Apr 182008

Dennis Bryant at Holland & Knight clearly shares our exasperation at bandwagonning politicians climbing aboard the Cosco Busan. Commenting on a bill introduced by that global maritime expert Senator Feinstein, he says ‘The bill provides, among other things, that during a condition of enhanced danger (which includes dangerously low visibility, whatever that is) the USCG Sector Commander “shall assume direct authority over all vessels within the area . . . to ensure the safe navigation of dangerous waterways.”This is a truly misguided approach that will result in more problems than it expects to solve. ‘

What one wonders is whether that sector commander will be subject to criminal charges, face imprisonment and lose his career should an incident occur on his watch? Will he face the same legal risks as the pilot and ship officers aboard the Cosco Busan. Will the Coast Guard be fined millions of dollars for any pollution that occurs as a result? After all, if he, or she, is to assume direct authority over a vessel then he or she should be liable, as should the Coast Guard, so it’s little surprise that the Coast Guard itself really doesn’t want that particular hot potato.

In fact, there was little the VTS could have done at the time of the Cosco Busan incident. Its obsolete equipment had a time-lag between a ship making a manouvre and that manouvre being seen on the VTS screen, The equipment was obsolete because politicians had voted down funds for its upgrading.

Even modern equipment is not ‘real time’, there is always a lag which can be significant when dealing with fast-moving vessels.

VTS is not air traffic control. Every craft in the air is subject to air traffic control but the waters are filled with small vessels with little or no radar signature, without AIS, without radios, which can, and do interfere with safe navigation but will not be seen by the VTS.

Dangerous situations can arise without warning. At that moment, those on the bridge must remain focussed and undistracted, which they can’t be if they required to take orders from someone who isn’t on the bridge and doesn’t know the immediate situation. What will ensure will be a negotiation that will interfere with the bridge team’s situational awareness, particularly if the Coast Guard officer behaves with the typical abrasiveness of the breed.

One must, however, beware of the same sort of knee-jerk reaction that is influencing Feinstein’s bid for maritime glory. One must question whether direct VTS control is necessary or advisable in waters with mandatory pilotage, otherwise, why have a pilot anyway? Again, the issue of liability has to be settled.

There may well be an argument for greater VTS control, particularly in areas of high traffic density, and given the decreasing experience of many ship’s officers today, but ill thought-out legislation isn’t the way to go.

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