What does the loss of a 120 ft. wooden tall ship and movie prop (Mutiny on the Bounty, 1962) have to do with you if you operate or crew on a recreational sail or power vessel?
This tragedy is a story about human action, inaction, decision-making, and choices. These are part of our daily lives, too, at home and when we venture out on the water.
Mario Vittone, retired U.S. Coast Guard and Navy veteran, and a maritime safety authority, wrote an excellent series of articles summarizing each of the eight days of testimony at the Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board Bounty hearings, Feb. 12 – 25, 2013.
These articles are available at http://gcaptain.com. They are not overly-technical, and they are gripping, fascinating reading. You don’t even have to know what a tall ship is to understand what happened, and to take away valuable lessons that apply to all boaters.
While it will be months before the official conclusions are drawn about the accident, Mr. Vittone’s reports reveal the record of action, inaction, decision-making and choices aboard Bounty.
1. The captain disregarded weather forecasts before and during the voyage. Sandy was very well tracked and reported by official government weather sources. There were 50 other tall ships situated on the U.S. east coast at this time and not one went to sea in the face of Sandy.
2. The captain ignored three opportunities during the voyage to divert to a safe harbor as the storm forecasts worsened. Available to Bounty in the prevailing wind and sea conditions were New York Harbor/ Hudson River, Delaware Bay and the C&D Canal, Chesapeake Bay at the southern entrance.
3. The crew failed to test essential systems before departure: engines, generators, bilge pumps, long-distance HF radio and Inmarsat-C communication equipment, and electrical systems. Apparently, the captain did not insist that tests be conducted.
4. No one kept maintenance records for engines, generators or bilge pumping systems. The engineer did not know the basics about diesel engines and could not describe the bilge pumping systems.
5. The captain decided to delay recommended repairs discovered in boatyard inspections prior to departure “until the next yard period.”
6. Critical hull maintenance was done by inexperienced crew who used methods and products for maintenance and repair recommended by the captain, some of which were not standard practice or recommended for marine use on wooden ships.
7. New crew was taught by inexperienced existing crew. For example, “Bosun A” had been aboard 16 months before he taught new person (“Bosun B”) the job of hull maintenance. Bosun B took over after 16 months of experience on Bounty’s hull.
8. Survey recommendations from one surveyor were not carried out, while another surveyor appears to have provided inadequate or incomplete vessel surveys.
9. The crew operated under “the illusion of experience.” Only two individuals (the captain and chief mate) had prior tall ship experience. The captain, with his 17 years of experience aboard Bounty, was revered as the expert, and no one else aboard (except, perhaps, the chief mate) had the knowledge or experience to question his decisions about the management, maintenance, or operation of the vessel. For six of the 14 survivors, Bounty was their first tall ship. One crewmember had five seasons aboard Bounty. The cook had 45 hours aboard Bounty before she abandoned ship with the others.
10. The hiring of inexperienced crew by the captain and the chief mate created a “system of incompetence” aboard the vessel. Mario Vittone says: “[Incompetence] was the unaccounted for 17th passenger that ended the life of the ship, of her captain, and of [crewmember] Claudene Christian.”
11. The crew was not trained in the use of the bilge pumps or the backup emergency pumps.
12. Design changes were made to Bounty in prior years that may have affected her stability.
13. The captain delayed the decision to abandon ship until the situation was grave. This delay forced the crew to abandon at night, with no time to prepare for an orderly evacuation of the vessel. Crewmembers were injured, and it is remarkable that more lives were not lost.
14. No Pan Pan radio call was made to the Coast Guard early in the crisis before the situation became a Mayday emergency. Bounty was taking on water fast when the weather worsened on Oct. 27, and early in the morning of the 28th the pumps couldn’t keep up. They abandoned ship on the 29th. Only the timely response and skill of the Coast Guard prevented more loss of life.
15. When the time for a Mayday came, the untested HF radio and the Inmarsat-C communication equipment was inoperable.
The lessons should be obvious:
1. Pay attention to the weather. You don’t need a storm forecast to tell you it’s better to stay in port. A forecast may turn out to be wrong, but sometimes it’s even worse out there.
2. When you plan a trip on the water, make notes about alternate harbors and routes, in case bad weather makes it uncomfortable or unsafe to proceed to your destination. Don’t hesitate to turn back or go to an alternate safe harbor.
3. Regularly maintain and test all critical systems aboard your boat: engine, bilge pumps, electrical system, communication equipment, emergency and safety equipment. This is basic seamanship.
4. Keep maintenance records for all boat systems.
5. Practice safety drills aboard your vessel and make sure everyone knows what to do and how to operate necessary equipment in an emergency.
6. Don’t hesitate to make a Pan Pan radio call in a difficult situation. The Coast Guard would like to be notified that you may need help BEFORE it turns into a Mayday. They can prepare to assist you if needed, and they may be able to assist on the radio to stabilize the situation.
7. Don’t assume that someone who has more experience than you knows everything. If you lack experience you are not in a position to judge. Yes, you have to rely on professionals and persons with experience, but sometimes it may be important to seek a second or third opinion about a person’s competence or decision-making, particularly where matters of vessel or personal safety are involved. Also, if something doesn’t seem right, maybe it isn’t. Use your intuition to question and seek answers.
Being a responsible skipper or crewmember involves educating yourself and learning as much as possible about the operation and maintenance of boats that you own or use. You don’t have to know how to do everything, but you need to understand what should be done, and then check that it is done properly to accepted standards of marine practice. When you are the person in charge of a vessel, you make decisions and choices that can affect the lives of other people.
(quotes are from Mr. Vittone’s articles. The interpretation of the information contained in his articles is mine.)