When you were first learning to drive a car, chances are that someone told you about the merits of defensive driving. Know where another car is, be prepared to react to anything, always be wary: these helpful tips have been passed down from generation to generation. These principles are also extremely pertinent on our nation’s waterways. Nothing highlights this better than the recent collision between the Elka Apollon and the MSC Nederland.
This collision occurred in one of the busiest waterways in the country: the Houston Ship Channel in Texas. The tank ship Elka Apollon collided with the containership MSC Nederland. Thankfully, there were no injuries but the collision caused $2.8 million in damages.
Our investigation into the collision determined that it was entirely preventable. The collision was caused by the failure of the pilot of the Elka Apollon to respond to changes in bank effect forces, which directed the vessel across the channel and into the MSC Nederland. The pilot was not “driving defensively.” He misjudged the situation, and paid for it.
This defensive driving on the waterways has a name: seamanship. While the dictionary definition is “knowledge and skill pertaining to the operation, navigation, management, safety, and maintenance of a ship,” seamanship is so much more than this. If a pilot isn’t constantly vigilant about his or her surroundings, then millions in damage is probably the best that pilot could hope for; the worst could be the loss of human life.
Here are some tips and techniques that every mariner should use when at the helm:
• Keep a sharp ‘seaman’s eye’ by taking advantage of all navigational equipment and avoid distractions;
• Always anticipate future actions – course and speed changes, rudder commands, and using clear ship to ship communications when meeting and overtaking marine traffic;
• Know your position and anticipate future track in all situations; always have an alternate plan including emergency shiphandling skills to avoid a casualty; and
• Take actions needed to reduce risks such as confirming all equipment and machinery is in operational order, ensuring that all watch standers are well rested, and when possible, avoiding piloting in reduced visibility.
To sum it up, marine pilots, just like every day motor vehicle drivers, need to be prepared for anything.
Captain Scheffer is a Chief in the NTSB’s Office of Marine Safety. He spent 25 years in the merchant marines, 16 years as a master and is an expert accident investigator.