Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Like Ships Colliding in the Night

     Today, Company, is the anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.  I bet you didn't know that.  For those of you who are a little young and reading this, let me give you some background information.  On this day, March 24, in 1989, Captain Joseph Hazelwood turned over control of his ship to two crew members who hadn't had the required amount of rest, who proceeded to go out through the in door (the ship received Coast Guard permission to use the inbound shipping lane to avoid icebergs) and promptly slammed the tanker, fully loaded with crude oil, into Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska.  10.9 million gallons of oil then spilled from the fractured ship into the sound, precipitating one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.
     This anniversary comes at a pretty coincidental time, because lately I have been looking through a pretty cool book about Great Lakes shipwrecks.  They have the stories of all the recorded shipwrecks from all five lakes and their connecting waters, as well as information about each vessel.  They have even dug up pictures of most of them.  So I have been reading a lot about ships being overwhelmed by waves during storms, but even more so about ships running aground or running into other ships.  That, combined with this whole Exxon Valdez thing, has got me thinking.  How hard can it be to not run these ships into things?
     Okay, here is the deal.  These ships are huge.  Like, gigantic huge, and they all have radios and these days, they all have radar.  I understand some accidents.  Two ships appearing out of a fog on top of one another?  Sure, that might happen.  Striking a submerged reef back in the olden days when the charts weren't great?  I understand that too. Getting in trouble during a storm and getting grounded?  Yeah, I have seen the waves.  That jives with me.
     There are a lot of things that are unexcusable though.  I read about two thips that collided, and they first made contact, visual contact, with one another when they were 4 miles apart.  4 miles.  That's a long way.  Gratned, these ships are huge and take a long time to stop and turn.  But with calm seas, visibility on the water is usually pretty good, especially when you are up high in a pilothouse.  So one would expect that with 4 miles to maneuver, two ships would be able to avoid one another.  Like, during the time it took for the two ships to meet, don't you think your human brain would be able to sort of calculate out the paths and make sure you just don't touch?  I don't understand it.
     Same with this whole Exxon Valdez thing.  There was no excuse for it.  None.  First of all, they were in an established shipping lane.  Now, I will give to them that they were going the opposite direction, and things can look completely and totally different from the opposite direction.  If you come from the south 90% of the time you pull into your driveway, and then you come from the opposite way one time, it's going to throw you a little bit.  But that is no excuse whatsoever in this case.  They were in a known and marked shipping lane leading to Valdez, a very well-known and very busy port.  There are reams and reams and reams of charts showing this channel.  This reef has a name which means that people know all about it.  It's known.  The ship was on auto-pilot, which should have known there was a reef there if it was linked up with GPS.  If not then sure it would run the ship blindly into the reef.  Hitting a reef in the water is like running off the road.  There is just no excuse for it.  If you are doing what you are supposed to it's pretty easy to stay in bounds.  You have to be either seriously deficient or totally screwing around to pull that one off.
     And most of our sailors are not seriously deficient.  Most of them have been at sea for ages and know what they are doing, especially the officers.  If I were on a Great Lakes freighter, or an oil tanker, and the Captain had a gut feeling, I would trust it.  100% trust.  100% of the time.  They don't get to be Captains by not knowing what they are doing, although some become complacent, which is the feeling I get about Joseph Hazelwood.  So anyway, the bottom line here is that there really isn't an excuse for two gigantic boats under power to run into one another.  None.  And there is no excuse to hit a reef that has been there since time immortal and which is well known enough to be named and marked.  That's like running an airplane into a mountain because you didn't know it was there.  No excuse.  And that's the bottom line.

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