Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

All at sea

Some years back, I was active in the US Power Squadron*. Among the excellent courses I took were Piloting, Advanced Piloting and Cruise Planning. The focus of the first two was coastal navigation, and that skill also figured in the third. Each of these courses taught traditional methods of finding one's way at sea, as well as electronic tools. There was a consistent message in all three: don't become so dependent on electronic devices that you forget to see where you really are. (This is the nautical equivalent of always looking out the window as a last check on the weather.)

Evidence is growing that the captain and bridge officers of M/S Costa Concordia forgot this fundamental of modern navigation. Worse, they forgot it at the worst possible moment: when they were hotdogging a 114,000 ton ship through a narrow, shallow channel. It appears they had done this before. Apparently fishermen and others with local knowledge had registered protests of some kind, saying that the channel was too dangerous for a ship of that size.

It's in the worst nautical tradition to disregard local knowledge. Sooner or later your luck will run out. Apart from my own small-boat misadventures of this sort, I was once on a large ship that made its own rules entering Salem Harbour. We were a delegation of local reps who got to ride up from Boston aboard a modern British frigate that was part of an OpSail escort some years back. As someone who sailed these waters frequently, I had (and have) a pretty close knowledge of the approaches to Salem. There are three principal channels: one enters southerly, turns sharply to the north, then turns toward Salem again. This is favoured by big ferries, tour boats and tugboats. The second runs in to the port along the north side of Salem Sound, more or less straight. This is the preferred route for big ships.

The third enters between Childrens' (or Cat) Island and Baker's Island, and joins the southerly channel midway up the sound. Straight, yes, but very shallow, and not much used since the days of sail.

I assume and hope this ship, of 3000 tons or so, had a local pilot aboard. If so, he may have been hotdogging, may have wished to avoid the sharp turns in the southerly channel or the extra time needed to reach the northerly one. At any rate, whoever was on the bridge took us in by that channel, giving a splendid view of the ship to summer residents of Baker's Island and to the young campers on Childrens' Island. Concerned, I took a quick look at the ship's specs on the handout we all had, saw the draught, and went on deck.

It was close at that stage of the tide: close as in one lobster trap in midchannel would have snagged the ship's bottom. We were also going fairly fast; the slightest miscalculation would have torn out that ship's bottom and given the audience a show they didn't expect. The one difference between us and the Costa Concordia is that someone seems to have been looking where they were going.

This sort of idiocy happens all the time in recreational boating. It happens more than one would expect in commercial navigation and navies. It's instructive how fast both the ship owners and the authorities came down on the captain. Possibly the complaints generated by his previous recklessness had landed on fertile soil.

All one more reason I have no plans to take a cruise to anywhere in this universe.

*AKA the United States Sail and Power Squadron. If you recreate on the water, check them out. They have a basic boating course that's open to the public. Advanced courses for members attain very high skill levels for those interested.

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Blogger massmarrier said...

That's disconcerting. In your experience, are these puerile lads influenced by knowledgeable passengers saying the route is too shallow/narrow for the boat and tricks?

10:25 pm  
Blogger Uncle said...

The ones with enough self-confidence to listen to advice are influenced. Others, such as the Captain of the Costa Concordia, are not.

1:20 am  

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