Maritime academies in the US have been told to ensure that their cadets understood their responsibilities as licensed officers when they assume their first navigational watch as professional mariners. The advice followed the publication of the US National Transportation Safety Board’s report on the grounding at night of the 300-foot passenger vessel Empress of the North in May, 2007, while under the command of a third mate who had graduated from the California Maritime Academy less than three weeks before.
The officer was not familiar with the bridge equipment or procedures. Neither the Master nor Chief Mate had reviewed the route with him, discussed the steering modes, or critical equipment such as radar. One particular hazard, Rocky Island, required the Officer Of the Watch to make a critical decision.
He was initially assigned to the midnight to 0400 watch, his first navigational watch, with the senior third mate. The day before the accident the senior third mate fell ill. The master decide to maintain the planned watch but to add the vessel’s most experienced helmsman in an attempt to mitigate the junior third officer’s inexperience.
During the passage, the third officer gave effective command to the helmsman. He later told investigators” My understanding was he (the helmsman) would be in control of the boat, and I would be there because I have a license.”
About 0130 on Monday, May 14, 2007, the Empress of the North, grounded on Rocky Island, which was illuminated by a flashing green navigation light. The US Coast Guard and several Good Samaritan vessels assisted in evacuating the passengers and nonessential crewmembers and safely transporting them back to Juneau. No injuries or pollution resulted from the accident, but the vessel sustained significant damage to its starboard underside and propulsion system.
Say the NTSB: “the junior third mate failed to understand and fulfill his responsibilities as a licensed officer… Newly licensed third officers will often find themselves on a ship they have never sailed on, in an unfamiliar waterway they have never transited before, and in the company of a master and crew they have never served with before. These circumstances do not, however, absolve them of their responsibility to take charge as the officer of the watch when so assigned .. His (the junior third officer’s) expressed confidence… suggests that he did not fully appreciate his duties and responsibilities and what was required to fulfill them.”
In a letter, the NTSB urges maritime academies: “teach your students the circumstances of this accident, including their responsibilities as newly licensed officers to prepare themselves for assigned duties and to express their concerns if placed in situations for which they are unprepared.