COLUMN | Smile, you’re on camera! [Grey Power]

Photo: Vigili del Fuoco
Photo: Vigili del Fuoco

There is just no hiding your most embarrassing moments, in these days of Facebook, when every man and his dog are equipped with a movie-camera. Most professional mariners would have squirmed in their seats watching the incident in Venice when the cruise ship MSC Opera went out of control and squashed an excursion boat. The scary moments were captured, complete with sound tracks, from half a dozen different angles, as the ship careered towards the side of the canal and the moored excursion craft.

For the curious, along with people who like to slow down to look at road accidents, there is a whole enormous library of maritime incidents readily available, showing every conceivable embarrassing moment, as container ships embed themselves in quays, cruise ships are blown off the berth with mooring ropes snapping like spaghetti and beautifully sculpted bows bring container cranes crashing to the ground. If you are really keen, you can even review AIS records, which show the progression to disaster in real time.

The accident in Venice and the lavish video footage is being used as heaven-sent evidence by those campaigning to ban cruise ships from such close proximity to the precious city and its fragile lagoon. You can probably see the point, with a regular procession of these monsters spoiling the scenery from just about every angle, as they loom over the exquisite architecture.

Inevitably there were instantly cries for the master of the cruise ship to be indicted on criminal charges, the inference being that he was hazarding life and limb as he lost control of his ship. Doubtless there will be a VDR record of the actual circumstances, but that probably won’t save him in this age when every accident must have somebody to blame and shipmasters are on every law enforcers target list. After all, who else would you blame?

The illusion of absolute precision

Something that nobody thinks about as they scrutinise all this video “evidence” is the fact that bigger and bigger ships are being squeezed into relatively smaller places. I used to have the greatest respect for the pilots who used to handle our 12,000DWT commonwealth liners in and out of ports in Australia and New Zealand, where there were plenty of places without any tug assistance whatsoever. Now you can see ships that are 400 metres in length being swung in turning basins with a few feet at either end, with parked container cranes at one end of the ship and a shoal at the other. The term “safety envelope” seems to have lost its meaning.

There is also (if you talk to pilots) an illusion of absolute precision, with people managing these ships from ashore expecting them to be parked like cars. They don’t recognise the effects of wind, or tides, or currents, or the time-lag between a helm or engine order and the ship responding. They just don’t understand how the rudder ceases to have any effect without water flowing over it, or how a ship might be “overtaken” by a river current and get out of control. They cheerfully demand that a giant light bulk carrier empty its ballast tanks before entering port, regardless of the fact that it will be almost uncontrollable in such a state.

They are quite used to calling wrathfully for the IT department when their work computer goes on the blink. They cannot seem to conceive of a situation when some important electronic equipment aboard a ship shuts down the engine or trips the electrical power, at a moment of high drama. They will just demand the master’s head and call for the pilot to lose his job, which is not exactly an encouragement into these professions.

We are obsessed with safety and the reduction of every kind of risk, demand that the master and pilot have a lengthy exchange of information and employ “berth to berth” passage plans, but don’t seem to relate any of this with the bigger risks we are asking these professionals to take. We expect those aboard ships to meet often unrealistic schedules, value speed above caution and only punish the reckless when their incompetence leads to a crash.

Shipmasters have always been “risk-takers” and the ability to judge the danger level has always gone with the territory. But those who demand “perfect” safety speak with forked tongues, because if the environment isn’t dangerous enough, then the fragility of the increasingly integrated and interlinked systems will guarantee that such perfection is illusory. People operating these modern ships need to be cut a bit of slack, and those directing them from the safety of their shore-side offices need to get a bit real.

Some years ago, I went on a two day course at Warsash, driving models around their lake. It was designed for people who had been ashore for some time, or who now directed ship operations, to remind them about ship-handling realities. It scared us to death, which was, perhaps the object of the exercise, but this sort of “refresher” might come in very useful these days when we pressurise those afloat so enthusiastically, and the occasional miscalculation features on TV.

Michael Grey

Maritime industry legend, and former long-term editor of Lloyds List, Michael Grey kicks off each month with topical issues affecting the maritime world at large.