Stability is a practice that most of us could use some improvement on, and the tragic loss of the tug Valour in 2006 underscores this point. It was a failure to comply with the conditions spelled out in the stability letter that led directly to the loss of the 135' Maritrans tug and three crewmen off the coast of Cape Fear, N.C.

Stability letters are addressed specifically to a vessel's master, and it's the master who's ultimately responsible for ensuring the vessel remains in constant compliance with the letter. In general, deck officers are primarily responsible for maintaining stability. But on a practical level it's the engineers who carry out the various duties of opening and closing valves, pumping tanks, and monitoring their levels that keep a vessel in a stable state.

This is where the human factor rears its ugly head. Poor communication between the deck and engine departments is not uncommon. Aside from competency and diligence issues on both sides, some engineers can also be very territorial. But deck officers must be able to trust engineers when they say, "everything's fine, we're ready for sea." While taking the word of someone who isn't a known factor can quickly lead to trouble, resentment and hostility may result if you intrude on what some engineers mistakenly consider to be their turf.

Nevertheless, until a solid bond of trust is formed, a deck officer must be willing to antagonize a touchy engineer if need be to ensure that things are done right. Some officers, including captains, are unwilling to do this and can jeopardize the safety of the vessel, all in the name of crew harmony.

Engineers must understand that stability is everyone's business because all hands have a personal stake in it. Captains should gather the entire crew and carefully review the vessel's stability letter and tank diagrams, make sure everyone understands them, and plan as a team how to keep their vessel stable and secure during all conditions.