Not Being John Cota
by Bob Couttie
“Capt. Cota acknowledges the lack of situational awareness and does not expect it to happen again.”
Board of Pilot Commissioners for the Bays: Investigation into the grounding of the M/V Pioneer…on 20 February 2006.
Bay pilot John Cota’s week it wasn’t, starting April 8, 2008. Since the US Department of Justice has already charged him on two criminal counts, an act likely to hinder a helpful investigation, his lawyers advised him to claim the protection under the Fifth Amendment of the US constitution against self-incrimination and declined to give testimony at the public hearings of the US National Transportation Safety Board, a protection ironically, which the US government does not want extended to non-US seafarers.
The ship’s crew, currently detained as ‘material witnesses’ for Cota’s trial did not give testimony, either.
Much of the second day of the hearing was occupied by evidence on Cota’s medical condition and previous history of alcohol abuse – he was tested for alcohol immediately after the incident and found clear. After the incident, the US Coast Guard asked Cota to surrender his mariner’s license because “the listed potential side effects of those medications and how they may or may not have some impact upon his judgment, his ability to function, cognitive ability,” said Chief of the Regional Exam Center, George Buffleben.
A medical witness, Dr. Robert Bourgeois, told the hearing “I wouldn’t want anyone taking those medicines and having to make decisions in a safety-sensitive position”. When askled if he would let his children board a bus with a driver using such medication, he said “my kids would not be on that bus”.
John Cota, call sign Romeo, was evaluated for renewal of his license in January 2007 under a system that is currently undergoing changes. However, this does call into question the effectiveness of the medical examination process.
This does not necessarily mean that Cota was suffering impairment. If he was, the hearing was told, it would be difficult for the master or officers to tell whether or not he was so impaired as to present a hazard. Under US legislation ship’s officers are required to obey the orders of the pilot unless he is clearly incompetent or incapacitated.
There has been much comment about alleged problems with the radar, AIS and ECIDS, with Cota saying that the latter was confusing. It is clear for the VDR transcript that he was struggling with both. The pilot who had conducted the Cosco Busan inbound, Captain Nyborg, had no problems with radar or AIS, and these were found to be working after the incident.
He also had little problem communicating with the Captain, Mao Cai Sun, nor with the helmsman.
Captain Nyborg did notice a problem with the ECDIS, with the track being offset to the west. Nyborg disembarked the Cosco Busan and later went to the pilot conference centre for a monthly meeting. From there he saw the ship coming away from anchorage 7 and moving towards anchorage 9, “I was surprised because I recognized her as a ship I put in Oakland, and it would be very unusual for that ship to be coming to the wrong direction unless something had happened or something was wrong, like if they had a breakdown or something” said Nyborg. Other pilots present told Nyborg about the allision.
“I tried to remember where, you know, what issues I might have had with it, and what my, you know, if I had any difficulties or, you know, bad helmsman or anything like that. Nothing stuck out in my mind except that I, I remembered that, gee, I think that ECDIS display was showing a poor course as far as — a poor planned route through Delta Echo span, and I wondered if they had tracked the same deal coming outbound,” he told investigators.
Cota arrived at the meeting looking shaken: “(He) actually sat down within 3 or 4 feet of me, and I scooted my chair over and out of concern asked him, John, how you doing? He described how he was doing. Oh, my God, John, what happened? And, and he was visibly shaken. And I said you know what you should look into that – you should look into this ECDIS display because I believe it was, it was running West of where it should have been on my inbound. And of course I didn’t need it, but if you relied on it at all maybe it ought to be something that is investigated.”
Surprisingly, or prehaps not considering the possible emotional impact of the event, Cota forgot about the meeting: “John called me last night, and he had actually — didn’t recall me telling him that. He’s like there’s rumor around that you saw this or saw that, and I’m like, John, I talked to you at the meeting. Didn’t you remember that meeting? He said, no. I was really rattled, and I probably talked to people I didn’t, I don’t remember talking to. And that’s very understandable, you know,” said Nyborg.
Bob Couttie has written for a number of maritime industry publications, including the prestigious Lloyd’s List International daily newspaper and Lloyd’s Ship Manager magazine. His reportage on problems with ship’s officer certification examinations in the Philippines in the late 1990s influenced the adoption of computerized examinations for ship officers by the country’s Professional Regulatory Commission.