Ever read Catch-22 by Joseph Heller? Brilliant book, better by far than the movie version. The very concept of doing exactly the right thing and either having it result in exactly the wrong thing for you, or for doing the wrong thing and coming out on top, or somehow being the victim of the very circumstances you are trying to avoid; so many can identify with this book simply because just about everyone has some experience with just that, happening to themselves.
It can get more than a little sticky, though, when talking to people who deal with a Catch-22 situation with a very different mindset, perhaps one that feels attacked by the very act of questioning circumstance. Had just such a conversation the other night.
I'm a talker. I enjoy interesting, sprawling conversations with people who, though not necessarily expert on any given topic, know enough to keep the talking flowing. A friend of mine (let's call him Arly, and he's definitely NOT Geo) both worked together on boats years ago. He got his first boat jobs when I was in the process of winding down my involvement in the marine industry; as a result he has since obtained more and more experience just as I have shifted into another field almost entirely. Also, his experience more recently is concentrated on larger vessels, where he served as either Ordinary or Able Seaman; I have always worked on boats too small to require accredited hands (meaning no licensed OSs or ABs). Still, we are both intimately familiar with the Coast Guard regulations pertinent to the industry, and often swap tales about same.
The other night, not such a pleasant swap.
Somehow, the topic of radar use came up (probably something I mentioned). Years ago, a sailing vessel called the Lady Washington was motoring upriver near Aberdeen. They had contacted a rail drawspan alerting the bridge tender of their approach. He acknoledged their approach. Just as they were crossing the span, however, the tender inexplicably dropped the bridge, hitting the mast and damaging the vessel. This happened on a clear, sunny afternoon, in the relatively tight quarters of a river passage.
After any marine accident, the Coast Guard will conduct an investigation, and they tend to be thorough. One of the questions they asked was whether the radar was functional, and operating at the time of the collision with the bridge. It was -- luckily for the captain, it seems, for if the captain did not have the radar on, he or she would have been held liable for the accident since, according to the rules, any equipment on board to aid in safe navigation must be used in navigation. (I heard this story from the then captain, who was at the time of the accident on board as a mate.)
From my perspective, using available radar is prudent; but I can think of some very limited circumstances when operational radar would be either moot or even inappropriate -- like the small boat making river passage in clear skies and calm seas. One would have the radar on, just in case, but would really not be paying much attention to it; the shore is so close to the vessel that vigilant visual navigation would be far preferable. Taking your eyes off the horizon to squint into a screen's visor, or dedicating a crewmember to keep his or her eyes in the visor, in my opinion, would detract from safe navigation by creating a distraction to the watch.
(Also, when vessels pass through locks, the radar's magnatron radiation, exactly the kind of radiation made by a microwave oven, illuminates the testicals and ovaries of lock attendents and visitors far more effectivley than the vessel's position. Placing the radars on standby in those cases is not only encouraged, but sometimes required -- by everyone but the Guard, I believe.)
Back to the Lady Wasington verses the bridge. It's obvious that the bridge tender was at fault; but had the useless radar not been operating at the time of the collision, the captain would have been at fault. To me, this represents a failure of the Guard's system, a failure that neglects realities. Furthermore, since radar is not required equipment, the captain would have been punished for having radar and not using it in an instance when its use would have served no purpose, and rewarded for not having radar at all.
Arly disagreed, and oh, did he get pissed about it.
He had points. First, any system that encourages mariners to do everything possible to sail safely should be implemented. Any captain who does not keep a radar watch is asking for trouble most of the time, and those few instances where the radar becomes a moot device are so few and far between that it seems equally moot even to quibble, as I was doing. Therefore, why not just do what the regs require? It's easier. That's what Arly said, that he embraces the rules put forth by the CG. They are, after all, the rules.
Me, I disagreed, to a point. Maybe I'm a contrarian.
I brought up a bit of inspection lore. Every year, passenger vessels are inspected by the CG to make sure they adhere to the regulations as outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations. These can be some pretty close examinations, depending on everything from the mood of the inspector to the attitude of the crew. The captain and crew are on the boat to direct the inspectors to whatever they need to inspect, be it the ability to sound the horn, to counting and inspecting every PFD (lifejacket), to charging and spraying the firehose, you name it. On the vessels I was helping to inspect the inspections usually took at least three hours, and sometimes lasted a day.
On one such inspection, the CG noted a sight tube in the engine room. (Sight tubes are a simple way to determine the level of fluids; picture a tube, plumbed just outside a tank. The level of the fluid in the tank is going to be the same as the level seen through the clear tube on the outside of the tank, so one can see how much, say, fuel the boat has onboard.) The inspector noted that the tubes on this boat were glass, and could shatter, leading to fuel flooding the engine room. As a requirement of passing the inspection, he asked that the tubes be replaced with shatter-proof plastic. No problem. Done.
The next year, a different inspector noted that, in an engine room fire, plastic tubes would melt and release fuel into the fire. He asked that they be replaced with glass.
Wait a minute. . . .
My boss told him what had happened the year before. After a bit of venting, the inspector let the plastic remain; but it took a bit of arguing.
