Cosco Busan – Questions For Investigators

Cosco Busan Damage

Chronicle photo by Michael Macor

After visits from California powerbrokers Arnold Schwarzenegger and Diane Feinstein yesterday the head of the US Coast Guard, Admiral Thad Allen, joined the inspection team.

Here news of his visit courtesy of the San Diego Tribune;

“They talk about the fog of war. I think we had the fog of navigation going on this day,”

Allen said he himself didn’t learn the full extent of the spill until around 9 p.m. the night it happened last Wednesday, around the same time as most everybody else.

“We know that a good deal of marine accidents and casualties are human error,” he said. Coast Guard officials investigating the incident said Saturday that they had ruled out mechanical error.

“You don’t turn 900-foot vessels on a dime and given the visibility at the time I think it would be difficult to assess whether or not the bridge itself was visible,” he said, adding that would be part of the investigation, along with the vessel’s speed, communications among the crew and other issues.

So what happened that day? Who knows… we do not expect an official investigation to be completed anytime soon (think the normal 6+ months!). We are, however, willing to write down a few questions we hope some intrepid reporters with access to Admiral Allen do ask.

Questions for investigators;

We have reviewed a few big incidents in the short life of gCaptain including the grounding of the Pasha Bulker on an Australian Beach and the grounding of the Alaska Cruise ship “Empress of the North” in waters close to Juenu Alaska. In both of those situations a breakdown in communications took place.

What is the level of English competency of the captain and mate on watch?

Did the assist tug notify the pilot of the problem?

Did the master, mate (Jr. officer), anchor watch, or helmsman notice the error?

Were any problems or concerns relayed to the pilot during the pre-voyage master-pilot conference or was critical information left out of the exchange?

The bridge of a merchant ship is full of electronic aids to navigation. These devices can help investigators determine the cause of an incident IF they are looked at in a timely fashion.

What does the course recorder, a device that records heading directly from the gyro compass, say and does it collaborate the pilot’s timeline of events?

Did the Cosco Busan have an ECDIS (an electronic chart display) or did it rely solely on paper plotting? If the answer is no, what was the interval between fixes? Was all the equipment properly set-up? Was parallel indexing used?

In the AIS plots (if they are determined accurate) we see strong use of right rudder at the time it should have been apparent they missed the turn.

Could the pilot have completed a 360 degree turn away from the bridge and make a second attempt at the correct angle?

In conclusion, investigators should shy away from providing quick answers despite media protests and avoid singling out an individual in this incident. An incident might occur because the helmsmen failed to take a required training course a year back or due to a improperly installed antenna 6 years back or a policy decision 15 years previous. Most likely it was caused by all of the above and 100 additional errors that combine to form what marine incident investigators call an error chain. Remove one error in the chain and the allusion would not have occurred.