The grounding of the tug Pathfinder on 23rd December 2009 was nothing really momentous in the great scheme of maritime casualties that happen regularly and continually on a global basis. No, what made this incident particularly newsworthy was the location, Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The same spot where the Exxon Valdez came to grief over 20 years ago.
All of a sudden the same can of wormy questions are opened up again. How could this happen, especially with all the technology available? What can we do to stop it happening again? Until the US Coast Guard publishes a report of their findings we can only speculate, but there are some interesting areas to speculate nonetheless.
The Practice of Good Seamanship
There is no better place to start than here. Many knowledgeable commentators on the subject (themselves good
seamen perhaps), may say that if “good seamanship” were being practiced this would not have happened. Eyes
out the window and on the radar, check radar ranges bearings against the GPS; check echosounder readings
against charted depth contours; with speedlog, stopwatch and tide tables, use dead reckoning to plot ahead;
slow down or stop if in doubt.
Ah, radar, GPS and echosounder. Standard navigation aids today and considered part and parcel of the tools
of the prudent mariner. Yet, the casualties continue. Does that mean that today's seamen are not practicing
good seamanship, or could it be something else?
Other commentators may have an opinion along the lines that “All the fancy electronics are worthless without
proper training,” and a very valid point at that. With ECDIS now a carriage requirement under IMO for
example, the “integrated” bridge is on the verge of becoming one great supercomputer.
In the “old days”, training may have consisted of basic Nav Aids operation, such as how to set up an old PPI
radar (Breast Fed Children Have Good Teeth!), or plot LORAN-C TDs or determine the null on a direction
finder. Then came ARPA and the requirement for ARPA training and so on and so on.
However, there was also something else that the mariner would often do, particularly when joining a new
ship, and that was read the manual. How many people do that nowadays? Truthfully now. Even if our car,
smart mobile phone, PC, TV, etc. comes with one, it is rarely read. We live in a technological plug and
So why should today's seaman be any different? Perhaps he is not and would love nothing better than to read
the AIS manual, but his argument may be that he does not have enough time.
ISPS, ISO, STCW, EPA, GMDSS, LRIT, one looses count of the workload placed on today's mariner and with a
reduced number of seamen per vessel, is it any wonder that this is a major complaint? It is easy to see why
his eyes might roll when some bright eyed salesman says he has something new that might help him in his day
to day job. Just what he needs, another new piece of equipment, with its associated manual and operator
But what if that new equipment really is something radical? Something on par with radar, GPS, echosounder or
ECDIS even? Equipment that is so accepted and such an integral part of the good seamanship practice as the
give way vessel taking “early and substantial action”.
Is there a Solution?
Probably not...to err is human after all. However, just as radar and GPS can be valuable aids to navigation,
we should not blindly shut our eyes to new technologies. In the case of the tug Pathfinder, a Forward
Looking Sonar could have been a valuable aid. Whatever is determined to have been the cause of the
grounding, if the weather was inclement, if all eyes were on the radar or GPS or out of the window, or if
they were just plain lost, then one little warning saying that there was something ahead “under the water”
may have been all that was needed to prevent the accident.
Technology is coming whether we want or not. Our responsibility is to understand that technology and
determine how best to take advantage of it. Media is always happy to report the bad news and ask the
questions, but often they do not need or want to know that there is something that could have averted it. Of
course, had it not been Bligh Reef but No Man's Reef instead, then we would not be having this discussion