Monday 24 March 2014

Captain, Sound well oiled

My Old Man was  a sailor, on the pay-roll of the Royal Navy from 1935 until he was retired at the age of 50 in 1967.  I mentioned him in the context of drinking while in charge of a vehicle, which in one of his larger commands was 170m long and capable of barrelling along at 50km/h.  I do not mean to imply that he or any of the crew was 'drunk' while in charge of such a ship, but they certainly had drink taken while at sea. In contrast, the US navy was 'dry': no alcohol was allowed to be consumed on board their ships even when in port. The inertia of large ships at sea is considerable and they cannot be turned, let alone stopped 'on a sixpence' as used to be said of London taxis.  So you need to have some competent person on the bridge at all times in case an emergency requires some seat-of-the-pants decision to be made.  Everyone agrees that alcohol dulls your response times, as does sleep deprivation and the latter was a contributory cause of the first major oil-spill at sea, the Torrey Canyon.  A lot was learned from the Torrey Canyon disaster, not least about the (not) inflammability of crude oil, but also about instrumentation, and its sensible labelling, on the bridge of ships.

22 years and a week elapsed between Torrey Canyon impaling herself on a known hazard West of Cornwall and Exxon Valdez doing the same thing on a known hazard in Prince William Sound in Alaska on 24th March 25 years ago.  But there were a lot of spills in the interim, during which capacity for these mammoth ships had more or less doubled to 200,000 tons poured into a vessel that was three football pitches 300m in length. Although the US Navy is alcohol-free and probably a bit safer for that, the same cannot be said for the US merchant marine.  When the fully-laden Exxon Valdez left Valdez Alaska for a refinery in Southern California, the Captain was well soused and had retired to his bunk to sleep it off.  There was a bit of a misunderstanding in the briefing of the Third Mate who was the officer of the watch that night but a key factor in the disaster was that the ship's RAYCAS collision avoidance radar was switched off. Actually it was banjaxed and had been out of commission for more than a year because the company thought it was too expensive to repair.  For lack of this key piece of modern equipment, the company found itself with a bill of at least $300,million in clean-up costs.  The tale of how the judgment of punitive damages was reduced to something that wouldn't offend of impoverish Exxon shareholders is too shabby and depressing to repeat here: wikipedia time-line bottom-line summary.  The ship itself was salvaged, repaired, renamed, and sailed the seven seas for more than 20 years.  On 2nd August 2012, she was beached on the Gujarat coast to be dismantled for scrap, a process that is not without its environmental and health & safety issues.

The Alaska fjords were one of the last great marine wildernesses, a sapphire sea teeming with life, a clatter of enchanting islands and a back-drop of dramatic mountains.  Whose idea was it to hazard all this delicately balanced ecosystem  on a gamble for cheap oil so that the plain people of America could drive to the shopping mall every weekend? Everyone who drives a car, is who. The Exxon Valdez made good copy for weeks after the disaster although the ship didn't since and only shed about a quarter of her cargo, although that was more than 40,000 tons of black sludge to clean up.  Part of the problem with the clean-up was an insistence that things be seen to get cleaned up.  So the shore line was treated with high-pressure hot-water hoses which killed the last gasp of surviving life.  Subsequent research has shown that ecosystems are quite robust to such insults and have the microbiological capacity to bio-degrade some of the toxins in the black stuff.
Sometimes it is better to do nothing.

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