Ships: A Risky Business

Photo by 24Novembers, Shutterstock

By Captain George Livingstone – One of the worst storms I ever recall was a winter day off the coast of Oregon. We were transiting northbound with a loaded Salt barge when a deep winter low crossed our slow moving tug and tow. The conditions built to storm force (60-65 knot wind, 24-27 foot sea/swells) and then stabilized in a following wind and sea. This was winter towing in the Pacific Northwest and to be expected. As the noon watch change was taking place, however, the situation rapidly deteriorated and the wind increased to well over 100 knots in just a matter of minutes.

Managing Risk

The first sign of a serious problem was when the tow winch alarm started sounding off like a machine gun. The Chief Engineer was out the wheelhouse to the stern before anyone else reacted, he managed to engage a mechanical winch dog before the last layer of wire unraveled from the towing winch drum.

The Towmaster's Manual
The Towmaster’s Manual by George H. Livingstone,? Grant H. Livingston

If we had lost the last layer, we would have lost the tow and the tug would have just been a small power vessel running before a hurricane with little hope of avoiding disaster.

After the Chief Engineer had engaged the dog, I pulled the throttle back to dead slow ahead and wondered if the tug would stay ahead of a careening barge sliding sideways down monster swells and 100 knot winds. The best guess for sea state was about 50 feet, the barge was beam to the sea/swell the entire time getting pounded. It turns out we did stay ahead, and except for a partial loss of cargo, some white knuckles and broken running lights, all ended well. 

So what brings me to this? Well, I suppose it’s to point out that professional mariners aren’t just paid for balmy summer days sailing through waters populated by tourist boats and sunbathers. We are also there for the margins, for the shadow times. We earn our pay by ensuring all goes uneventfully and voyages are completed safely under all conditions. When viewed from outside the business these things cannot be readily seen, and it is the unseen qualities like leadership, experience, determination, cognitive thought, etc. that make the difference when managing risk in marine transportation.

Marine Competencies

There has been much discussion of late about competency at sea, especially on the United States Navy. Professionals are faced with a tricky wicket here as the task is multifold – protect the Public Trust but keep commerce moving and in the U.S. Navy’s case, defend the nation. Not surprisingly there is serious debate on how best to do this in the face of ever increasing liability and public scrutiny.

There is some discussion that suggests overall risk can be managed, almost entirely, by changing the philosophy of how work is accomplished. ‘Management’ is the key word in this argument for reducing risk in marine transportation. The focus moves away from professional skill and toward overall managing risk through strict control. The basic concept is to simplify actual maneuvers and keep from doing work that has higher risk, thus reducing risk.

Following along this line, individual evolutions are canceled if elevated risk (wind, fog, etc.) is determined to exist. Upon initial reflection this seems to have merit, if the situation is more closely controlled through management, it would seem to follow there would be a reduction in risk. This has appeal and there is no shortage of proponents for it.

Inherent Risk

Inherent risk is an underlying factor of marine transportation and cannot be removed.

I would bring the reader back, however, to the first paragraph of this column. The problem with this theory is that risk is implicit in marine transportation. Risk begins when the voyage begins. Inherent risk is an underlying factor of marine transportation and cannot be removed. Of course, the debate revolves around the reduction of risk, not its removal, but critical to this discussion is understanding that risk is ever-present. And that is the crux of my opposition to the idea – failures, fog, wind, current and changing conditions will all be encountered throughout a career. Operating at night, in wind and current is normal, should that be eliminated to reduce risk? Hopefully the reader gets the point which is, even if operations were restricted to daylight under the most conservative parameters, there will still be unexpected events, weather, failures, etc. Critical situations will develop no matter what is done to manage the movement of ships.

The professional mariner’s job is to safely extract the ship from any number of situations, critical or otherwise. That takes serious training and skill which must be honed over the course of a career, continually improving for the sake of the Public Trust. If a professional mariner regularly avoids situations requiring specific skill sets, how do they develop and maintain those skill sets? The old saying ‘Use it or lose it’ comes to mind. If the goal to reduce risk is accomplished by doing less and less, will there be accompanying degradation of professional skill? (Like the degradation of skill when using increasingly automated technology). There are sectors of marine transportation (including the Navy) attempting to reduce risk by focusing on the wrong things. The outcome is apparent, risk is not being mitigated.

Practice Makes Perfect

Given the inevitable and certain need for skill to keep and extract vessels from any situation, critical or otherwise, the probability of not being able to do so will increase without a library of skill sets. It’s a bit of a Catch-22; the mariner has little hope of safely extracting a vessel from extreme situations if he or she has not regularly practiced the advanced skill with which to do it. Without those skills, risk is increased not decreased. If the focus is only on managing the situation, risk will increase. Mastering the fundamentals developed through competent training and practiced in the real world on a regular basis is, however, a proven and effective way to reduce risk, especially when coupled with leadership and determination.