The Master's Decision to Sail

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By Wendy Laursen 2015-06-14 20:11:08

Speaking at the 2015 World Maritime Rescue Congress, John Dalziel, and Dr Roberta Weisbrod of the Worldwide Ferry Safety Association cited the seafarer’s dilemma:

It is the master’s decision whether to sail.
It is the owner’s decision who is the master.
(Charles S Price, Great Storm of 1913)

The congress, organized by the International Maritime Rescue Federation, was discussing the world’s tragic ferry disaster statistics including the 166 accidents that occurred over the 14 years between 2000 and 2014. These accidents are estimated to have resulted in over 18,000 deaths in 37 countries.

Conservative estimates provided by Abigail Golden of the Worldwide Ferry Safety Association indicate that 58 percent of accidents and 75 percent of fatalities are caused by human error. A more liberal estimate is that 80 percent of accidents and 90 percent of fatalities caused by human error.

Weather is implicated in more than 50 percent of ferry accidents, and this has recently drawn comment in the media relevant to the seafarer’s dilemma with the loss of Eastern Star in China. The vessel sank after encountering a mini-cyclone on the Yangtze River with the final death toll reaching 442 people. Immediately the questions were asked: Did the Master receive the weather warnings? If so, why did he choose to sail?

Who is to blame when a disaster occurs? Dalziel and Weisbrod cite the statements made by the Nautilus International Union, on the sentencing of the South Korean master of Sewol on April 28, 2015:

“Once again, a captain has been made the scapegoat as a result of political pressure and media misrepresentation.”

“Pinning the blame on an individual in this way helps to obscure the underlying causes of the accident, including regulatory failure, overloading and design changes.” 

“It is the law-makers that determine the actions of owners and set the levels of safety. It should not be masters that suffer for their failure.”

However, the Dalziel and Weisbrod also say that it is easy to point the finger at management and assume that a culture of cutting corners starts at the top and is motivated by money. They note Trevor Kletz’s view that the same (lack of safety) culture can also originate at the bottom, driven by the desire to get the job done (and perhaps a macho attitude). The task of management is to know this and make sure the job is done safely.

Poor steering, cargo overloading and excessive remodelling of the ferry have been cited as causes for the sinking of Sewol, and many people including the vessel’s crew, owners and officials in the South Korean Coast Guard have been charged over the disaster.

A 60-strong Chinese investigation team is now looking into the capsizing of the Eastern Star and has collected a "multitude of first-hand evidence" and interviewed many people including the vessel’s master.

Time will tell whether he will meet the same fate as that of Sewol’s master who was sentenced to 36 years for gross negligence.