Inconsistent vessel inspections?

Vessel operators often claim that Coast Guard inspections are notoriously inconsistent. They say things such as, “One Coast Guard guy came and told me it had to be this way, and next year another one came and told me to do something else, and the next year a third guy came back and told me to do it the way we had it in the first place.”

Unfortunately, this is true too often, especially when it comes to dealing with inexperienced inspectors or examiners.

I was recently asked by a towboat operator to discuss Coast Guard inspection issues, and every time I mentioned a requirement he didn’t like he would interrupt me and say that I was incorrect because the petty officer that examined his towboat either said he didn’t have to or he hadn’t mentioned it during the exam. At the same time this owner complained about how inconsistent the Coast Guard is. This paradox is too often true. For them, it’s “I’ll rely on the Coast Guard to tell me what to do and I’ll believe them when it’s to my advantage.”

This is not a good compliance management strategy. The Coast Guard rarely checks everything. There are many reasons for this. But you must understand that when the Coast Guard leaves your vessel and you have no deficiencies, it does not mean you are in compliance.

Bill Ambrose, Transocean’s director of special projects, testified during the Deepwater Horizon trial that the rig was in “really good shape” before the accident and that during the July 2009 inspection of the rig the Coast Guard found “no deficiencies.” However, in an interview about the accident, Wall Street Journal reporter Rebecca Smith characterized Coast Guard inspections as “often cursory.” She stated that the Coast Guard did a “pretty minimal job of inspecting that rig.” A marine safety expert that testified for the plaintiff’s lawyers cited Transocean for failing to maintain the Deepwater Horizon and having an improperly trained crew. He also said the rig was in poor shape.

Operators can eliminate the headaches associated with inconsistent inspectors and prepare themselves for litigation by insuring they know the regulations and that they manage their own compliance.

About the author

Kevin Gilheany

Kevin Gilheany is a marine consultant and owner of Maritime Compliance International in New Orleans. He works with companies to help increase profitability through improved compliance and management systems. Gilheany is a retired U.S. Coast Guard marine inspector, certified marine surveyor and auditor, and crew endurance management expert. He has also provided contract training to the U.S. Coast Guard, was an adjunct instructor of maritime security at Tulane University’s Homeland Security Studies Program, and has contributed to marine industry publications. He can be reached at or

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