captain bill doherty

Former Cruise Line Safety Manager and Master Mariner Discusses Costa Concordia Tragedy [OP/ED]

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January 18, 2012

captain bill doherty– By Captain William H. Doherty, gCaptain Contributor

Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) was a Mississippi Riverboat Pilot. One day a woman passenger tried to flatter him saying, ”My goodness Captain, you must know where every hazard on this River lies!” 

Captain Clemens replied: “No Madam that would be impossible, I just know where the good water is and keep her there.”

Ships run aground because someone made a terrible mistake or was negligent. A Master has a responsibility to navigate in a safe and prudent manner taking into account all circumstances including, but not limited to, the existing conditions and the limitations of the vessel involved. Prudence dictates that the Master allows an “exit strategy” of all possible contingencies including grounding, collision, fire, serious illness, and a multitude of unforeseen circumstances. Maritime Safety and prudence starts with competence; arrived with a combination of training, certification, and constant drilling and maintenance of operational and safety equipment.

In life however, we are judged, more on how we react to adversity, than the incident itself. The obvious lack of planning, training, drilling, and preparing for the subsequent events this grounding mishap created is appalling and disgraceful.

Abandoning those left in your professional care clearly demonstrates the lack of moral fiber of the Master and all those other officers and crew who abandoned, not only their passengers, but their fellow shipmates, and those “professional” mariners who did, in fact, remain at their station waiting for leadership and guidance that was never given from those spineless cowards who deserted their responsibilities and dignity.

The fact that the passengers were never mustered and briefed in Emergency Stations, Evacuation, or any other prerequisite safety information is not only imprudent, but illegal.

I have commanded ships of all types for over thirty years, have served ashore in management as Port Captain for major oil companies, taught navigation at America’s finest Maritime Academy, and have served as Safety Manager for one of the largest Cruise lines in the world.

Cruise ships, as well as all vessels plying the Navigable waters of the world are subject to strict Maritime Rules and regulations including, but not limited to, Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) regulations, Standards of Training Certification and Watch keeping (STCW), The International Safety Management (ISM) rules, and most importantly, the Rule of the Sea whereby the Master and officers and crew never abandon the ship until all passengers and crew are accounted for, and everything possible has been done to save them.

There seems to be a clear indication of negligence and perhaps even incompetence. I agree, we have to wait till all the facts are in, but that boulder stuck in the side of the ship and the fact that the Master abandoned his ship and his duties prior to accounting for all souls aboard speak for itself.

What bothers me most today is the fact that three days after the tragic grounding, there still does not appear to any concentrated effort to safe those who may still be trapped below decks on this overturned, but not yet sunken, ship.

One and a half years ago thirty three Chilean miners became trapped miles below ground in what seemed to be an impossibly hopeless situation. Instead, as the world watched, a quiet nation at the Southern tip of the Earth mobilized from their President, Mine officials, engineers, and construction workers.  Together with the just about the entire Chilean population, they created a miracle.

The whole world watched and prayed as little glimmers of hope and tireless work on the part of the people of Chile grew into that miracle. There wasn’t a dry eye in the world, as each miner came up that elevator to safety, a full SIXTY-NINE DAYS after that accident.

Last Friday night, an Italian-flagged passenger ship, driven by an Italian Captain, went aground off an Italian Island. The Captain’s actions caused the grounding, his subsequent lack of competence, leadership, and most of all, Courage, led to at least eleven “known” dead and a score still missing or unaccounted for.

Granted, I see a couple of salvage teams diving, as the magnificent vessel slides closer and closer to sinking, but I see no national mobilization of forces and resources to try to save those remaining souls who could be trapped in the hundreds of pockets throughout the ship. Watching news today they reported that the Italian authorities have given up hope for finding any more survivors on the Costa Concordia because it has “shifted” a few inches and may sink. They also reported that there are still “two-dozen” persons missing and believed trapped inside. It has only been three days and the ship is lying on its side and is less than 150 feet wide at her maximum beam.

Last year the Chileans drilled over a mile into the rock and extricated thirty three miners trapped for 69 days! It appears that the Italian Captain isn’t the only guy running away from lives in peril on the sea. Just a comparison as to how some nations react to tragedy. Some turn it into victories; others just sit around and wait for time to complete the tragedy. Were any Italians killed or missing in this disaster?

What bothers me most about this whole disaster is of course the loss of life and injuries. I am also concerned about the negative perception this reckless endangerment gives to a profession I have been proud to have been and still am a part of. This is my 49th year in the Maritime industry. I am proud of my occupation and of those I have had the pleasure to have sailed with. Many of them have “Crossed the Final Bar,” but many more, including my two sons have followed in this honored profession.

Most ships are operated safely by proud and professional Mariners who understand the dangers of going to sea and recognize that through training, experience and a positive attitude towards Safety at Sea, many of these disasters just don’t happen. As Master and Safety Manager, I always instilled in my crews that the accident that didn’t happen was the best type of incident.

I also reminded them that it was human nature to instinctively wish you didn’t have to be involved when emergencies arise. I taught them that through training, drill, and teamwork, that when that “Flight or Fight” instinct arrived, that turning around, with the confidence that we have been drilled and trained to handle this situation, we can all survive better if we resolve our problems, not run away from them.

This whole Concordia disaster reminds me of my colorful English Literature Professor at Mass Maritime Academy; back in 1963, Poopsie Collins who made us read Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim”. Think he helped shape our moral backbone.

A lot of similarities between SS Patna in Conrad’s novel and the true life story if MV Concordia. Master left passengers to die, but the ship floats. While dead men tell no tales, “Survivors” certainly do.

God help you Captain Schettino; but please God, help the people trapped below the Costa Concordia first.

Captain Doherty is a 1967 graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, a licensed US Coast Guard Master-Unlimited tonnage, and qualified First Class Pilot, Prince William Sound, Valdez, Alaska.  

Captain Doherty has served on numerous US Navy warships and was the Head of Maritime Affairs for the Chief of Naval Operations during Operations Desert Storm.  Over the course of his career, he has commanded tankers, containerships, research vessels, high speed ferries, and was an instructor at his alma mater.  

Before retirement, his latest position was as Safety Manager for Norwegian Cruise Lines.

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