They will tell you it is experience, or spatial awareness, or practice making perfect, but it is extraordinary how they will go from a huge capesize, with the bridge right aft, to a car carrier, where the controls are a few metres from the bow, or an outward trip on a coaster, to an inward passage on a laden suezmax, with almost no room under the keel.
They move smoothly from ships with simple and basic controls to others with navigation bridges like the Starship Enterprise, from ships with a single master on the bridge to one with a full “team”. They move from deep laden ships to those with the windage of a ping-pong ball. They handle them in confined spaces, with unpredictable gusts of wind and tides that may decide to help or hinder.
They are also human beings and despite the best will in the world, they very occasionally make mistakes. When this happens, because ships, despite what many people might think, do not handle like small cars, a lot of heavy metal can be squashed.
The December 2015 collision in the River Humber between the car carrier City of Rotterdam and the ro-ro ferry Primula Seaways ended up in such a fashion, with a lot of structural damage to the two ships. But nearly two years after the event, the pilot and master of the car carrier appeared at Hull Crown Court and were sentenced to four months imprisonment, suspended for eighteen months, following their admission of guilt in the matter of inadequate navigation.
There has been some professional surprise at this case, bearing in mind, that earlier this year, the UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch reported with its typically thorough investigation into the incident. It wouldn’t be the first collision between two ships in a busy river, but what made this report of some interest was the belief that the design of the car carrier contributed to the unfortunate event.
Conditions were far from ideal, with strong and gusting cross-winds making it difficult to keep the car carrier, with its substantial windage, on her desired course over the ground. But the MAIB also pointed to the strange hemispherical profile of the car carrier’s wheelhouse, designed to smooth the airflow and save fuel on passage. This unusual feature, along with the amount of leeway the ship was making on account of the wind, led to the pilot apparently becoming disoriented , believing that he was looking ahead, when it transpired he was looking through a wheelhouse window at an angle on the bow. It is notable, with many ships which have their controls right forward, like traditional Great Lakes vessels, they will have a staff right forward on the centreline, which helps to visually indicate the heading, which, of course, is perfectly obvious on a ship with the bridge positioned more conventionally.
So it might be suggested, not for the first time, that the unintended consequences of clever naval architecture, designed to answer the demand for lower wind resistance, introduced an unforeseen hazard, which has now criminalised both the ship’s master and a pilot.
A further question which needs to be asked is whether criminal proceedings and a custodial sentence were appropriate punishments for two people who, at worst, made a mistake in a dynamic situation involving the meeting of two ships? Here again we need to ask whether such a policy makes it more or less likely that mistakes will be made in future. Is there now an agenda that everyone concerned with the handling of ships ought to know about? And in that the handling of ships in close proximity invariably involves a certain amount of risk, should not a more precautionary principle be applied by those whose reputation, or even liberty, may be on the line, if their calculations of risk turn out to be wrong.