Tagging Cosco Busan has been a good way to increase search engine hits lately but I’ll try to restrain comment until the US NTSB report thuds on my desk. One issue arising from it, though, has sparked off comments both among the friend of Maritime Accident Casebook: The proposal by US Federal authorities that vessels in US waters should be controlled by VTS operators in the same way that aircraft are controlled by air traffic controllers.
John Konrad over at gCaptain referred to the report as “Ridiculous item of the month” and comments: “The problem with (responses to) maritime incidents is they rarely address the true cause and often creates problems that contribute to future incidents…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.”
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.
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.
Thad Allen’s confidence in those under his command to do the job isn’t, however, matched by the resources available: “most major US harbours 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”, reports Fairplay. A good number of ports which do have VTS systems are using antiquated equipment, so the flesh is willing but the semi-conductors are missing.
Throwing technology at the problem won’t solve it. John Clandillon-Baker warns: “The Cosco Busan is set to be a major case. The spotlight is once again on us pilots but the solutions are not as simple as the report from today’s Safety at Sea suggests. VTS is only as good as the people looking at the screens.”
Those who find the idea of ‘pilotage by VTS’ are sometimes dismissed as salt-water Luddites who can’t see the 21st century wood for the 17th century trees of tradition. Such and assumption is implicit in the Fairplay report: “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.”
An enormous difference between air traffic control and VTS is that an airport can’t put its own pilot on the flight deck of an incoming 747, port authorities can and do. If there’s a pilot on the bridge does the traffic controller need the authority implied by Thad Allen? Does there need to be a pilot on the bridge at all if VTS operators have such authority? Is it wise to give that level of authoroty to someone who may have limited sea-time and little if any ship handling experience?
At a symposium on VTS issues in 2000, the then-secretary general of the IMO, William O’Neill, talked about the issues facing the role of VTS:”… the questions that have been raised have not been prompted only by a desire to hang on to tradition… the International Maritime Pilots Association pointed out that, since masters and pilots would have to use information which they were unable to verify, the VTS authorities should assume part of the responsibility for any adverse consequences arising from its use.
“IMPA wanted to know how the shipmaster… could be held responsible for an accident when he was merely following orders from the shore? … Friends of the Earth … made the point that the establishment of mandatory VTS, even beyond territorial waters, should not be ruled out when there is a compelling and obvious need to improve safety. This could be seen as a challenge to the traditional freedom of the seas. It could also result in a coastal State being held responsible for damage caused due to a shipping accident…
“VTS is a part of that process (Of resolving environmental and safety concerns)… But there is no doubt that the development of VTS and associated technologies, such as the introduction of automatic ship reporting systems, has been delayed by a combination of many factors, two of which are more significant than the others. The first is a reluctance to adopt new ideas which threaten traditional practices and the second is a concern about being held responsible for the damage that might result from something going wrong”
There is a web of issues, from the training and experience of VTS operators, their relationship to pilotage and the thorny legal issues surrounding their relationship with the ship’s Master. but discussing whether or not mandatory VTS guidance comes into force creates the illusion that there is an option. There isn’t.
Rod Short of GlobeMET pretty well sums up the future: “It appears inevitable because of accidents such as the COSCO Busan, the growing concern about onboard competence linked with the difficulty in getting suitable people to make a career of seafaring, the increasing size of the larger ships and, of course, the political pressures that arise when oil and other pollutants are spilled.”