lessons of grounding involving new third mate

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has urged the nation’s maritime academies to teach cadets the lessons of the 2007 grounding of the cruise ship Empress of the North.

In February 2009, the NTSB issued a safety recommendation to six maritime academies and the Passenger Vessel Association. The statement addresses “the need for maritime academy cadets to understand their responsibilities as licensed officers when they assume their first navigation watch as professional mariners.”

On May 14, 2007, the 360-foot Empress of the North, operated by Majestic America Line, grounded in southeastern Alaska. A newly licensed and recently hired officer assigned on watch was unfamiliar with the route, the vessel’s handling characteristics and the equipment on the bridge.

“Teach your students the circumstances of this accident, including their responsibility as newly licensed officers to prepare themselves for assigned duties and to express their concerns if placed in situations for which they are unprepared,” the NTSB recommends.

Empress of the North grounded on Hanus Reef, a charted rock at the intersection to the Lynn Canal and Icy Strait about 20 miles southwest of Juneau. There were no injuries or pollution associated with the accident. The vessel sustained damages of $4.8 million.

The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the grounding was the failure of the officer of the watch and the helmsman to navigate a turn. The investigative report highlights the master’s decision to assign the watch to an inexperienced officer.

A newly licensed junior third mate was standing his very first navigation watch, the midwatch, when the grounding occurred. A helmsman was also on watch with the junior officer. The junior third mate had joined the company May 12 after graduating from the California Maritime Academy three weeks earlier. He had been assigned the watch by the master to replace the second mate who had taken ill.

The NTSB concluded the accident was not the result of deficiencies in the junior third mate’s training. Still, the agency believes that much can be learned by studying the accident.

Capt. James J. Buckley, an educator at the California Maritime Academy, agrees and stresses the importance of “imbedding responsibility in cadets,” he said. “It goes beyond simply teaching the students how to operate equipment.”

Buckley said that in the academy’s bridge team management course, cadets are routinely placed in situations where they are given tasks beyond their skill level to see how they react to solve the problem.

Addressing the Passenger Vessel Association, the NTSB recommended: “Through your website, publications and conferences, inform your members about the circumstances of this accident, including the need for masters to verify that officers of the navigation watch are familiar with a vessel’s route, handling characteristics, and bridge equipment.”

By Professional Mariner Staff