Thursday, February 14, 2013

It's All Fun and Games...Until Your C.O.I.

Like so many of my fellow mariners worldwide, I've been following the USCG investigation into Bounty's untimely demise. Last week's testimony from shipwright Todd Kosakowski to USCG Commander Kevin Carroll regarding the questionable condition of Bounty's free-board framing that he discovered prior to their COI inspection has really got me thinking. Read  portions of the transcript  here:

As First Mate on the schooner Zodiac, my busiest time of the year is the period leading up to our haul-out and subsequent COI. This is when the Coasties come down to our ship when she's in dry-dock and perform an out-of-water inspection. Because we are an international "SOLAS"  vessel, this inspection occurs annually as opposed to other small passenger vessels which can vary from every 3 to 5 years. This is a routine that all inspected vessels and vessel owner/operators are extremely familiar with. The CFRs have a multitude of descriptions and specifications regarding what is and is not to be found during these inspections. 

My recent 200-ton inland master upgrade necessitated a thorough review of the  CFR's to prepare for the test. The Federal CFRs are sort of like our state's RCW's ("revised code of Washington")-- rules and addendums to regulations that are added into the law books. It is decidedly NO fun to wade through these tomes of governmental mumbo-jumbo, however the more you do it the more you begin to understand it.  (I find that in itself, a rather scary thought).  

At the beginning of the sections on small passenger vessel inspections is a paragraph about dealing with the Coast Guard inspectors. It advises, rightly so, to be professional and respectful. It also suggests that the vessel operators or officers be prepared ahead of time, have items ready to produce and easy to locate. 

The Z gets her CG inspection in dry-dock.

Zodiac's scheduled dry-dock inspection is fast approaching. The captain, our ship's carpenter and rigger and myself have begun to hold regular preparatory meetings. The end result of the Zodiac being held to the more stringent criterion of an annual inspection, is that the captain and core crew are intimately aware of the up-to-date condition of her structural integrity and vital systems of our ship. This helps us work out strategic refit schedules. That being said, I'd like to think our standards would dictate this comprehension regardless of the USCG benchmarks . Based on the theory that prudence should sway mariners to ensure their ships will bring them safely back to port.

Once the Z has made it into the cavernous bay of Northlake Shipyard's massive barge, the water is pumped out and she is blocked and braced. She remains stable; water dripping from her hull as crew members and volunteers scramble around her, shoring up timbers and erecting the scaffolds. We scour the ship; stem to stern and look for anything that might cause problems. Before the Coast Guard inspectors arrive, Captain Tim has already compiled a legal pad page full of projects and items to double-check. I follow along behind, in the role of a Bosun--rapidly scratching down work-lists and shopping run errands. 

There isn't much of the old girl that we haven't poked or prodded into. It's a good thing she isn't terribly modest.

Zodiac's hull gets a close inspection before repaint begins.

Perhaps the greatest asset that I've brought to my position as a first mate, has been my training from the medical field. The conditioning I received to document the hell out of everything and to anticipate worst-case scenarios has proved pretty invaluable--that and learning to never say the word "oops" during a surgical procedure. For several years, I worked with a family practice physician who was a stickler for covering one's ass. His mantra was "always, always, always write it down." Indeed, with the litigious nature of practicing medicine today, his words of wisdom were in actuality, just common sense. I dogmatically logged every conversation with patients, specialists, insurance reps and co-workers. It served me well on every occasion.  As I read though the trial transcripts of Bounty, I comprehended the absolute necessity to log every single item. The sub-standard condition of the Bounty's frames, the communications the captain had with the shipwright... all of it. Not merely to cover one's ass, but to hold those in power to their decisions. If they are accountable for the choices that they make, then more consideration will be given to all of the options. That is a universal characteristic of human nature.

After losing our mast in 2010, we came up with a standardized rig-check log. Our lead rigger, Jeff and Captain Tim and I worked extensively to try and cover every single issue or scenario that could go wrong and then made certain that the rig check could account for it. This was not required of us by the Coasties, we did it because we did not want to go through another situation like the dismasting again. We wanted to safeguard our ship and our crew. Simple as that.

The decision made to take Bounty out into the storm was made by the higher-ups; Captain Walbridge and apparently, the owners. We've all been reading about this for months now. I've become rather perturbed by some comments made from so called 'professional mariners' about the lack of training and professional practices in the tall ship world. Hog wash I say to that. I know of many accounts where commercial towing vessels have been forced to disregard safety protocols when the big oil companies that contract them wish to cut some corners--money being the operative motive. In one instance, a ship that was not rated for ice-breaking was told to head north and work beyond it's safety boundaries. The captain of course, had the option to say, "No, I refuse to put my vessel and crew at risk." However, he would no longer have a job with that company once he did. The crew members said that they trusted their captain and therefore went along with it... (I am sure that the crew members of Bounty trusted their captain as well).

Yes, there are a fair number of Yarr-bee-darrs in the tall ship community that would prefer to swing from gantlines and sing chanteys than learn the nuts and bolts of navigation or memorize the 72 Col-Regs. But the tall ship world is chalk full of professional, competent mariners who treat their occupations as a serious responsibility.
I tire of these blogging blow-hards who are so quick to pass judgement on all traditionally trained sailors.

The truth of the matter is yes, we operate tall ship charter vessels. Most of our year is spent in pursuit of good wind and orcas. Yes, our type of cargo talks....
We have fun--no doubt about it. Ours is an occupation that many would kill for. Yet, behind the scenes, it's a lot of hard work--a lot of worry and concern for safety. We chase rot, we scrub rust and we continuously search out the loose cotter pins aloft. The USCG sets a very high bar for small passenger vessels to meet (a bar that is at times, impractical for classic wooden vessels to achieve), and yet we do so.  We are professional mariners and we understand the need for constant vigilance.

As one wise instructor once told us, "You can never expect to beat the sea. You can only expect to not lose."

~ Chris   



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. "I would match my know-how against the average deck officer on a tow boat or fish boat any day of the week. Certainly my degree of marlinspike seamanship."

    Your remarks clearly indicate a serious flaw in someone in your capacity.
    AS a man who has spent decades working on the sea around the world and currently the capt of a federal research vessel I find your writings reeking of grandiose egotistic narcissism. In my career at sea I've hauled at least a hundred bodies (dead) out of the water and assisted many vessel's at sea. A common denominator is believing they can handle one or more conditions at sea which ends tragically. Often I find those who utter comments such as your "I easily tire of these blogging blow-hards who are so quick to pass judgement on all traditionally trained sailors" clearly indicate you feel better that others and perhaps are too egotistical to receive a bit of advice from others. I strongly suggest you reconsider your role and perhaps should return to a deck seaman position for a decade or so in order to gain experience.

  3. Sorry, sir (Anonymous), there is plenty of humility here. I suggest you read further into the blog posts before going straight to baiting. You do serve to illustrate my point however.

  4. Good post Chris. There will always be a broad spectrum of skill levels, training and safety standards no matter what branch of the maritime industry one works. The challenge is to learn from the mistakes made in an incident such as this, while not falling into the trap of just blindly castigating those involved or believing that one's own experience places one above making similar mistakes. we should all strive to be as prepared as we can be. Money will also always play a role, we are all challenged by balancing the bottom line with safety. Especially now, as the Coast Guard is stretched to their limit, it falls upon us to maintain ourselves and our vessels at the highest standard we can, no matter what the regulations may call for. Afterall, we are the ones who will pay for mistakes with our lives.

  5. well said Chris. More sailors should follow your precepts. In too many cases "familiarity breeds incompetence".