Cosco Busan Pilot Claims The 5th

April 5, 2008

Cosco Busan pilot John Cota has invoked his right under the 5th Amendment of the US Constitution, which protects accused persons from self-incrimination, not to appear at the US National Transportation Safety Board hearings which start on 8th April. Through lawyers, he claims that VTS personnel were betting on whether the 65,131 tonnes container ship would hit the San Francisco -Oakland Bay Bridge on November 7, 2007.

Sideswiping the bridge’s fenders, a gash was opened in the ship’s side that resulted in a 55,000 gallon spill of fuel oil.

The two-day public NTSB hearings will follow a 7th April conference to fix the final agenda. NTSB Chairman Mark V. Rosenker, who will chair the hearing says, “This accident presents the Board with many questions, such as: Was the Cosco Busan’s bridge navigation equipment working properly? Was there adequate oversight of the San Francisco bar pilot? Did the Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic Service exert the appropriate level of control over the Cosco Busan?”

A further issue may be the possible effect of medication being taken by Cota for sleep apnea.

Cota’s lawyers claim that the Coast Guard VTS service could have avoided the accident but did not clearly communicate their concern to Cota and that VTS personnel discussed and took bets on whether the Cosco Busan would hit the bridge, based on “waterfront rumours”. The letter also says that the Coast Guard did not warn mariners about the fog and that Cota “… prevented a worse catastrophe by his clear and cool thinking.”

Cota faces prosecution for two misdemeanors under the Clean Water Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. If found guilty, Cota could face a one year prison sentence or fines totalling $115,000.  Some six members of the Cosco Busan crew, who have not been charged are in detention as ‘material witnesses’ pending Cota’s trial.

The Board of Pilot Commissioners for the Bays of San Francisco, San Pablo and Suisun has charged Cota with misconduct and the US Coast Guard has demanded his Merchant Marine Officer’s license because it “believes he is not physically competent to maintain the license.”

Regardless of the results of Cota’s trial or the NTSB hearing, the incident will throw the spotlight on the relationship between Pilot and Master, recently the subject of a Maritime Executive editorial, As pointed out in the responses to that item, the pilkot, at least under US law, is more than merely an adviser, a master is required to obey the pilot, and the bridge crew are required to obey the pilot as if he was the master, unless there is clear indication of the pilot’s incapacity or incompetence.

By which it’s usually too late.

Strangler In The Fridge Preview

March 31, 2008

…Oops, that should have been Stranger On The Bridge, “Strangler In The Fridge” was a sort of code during production. If you want to know what we get up to when not working on Maritime Accident Casebook check out the trailer etc. for Stranger On The Bridge here.

There is a bit of form filling before you get to the link.

Cosco Busan Pilot Charged With Misconduct

December 8, 2007

The following has been released by the Board of Pilot Commissioners for the Bays
of San Francisco, San Pablo and Suisun

“Today, the Board of Pilot Commissioners’ Incident Review Committee filed written charges of misconduct (an accusation) against Captain John Cota arising from his piloting of the COSCO BUSAN on November 7, 2007.

In dense fog, the ship he piloted struck the fendering system of one of the towers of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, damaging the ship, the fendering system, and releasing 58,000 gallons of fuel oil into the waters of San Francisco Bay.

“This Board takes seriously the events of November 7th, the resulting oil spill, and Capt. Cota’s involvement as the pilot,” said Board President Knute Michael Miller. “The Board’s Incident Review Committee has carried out its investigation resulting in the charges filed today. We will proceed judiciously to determine whether Captain Cota was negligent and whether he should be allowed to continue piloting on San Francisco Bay. In the meantime, his license remains suspended pending a hearing.”

Captain Cota is charged with having reason to doubt whether the ship could safely proceed under the prevailing circumstances and proceeding on his course with insufficient information about the level of visibility along his intended route. He is also charged with proceeding at a speed that was excessive for the circumstances and failing to make full use of all available resources, including a tugboat, the Vessel Traffic Service of the Coast Guard, and his ship’s lookout. The tug remained tethered to the ship’s stern; the Vessel Traffic Service of the Coast Guard could have provided more information if Captain Cota had requested it; and the ship’s lookout could have been better instructed. The charges allege that Captain Cota’s conduct warrants the suspension or revocation of his state pilot license.

Captain Cota will have 15 days in which to file a written response with his defenses to the charges and to request a hearing.

If the pilot requests a hearing, the Board will decide whether it will hear the case or submit the matter to an Administrative Law Judge for a hearing. That decision may come as early as the Board’s next meeting scheduled for December 13, 2007.
A hearing may be scheduled as early as January, depending on the defenses raised by the pilot and any requests for continuances to accommodate witnesses or access to evidence needed by either side to present their case.

If the pilot does not request a hearing, the Board may act on the charges without a hearing.

