It’s Not Gambling……It’s Risk Assessment

“You’ve got to know when to hold’em,

Know when to fold’em,

Know when to walk away

And know when to run.”

-Kenny Rogers, The Gambler

Much like the gambler in a poker game, the master on a merchant vessel is sometimes put in that position of making a hard (and fast) call.  While the other players are holding their cards close to their chests, it’s up to the gambler to assess the game, read the “tells” from his opponents and make a calculation as to which one of the above choices he might take.  It’s not that much different at sea….

No, there’s no cards involved, but the players are much more powerful.  On one side of the table sits Mother Nature – all powerful, able to create devastating hurricanes, mountainous seas and screaming wind.  On another side sits Neptune, the Roman God of freshwater and the sea – the same God that merchant mariners might slip a small offering when crossing the equator.  And the fourth player?  The shipping company.

The master of the vessel has been given a trump card, however, in the form of the International Safety Management (ISM) Code.  This internationally recognized code specifically stating that the company should establish in its safety management system that, “….the master has the overriding authority and the responsibility to make decisions with respect to safety…”  Taken alone, this trump card could shift the onus of the game’s outcome solely on the shoulders of the master.  Luckily, one of the very next lines in the ISM Code states that, “The Company should ensure that the master is….given the necessary support so that the master’s duties can be safely performed.”  Not only does the master have a trump card then, but the shipping company must also stake him enough chips that he can safely play the game.

As the cards are dealt, the master has to assess the look on Mother Nature’s face – is she bluffing, does she really have a poor hand or is she holding a Royal Flush?  If he’s doubtful, perhaps he’ll walk away from the table.  Likewise, if King Neptune is looking too confident or a little treacherous, perhaps the master will fold.  And then there are the times that the look on King Neptune’s face grows darker and darker and Mother Nature is non-committal.  Perhaps, that is the time to run!

And where is that fourth player, the shipping company, through all this?  Well, they certainly play a roll, as they have chips on the table in front of them, as well as the ones they have provided to the vessel master.  With a larger stake in each hand, they will prefer that neither Mother Nature nor Neptune walk away holding the pot.  They are, however, limited by that trump card provided by the ISM Code that the master holds and the fact that sometimes the stakes are larger than they appear.

Playing that trump card – the overriding authority to say where the ship can go and what it can do safely – is not without its potential repercussions.  If the vessel master folds or walks away, allowing Mother Nature or King Neptune to take the hand with a pair of 2s, the shipping company might not want to stake him the chips again.  It is here where his experience and knowledge come into play – knowing if or when to play that trump card.  The knowledge that the shipping company will stake him in the next hand and support his decisions – understanding that Mother Nature and Neptune sometimes play erratically – is all important in allowing the vessel master to err on the side of caution.

In reality, this is not so much a competition, but a balancing act – ensuring that all players are satisfied and that the master walks away with all his chips – crew, ship and cargo.  At the end of the day, Mother Nature and King Neptune will continue doing whatever mythical deities do.  The shipping company and vessel master, however, will walk together to the next table to deal the cards yet again.  Or they may not.  The other possibilities include the shipping company staking a different vessel master in the next hand or, on a very bad day, King Neptune sweeping away all the chips – crew, ship and cargo – down to the watery depths.

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COLREGS Moment : Meeting situation gone bad….things that go “Bump” in the North Sea

Photo provided by the VBZR Vrijwillige Blankenbergse Zee Reddingsdienst

Something went dreadfully wrong off the coast of Belgium early Tuesday morning.  Whether it was a machinery malfunction, the misapplication of the International Collision Regulations (COLREGS) or other human element factor, a collision occurred between two merchant vessels – the 315-meter LNG carrier Al-Oraiq and the 130-meter cargo vessel Flinterstar.  As can be seen below in the YouTube video of their AIS data, the incident happened off the port city of Zeebrugge.

