Professional Mariners: Interacting with recreational vessels

Friday, July 30, 2010

By Randy O’Neill, from MarineNews, July 2010

As the summer wind comes blowing in, many professional mariners are painfully aware that the routes they normally ply with other commercial vessels for most of the year will be filled with all types of recreational craft. From sailboats and private fishing boats to speedboats and jet skis. Some of the busiest rivers, lakes, bays and harbors in the United States become extremely crowded with pleasure boaters who may or may not be familiar with the Rules of the Road when it comes to encounters with commercial vessels.

In 2001, Captain Jack Sparks, who was then president of the American Pilots Association, told a reporter for The Journal of Commerce who asked about the impending start of the recreational boating season in the Mid-Atlantic States: “I am serious about this. They get in our way. I don’t know what the answer is, but it is serious. Thank goodness we haven’t had any incidents, but they are killing each other out there.”

Almost ten years later, if anything, the problem has only gotten worse. And what’s almost certain is that when there is a marine incident, whether it be a collision, wake damage or even a near miss involving a pleasure craft and a commercial vessel, the Coast Guard will look first to the professional mariner as the responsible party. And if the Coast Guard wants to send a message to license holders that they are being held to a higher degree of care, suspension and revocation (S&R) proceedings will likely ensue.

Taking the hit for a near miss
The MOPS claim files contain many incidents involving encounters between commercial vessels and pleasure craft, but one stands out as a clear warning to those who might make light of these often dangerous situations.

The incident took place in a busy west coast harbor and involved a small private boat with three fishermen aboard and a two tug and barge flotilla. The small boat was anchored in a narrow channel where commercial and deep draft vessels routinely operated, and was in fairly close proximity to the main ship channel. The tug and barge combination consisted of a fuel barge and two tugs which were towing the barge alongside with the barge facing backwards which created some blind spots. As it was preparing to turn and line up to pass under a railroad bridge, it came into a close quarters situation with the fishing boat. The master of the tug on the starboard side saw the small boat about 200 to 250 feet from the barge, but continued his turn and ordered his First Mate to monitor the position of the barge relative to the fishing boat. As it drew alongside, the master of one of the tugs called to the boat’s operator to raise his anchor so as not to have it become entangled with the tug’s propeller and, as he did, the two vessels came very close but did not make contact. When the two vessels were clear, it was positively determined that there were no personal injuries or damage to either vessel. In fact, the three men aboard the small boat resumed fishing. The tug’s master than heard one of the fishermen making a report to Vessel Traffic Service, so he contacted the fishing boat via radio to discuss the near miss incident and apologized for getting too close. (We’ll come back to that apology.)

No-harm, no-foul? No way!
Subsequently, the Coast Guard conducted an investigation and concluded that the tug master directing the flotilla would have to spend some time “on the beach” as a consequence of the near miss.

As a result of various objections and arguments made as the case proceeded, the Coast Guard’s requested sanctions were reduced from a nine month outright license suspension (with two charges) to six months outright license suspension (and one charge). The sanction finally agreed upon and executed was a one month outright suspension with an additional six months probation. Hardly, a no-harm no-foul situation.

Apology doesn’t help
Clearly, the Coast Guard regarded this near miss incident as a serious offense which was compounded by the tug master offering an apology to the fishing boat’s operator. While probably an instinctive reaction to what was a potentially serious collision, the tug master’s apology was interpreted by the Coast Guard as an admission of fault and contributed to the forthcoming charge of negligence and S&R proceedings.

The bottom line? There’s no avoiding the heavy recreational vessel traffic over the next few months. Just remember that when there are encounters between commercial vessels and pleasure craft, the USCG license holder will be held to a higher standard of care; so it’s prudent for all professional mariners to proceed with caution.

Randy O’Neill is senior vice president of Lancer Insurance Company and manager of MOPS Marine License Insurance division. MOPS has provided license defense, income protection and professional liability to USCG-licensed mariners since 1935. O’Neill can be reached at roneill@lancer-ins.com.

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