Situational awareness is a must

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The ship's pilot who directed a 901-foot container ship away from the dock in dense fog shortly before sideswiping the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge almost two years ago will serve 10 months in a federal prison.

Ten months for making a series of bad decisions while attempting to steer the 68,000-ton Cosco Busan beneath a busy highway bridge with visibility of less than half a mile.

I first wrote about Capt. John Cota more than a year ago. What caught my attention at the time were reports that this veteran pilot had trouble interpreting important radar data and was confused about some of the symbols on the electronic chart as the ship approached the bridge. Confused? The pilot who felt it was prudent to leave the anchorage when he couldn't see the bow of his ship was confused?

The National Transportation Safety Board later concluded that the pilot's use of prescription drugs had reduced his cognitive functioning, which affected his ability to interpret information and make sound decisions.

Let weather and sea conditions set your schedule.

After the incident, Cota told investigators he didn't request a fix because it was like "driving your car out of a driveway," according to reports. That 212-foot gash along the side of the Cosco Busan and the 53,000 gallons of oil that spilled into San Francisco Bay tell a different story.

So what does the incident have to do with you or me? Here are some takeaways:

  • The most important decision you might make during the course of a season is when to get under way - and when to stay at the dock or mooring because of deteriorating conditions, approaching weather and so forth. On a morning when as many as a half-dozen other pilots decided to stay put because of heavy fog, the pilot of the ill-fated Cosco Busan ventured into trouble. That was his first mistake. Don't be wed to a land-based schedule. Let the wind and sea conditions dictate your comings and goings. Check the forecast periodically - and pay attention to what's actually happening on the water around you.
  • The NTSB cited the pilot's "degraded cognitive performance" due to his use of prescription medications as a factor in the accident. In our community, the use of alcohol plays a role in about a third of all recreational boating deaths. And remember, the impact of drinking on the water is enhanced by other stressors such as sun exposure, constant motion, noise, glare and more. And the fatigue that results will affect your ability to make good decisions quickly.
  • Know your position at all times. Learn to use your electronics under blue-bird conditions so you'll be able to operate them accurately and without delay when they're most needed: at night, in fog, threading a passage through the reefs. Be proficient at radar navigation and understand collision avoidance. And because electronics can fail, don't forget the paper charts.
  • In an earlier grounding incident while piloting a freighter, Cota was cited by a board of pilot commissioners for a "lack of situational awareness." The term refers to a mindset where skippers are acutely in tune with everything taking place on their boats and around them on the water. It's having the proverbial eyes in the back of your head, anticipating trouble before it happens and maintaining an attitude of preparedness. And it's one of the most important things you can carry with you aboard your boat.

Read more from Bill Sisson.