We’ve all heard the old adage that a ship is safer at sea when a storm approaches a port. But is this really true? 

In some cases it is, but in others it’s not. It varies greatly with the type and size of the vessel, local geography, the particular conditions of the harbor, the track, speed-over-ground and intensity of the approaching storm, moon phase and other variables. But in no case should the old adage ever be considered a strict rule to be blindly followed. Each individual case warrants careful and ongoing evaluation before a final decision is made.

In the wake of the recently published NTSB report on the 2012 sinking of the tall ship Bounty off the coast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., it’s worth considering the analysis and decision making that has historically led to grief. In this regard the case of the Bounty was simply breathtaking. The master, who perished and was never found, made a series of poor-to-disastrous choices, each seemingly worse than the one before. This eventually put the Bounty (which was at best in a state of questionable seaworthiness) directly in the forecasted path of Hurricane Sandy off the coast of North Carolina, where it foundered and sank. The organization that owned the vessel made no effort to talk the master out of it. In this case, it was clear that the safety of life did not come first.

In theory, everyone involved (the vessel master, owner, customer or charterer, harbormasters and other port officials, the local Coast Guard Captain of the Port, underwriters, classification societies, etc.) should all have the same goal of putting the safety of humans first. Reality and history proves this isn’t always so.

Masters may come under intense pressure to put to sea against their own better judgment. But a master’s ultimate duty must always be to do whatever it takes to safeguard the lives of the crew. Savvy crewmembers should always be aware that masters might not always make the right decisions, so they must look out for themselves.