A common misconception of the public is that the Exxon Valdez grounding was the direct result of an intoxicated Captain. Those of us in the industry know this to be far from the truth. The truth behind that incident lies in a long accident chain with the most important link centered on Third Mate Gregory T. Cousins. But this post is not about the Exxon valdez it’s about an incident that happened while a third mate was navigating the Empress Of The North near the town of Juneau Alaska.
The Third Mate of a vessel is the most junior officer who’s experience can range from just having graduated from a four year maritime academy to a senior officer who takes the lower position to gain experience on a new or interesting ship. For this reason the captain will often put the Third Mate on the 8pm-12am navigational watch so that he is awake in the event of trouble. They are also put on this watch because it is the least prone to the effects of sleep depravation.
During a press confrence for meda covering the Empress Of The North incident, a spokesman for the NTSB in separate statements said:
“The third mate, who was navigating, and the helmsman, who was steering, were the only people on the bridge at the time of the accident.
It’s our understanding that they realized that they were not going to be able to successfully navigate that 90 degree turn so they attempted to make a correction and weren’t able to make a correction successfully. So that’s when they struck Rocky Island,” Seattle Times
Compare this to the NTSB report of the Exxon Valdex:
“The third mate’s failure to turn the vessel at the proper time and with sufficient
rudder probably was the result of his excessive workload and fatigued condition,
which caused him to lose awareness of the location of Bligh Reef.”
Luckily all cruise ships are now required to carry black boxes with voice data recorders. In addition to this the captain is required to write night orders detailing hazards and how the mate is to respond to them. We are looking forward to seeing the order and listening to the recorders for answers. The questions we will be asking at that point are:
- Why was the 3rd mate not on the 8-12 watch?
- Did the Captain identify the turn as a hazard in his order book?
- Did the Mate attempt to contact the Captain when he first sensed trouble and if not why was the captain not on the bridge at the time of the grounding?
- Was the mate experienced in this turn and if not why the Captain did not wake up for the maneuver?
- Was the hazard identified and passed on by the off-going officer of the watch?
Another concern is the recent buy-out of the ship by an new company which caused the departure of some of the experienced officers. Why did these officers leave? Was the pay offered by the new company good enough to attract experienced officers or did they hire recent graduates for less pay?
These questions are yet to be answered but we hope that the true cause is determined because the alternative is grim. With the Valdez incident the nations people called for strict alcohol requirements on ships and they got them. What they should have called for is strict requirements on new mates and late-night watches in pilotage waters. Maybe if the journalists and public had determined the true cause of the Exxon Valdez different regulations would have been in place and the “Empress of the North” incident would not have happened.
Have more info? Email it to: tips (at) gcaptain.com
Continued coverage of this incident: LINK
John Konrad is a USCG licensed Master Mariner of Unlimited Tonnage currently working as Chief Mate aboard a 865′ ship in the Gulf of Mexico. Since graduating from SUNY Maritime College he has sailed in all 4 of the worlds oceans and reports from his ship via satellite.