It's hard to believe in this day and age collisions still happen. Yet, they do, with startling frequency and potentially horrendous outcomes. 65-80% of these collisions or more can be directly attributed to human error. Whether it is a lack of situational awareness, inadequate training or one of a slew of other human factors, the bottom line is that errors by ship's crews are responsible for these casualties.
Recently, the North of England P&I Club published Collsions : How To Avoid Them, an in-depth look at collisions, COLREGS and applications of COLREGS. It's understandable that the P&I clubs are interested in reducing marine casualties - the fewer casualties, the fewer insurance claims that are made. However, at the same time, the Nautical Institute published the latest edition of Navigator, their online magazine with the motto of, "Inspiring professionalism in marine navigators." This latest edition is entirely devoted to avoiding collisions and the human factors involved. In the end, it's not about the financial cost of marine casualties such as collisions, but the human cost - careers lost and mariners injured or killed.
We have it all on the bridge and in the wheelhouse now - ARPA, AIS, multiple radars and maybe even night vision. With all this gear, why do we still have collisions? Well, as Collsions : How To Avoid Them,
"...reminds mariners of the basics of the COLREGs and that they must be kept well in mind and obeyed notwithstanding the profusion of equipment on the modern bridge. That equipment does not avoid collision. It is merely an aid to collision avoidance. What avoids collisions is compliance with the COLREGs." - The Hon Mr Justice Nigel Teare
The electronics help us as long as we understand their limitations. As the computer adage states, "Junk in, junk out." We all know that it requires 3-6 minutes for the information on the ARPA to be accurate after a course or speed change, but how many people will look at the target information (input from the ARPA) on the ECDIS and immediately accept it as accurate? Likewise, the true course vector on the ARPA may take a few minutes to register a course change by a vessel, whereas the rate of turn field on the AIS will register it within a minute. There are checks and balances with electronics, but again, we must be trained and familiar with them.
"It is helpful to think of the Colregs as ‘ship separation rules’. This mindset helps encourage early and positive actions. It is better to make an early adjustment to course or speed than to spend too much time using VHF, radar features or ECDIS/AIS to make an assessment." - Dr. Steve Price
One afternoon, early in my career, while weaving through traffic in the Mediterranean, the captain offered some very simple, yet extremely pertinent advice, "Always leave yourself an out." Whether it is dealing with traffic, loading cargo or any other of the hazardous situations with which we deal, having an escape route and the wisdom of when to use it will save your posterior aspect.
Along the same lines, a crusty chief mate had passed along some of his wisdom. He suggested that instead of daydreaming of home during those quiet hours of watch, I should instead play "What if." That is, I should ask myself what I would do in different situations if something went wrong. At the time, we were talking about fires, flooding or personnel issues onboard, but the same could be applied to traffic situations. Even if everything is going well in a crossing situation, ask yourself, "What if?" What if the vessel didn't do what you expected? What would you do? When would you do it? Not only are you exercising the muscle between your ears, but you are making a plan. And, once you have that plan in mind, you can refine it in your next What if? session or use it when necessary.
Human error was likely involved in the collision of the car carrier Baltic Ace with the container ship Corvus J in December 2012. Baltic Ace sank within fifteen minutes with eleven crewmembers lost or killed. Those people will never come back. Take a few minutes - show the articles referenced above to the watch officers and seamen on your ship - it might just make the difference in the next close quarters situation. Unlike the video above, we aren't all lucky enough to have our disasters in the simulator.