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On the Water

Joel Milton Operating in the fog can kill


October 22, 2012

Back in 2004, I wrote a column in WorkBoat about how dangerous it can be when operating in the fog. I think it is time to revisit this important issue.

Years ago I worked on a large crew-supplier in the Gulf of Mexico. That’s when I learned that operating in the fog is often taken for granted.

Many believe that operating safely and efficiently in the fog is merely a function of using the radar, along with the GPS and/or the chart plotter, to go from Point A to Point B. It’s as simple as that. As long as the magic navigational boxes are working, operating in the fog is considered to be on a par with playing a not particularly challenging video game.

This is a dangerous way to approach operating a vessel in less-than-perfect visibility.

At one of the major oil company bases in Venice, La., there were numerous occasions when helicopter pilots would refuse to fly out for crew changes in zero or near-zero visibility conditions. This was common practice for the pilots in the late winter and early spring, when fog tends to be at its worst. The oncoming offshore crews would promptly disembark the helicopters and drive back across the road. With their bags, scores of oilfield crews would roll up the gangway and into the crewboat’s cabin. The oil company’s dispatcher assumed that we would now do what the helicopter’s pilots wouldn’t — transport the offshore workers in reduced visibility conditions.

Typically, dispatchers would see no contradiction in this. The pressure was on to get the workers to the job site, fog or no fog.

But the Mississippi River is a very dangerous place to be running around with a boatload of passengers when visibility is lousy. And perhaps no stretch of the Mississippi is as bad as between Venice and the Southwest Pass. The Pass is the chokepoint for all deep-draft traffic and many oilfield boats.

In February 2004, the crew of the 178-foot OSV Lee III found this out the hard way when it collided with the 534-foot containership Zim Mexico III. Five mariners lost their lives.

Vessel managers should back up their captains and mates when they say no to a customer’s foolish demand to operate when the fog is too heavy.

Expand/View Comments -  3 Comments
01/24/2013 19:01:39 Fred Goldsmith says:

A violation of Rule 5, the lookout rule, is also deemed a violation of a safety statute or regulation and, under the general maritime law's "Pennsylvania Rule," when an accident occurs and litigation results, the violating vessel (and its company) will be presumed at fault and required to prove not only that the rule violation did not cause the accident, but that it "could not have." Further, in Jones Act personal injury litigation, where the company violates a safety statute and this is causally related to the accident, the seaman cannot be held comparatively negligent or at fault, i.e., his damages, should he (or she) prevail, cannot be reduced. Finally, such a rule violation can trigger a finding of "negligence per se." Rule 5 and the other Inland Rules are now found in the Code of Federal Regulations. Serious stuff when a rule, statute, or regulation is violated. Fred Goldsmith, Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC, River, Rail & Motorcycle Lawyers, Pittsburgh, PA www.golawllc.com fbg@golawllc.com

10/24/2012 08:27:41 jeff henderson says:

Every mariner dreads the fog. It takes experience and careful concentration in order to proceed safely. Distractions and confusion are the dangers to avoid. Plots have a cockpit saying, "Fly the plane". I use that mind set when I'm operating in the fog. Norman's right, you can't just say no sometimes. But I wont go if I don't have that "alert, yet ting of fearful confidence", in myself, my vessel and the current conditions. What port your in has allot to do with it too!

10/23/2012 16:07:35 Norman Spector says:

If I refused to operate when the fog was too heavy, there would be years that I would be tied to the dock for 2 months at a time. The company would be out of business. Contrary to what many people think, it is possible to operate safely in the fog. Many of us have done it safely for years. Agreed, there is always the other, less capable ones to look out for, but that is why if you are in doubt, you stop the vessel. I would argue that most collisions in the fog can be attributed to a confused situation in one or both wheelhouses, compounded by the fact that one or both vessels continued making way even though there was doubt. The bottom line is, fog happens. Unfortunately, in our chosen profession, it is not possible to simply refuse to operate in the fog.

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