Proposed Bill Mandates An Increase Of VTS Authority

John Konrad
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December 4, 2007

Representative Nacy Pelosi and Admiral Craig Bone, USCG
(Photo by PA2 Prentice Danner, USCG)

This morning Senator Barbra Boxer and Representative Nacy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, announced a bill giving the U.S. Coast Guard broader authority to direct the actions of ship masters in navigating inland waters. The San Francisco Chronicle tells us;

The Coast Guard would gain new authority to order ships to reduce speed or shift course during emergencies or hazardous conditions under new legislation that California Sen. Barbara Boxer is introducing this week.

The bill could increase the responsibilities of the Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic Service, which helps guide ships in U.S. harbors. The measure would give it powers akin to those of air traffic controllers, who issue step-by-step directions to airplane pilots.

Boxer, a Democrat, said she believes the spill could have been prevented if the Coast Guard had ordered the ship to slow down or change course.

“I absolutely think it would have” prevented the spill, Boxer said. “Let’s say the conditions were fierce – and they were – (the Vessel Traffic Service) would have declared an emergency, and they would have taken over in guiding this ship.Continue Reading….

Regular readers of this bog already know my personal thoughts on the subject. In last week’s editorial, I wrote;

The problem with maritime incidents is the fix rarely address the true cause and often creates problems that contribute to future incidents.

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.

My comments resulted in 5 emails, 2 phone calls and a, well written, personal response by our friend Bob Couttie of the Maritime Accident Casebook. Bob wrote;

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. Continue Reading…

This comment cause me to invest more than a few hours in nocturnal contemplation. Had I overestimated the potential outcome of the Coast Guard’s overtly defensive and seemingly irrational stance or has Bob’s geographic location far away from our shores disconnected him from the current state of American politics?

Provided the Chronicle has accurately conveyed Senator Boxer and Representative Pelosi’s intent, gCaptain reader ACI’s comment most accurately portrays the sentiment of our master mariner think tank;

Keep on putting more constrains to the shipping business with your new ridiculous American fear to everything and we will end up with no business at all. I know of captains that are refusing to sail to your country.

I really loved the times when the US was leading the world towards modernity, now it seems you are too scared.

The likely impetus for drafting legislation that puts us in the ironic position of being more likely to have a future incident is the demand for quick answers. For this reason I can not form a personal opinion as to maritime pilot John Cota’s culpability, at least not until the NTSB report is published. I can, however, give an industry insider’s opinion on the safety of current operations in the bay… so I wish to reiterate my personal feelings that both the San Fransisco Bar pilots and local VTS operators are among the most capable and well trained in the world. This, coupled with the fact US Coast Guard and State pilot officials have not asked for these changes, is worrisome.

Regardless of the headlines Pelosi’s bill does contain some element of potential good. The Chronicle writes;

Boxer’s bill would authorize $20 million to upgrade the technology used by the Vessel Traffic Service. The measure also would require all pilots to have their own navigational laptop computers. Cota has said he was unfamiliar with the ship’s electronic charts. Many pilots bring their own laptops on board to make sure they have reliable navigational charts to steer the ship.

The state pilot commission suspended Cota’s license on Friday. Cota’s attorney, John Meadows, has said his client was given “wrong information” by the ship’s captain, Mao Cai Sun.

History has proven that safe operations in the bay are possible without advanced electronics and I will not be surprised if the NTSB’s report places some degree of blame on the rapid integration of new technology on the bridge, a problem only made worse by already burdensome training requirements. This, however, does not mean we can ignore technological improvements.

For an intelligent discussion of the topic I’ll point you to audio from Captain Kelly Sweeney’s recent interview with NPR (CLICK HERE). Boiled down he states that we as mariners love AIS, ECDIS and other technology that keep us safe but improvements (most notably in implementation and redundancy) are needed.

But I’m still an optimist. When this discussion fades into memory we may find Pelosi’s large investment propelled interesting technological improvements while our worries were mitigated by the level headed watchmen of VTS.

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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. John lives in Morro Bay, CA with his wife Cindy and son Jack.


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