Thursday, October 4, 2012

GPT: EIS Scoping Comment No. 11

Bulk Carrier Vessel Concerns

As a former Helmsman and Navigating Quartermaster in the US Navy, aboard the Presidential flagship -the USS Northampton CC-1- I still have hair-raising memories of first-hand experience in the problems routinely encountered by Navy ships, especially in restricted waters around harbor entrances, sinuous passages, and ports. 

Other than the sometimes enormous difficulties wrought by wind, weather, currents and tides, the danger from other vessels - particularly foreign registry merchant vessels or fishing boats- is a constant problem, which the Navy very frequently deals with by taking extraordinary efforts to evade collisions or other in extremis situations. 

Too frequently, having the right-of-way doesn't automatically mean safety, because -like driving a car- the main problem is often the other guy, and what he's doing.
One big difference is that in open water on the high seas, there aren't stop-lights or traffic cops to enforce the law; only prudence and -as the USCG says- eternal vigilance, both of which can easily be missing.

Merchant vessels, particularly those that continuously transit oceans, seas, large gulfs and channels, often set their auto-pilots even before clearing congested or dangerous waters. 
That means no one qualified is always in charge of looking out for potential harmful conditions, especially with other vessels. 

The situation can be further complicated by crews, tired of overwork on relentlessly long and often boring duty, many of which do not speak english or have the skills necessary to read charts, use electronic navigation devices properly, or make simple calculations to determine whether their course and speed through the water might closely intersect with that of other vessels. 
Neither are the crew members on duty always qualified to take or recommend prudent evasive action to remove their vessel from harm's way. 

These combinations of factors too often add up to serious potential danger, even if weather conditions are otherwise ideal. 
When heavy fog, driving rain or sleet, high winds, big waves, tricky currents and abnormal tides enter the picture, the potential for problems is greatly exacerbated, often leading to collisions, spills, fires, near-misses, groundings, sinking, confusion for other vessels, and a major load for the US Coast Guard to oversee and provide assistance.

While very large vessels do usually have highly trained Masters [who can sometimes become incapacitated] and Owners who are adverse to expensive casualties from accidents, these alone do not insure against disasters, as the Exxon Valdez [whose Master was drunk] and other enormous vessels have vividly demonstrated from time to time at unexpected intervals.

The Salish Sea and the San Juan Islands simply cannot bear so many real and predictable threats, and should not be offered as sacrificial lambs on the altar of unrestricted commerce.
The Vessel Traffic Hazard Study is a exceptionally critical document that needs to be timely completed, vetted and opened to full public review before any level of approval is granted to SSA-Marine's GPT Application.