Mariners must deal with more complex vessels

A pilothouse from a 1950s-era tug can seem simple, almost to a fault. In contrast, today’s workboats bristle with technologically advanced equipment. Traditional controls have given way to joysticks and computer keyboards.

Two marine casualties from opposite ends of the world illustrate how the complexities of today’s vessels impose greater demands on owners, captains and crews.

The loss of the anchor-handling tug/supply (AHTS) vessel Bourbon Dolphin on April 12, 2007, off the coast of Shetland was a tragedy. During an anchor-handling operation, the angle of attack on an anchor chain shifted from starboard to port. The vessel rolled to port as a result and ultimately capsized. The investigation found that the Bourbon Dolphin had stability issues that weren’t clearly conveyed from the shipyard to the company and, ultimately, to the crew. Another finding was that the company didn’t adequately establish crew qualification requirements for such demanding duty. The investigation further revealed that the captain only had an hour to familiarize himself with the crew and vessel.

A continent away, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on a case involving a complex piece of navigation equipment, the Furuno 1731 Mark-3 radar ( Omega Protein v. Samsun Contour Energy , November 2008).

Early on Oct. 4, 2004, a fishing vessel struck an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. The vessel’s radar was equipped with an anti-collision alarm designed to sound when an object appeared on a field set by the operator. The vessel owner had not implemented a policy about use of the alarm or provided training for its use. Sometime during the voyage, a crewmember entered the bridge to discuss a refrigeration part. The bridge lights were turned on while arranging for the spare part, and the ship struck an oil platform whose own lights weren’t working properly.

The court found the vessel and platform owner both liable.

These two situations involve vastly different facts and legal issues. However, they share a common thread in that today’s vessels are more sophisticated and mariners have a lot on their plates.

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