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Lessons from the Bounty — Abandoning Ship

Sandy_Oct_25_2012_0400ZI know that at this stage I am in dire risk of sounding like the Mario Vittone Fan Club. But it’s because of things like this:

I’ve been listening to the crew of Bounty tell these stories for six full days now, and I have tried very hard to hold back my opinion. I’m a former Coast Guard vessel inspector and investigator, but I’m not an expert in wood hull construction and though I love the things, I don’t know much about tall ships. But this part? This part about abandoning ship and sea survival? This is what I know. This is what I’ve spent most of my adult life on. There may be people who know more about this than I do, but I haven’t met them. So here is my opinion:

That? is the bomb. He’s been being beyond restrained in his reporting, and now, fair warning, here it comes.

On Saturday (the 27th),  the weather started to turn and the bilges needed constant pumping.  On any other ship in the world, that’s called flooding. The code of federal regulations calls that a reportable marine casualty; it’s something that should be, you know, reported.

The snark finally escapes containment, and the condemnation is scathing.

According to 46 CFR 4.05-1, “An occurrence materially and adversely affecting the vessel’s seaworthiness or fitness for service or route, including but not limited to fire, flooding, or failure of or damage to fixed fire-extinguishing systems, lifesaving equipment, auxiliary power-generating equipment, or bilge-pumping systems”  shall be reported to the Coast Guard. There is a reason for that.  Who is supposed to remember the pesky details of federal regulations like that?  Well, licensed mariners of the Captain/Mate variety, for one.  These regulations are “designed to increase the likelihood of timely assistance to vessels in distress.”

It’s fairly obvious that here, on Day 6, Vittone has lost the ability to hold it in, and the drubbing is about to begin. What’s horrifying about this particular fact, about reportability, is that anyone who has ever monitored VHF Channel 16 for more than a few hours (which should be anyone who’s ever been on the water) has heard such a call, has heard the Coast Guard station advise the mariners to put life jackets on everyone, to report the number of people on the vessel, and to broadcast to vessels in the area to be prepared to assist if necessary. And it’s something you just do, because to fail to do so is beneath contempt. But if you choose to go out when everyone else on the sea is heading to port, there’s no one out there to hear you, even if you do remember to call.

Too often sailors think of the Coast Guard as a last resort.  Calling “Mayday” means that you can’t handle things and you’re giving up. But “Mayday”  (and again, I’m an expert) is almost never the first call to make. The rarely used but vitally important “Pan-Pan” distress communication is meant to communicate to the Coast Guard that there is a problem aboard a vessel and assistance may be needed.

Not calling in as soon as Bounty experienced trouble denied the Coast Guard the advantage of giving the master critical advice.  Advice like, “You’re about to be in a situation where helicopter rescue is going to be difficult,” and, “If you wait you will be making our crews fly into hurricane-force winds; even we have limits and dropping you life rafts and pumps will be impossible.”  It also denied the Coast Guard valuable planning and preparation time.

It’s hard, reading this, to remember that you’re talking about a terrible, terrifying loss of ship and of lives, because face it, the snark by this time is funny; that necessary cathartic release that renders it funnier than it would otherwise be:

In the early morning on Sunday the 28th, the third mate reported to his captain that they were “not keeping up with the water.”  That’s called progressive flooding, otherwise known as sinking. Notifying the Coast Guard then would have given the crew what they didn’t have by the time Bounty was half full of water and unstable: options.  It would have given them time for an orderly abandon ship, one done on purpose – during daylight hours – and not at the mercy of ten miles of flailing line and tons of mast and debris.

I cannot help but picture that kind of situation on my boat. I don’t have the kind of clearance and time that the Bounty had; my bilge is just not that deep, and my boat would go from taking water on, to sinking, pretty darned fast, absent functioning bilge pumps. While thinking about that, I leaned over and looked up at the mast, and thought about what it would be like if the rigging was bouncing around in 30′ seas.

It’s a lot to think about. And they aren’t pleasant thoughts. I’ve been blessed/cursed with an overactive imagination, and I’ve been having boating nightmares since I started studying the Bounty and writing this series of posts. I’ve been in really large seas and fairly high winds, and just the sounds are pretty unnerving. I commend the crew of the Bounty for sounding as straightforward and calm as they do (and due to the time passed, I’m getting to compare them to how those people on the stranded cruise ship sound, and it’s nearly laughable).

No one ever wants to have to abandon ship. And yet, we all have liferafts and ditch bags and ditch plans and we prepare for such a thing. We generally envision a nice, orderly evacuation, without the added complication of a hurricane, or the ship itself trying to kill us on its way down.

It’d be nice to say that I can’t imagine what the Captain was thinking, and why he delayed attending to the crew’s safety for so long, but I totally can, and it goes back again to something I learned in scuba. When I was working in the shop, people would ask whether to buy the nice, comfy, high-end lead shot belts, or the hard, uncomfortable, low-end lead brick and webbing belts. And I always asked them to choose. Because if you are the sort of person who would hesitate to ditch a very expensive belt, then you must go with the lead bricks, because hesitating could cost you valuable seconds, or your life. You must be able to think of life first, and not even consider the money aspect. I can imagine that with a ship like that, in the condition she was in, with the value she held both monetarily and emotionally, and the calendar of appointments she was supposed to make, that there were too many conflicting priorities, and the Captain, just for a moment, forgot what he was about, and made decisions that ended up being fatal for him, for one crewmember, and for the ship herself, and for a Captain, there is no greater failing. You must keep your priorities straight; you must be able to abandon ship.

 

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