Of the 12 man crew on the cargo vessel which was severely damaged, 11 apparently were rescued unscathed, while the 12th crew member was treated for hypothermia.  With the water temperatures off Zeebrugge around a chilly 16° C, it is fortunate that the Flinterstar did not sink completely and came to rest on a bank.  The LNG carrier sustained damage, but was able to make it to port in Zeebrugge with the assistance of a tug.


Head-on Situation

a) When two power-driven vessels are meeting on reciprocal or nearly reciprocal courses so as to involve risk of collision each shall alter her course to starboard so that each shall pass on the port side of the other.

b) Such a situation shall be deemed to exist when a vessel sees the other ahead or nearly ahead and by night she could see the masthead lights of the other in a line or nearly in a line and/or both sidelights and by day she observes the corresponding aspect of the other vessel.

c) When a vessel is in any doubt as to whether such a situation exists she shall assume that it does and act accordingly.

The investigation report for this incident will be read with great interest when it is published.  In the meantime, we can only speculate that there was a lack of communication and poor application of the rules of the road.  We might expect that vessels in such a situation would both alter course to starboard, eventually passing safely port-to-port.  In the event that either vessel couldn’t comply – due to factors such as water depth – early and effective communication of the actions taken would be paramount.

Also of interest might be the use of any sound signals in the final moments prior to collision, as well as the rest-work cycles of the crew members involved.  As safe manning of vessels comes under increased scrutiny, might this incident be a sign of the lack thereof?  Or is it simply a matter of training?  Whether there was a lookout (or an effective lookout) might also be a question to be answered.  Any way we view this incident or questions it raises, we can use it as a teaching moment and discuss with our bridge teams what NOT to do and what we might do instead.

Let’s be safe out there!

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Movie or book tonight? If you choose book, here’s some options…..

You get off watch, finish work on deck or climb out of the engine room.  Next, you get a bite to eat and then?  Very frequently, it’s time to plug in a movie and vegetate until it’s time to hit the rack or  – quite possibly – you fall asleep in front of the flickering screen.

If you’re a little more awake and want to read a book, we’ve compiled a list (most of which will NOT put you to sleep like Bowditch) that you might find interesting.  Take a look at them – created with input from merchant marine and U.S. Marine Corps leaders and linked to Amazon for quick download.  Get entertained and challenge your mind!

Click HERE for our reading suggestions.

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Restricted Visibility……and things that go “bump” in it……

Restricted visibility – fog, rain, snow, mist, haze, smoke, etc. – can make a normal watch seem hours longer and make even the most mundane transit stressful.  Very frequently, unless we see a fog bank roll in, the visibility deteriorates gradually and we are left wondering if this is restricted or not.  The moment we ask ourselves that question, is the moment we should start considering it restricted, however.

Complacency and fatigue are two oft mentioned factors that play into incidents on the water.  Unfortunately, on smaller vessels – particularly those with only two watchstanders and a 6-on/6-off rotation, calling the captain for a scenario such as restricted visibility immediately cuts into his already limited rest.  The fact of the matter is that once restricted visibility sets in, we have to take action.

Guidance?  There’s plenty of guidance out there – COLREGS (better known as the Rules of the Road) Rule 19 is a great place to start.  It talks about the use of radar, having a dedicated lookout and travelling at a safe speed.  And then there is Rule 35, which discusses the sound signals required “in or near an area of restricted visibility.”  That means even if we are only near – not necessarily in – restricted visibility, we must be taking some actions such as the appropriate sound signals.

If you are looking for more guidance, check out the ICS Bridge Procedures Guide (an old copy here).  There is a decent checklist for navigation in restricted visibility in it.  While it might seem counter-intuitive to pull out a checklist and potentially distract yourself while in restricted visibility, if it is used as the situation develops or before you take over the watch, it might be well worth your while.

And speaking of things that go “bump” in restricted visibility, take a look at the NTSB report below – and consider what the captain/mate might have done or what you would do in a similar situation.

Additional Reading and Links

NTSB – OSV Tristan Janice Platform Allision – February 2014

USCG – Navigation Rules – International-Inland

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