This example reflects my problem with the current system. The CG is not only the enforcement arm ensuring adherence to regulations, they also issue the regulations. They are both lawmaker and judge. Their stated goal is to improve maritime safety. Both inspectors were, technically, doing exactly that, but were doing so without considering whether or not a proscribed fix was worse than the perceived problem -- is breakable glass safer or more dangerous than meltable plastic?
Well, is it?
What's the answer? Thinking about it, I think the correct answer is "No one knows for sure." There are many boats with sight tubes for the fuel, but not many in any given year catch fire or experience fuel discharges. To determine which system would be safer, one would have to analyse real-world data regarding accidents involving both types of sight tubes, and compare damage in both. There simply aren't enough incidents to arrive at a rock-solid statistical conclusion.
But the "do nothing due to lack of data" is not written into the Coast Guard mandate. The inspectors are charged with actively making boats safer, not with noting instances where the regulation needs refinement. One would have to prove that the mandated change, in this case in sight tube material, would be worse before the change could be challenged, and without data . . . . (The tubes were not changed after the second inspection only because my boss was persistant enough to point out the silliness of contradictary requirements.)
I like to think that every rule has a reason. Find the reason, understand the rule. By logical reversal, however, if you find that the reason is no longer in season, or that the specific reason for the rule either doesn't apply in specific circumstances or, worse, the circumstances dictate that the rule should be ignored or even violated, then so be it. Goodbye rule, hello valid infraction. Seek and one shall find books dedicated to Blue Laws, silly laws that either make no sense in and of themselves, or fail to make sense in a modern era, or both. For me, what the CFRs, the regulations miss is an exception for radar use that takes into account the most prudent use of limited manpower available for the watch, or, more generally, a "non-preventable" category of exception. In the specific example of the Lady Washington, since use or non-use of the radar would have done nothing to prevent the accident -- and could have actually made the accident worse by providing needless distraction from the watch -- it should be inadmissable in the final report. Radar use would have been as moot a point as using running lights in broad daylight.
I think everyone who lives in the real world should get credit their actions in this world, not for the good intentions they showed by following rules to the exclusion of the world around them. And when rules conflict, that conflict should be noted.
When musing over this post, I thought of yet another example, one that, if one followed the rules to the letter, could mean lives lost and not saved.
The Coast Guard has a major hard-on for PFDs, or Personal Floatation Devices. They do work. They keep people's heads above water. In a major marine incident, that's a good thing. The problem; like in the shower in Junior High PE, their PFD boner seems to pop up inappropriately.
Let's take the example of the Miss Majestic, an amphibious passenger vessel (a WWII DUKW, or duck) that went down near Hot Springs, Arkansas, killing 19 (I think). One of the cable stations made great special on the sinking of the Miss Majestic. Some detail was, however, omitted from that special -- I believe -- because it conflicted with the CG dogma. I learned of this because I drove those things, those Ducks, right here in the Northwest, and talked to drivers who spoke with the CG just after the accident.
Two factors -- other than the shitload of stupid mistakes made by the Arkansas operators -- led to the magnitude of death in Hot Springs: first, the vessel went down stern first; and second, the windows didn't open. All of the corpses onboard were found pressed to the windshield glass and against the side plastic; most, if not all, were wearing life jackets.
A few people escaped the sinking vessel; a few of them may have been wearing PFDs, but not all. It's not in the report. The few survivors only escaped because they were seated toward the stern, and were able to bail from the vessel before the stern, the only opening, submerged. One or two may have swam to the exit after submersion and escaped.
But no one with a PFD too far forward could overcome their jacket's buoyancy and make that swim down to the exit. Their "life jackets" lifted them to their death.
That fact -- that those with PFDs died, and those without survived -- was not even mentioned in the special. To mention that fact would be to muddy the regulatory waters, to suggest that people question regulation designed to save their lives.
So, if you're on a boat, and it starts to capsize, should you immediately don a PFD? The Coasties say emphatically: Yes! at the first sign of trouble, no matter where on the boat you are.
I say use your brain! Look around; are you in an enclosed space? If so, once that boat slips beneath the surface, in diving parlance you are now in an overhead enviroment, where upward movement becomes life threatening. Get in the clear before you don the PFD, or that device's floatation will pin your personals to the ceiling as effectively as a cement vest will hold your drowning ass to the bottom.
To conclude, Arly takes the safety regs as an article of faith, by living them. And I do not, for I am proudly faithless.
To Arly, holding a position contrary to the letter of the law and only grudgingly adhering to the law made me somehow, someway, someone who was actively attacking the law. I got a bit flustered at his constantly shooting down my examples as improper, or incorrectly interpretted, mostly because I had no idea why he was doing it. Without realizing it, I was attacking his belief system; remember, he followed the law not just by learning and accepting it, but by living it. Question the validity of the law, it seems, and I question the world according to Arly.
And that really pissed him off.
Arly was angry because he failed to see that my ramblings meant no attack on him. He took it personally, and very personally attacked me in turn.
And that really pissed me off.
We all hold various aspects in our lives more dearly than others. The trouble starts when one realizes that some other person embraces the wrong, and regards the bad as good. I have to constantly remind myself these days that we are all other people.
Still, I despise blind adherence. And, for that matter, blind adherants.