Under Way

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To err is human; to gamble is folly

To err is human; to gamble is folly

If you’re fortunate, you won’t find yourself starring this summer in the role of a 21st-century Horatio Hornblower, bravely manning the helm through a near hurricane or threading your way through a narrow passage in the middle of a foggy night, waves crashing all around. Better to leave the yo-ho-ho stories on the bedside reading stand than to actually find yourself in the middle of one.

So how do you avoid putting yourself and your crew in harm’s way?

One of the most important safety decisions you’ll likely make this season is whether you should leave your slip or anchorage on a given day or whether you should stay put, waiting for a bit of unsettled weather to pass, the fog to lift or to troubleshoot a potential mechanical glitch. Call it basic dockside seamanship, but when to go and when to stay can make all the difference between a safe, comfortable day on the water and one that is anything but pleasant.

Looking back, I admit that the times I’ve gotten in over my head were the times I chose to roll the dice on a marginal forecast — and lost. I got a bit more of everything than I bargained for. In the vernacular, I got my butt kicked. The lesson was simple: I should have stayed at the dock.

What brings this to mind now are recent hearings held by the National Transportation Safety Board to determine why a 901-foot container ship sideswiped the San Francisco-

OaklandBayBridge last year in dense fog. The collision tore a hole in the outbound Cosco Busan, allowing 53,000 gallons of oil to spill into the Bay.

A couple of the points that surfaced during the NTSB proceedings in April fall into the category of “lessons learned” and are worth noting by anyone who ventures out on the water. The first goes back to the question of when does prudence dictate that you leave your boat safely in its slip. On the morning of the bridge accident, San FranciscoBay was blanketed in thick fog.

“I can barely see the bow,” reported one pilot, who put the visibility at about 550 feet. The Coast Guard estimated the visibility to be between 1/8 and 1/4 of a nautical mile.

The heavy fog notwithstanding, Capt. John Cota, the pilot whose job was to safely guide the Cosco Busan out of the Bay, directed the ship’s master and Chinese crew to begin preparations for getting the 901-footer under way. Speaking in Mandarin Chinese, some crew expressed surprise that the ship was going to leave, given the conditions, according to reports. Several other deep-draft ships chose not to leave the Bay that morning because of the fog.

But fog alone certainly does not explain the accident. The pilot was a veteran of the Bay, and both radars on the ship’s bridge were working, according to reports.

It is clear from the NTSB hearings — especially the transcripts of conversations by the pilot, the ship’s captain and others made from a voice-recording device on the bridge — that there was confusion about interpreting some of the symbols on the electronic chart as the large ship approached the bridge. The idea that the pilot “misunderstood” the chart is both sobering and disturbing.

The lesson for us little guys who boat for pleasure is this: Know thy position at all times. And know thy electronics — frontward and backward — before venturing out at night or in fog, including radar navigation and collision avoidance. And whether you “expect” to be out in fog or not, everyone should know the sound signals for restricted visibility.

Perhaps most importantly, don’t be a slave to a land-based schedule when you’re on the water. Let wind and sea conditions determine your comings and goings — don’t simply hope for the best. Check the forecast before getting under way, recheck it periodically, and pay attention to what’s actually going on around you.

Obviously, your margin for error is greatly reduced in fog, at night, in rough seas and other less-than-ideal conditions. Mistakes are magnified, and there simply is little room for error.

In the case of the Cosco Busan, the NTSB has a lot to sort out, everything from the role of the Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic Service, which monitors and advises traffic in the Bay, to medical issues concerning the pilot, who has pleaded not guilty to criminal negligence and violating environmental laws.

“It’s foggy,” Cota is quoted as saying shortly after the accident in one of the transcripts released by the NTSB. “I shouldn’t have gone. … I don’t think I’m going to beat this one.”

This apparently was Cota’s second accident in less than two years. Cota was cited in 2006 by a board of pilot commissioners for a “lack of situational awareness” in the grounding of a freighter he was piloting, according to information released during the hearings. For those unfamiliar with the term, situational awareness is being in tune with everything taking place on your boat and around you on the water. Without question, it is the critical mind-set for keeping you out of trouble.

And yet no matter how careful we are, all of us at some point will find ourselves out in conditions that are more boisterous or challenging than we might like. That sort of goes with the territory. But it’s one thing to get caught out in more than you bargained for, and quite another to find yourself up to the top of your sea boots in more than you’re prepared to handle.

“Lord, be lavish of Thy Peace and guide to all the ports of the world those sailors who are orphaned in the immensity of the sea.”

— Vito Dumas