Ridiculous Item of the Month – Madatory VTS Instructions

John Konrad
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November 29, 2007

VTS Watchkeeper

Fairplay brings us the most ridiculous item of the day;

USCG Admiral Thad AllenVessels transiting US harbours could come under tight navigational controls in the wake of the Cosco Busan bridge strike and resulting spill in San Francisco Bay. Sources close to the investigation tell Fairplay that federal officials may suggest that vessels transiting US channels may be compelled to follow navigational instructions issued by the US Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic Service. In the case of the Cosco Busan accident, it has been alleged that VTS duty officers tried to warn the vessel off its impact course with the Bay Bridge, but their advice is just that and not mandatory for vessel operators. Fairplay asked USCG Commandant Thad Allen about the suggestion and he said that, if required to, the Coast Guard is up to the challenge of positively controlling commercial vessel traffic. But he noted that most major US harbors presently don’t have VTS systems and that such a change would require a major financial commitment “and a departure from the current culture regarding vessel navigation responsibility”. The suggested system would be along the lines of air traffic control procedures which Allen says were developed centuries after the traditional rules for vessel captains and pilots.

The problem with maritime incidents is the fix rarely address the true cause and often creates problems that contribute to future incidents. As an example here’s an email from a gCaptain reader who wishes to remain anonymous;

“The new ISPS reporting requirements are sinking us in paperwork. Just yesterday I was on bridge watch in moderate traffic, typing a report out on my laptop. For 15 minutes our captain observed my action from the chart room then came out and said:

5 Years ago if I saw you typing a report on that [email protected]@’n laptop I would have fired you on the spot. Today, with all these ISM/ISPS requirements, if I come up here and find your not on your laptop typing out reports, I’ll fire you on the spot!

I was paying attention to the traffic but we both knew it didn’t have my full attention… and these reports were suppose to be making us safer!! I don’t feel safer and I don’t feel the paperwork will keep terrorists away from my ship”

Unsafe indeed.

Vessel Traffic in US ports is exceptionally well run and experienced in vessel safety and operations. They do not make the proposal ridiculous, Admiral Allen does. Why? Current technology is simply not capable of delivering real time tracking. Also, final say remains the responsibility of a ship’s captain because he is the one who knows the ship’s capabilities, it’s crew and he is stationed on the bridge. He is also the last one to abandon if the ship finds danger… and he knows it.

If the Coast Guard wants final say then they need to be aboard the vessel and if that happens they will be hard pressed to fill the position with anyone more qualified than the competent and experienced San Francisco Pilots.


Bob Couttie of Maritime Accident Casebook comments on this post;

VTS-assisted accidents, by action or inaction, aren’t rare, or at least not rare enough. John Clandillon-Baker, editor of The Pilot, journal of the UK Maritime Pilots Association sent us an email reminder about the Sea Express/Alaska Rainbow collision in February, 2007. VTS issues also featured in the grounding of the P&O Nedlloyd Magellan in 2001, and the source or worst oil spill so far in Singapore waters, the collision between the Evoikos and Orapin Global in October 1997. One can arguably include the Exxon Valdez.

USCG Commandant Thad Allen’s assurance to Fairplay that his command is up to the challenge has a Rice-Davies sort of quality to it, he would say that, wouldn’t he.

MAC’s own informal think-tank of veteran master mariners, who aren’t tanked up when they think, finds the proposal less objectionable, the authority of the master will remain in force much as it does now, in their view.

This is only a clip of Bob’s article so be sure to read his full post: Cosco Busan – Who Needs Pilots?


John A. Konrad, Master Mariner

John Konrad is a USCG licensed Master Mariner of Unlimited Tonnage. Since graduating from SUNY Maritime College he has sailed 4 of the world’s oceans and reports from his ship via satellite.

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