Thursday, December 4, 2014

How a big, well-run, high-tech race boat, can go aground... almost

In light of all the speculation about how Team Vestas Wind could go aground by error, I would like to offer one distantly related scenario that helps remind us of our fallibility and the fate of circumstance. This was on a race boat having left Seattle on the way to Hawaii on a delivery to a race there. It was in fact a bigger boat than the VOR boats, and the skipper and several of the crew were as qualified as many VOR sailors. It had all the latest technology of the mid 90s.

We had rounded Pt. Wilson after dark under power, and had about 70 miles to reach the ocean in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. I had set way points for the route out, which was very basic. We travel along in the inshore zone, just out of the shipping lanes, facing inbound traffic on our right. Then I crawled into the bunk to get some rest so I would be fresh when we reached the ocean, which often has much converging traffic and usually new current and wind to deal with. Unfortunately (as it turned out) it was a beautiful, clear night, in perfect conditions, on an easy route, with nothing to worry about.

Sometimes it is hard to go to sleep early, so there was tossing and turning, in and out of sleep. But from my bunk I could hear conversation in the cockpit very clearly. Somewhere in the half sleep I over heard someone say “I didn't realize Smith Island Light would be so bright from here,” which bounced around in the mind for a few moments before i realized Smith Island Light is actually not bright from where we are at all!

I scurried on deck to learn that the crew were looking at Dungeness Light, essentially right next to us. We were inside of Dungeness Spit headed for the beach. There were just minutes to spin around and head back out.

So now we get to say just what we read in the news today: How could this happen with such a trained crew on such a high tech boat? In this case, the base cause was the regular navigator had sat down at some point earlier with good intentions to review the waypoints, and to make a personal preference change to let the waypoints automatically advance to the next when within some set range. Although I strongly disagree with that approach (I think they should always be advanced manually) that was not the cause. Some how in this process the crucial waypoint WP33 got deleted or skipped in the active route. We were essentially headed from WP32 to WP34 on a straight line.

But now we have to fold in all the special circumstances that let this type of error get by without being caught. Like many of the VOR boats we had an international crew, with some of the best sailors from around the world, and more to the point like many big boats with a crew of 9 to 11, most of the crew was not involved with the navigation at all. They assume this is a matter taken care of by 2 or 3 other members of the team, and they concentrate on their specialties. Of this crew we had several local folks who had been this route many times and would never have made this error, regardless of waypoints. But you can get at times combinations on watch or at the change of watch that might not include local knowledge. I do not recall these details, but at least one person on deck knew the light, but they might have just come on watch. In any event, that is what happened.

Our target was a gently sloping sand beach, so chances are we would not have suffered serious damage, but a grounding there could have caused enough damage to cause us to miss the race, and cost all the investment of time and money that went into the preparation. The incident had been out of my mind for many years, but this recent grounding brought back the memory quickly.

So one answer to how such things happen is this: one fundamental error that would normally be caught, does not get caught, because of a series of peripheral factors that sadly come together at the same time. There is sometimes a fine line between bad judgement and bad luck.

And what prevents such things? The answer is the Navigation Rules. We think of them as preventing collisions between vessels, but they are also intended to prevent hitting other objects or running aground. See notes in this definition of allision. As with collisions, every such incident with a functioning vessel involves the violation of at least one of the Navigation Rules. 

The key here is Rule 5 on Proper Look out. The rule includes several requirements of proper lookout, but no where near all of them. These others have been established in a number of court cases, which include such obvious ones as must be able to speak the same language as the helm and have some means to communicate with them. Another is they should have no other duties at the time. An always crucial one is they must know how to keep a watch, that is, what to watch out for.

With a group of folks on deck on a beautiful clear night, we in effect did not have any one on watch. This can be resolved by simply assigning that duty to one of the individuals, and even rotate the job on a long watch. It is also incumbent on the navigator to alert the watch to any specific hazard in the area to look out for.  And all of this is as important in clear beautiful conditions as it is in the worse conditions.  (There are more collisions in clear weather than in fog.)

Our situation might not have been that much different from what took place on the Vestus Wind. I recall a remarkable video of the incident just before the grounding where we can overhear the crew conversations. There were several folks on deck, and one of them said in a calm conversational tone, "Do you hear those breakers?" and an answer something like, "Yes, that's strange."

No comments: