Posted by: towmasters | March 25, 2009

Know Your Boat

On March 23, 2008 the F/V Alaska Ranger sank in 6,000 feet of water in the Bering Sea , 120 miles west of Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, with a loss of 5 of the 47 crewmen. It’s incredibly fortunate that a nearby sister-ship, the Alaska Warrior, and two Coast Guard helicopters were able to rescue the rest before they died of exposure, otherwise it would have become one of the worst U.S. fishing industry disasters on record. The Bering’s a cruel mistress, not to be trifled with…..conditions during the dramatic night rescue were 20-25 foot seas with blinding snow squalls.

It’s an ugly story, on several levels, but buried deep inside it is one big safety lesson to be learned: know your boat. Know your boat because that’s what professional seafarers are supposed to do. Know your boat because it’s difficult to perform your job properly if you don’t, especially in an emergency. Know your boat because that knowledge may one day save your life and the lives of your fellow crewmembers. This isn’t aimed primarily towards tug masters and mates, although a lack of knowledge of the boat on the part of the master certainly contributed to the sinking of the Tug Valour. It applies to everyone, no matter their position, on every vessel. Commercial or pleasure, on the high seas or on a small lake. Know your boat.

It seems that the Alaska Ranger‘s very experienced captain, the latest in a long line of them, didn’t know a critical detail of the boat well enough. He didn’t fully understand all of the operational aspects of the variable-pitch propeller system and, more specifically, what effect a loss of electrical power would have on the pitch. This lack of knowledge ultimately led, with the vessel flooding by the stern, to it backing down uncontrollably and “plunging its stern into the sea” during the crucial final moments before the sinking when crewmembers were attempting to evacuate from the vessel into the life rafts. This caused the rafts to be washed forward along the hull, making the attempts at boarding them very difficult to impossible and eventually putting them beyond the reach of the remaining crew, who then had to jump into the 36-degree water and swim for the rafts. The sobering truth, as quoted from this article in Professional Mariner magazine, “All of the 22 crewmembers who were able to enter the life rafts survived. All five mariners who perished were among the 25 people who never made it into a life raft, the Coast Guard said.” An additional related story from PM can be read here.

In his confusion, the captain is quoted as saying “why the hell are we going in reverse?” At that point the boat was essentially “not under command.” Knowing the vessel better would likely have prevented that particular mistake and saved some lives, maybe even all of them. Any mate, engineer, or even a sharp AB, could potentially have possessed the knowledge that might have prevented this. Although the Coast Guard’s final investigation report has yet to be released, their preliminary findings were alarming enough that it prompted them to publish a Marine Safety Alert on July 2nd of last year, less than four months after the sinking, titled Controllable Pitch Propeller Systems and Situational Awareness.

And now I’ll veer abruptly off topic, sort of…..

By all means, read the compelling article from the Seattle Times that rekindled my interest in this tragic story. It’s a damned fine piece of real reporting by Hal Bernton, with reporter Mike Carter and reasearchers David Turim and Miyoko Wolf contributing to it as well. Another great take on the story comes from the Anchorage Daily News. It was written by Sean Cockerham. Why should you really care about who wrote these stories, let alone who assisted them? Because…..

The next time someone tries to convince you how fucked up all of the “mainstream media” is just remember this: while the now countless-as-the-stars bloggers like me may (I repeat, MAY, not will) be able to provide some thoughtful and useful analysis from time to time, in general only full-on professional newsrooms with real reporters, editors and their support staff, have the resources, knowledge and experience to conduct genuine, fact-checked, in-depth investigative reporting of high quality and reliability. All bloggers, including me, depend on them for the original stories which we further analyze as our interests dictate and without them we’ve got no solid base from which to start. So don’t be a sucker for the tiresome liberal-conservative news bias crap that the political operatives of both main parties use (very successfully) to dumb down, divide and turn against one another the citizens of this country. Read from multiple sources. Never blindly accept just one argument without scrutiny, especially when it fits too neatly into your world view. And support real journalism, whether print, web-based or whatever the future may bring. The practice of journalism, to be sure, has never been perfect. And the old adage of “no page refuses ink”, or the modern version of “no LCD screen refuses a pixel”, is certainly true. Professional newswriters sometimes flat out lie, though it’s very rare, or have a bias strong enough that they just can’t see past it, or just plain get something wrong.  Most of the time the editors catch it, occasionally not. But, flawed though it may be, it’s way better than any alternative out there. Without it we’re deaf, dumb and blind.

Nevertheless, blogging does serve another very important purpose that traditional newspapers and magazines themselves generally haven’t provided. I like to call it The Scatter, that wonderful, “viral” nature of an internet blog post that catches someone’s eye and then spreads far and wide like mold spores on the wind to people who might never have heard of  it otherwise. I found out about this story because I read about it on Capt. Richard Rodriguez’ excellent BitterEnd Blog. Another PNW blog source, Puget Sound Maritime, wrote about it, which led to the gCaptain Daily Blog picking it up via Fred Fry’s Maritime Monday roundup of worthy maritime-related writing. All of them led back to the originator, the Seattle Times. The internet tentacles reach everywhere. Way cool…..but don’t forget that modern technology now allows any jerk-off with a pc to go live with a world-wide blog, literally in minutes, spew out whatever bullshit that crosses their mind, and there is absolutely zero quality control. Since you’re decision-making is only as good as the quality of the information you use to arrive at your decisions (garbage in = garbage out), it pays to remember that fact. 

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Responses

  1. Well said.

  2. […] needs to bond with the crew and get familiar with the boat.  I found Joel Milton’s article “Know your boat” to be quite appropriate in this case, since it touches on a disaster that showed what can happen […]


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