San francisco Oil Spill Hearings – A Response to Admiral Bone, USCG

Yesterday my comments were published on the front page of The San Francisco Chronicle in an article titled; “Hearing today at Presidio – tough queries for spill captain.”

Prior to being asked to comment the Chronicle’s lead maritime reporter contacted our friend Captain Kelly Sweeny who discussed industry wide problems with marine technology. The article states;

Sweeney said the AIS is “occasionally unreliable,” has blind spots such as when a ship is behind islands or structures, and is “antiquated” when compared with modern electronics.

Rewinding to my conversation with the reporters, the first question asked was; “Captain Sweeny believes the system used by San Francisco’s Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) is antiquated, do you agree?” After requesting further clarification I was asked why the pilot’s data on his Electronic Chart Display was trusted over VTS’s radar and AIS information.

My answer was “VTS’ AIS system is susceptible to the delay inherit in the VHF transmission of AIS data” BUT, to be honest my initial gut reaction was, “no AIS is not antiquated… it was fully implemented less then 3 years ago”, I quickly corrected myself. My second answer was quoted in the article and reads;

“The maritime industry is slow to act on electronic devices,” said Capt. John Konrad, who runs a Web site called gCaptain. “By the time they get approvals on electronics, they are obsolete.”

Why the quick change of opinion? It’s because I love AIS.

This technology, properly called Automatic Identification Systems, allows me to overlay important data on my radar displays. It also allows me to contact a ship with a zero cpa (collision course) with great ease. For example, prior to AIS I would have to say “Calling the vessel in position x.xx degrees N, x.xx degrees west on a course of 267 and speed of 6knots this is the xxx on channel 16” where now I simply look up the ship’s name and say “This is the xxx calling yyy on channel 16”. Furthermore the AIS display gives me the vessels MMSI number which opens up new and creative ways to avoid collisions. Finally, my AIS digital read-out really saved the day (and my career?) when our radars, as the Cosco Busan’s Pilot John Cota said “conked out”.

That was not my only hesitation. San Francisco Pilots are some of the most respected individuals in our profession (a dream job for myself) and I only have positive things to say about my dealings with VTS. So could they be wrong in their choice of equipment? It seemed unlikely.

In defending VTS and the Coast Guard’s systems another respected expert, Rear Adm. Craig Bone – Coast Guard district commander, commented on questions raised by myself and others. In covering today’s hearing The Chronicle reports;

Bone said he could think of no excuse for the crash. He denied reports by maritime sources claiming the electronic systems the Coast Guard uses are out of date. The pilot equipment and onboard navigational equipment are some of the most advanced, he said.

“There is no basis in my mind for this to have ever occurred,” Bone said. “Something on that ship had to go terribly wrong. It was totally preventable.”

So the question becomes; “If AIS is a loved safety improvement endorsed by maritime experts worldwide why does Captain Kelly (and myself!) consider it antiquated?”

The reason is because we can do better! In the world of cutting edge technology solutions are available now that would have given Cota and VTS a much better chance of avoiding the incident. The problem, that I suspect is an industry wide tendency, is two fold. First we are so far behind the technology curve small improvements, like AIS, seem large and exciting. Second, most licensed captains are Luddites (my self included) who want to make sure a new system is reliable before implementing it aboard ships.

I come to this conclusion because, despite my writings on the need to improve shipboard technology (most notably HERE and HERE), I initially had the same reaction as Adm. Bone but quickly changed my mind. Why? Because Capt. Kelly is correct, our systems are antiquated and when new lifesaving improvements become available we must break away from the statement that has been rehearsed by ship captains for centuries; “Only history will tell if this is a good idea”. Exciting changes are happening worldwide and improvements in communications (the number one failure in all good incident chains) are leading the way. We must change with the times and embrace technology as the benefit is a reduction of incidents and a preservation of the environment and human life.

For more information on this topic visit our Archives.

Still agreeing with Admiral Bone? Take a look at technology used by Tampa Pilots or Maine Pilots, upcoming portable ECDIS units, the VTS tracking system in Valdez, well documented problems with AIS Ask yourself “Can I send an area specific sitor message via GMDSS” or “Why can my son video chat with a pen pal in China while I’m having trouble raising a vessel 1000 yards away… and closing?”

John A. Konrad, Master Mariner

Captain John Konrad is a USCG licensed Master Mariner of Unlimited Tonnage currently working aboard an 835′ship in the Gulf of Mexico. Since graduating from SUNY Maritime College he has sailed 4 of the world’s oceans and reports from his ship via satellite.