Soundings - - Contents -

Few ac­ci­dents are the re­sult of only one small er­ror. Pe­ri­ods of tran­si­tion are ripe for faulty as­sump­tions that may have dire con­se­quences.

March 2006, Bri­tish Columbia: The ferry Queen of the North was mak­ing a rou­tine tran­sit. The mate was chat­ting with the helms­man and missed a course change. Catch­ing the er­ror, he or­dered a larger course change to com­pen­sate. But an un­fa­mil­iar steer­ing sys­tem had just been in­stalled. The helms­man was un­able to switch from au­topi­lot to man­ual steer­ing. The ves­sel struck an is­land and sank with loss of life.

July 2001, Ohio River: The tow­boat Elaine G was un­der­way. A change of watch was tak­ing place as fog set­tled in, just be­fore dawn. In the mo­ments it took to com­plete the watch change, nei­ther of­fi­cer no­ticed a recre­ational boat ahead. Nor did those on the smaller boat rec­og­nize that they no longer had the river to them­selves. The Elaine G ran down the smaller boat, killing all six aboard.

Au­gust 1993, Tampa Bay, Florida: The in­bound tug Sea­farer was push­ing a barge of jet fuel shortly be­fore dawn. The of­fi­cer on watch told a slower ves­sel ahead that he did not in­tend to over­take. Mo­ments later, the tug’s cap­tain took over the watch. He put the throt­tles full ahead and be­gan over­tak­ing the slower ves­sel. Mean­while, on an out­bound ship, the cap­tain turned the bridge over to a har­bor pi­lot, one mate re­lieved another and the pi­lot be­came in­volved in a ra­dio call con­cern­ing his next as­sign­ment. All three ves­sels col­lided at a bend in the chan­nel. The jet fuel erupted, blow­ing out wheel­house win­dows. The out­bound ship, flood­ing in mul­ti­ple places, was driven aground to avoid sink­ing.

Ac­ci­dents like these never come down to one thing. But what these three have in com­mon is that var­i­ous transitions in­ter­fered with the abil­ity of highly ex­pe­ri­enced in­di­vid­u­als to main­tain sit­u­a­tional aware­ness and take ef­fec­tive ac­tion.

Sit­u­a­tional aware­ness is per­ceiv­ing what is go­ing on around you, iden­ti­fy­ing which de­vel­op­ments have the po­ten­tial to af­fect you, and form­ing a course of ac­tion. Main­tain­ing sit­u­a­tional aware­ness re­quires con­tin­u­ous re­assess­ment, a feat that we largely, but not al­ways, ac­com­plish in­tu­itively. Fa­tigue, dis­trac­tion and com­pla­cency are well- known bar­ri­ers to sit­u­a­tional aware­ness.

Transitions are dif­fer­ent. Transitions have a way of spread­ing sit­u­a­tional aware­ness more thinly, mud­dling pri­or­i­ties as we at­tempt to bridge the gap from the way things were to the way they are. An­tic­i­pat­ing and man­ag­ing transitions is cen­tral to main­tain­ing sit­u­a­tional aware­ness for any­one on the wa­ter. Here are some ar­eas where prob­lems can arise.

Equip­ment: Re­search­ing and buy­ing a piece of nav­i­ga­tional kit is fun. We do it on the premise that the new one will be su­pe­rior to the old one. But we knew the old one so well — its but­tons, its knobs and its lim­i­ta­tions. The man­ual was dog-eared and high­lighted. That fa­mil­iar­ity led di­rectly to a cer­tain ef­fi­ciency in us­ing the equip­ment. New, im­proved equip­ment may even­tu­ally leave you bet­ter off, but in the short term you may be fum­bling, swear­ing and los­ing the big picture. If you have just re­placed a key piece of equip­ment, take time to learn it be­fore you need it un­der pres­sure.