More on VTS-Assisted Accidents

December 3, 2007

John Clandillon-Baker at UK Pilot Magazine sent me a link to the collision/allision between the general cargo ship Karen Danielsen and the Great Belt Bridge in Denmark that’s very timely given the call for ships to obey VTS Operators in the same way that aircraft obey air traffic controllers. In this case the Croatian Chief Officer fell asleep alone on the ship’s bridge and sadly died in the incident. The area was covered by a VTS system but, at the critical moments, the VTS operator was distracted and didn’t know the ship had hit the bridge until he heard a Mayday on the VHF.

Karen Danielsen

The Karen Danielsen before… 

KD Bridge
This was the bridge

Karen Danielsen after

…and after. The Chief Officer, the single watchkeeper on the bridge, died. 

The official report concludes that VTS could not have prevented the collision. John’s magazine article says: “In my opinion there is a bit of whitewash over the finding that the VTS could probably not have prevented this disaster since the investigators have seemingly revealed that no operators were monitoring shipping on the relevant display for over 30 minutes. If it is considered unlikely that the operator could have prevented the collision even if he had been keenly monitoring the ship it does rather beg the question why bother with having the VTS and expensively manning it since it is seemingly not fit for purpose?

“One common factor amongst all the VTS centres that I have visited is that VTS operators are allocated many administrative duties which inevitably distract the VTS operator from monitoring the displays. If the procedural changes introduced in the Danish Belt centre following the collision were implemented as general VTS policy the increase in manpower required to separately cover the administrative functions could have a significant impact on cost effectiveness of VTS.

You can read his article here.

An otherwise occupied VTS operator also played a role in the grounding of the P&O-Nedlloyd Magellan in Southampton Water, as mentioned in a previous post.

Despite the inevitable howls of protest and indignation from the industry the paradigm shift from VTS as advisers to VTS as controllers is sure to come. It will probably be the biggest change since VTS system began in Liverpool in 1948. Clearly, those who manage VTS will have to pull their socks up, too.

One issue that tends to be overshadowed in the Karen Danielsen case is fatigue. The Chief Officer had been working for 11 hours, taking breaks only for meals. As it happens, new crew had joined the ship on the day of the collision. None were involved in the accident but john has some forceful comments about how they joined the ship:

“…investigators noted a disturbing factor around how crew changes are now undertaken in total contravention of the Working Time Directive which results in ships’s personnel joining the vessel in an already extremely fatigued state. The report notes:

The 2nd officer together with four other new crew members joined the vessel around 1000 hours on 3 March 2005 after travelling by mini-bus from Split in Croatia to Svendborg, in Denmark. This was a direct drive of 26 hours, they were accompanied by two drivers and a crew manager from the manning agency. Upon arrival at the ship they went through their respective handovers and the departing crew members left to return to Croatia with the same mini-bus shortly after 1400 hours on 3 March. The joining crew went straight on duty upon arrival at the vessel.

Due to the busy work schedule planned for the 3rd March, all on board, both existing and newly joined crew worked throughout the day on the 3 March 2005.

I understand that this appalling disregard of the ‘Human Element’ is apparently now common practice as a means of saving the cost of hotel bills and air fares.

Says it all, really.

Cosco Busan – Who Needs Pilots?

November 30, 2007

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.

USCG Commandant Thad Allen’s assurance to Fairplay that his command is up to the challenge has a Rice-Davies sort of quality to it, he would say that, wouldn’t he.

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.”

New Podcast – The Case Of The Confused Pilot

November 28, 2007

Pilotage and bridge team management have come to the fore this month with the allison between the Cosco Busan and the San Francisco-Oakland Bridge so the latest MAC episode, The Case Of The Confused Pilot is a timely reminder of the issues at stake.

Check out the podcast.home page at for the audio podcast, the illustrated transcript is under construction and will be available by the weekend.

DVD on Pilotage Released

November 22, 2007

In one of those cosmic coincidences, at around the moment the Cosco Busan kissed the San Francisco-Oakland bridge while under pilotage the finishing touches were being put on a three-episode DVD for the American Club called, what else, Stranger On The Bridge.

AP&I says:“Stranger on the Bridge focuses on the responsibilities of deck crew, and the limitations of over-reliance on marine pilotage, in preventing accidents. It comprises three case studies which highlight the challenges in ensuring proper command and communication between pilot and crew. ”

The DVD was developed in cooperation with the International Development and Environmental Shipping School Interactive Technologies, Inc. (IDESS IT, Inc.) in Subic Bay, Philippines.

In fairness, I have to declare an interest: I wrote and directed the videos so I won’t comment on the DVD itself but I will say that IDESS IT has a great creative team of young people and a real commitment to maritime safety.

If you want to know more about Stranger On The Bridge click here.