Richard Woodman | LLOYD’S LIST
SEVERAL years ago I stood guard over a recent wreck in the same waters in which the British fishing vessel Etoile des Ondes was sunk on December 20, 2009. It was our statutory duty to ascertain the least depth over the wreck in order to determine whether it required marking and it was late in the day when we arrived on scene.
With the sinking and rescue completed, and ambiguous information over the precise position, it took some time for our sonar to locate our objective, and the key to the solution was the stink of oil on the evening air. With the onset of night, a moderate sea and low swell, it was imprudent to manoeuvre the ship over the wreck, owing to the likelihood of heavy polypropylene mooring ropes secured to the wreck, trailing on the surface.
Such obstructions were dangerous to us, with the risk of fouling our propellers, and equally so to passing shipping. We therefore took up station as close to the wreck as was practicable, stemmed the tide, hoisted our wreck-marking lights, prepared our maroons and settled down for a long night.
It turned out to be one of the worst in my professional life. I was not new to the task and knew it for a real hazard. My vessel was vulnerable — I could only move off station if I was in danger of being run down. I will spare you the details; suffice it to say when day broke and we sent the boats away to take preliminary soundings before we attempted to remove the mooring ropes that were indeed there, and pass the ship over the wreck, I had sufficient material for the opening two chapters of a novel.
What struck me at the time was the complete lack of sea-sense on the bridges of a number of outbound ships which took no notice of our signals, ignored our VHF calls and only reacted when our searchlight and the flash and explosions of our maroons alerted the watch.
We concluded that, having escaped the confines of the English Channel, these guys were heady with the freedom of the Atlantic opening ahead of them. In fact, it was a marker of the culture change that I have since noticed grow like fungus on board the bridges of many, many ships. In short, I was not surprised to read of the facts of the loss of the Etoile des Ondes revealed by the MAIB Safety Digest 1/2010 and reported by this newspaper on June 28. I was, nevertheless, dismayed.
The well-meant legislation, codification, best-practice guidelines and so on that have thundered upon the heads of hapless seafarers in the past three decades has appalled the old guard like myself, who were more-or-less trained to do the job properly and left to get on with it.
Ours was a system that had weaknesses, relied upon the individual and had of itself caused marine disasters, but the essential culture was correct, even when the specific case let it down. But I write as one whose correspondence and conversation with active mariners provides a stream of anecdotal evidence.
Such men and women cannot themselves blow whistles, but there will be many more fine young men like Chris Wadsworth cut down by negligence and ignorance if the problem is not addressed.
Along with containers, super-ships and the economic imperatives that drive down crew size, a more insidious worm has got into the guts of shipping. It is a complex, many-wrinkled worm, but its manifestation is of diminishing competence among many mariners; and, since it is a cultural failing, while they may personally contribute to the specific case, it is not their own fault. Something has been lost, something vital — an instinctual, intuitive quality of sea-sense. It is an awareness of one’s environment.
Let me give you an analogy. You are driving along a busy road; the traffic is moving fast. As you begin to overtake a vehicle, something tells you its driver is going to pull out. They are not indicating, but intuition has warned you and you ease back in expectation. A few seconds later, the vehicle acts as premonition told you. How does this happen? I am at a loss to know; I only know that it does happen.
The modern mariner is like the other driver. He or she knows how to do things theoretically, but actually fails to do them properly. What causes this? In the case of the driver, it could be that the CD player or radio is on; they could be taking in data from their satellite navigator; they might be talking to a passenger or be on a mobile; or simply weighing up the prospects of the deal they hope to close at their destination.
What they do not do is see you coming up astern, bother to indicate their intentions, or realise that they are part of a stream of traffic travelling somewhere around 70 mph. They are essentially oblivious to the environment in which they are a moving component. In the case of the mariner it will be much the same: information overload, a reliance upon data derived from radar and other instruments.
I shall never forget having to rush on the bridge and alter course to avoid colliding with a warship when the office on watch, his head in the radar, insisted that the man-of-war would pass clear ahead — at less than 50 m. He was a master mariner too. If he had only lifted his mug from the set occasionally, he would have seen what was developing, which was what I had done from the desk in my cabin. It was a nauseating moment for both of us.
When I first went to sea and was allowed to keep a bridge watch, it was drilled deep into my thick adolescent brain that the keeping of a lookout was the primary duty of anyone on the bridge, even in fog. So well learned was the lesson that I habitually glanced out of the window of my cabin, thank goodness. That does not make me special, or outstanding, only competent.
Other factors have, of course, added to detachment and distraction — the relaxed atmosphere on many bridges; the provision of chairs; the lack of paper charts, which convey topography unequivocally; electronic displays, which do not, all contribute to a slow inhibition of sea-sense.
There are subtler, less obvious things. For example, the lack of a necessity to take sights leads not merely to a lack of personal geographical and positional awareness, but to a lack of personal fulfilment. Even such things as uniform and the small privileges once enjoyed at meal times could contribute to this sense well-being. Employment gurus claim that job satisfaction means more to most people than the level of pay, so long as the latter is reasonable. Yet cultural change at sea, so often mistaken for progress, has so steadily eroded the mariner’s world that he is no longer what he once was.
It is not only those on duty on the bridge of the ship that sank the Etoile des Ondes that caused its loss and the death of a young man, though they will get the blame. Those who did not answer the distress call when they might have done are to some extent culpable, but so too are those hiding behind their share dividends and their ramparts of bureaucratic documentation.