San Francisco pilot in Cosco Busan accident committed misconduct, oversight board rules

The ship pilot who guided Cosco Busan into a San Francisco-area bridge tower in 2007 committed misconduct, his pilot board has determined.

The pilot made navigation, speed, bridge-management and judgment errors that led to the accident and oil spill, according to an October 2008 report by the Board of Pilot Commissioners for the Bays of San Francisco, San Pablo and Suisun.

Dense fog was blanketing San Francisco Bay when the 901-foot containership departed Oakland on the morning of Nov. 7. Visibility was as low as 200 yards in the area of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

While other ships remained at dock, the pilot of Cosco Busan ordered his vessel underway — although he was already having problems understanding the electronic charts and Chinese-speaking officers, the report said.

The commissioners’ incident review committee said the pilot failed to take steps to determine visibility conditions for his intended track to sea. He failed to address his own concerns about the ship’s radar and electronic charts. He didn’t clearly discuss his transit plan with the master. The report said the pilot proceeded at an unsafe speed — 11 knots — for the conditions.

The committee “concluded that pilot misconduct was a factor in the allision," the report said. The pilot “failed to exercise sound judgment in deciding to depart."

The collision caused 58,000 gallons of fuel to spill. Cosco Busan‘s owner, Regal Stone Ltd., said it will incur $80 million in losses. That figure includes future liabilities, cleanup costs and $2.5 million to repair the 220-foot gash in the ship’s hull.

As Cosco Busan approached the Bay Bridge, the pilot “reportedly lost confidence with the ship’s radar," the commissioners’ report said. “While he could have turned south to safe anchorage to await improved visibility or to determine what, if anything, was wrong with the radar, (he) failed to exercise sound judgment and instead continued on the intended transit of the M/V Cosco Busan, relying solely on an electronic chart system with which he was unfamiliar."

A misunderstanding occurred when the pilot asked the master to point out the span between bridge towers Delta and Echo. The master instead pointed to the Delta tower, the report said.

The pilot had other bridge resources that he allegedly failed to use.

“(He) still had the option of utilizing the (Vessel Traffic System) to fix his position and/or abandon the transit and use the availability of Anchorage 8 or 9," the report stated. “In addition, he had the availability of the crew members to fix the vessel’s position, and potentially the vessel’s lookouts to identify any structures. None of these resources were utilized."

The pilot’s lawyer, John Meadows, noted that the commissioners’ committee was instructed to examine only the actions of the pilot and not others who may be at fault.

“They did not consider the fluency in English of the master and the watch officers on the ship," Meadows told Professional Mariner. “Nor did they consider the actions of the Vessel Traffic Service that failed to warn the ship that it was off course."

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff