May 092009

What, you might wonder, would bring together the NTSB, the IMO, the contact of  the Cosco Busan with the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and a senior loan officer at a bank in Spokane, Washington, having sexual relations with a Mallard duck?

The NTSB has just released the full report of the Cosco Busan incident and among the issues is that of communications, problems of which are involved in about one in five maritime incidents.

That’s why it is good practice to confirm that information has been understood and that its importance is appreciated.

On the Cosco Busan the voyage data recorder recorded the following conversation between the Pilot and the Master:

Pilot:  “What are these… ah… red [unintelligible]?”
The master responded, “This is on bridge.”

The pilot then said to the master, “I couldn’t figure out what the red light… red… red triangle was.”

The Pilot took this to mean that the red triangles marked the centre of the span when, in fact they indicated the buoys marking the bridge support which the ship later hit. The Master did not realise the importance of the question.

Later, as things unravelled:

Pilot: [unintelligible] you said this was the center of the bridge.
Master: Yes.
Pilot: No, this is the center. That’s the tower. This is the tower. That’s why we hit it. I thought that was the center.
Master: It’s a buoy. [unintelligible] the chart.
Pilot: Yeah, see. No, this is the tower. I asked you if that was [unintelligible]. . . .
Captain, you said it was the center.
Master: Cen… cen… cen… center.
Pilot: Yeah, that’s the bridge pier [expletive]. I thought it was the center.

Says the NTSB report “Shortly after this conversation, the master can be heard saying, in Mandarin, “He should have known—this is the center of the bridge, not the center of the channel.”

In many Asian cultures ‘yes’ does not necessarily mean an affirmative, oner can pick from a range of meanings that would not naturally occur to a Westerner.

(The curiosities and confusion of language are touched upon in Bob Couttie’s new, lighthearted book, Chew The Bones, which you can buy from Amazon and the proceed of which will help support MAC)

In a recommendation letter to US Coast Guard commander Thad Allen the NTSB wrote: “The Safety Board therefore recommends that the Coast Guard propose to the IMO that it include a segment on cultural and language differences and their possible influence on mariner performance in its bridge resource management curricula.”

It’s tempting to think that closely allied languages like English and American present less opportunity for confusion, but you would be wrong. Take this example from Snopes’ wonderful Urban Legend site:

“Armstrong proceeded to shag ducks…”

You can read the rest of the story here. While mallards are known to have a somewhat ‘out there’ sex life, sex acts between humans and 10 days old ducklings are further out than most would want to go.

Apparently ‘to shag’ in American means to catch baseballs, to us Brits it has a rather different connotation.

The lesson is clear: communication is transmitting information, receiving information and understanding information. It’s vital to double each each part of that process, that the communication is understood and verified.

Otherwise, you could end up being shagged by lawyers, and not like a duck.