Nov 122007

The Cosco Busan after the allision (Source, USCG)

Conspiracy theorists might suggest that last Wednesday’s fog-bound collision,properly called an allision, between the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the containership Cosco Busan with one of 60 San Francisco Bay Area pilots aboard was a publicity stunt for the curiously well-timed release of the American P&I Club’s DVD, Stranger On The Bridge, scheduled this week. All that is certain is that the bridge is probably the only participant whose career will not be blighted, but the bridge declines to comment on the advice of its lawyers.

In fact, while the DVD was in production last year the International Group of P&I Clubs, which represents 13 of the major shipowner protection and indemnity organisations published the results of a study into incidents involving vessels under the conduct of a pilot. In a period when maritime accidents generally declined, those involving pilots seem to be intractable.

Over a five year period there were 262 claims from incidents that occurred when there was a pilot on board at an average cost of around $850,00. There were 68 collisons at a hefty average of $800,000 apiece which pales against the two collisions a year costing almost $8m each. Pollution incidents, at around two a year, toted up $1.8 per incident.

Incidents involving fixed and floating objects like that of the Cosco Busan, logged a whopping average of 37 a year at a hit of $400,000 each, around $100,000 less, by the way than the annual salary of a Bay Area pilot.

Two cases, one a collision and the other the collapse of a shore crane, involved seafarer and shoreworker fatalities. Pilots didn’t escape the grisly toll, either; in 2005 alone, according to the International Pilots Association, six lost their lives boarding or disembarking vessels.

There are many direct causes for these incidents: pilot fatigue, poor bridge resource management, miscommunications, loss of situational awareness, bad decisions but all dance to same piper – the relationship between the pilot and the bridge team.

One must certainly wonder how a ship 44 metres wide should come to grief in a channel 737 metres wide, tearing a hole 33 metres long by 4 metres wide in its side but would be inappropriate to pass judgment until all the information is in. Even then it is likely to be controversial. The US National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation will itself be under close scrutiny following recent criticisms of its performance by a former senior executive. Another investigation by the US Coast Guard may be seen to be tainted by the need to answer allegations of a tardy response to the resultant 58,000 gallon spill of bunker oil. Reports by the shipowner’s P&I club will probably not be made publicly available in detail, the flag state investigation will take longer. The there will be the Bay Area VTS and the Board of Pilot Commissioners.


Hovering like a dark cloud over the proceedings will be the issue of the possible criminal liability of those on the bridge, predominantly Chinese nationals, the pilot and the ship’s bridge team. Insurance will cover the cost of damages but ship’s officers, the master especially, may well be looking at imprisonment, not a great career move and, of course, a disincentive to becoming an officer in the first place.

Strictly speaking, the pilot is only an advisor and the master, who is responsible for the safe navigation of the vessel, can choose to accept or reject that advice. In reality, few deep sea masters have extensive ship-handling experience and depend on the pilot, who usually has far more knowledge.

Jockeying for innocence has already started. Part of a three-page statement by the pilot, Captain John Cota, to the USCG has been released to the press by his lawyer who blames the bridge team. Says the lawyer: “There was a big difference between what he ordered and the heading that the ship took.”

At the same time, documents from the Board of Pilot Commissioners show that although Captain Cota had an excellent reputation as a ship handler he had been involved in four previous incidents, one involving the grounding of a bulker 2006, and one involving an aircraft carrier in 2003, and had been counselled on several occasions.

So far there have been no suggestions of electrical or mechanical failure which strongly indicates a fault in bridge resource management.

Under the microscope will be whether the pilot gave the correct commands, whether the bridge officers correctly received those commands, whether the orders passed on to the helmsman were those of the pilot and whether the helmsman correctly understood those commands and responded appropriately to them.

There is, in fact, nothing special about the Cosco Busan incident, it just happened to occur in a rich state of a rich country with well-heeled lawyers and a, rightly, vociferous, media. There will be a liability witch hunt fuelled by inflated damage claims, there can be no doubt, lawyers want to feather their nests as much as anyone else.

Right now the greatest danger doesn’t come from the 58,000 gallons of spilled bunker along the California coast, but from the danger that the witch hunt to find one man to take the blame will obscure the real problem of the apparently intractable number of incidents involving ships under pilotage. Resolving that issue will take more than hot air and regulation, it will require paying attention to how decisions are made within the curious environment of the master/pilot relationship and social engineering to make that relationship work.