When is maritime training just too dangerous?

John Konrad
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October 30, 2009

USCG Surf Rescue Boat In Heavy SeasPhoto by Thomas Colla

Is disciplinary action warranted in a recent case of real life coast guard training?

Newsday reports on the removal of a US Coast Guard petty officer after conducting rescue boat training in adverse weather conditions. They report:

Montauk docks were abuzz with disbelief and disappointment Saturday over the removal of their top Coast Guard officer, stripped of his duties after he and a subordinate took a pair of rescue boats on training exercises for which they were not certified.

Chief Petty Officer James Weber, a well-liked, 21-year Coast Guard veteran, has been reassigned from the Montauk Station to the Guard’s New Haven office. He will lose his command permanently unless he prevails in an appeal. A Guard spokeswoman said Saturday Weber has not decided whether to appeal. He could not be reached for comment. Senior Coast Guard officials said Friday he had violated procedures vital to crew safety.

But area mariners said whatever rules Weber may have broken, he did not deserve such severe consequences for preparing his crew to come to their aid in perilous conditions. “It just doesn’t seem right,” said Richard Janis, general manager of the Star Island Yacht Club. “The only type of weather you should be training in is bad weather.”

In a recent article for CAMM’s Sidelights Magazine, I questioned the value of newly licensed ship captains experiencing failure prior to assuming command of their first vessel (You can find the full article on page 17 HERE). It’s my contention that by actively avoiding all situations that bear risk we are limiting the experience of our top officers. After all, the majority of life lost aboard the Titanic was not the direct result of the ship hitting an iceberg. No, the loss of life was staggering because the emergency was poorly managed by a captain who had never experience a life threatening situation and had never trained in realistic situations. The architects, managers and officers attempted to avoid all risk in the design and operation of the vessel and the result was catastophy.

One solution I proposed in the article was training in realistic situations. Here is an excerpt:

As senior officers aboard ship it’s critically important that we allow the bridge team the opportunity to make mistakes so they can learn from their failure. During my first cargo discharge aboard a product tanker it took me 45 minutes to strip one tank. I did not learn for many years that my repeated failure to empty and switch tanks (without loosing suction or flooding the pump) caused a fight in the mess. The captain and chief mate were arguing about what should be done with the former saying “It’s an art he needs to learn through failure” and the later saying “We’d all save time and effort if I go teach him”.

Small failures can lead to big results. In this specific case I learned in 45 minutes what it takes some tankermen years to master, transferring from an empty to full tank, but I also learned other lessons like the management of a frustrated deck crew and remaining calm under stress. It is also important to note the conditions in which this lesson was learned. Sure there was great poten- tial for environmental catastrophe or even flooding of the pump room but the lessons was taught in a controlled and monitored environment. In addition to closely monitoring me through the mess room porthole both the pumpman and engine room had been (quietly) put on notice, the weather was clam and day- light strong.

In December 2007 gCaptain published amazing photos of surfboat training in heavy seas (you can find them HERE) at Coast Guard station Morro Bay, located less than a mile from my house. The photos where quickly distributed by a variety of news organizations. The interesting thing is that inspiration for my article in CAMM occurred after I had a conversation with the chief in charge of the Morro Bay CG station. After the incident I met the chief and apologized to him for any part gCaptain played in giving the training session unwanted attention. His reply was that many questions were asked by top brass at the Coast Guard but he had avoided significant trouble by pointing out that his men needed experience in the weather conditions they were expected to operate in.

The question is, in Montauk had the training been conducted in a controlled environment with the risks identified and mitigated? Or was modern day aversion to any and all risk the sole reason for the chief’s removal from duty?

Real life training has value despite the risks involved. For example, it’s important to use smoke generators during shipboard fire drills. Yes, you risk having a man trip and get injured due to the reduced visibility of a smoke filled room, but if the drill is planned, the proper equipment (helmet, boots, flashlight, etc) is used and if the crew has the proper training (to stay low and feel for obstructions) then the added realism the smoke provides makes the added risk worthwhile.

The answer why Chief Webber was most likely relieved is in the statement; “Neither Weber nor the skipper of a second boat was properly qualified to operate in surf that high”. The Coast Guard takes the certification of heavy weather coxswains very seriously, requiring them to attend a comprehensive and difficult school in Oregon where they are trained in actual heavy weather conditions aboard hardened 47′ rescue boats. I would not put a seaman who had not been to firefighting school in smoke filled room and Chief Webber should not have put his untrained men in that boat.

So why was the Montauk chief relieve of command while no disciplinary action was taken on the crew in Morro Bay?

While it first appears to be unfair a quick look at the Surfboatman program guidelines clearly shows that Morro Bay is a designated Surf Station with prospective surfboatmen “that withdraw or are dismissed from the PSP will be reassigned… and will be restricted from future assignment to surf stations”. Montauk, however, is not designated as a surf station and thus did not have guardsmen properly trained in heavy weather operations.

Bottom line, I am an active proponent of realistic training conducted in controlled circumstances but I disagree fully with Montauk area mariners that stated “Weber did not deserve such severe consequences for preparing his crew to come to their aid in perilous conditions”. My view is that the risks where simply not sufficiently mitigated. If these mariners see sufficient reason for surf training they should contact their representatives to ask the Coast Guard to include Montauk in the list of surf stations, not back training that contains unnecessary risk.

Last is the issue of photographer Thomas Colla in Montauk who wrote on his facebook page;  “I’m Really sorry if my photos had anything to do with this, I’m not feeling good at all about this.” While I sympathize with Colla’s intentions the discovery of his photos was unlikely an accident. In the, yet to be published, part three of my interview with the USCG Commandant Thad Allen he states that the rate at which mariners are being prosecuted for criminal acts is not increasing due to any change in outlook or regulations by the Coast Guard but rather in the recent and rapid expansion of tools that assist in the detection of criminal acts. Now I am not making the judgment that Webber’s acts were criminal but it is important to note that the Coast Guard is watching and social media outlets like facebook and gCaptain are being monitored by Coast Guard personnel. They are watching and, when questionable acts are posted to the web, they are likely to find them and take action.

I can read the mind of our regular readers, “Is John agreeing with the Coast Guard? Has he gone soft?” Well I do have one problem with their response to this issue… all of my thoughts above are just that, thoughts. I have yet to see specific information on the details of the incident made public.  Until transparency occurs the Montauk area mariners only have the assumption that all realistic training is prohibited. As long as mariners fear disciplinary action when mistakes are made they will steer clear of the very situations that have, for centuries, provided realistic training. And when the sea provides no alternative than full speed ahead they will not have the experience to survive.

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