Avoiding the School of Hard Knocks

Bridge Resource Management has lessons for even the smallest of crews.


It's been about a year since the container ship Cosco Busan sideswiped the Bay Bridge, spilling 58,000 gallons of fuel into San Francisco Harbor and doing millions of dollars worth of environmental damage. The contributing factors have been widely aired: faulty radar, dense fog, an acute language barrier, and a pilot under the influence of prescription drugs. The final outcome of this fiasco is in the hands of others; all that remains for us is to extrapolate the lessons and go our separate ways a little wiser. Extrapolate the lessons? As a yacht owner or operator, you could be forgiven for seeing no common thread with the Cosco Busan incident and your own seaborne activities, but that would be a mistake. If you want to graduate early from the school of hard knocks then you've got to spot the lessons wherever they occur, including some unfamiliar quarters.

Bridge Resource Management (BRM), is a well-established concept in the commercial maritime world, which places particular emphasis on the human elements involved in safe transits. Studies of navigational errors have shown that, time and again, adequate expertise and equipment are on hand, but they are not integrated effectively in the heat of the moment. Equipment expertise is critical to navigational success, yet by every measure, human error remains the single largest cause of maritime accidents, large and small-suggesting that even operators of yachts can benefit from BRM lessons. Sophisticated tools have taken much of the guesswork out of navigation, but BRM may be thought of as a way to upgrade the human side of the risk equation.

Most of the concepts of BRM bear upon the same human errors that occur in all walks of life: distraction, complacency, stress, fatigue, judgment, decision making, planning, faulty communication, and a failure to reconcile critical details with a grasp of the big picture. Rather than trying to compress all of this here, let's look at two big ones: communications and planning.

Here's what went right that day: The Cosco Busan was making a routine departure from a major port. The machinery was working fine, a lookout was posted, a tug was standing by, a Vessel Traffic System monitored the transit, pre-departure equipment tests were conducted, the weather was good (fog aside), and with the exception of a report concerning one radar unit, the considerable array of modern electronics was functioning properly. A vast web of legal obligations guided the actions of everyone involved. A fully qualified deep-sea mate and captain, along with a seasoned harbor pilot with extensive local knowledge, were all on the bridge together. As is often the case, in this incident there were more things done right than wrong. But the things done wrong were allowed to form an error chain that, in hindsight, makes the outcome appear inevitable.

It is clear that, as a collective unit, the bridge team aboard the Cosco Busan became disoriented. Poor communications at the outset began the error chain, and poor communications prevented them from recovering. The captain and the mate of the Cosco Busan were Chinese; the pilot spoke English. But every adult knows that a language barrier is not a prerequisite for misunderstanding.

One way to minimize misunderstandings is to have a plan, articulate the plan, and make sure everyone directly involved understands the plan so they can be useful in its execution. Whenever possible, utilize faceto- face communications so that gestures, voice inflection, and other meaningful signals can be conveyed along with the words. Use specific, unambiguous instructions to avoid misunderstandings. For instance, when discussing the route to follow while you catch a nap don't say, "Carry on down the bay and call me around four o'clock." It might result in you awakening to a thump. Instead try this: "I want to pass one mile west of Shag Rock, right here." Clarify your meaning by pointing to the chart and the trackline, which, with infinite foresight, you have laid down in advance. With paper charts, follow up with: "Plot a position every half hour and check it by radar." Now this person knows what to do and you've conveyed the minimum level of expected diligence.

Sometimes the most important piece of information comes from the bottom of the totem pole. Encourage your crew to speak up and to use time-tested terminology. Instead of hearing the deckhand say "I see something over there," it would be better if it came out this way: "I see a white powerboat to starboard coming our way. Do you see it?" Not only do the specifics provide visual clues, but to someone familiar with the Rules of the Road, there is also information concerning who may have the right-of-way. Further, the report is phrased in a way that begs a response. You reply, "Got it. Thanks." So much of successful communications involves closing the feedback loop. This is how a team works, and that is why for centuries it has been customary for mariners to repeat orders. It has nothing to do with who's the boss; it's about catching a mistake. In BRM parlance, it's called error trapping.

VHF radio is a wonderful tool for preventing misunderstandings, but it is only as good as the user. When trying to get the attention of another vessel, put yourself in the shoes of the person you are calling. How often have you heard something like this: "Calling the tug on my port bow, this is Serenity." No wonder some yachtsmen have formed the impression that commercial vessels don't listen to the radio. The person aboard the other vessel is at least as taxed as you are, and now they've been presented with a riddle that they may not have the flexibility to solve. So they ignore it. Try this: "Calling the northbound tug pulling a barge off of Cedar Point, this is the yacht Serenity on channel 16. I am the sailing vessel half a mile on your port bow showing you a green light." This takes a little more forethought, but if you really want to get someone's attention, you have to make it easy. By identifying the target on his terms you have done this. Stating that you are under sail conveys information about your constraints, and describing the distance off, and your light configuration from the target's perspective, will help him pick you out visually and on radar. Many vessels monitor more than one VHF channel, so providing the channel that you are hailing on will expedite a reply. In a close-quarters situation, fumbling between channels while you try to make contact can waste precious time. The tool intended to facilitate communications may end up contributing to a collision-it's happened before. The difference between effective and ineffective communications is often subtle, and on a boat it can be terribly important.

In the January 2009 issue of Yachting, we'll examine the role that voyage planning plays in BRM, where there are plenty of lessons for everyone from the solo mariner to a supertanker crew.