The Edmond Sun

October 25, 2013

The captain determines the destination of the ship

Mike Hinkle
Special to The Sun

EDMOND — The captain was not on the bridge when the ship ran aground. Everyone, and by everyone in the civilized world, knew the vessel was about to execute a difficult maneuver. It was the captain himself who set the course with the express purpose of making this dicey maneuver. He had years to prepare the vessel, the crew and himself for the unique demands to be encountered if the maneuver was to succeed.

The captain knew the precise moment the maneuver was to be executed. This feat of maritime daring was publicized in every major newspaper on earth. The captain intentionally drew the eyes of the world to this moment in history. This red-letter day would be his historical achievement, his crowning moment, his legacy. And yet, as the moment approached, the captain was absent from the bridge.

Long before the ship arrived at the critical point in the voyage, members of the crew began to suspect — years of preparation and endless hype notwithstanding — the dangerous maneuver could not be successfully completed on the captain’s schedule. But the captain had no mechanism in the chain of command allowing the crew’s reservations to reach the ears of the commander. For some reason, the captain was functionally deaf to the crew’s apprehensions. Whatever anxiety the crew might have, the captain was not interested in hearing about it.

A week before the moment of truth finally arrived, someone ordered a simulation to determine whether the ship could actually perform the functions required in order for the ship to successfully navigate the critical challenge. The captain was not present when the simulation was performed. Evidently, there was no procedure requiring him to be notified if alarms sounded suggesting there might be doubt about the ultimate success of the maneuver.

The simulations suggested the whole enterprise might be destined to fail. The captain was not present when the simulation took place. He exhibited no interest in the simulation. In fact, the captain may have been totally ignorant concerning the simulation and its disastrous outcome. He had no standing orders in place demanding that he be notified in case his crew detected danger ahead. If there were such orders, nobody bothered to obey them.

The thoroughly predictable disaster occurred. The ship ran aground. The extent of the damage is, for now, unknown. According to some estimates, the owners of the vessel may be on the hook for $500 million or more.

Hearings are underway to determine what went wrong. The captain has not testified and probably won’t. His second in command says the captain was blameless. He wasn’t informed concerning the disastrous failure of his maneuver until a day or two after it happened. As for why he was so dismally uninformed, unaccountably disconnected and oblivious to all warning signs, no one is saying. As for why he was nowhere near the bridge when the vessel beached, the record is and will probably remain silent. We are told he was “blind-sided” by this monumental foul-up.

Unfortunately, this poor captain has a history of being “blind-sided.” One of the captain’s main responsibilities is to provide for the security of his crew. Though there were warnings that members of his crew were at risk due to security shortcomings, the captain was kept in the dark concerning the danger and he had no provision in the chain of command requiring that he be notified of such dangers. He was “blind-sided” when members of his crew were killed in an avoidable attack. No one knows whether the captain reported to the bridge when he learned the attack was underway.

It is the captain’s responsibility to be answerable for the good behavior of his crew. He is expected to lead by example and demand that his crew behave honorably and responsibly while under his command. This captain was “blind-sided” when he learned that responsible members of his crew were committing gross abuses of their authority and subverting the ship’s primary purpose.

Without doubt, one of the captain’s main responsibilities is to take command and be on the bridge when crisis looms. According to one definition of the nautical bridge, “During critical maneuvers, the captain will be on the bridge…” If the captain is wilfully absent and disaster results excuses may prove to be unbelievable, cowardly and constitute a gross responsibility dodge.

Some time ago, this column pointed out that some people are unsuited to command. It’s not their fault, it’s just they don’t have the temperament, experience or aptitude. As the captain of the Costa Concordia acknowledged when his vessel ran aground, “I have made a mess.”

I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.

MIKE HINKLE is a retired attorney and Edmond resident.