Vis­i­bil­ity: The shift­ing moods of the sea

and sky are part of the at­trac­tion of be­ing on the wa­ter. But the mu­ta­bil­ity of na­ture presents chal­lenges. In par­tic­u­lar, fog and dark­ness in­hibit sen­sory aware­ness, forc­ing us to rely more on in­stru­ments (radar, chart plot­ter, sounder) to main­tain sit­u­a­tional aware­ness. We are for­tu­nate to have such re­sources, but when we shift from vis­ual cues to screens and dig­its, sit­u­a­tional aware­ness can lag and we may miss a new devel­op­ment. Al­ter­nately, when vis­i­bil­ity im­proves and you are still peer­ing at a screen, you may miss some­thing im­por­tant that the naked eye would have caught.

On a tech­ni­cal note, a radar picture that has been ad­justed for fair weather will be de­graded by rain or choppy seas un­less the op­er­a­tor has the pres­ence of mind to ac­ti­vate rain and sea sup­pres­sions. Con­versely, a radar picture that has been ad­justed for rain and sea clut­ter will be less sen­si­tive when those con­di­tions have passed. This is just another man­i­fes­ta­tion of how the sea is a tran­si­tion-rich en­vi­ron­ment that calls for quick-foot­ed­ness in ev­ery re­spect.

Twi­light: Twi­light is a sub­set of vis­i­bil­ity. The very word speaks to the way in which day and night briefly co­ex­ist, twice a day. The hu­man retina is equipped with two types of pho­tore­cep­tors: cones and rods. Cones are ac­tive dur­ing day­light hours and pro­vide color sen­si­tiv­ity. Rods are low-light re­cep­tors that are good for pe­riph­eral vi­sion, mo­tion de­tect­ing and depth per­cep­tion, but not color. As day turns into night, and vice versa, our eyes are tran­si­tion­ing from one type of vi­sion to another. You may re­call mo­ments at twi­light when it was dif­fi­cult to pick things out and gauge their dis­tance. This is re­lated to the way the eye works, and it cre­ates a pe­riod of vul­ner­a­bil­ity as we try to per­ceive what is go­ing on around us.

Another twi­light-re­lated tran­si­tion per­tains to con­sole dis­plays. Con­sole light­ing, in­clud­ing elec­tron­ics, should be dimmed as dark­ness falls so as to pre­serve night vi­sion, but then we must re­mem­ber to in­crease bright­ness come morn­ing so we can see the in­for­ma­tion be­ing dis­played.

Weather: More than most things, weather has a way of chang­ing plans. Any time you change a plan, short of turn­ing around and head­ing straight back to the ma­rina, you com­mence a dal­liance with un­in­tended con­se­quences. Plan A was well thought out — the an­chor­age, the wind di­rec­tion, the amount of day­light at ar­rival, the tide, the cur­rent, the un­der- keel clear­ance, the dis­tance. Plan B, if you had one, re­ceived no such treat­ment, and was less than ideal in the first place; that’s why it was Plan B. As the thought process warms to Plan B, you may no­tice a cer­tain amount of “hop­ing for the best” creep­ing in. Hop­ing for the best is not a plan, but it is of­ten the hand­maiden to a fi­asco born of an ill-con­sid­ered change of plan.

Con­versely, a change of weather may find a per­son hang­ing on to Plan A out of sheer stub­born­ness, and in de­fi­ance of facts. Mak­ing the shift to Plan B isn’t al­ways easy, but rec­og­niz­ing that the mo­ment is upon you to fish or cut bait is part of un­der­stand­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of transitions.

Other transitions that chal­lenge sit­u­a­tional aware­ness in­clude oper­at­ing in un­fa­mil­iar wa­ters, go­ing from open wa­ter to con­fined wa­ters, mov­ing from low- traf­fic to high­traf­fic sit­u­a­tions, or hav­ing peo­ple aboard who don’t know your boat, your way of do­ing things and your ter­mi­nol­ogy. It’s all man­age­able. But hav­ing re­spect for how transitions af­fect aware­ness can help you avoid a sit­u­a­tion where your head is in the old game, when a new game has al­ready be­gun.

Changes in vis­i­bil­ity, like fog, may in­hibit sen­sory aware­ness and con­se­quently hurt sit­u­a­tional aware­ness.

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