OP-ED: Loss of HMS Bounty: The Sea Wins Again
Tuesday, November 6, 2012
By Captain Peter Squicciarini, U.S. Navy (Ret.), Master Merchant Mariner
Yet another tragedy at sea. The October “superstorm” known as Hurricane Sandy claimed another vessel, this time the unique and historic HMS Bounty. She was lost October 29th off the coast of North Carolina in some of the Atlantic’s most treacherous waters. She isn’t the first or the last ship in the graveyard of the Atlantic. One crewmember has died and the Captain is missing, presumed lost.
How? Why? The investigations (plural) have already begun. The Coast Guard has some of its best investigators looking into it now. All of the answers will never be fully known as it appears the Captain went down with his ship. But important answers and lessons learned – or, as often said, relearned – will be revealed.
We have been down this fairway before. Admiral Halsey in December of 1944 took his naval force through a vicious hurricane that resulted in a catastrophe where three navy destroyers capsized, taking virtually all 790 hands down. Damage was untold. Hurricanes then, and now, are killers.
“The Only Day You Can Pick…Is the First Day”
A wise mentor once told me that “The only day you can pick to be at sea is the first day.” Every Master is confronted with the decision of when to leave port. After you clear the pier you relinquish some control of your destiny to the ocean.
There is a thought process that every good Master has honed and grown to trust. Should I get underway? Certainly there are safety management system criteria and prudent practices. But the ultimate decision that brings along with it responsibility, consequences, and brutal accountability comes from not only the mariner’s skill and experience, but from the gut.
So what does go through a Master’s mind? In the end, what does his gut tell him?
The first warning is when the Mate or the dispatcher tells you “…don’t worry, if everything goes right and nothing bad happens, you’ll make it just fine. You need to get to the next port.” When I heard that (and I did), it was all stop-and-rudder-amidships, so to speak. What could go wrong? What could change? A lot of things.
Know thy vessel. What is the condition of my vessel and its equipment (especially safety and lifesaving equipment)? Is there that piece of equipment notorious for failing you at the worst time? Are the hull, deck, and hatches tight? Are the seams weeping? Are the engines and generators on a “wing and a prayer”? Where is that weakness, and every vessel has at least one, that the ocean will find its way into, claiming your ship? One must presume the longtime Master of the Bountyknew his vessel.
Where will you sail? What is the safe course to stay out of harm’s way? Can you get out of harm’s way? The most fundamental question is the weather forecast. The old salts used a barometer, the clouds, the smell of the wind and an intuition for survival. Today we have satellites. There’s little excuse to take the risk of sailing into bad weather. Good or bad, assume the weather will get worse. It will. It always does. For Bounty, add a hurricane along the way. If you think you can outrun it or avoid it you are betting your ship, your crew’s and your own life on it. Did theBounty make that bet? I wasn’t the Master, and he’s not here to ask.
Then there is the crew. Without a trained and skilled crew even the best ship and Master are a menace to themselves and navigation. When a crisis hits, and rest assured you will have a crisis either self-inflicted or brought to you by Mother Nature, is your crew up to saving the ship? Did the Bounty have a well-trained and drilled crew for emergencies? I do not know. Maybe the investigation will say.
None of this is intended to impugn the Master, crew, vessel or owners. But now comes the accounting. Good people perished. In time the investigations will again tell us that the sea is cruel and unforgiving. The decision to get underway is perhaps the ultimate authority a Master holds. Make it a good decision because you are betting lives on it. Be forehanded because then your gut will indeed tell you whether to pick today as your first day at sea. – MarEx
Captain Squicciarini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for comments.