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Bay oil spill fuels calls for ship changes

The San Francisco accident highlights a lack of standardized navigation gear on ships.

Associated Press
Published November 30, 2007


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OAKLAND, Calif. - Eric Robinson stepped onto the bridge of the container ship Horizon Pacific and peered at a computer monitor depicting San Francisco Bay. Ship icons blipped clearly in the virtual water, but the meaning of some of the other symbols was murky.

Robinson, a San Francisco ship pilot, makes his living guiding supertankers, naval vessels and cruise ships through the bay's treacherous waters, and his job is to adapt quickly. But he never knows what electronic navigation gear he will face when he takes the helm. And he thinks that should change.

The government, the International Maritime Organization and the shipping industry are exploring how to bring some order to the jumble of electronic navigation aids proliferating on the seas - a movement that has been given greater impetus by an accident in San Francisco Bay earlier this month.

On Nov. 7, a 901-foot container ship sideswiped the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, gashing its hull and dumping 58,000 gallons of sludge-like bunker fuel. It was the bay's worst oil spill in nearly two decades and closed fishing in the bay for more than three weeks; authorities lifted the ban Thursday after determining there is no significant health risk from eating seafood caught in areas affected by the spill.

While the cause of the accident is still under investigation, the pilot in that episode told authorities of confusion between him and the ship's captain over symbols on an electronic charting system as the vessel Cosco Busan made its way through a fog bank.

"An international standardization of bridge equipment like radars and electronic navigation equipment - to me, that would be the legislation I would like to see come out of this," Robinson said during an interview as he set a course for Hawaii.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the Coast Guard are looking into the possibility of miscommunication, perhaps even a language barrier, in the Nov. 7 incident. The Cosco Busan's pilot also said his two radar displays became distorted.

Robinson said fiddling with equipment in those moments is the last thing he wants to do.

"I've seen at least a dozen different electronic charts and dozens of radar displays," Robinson said. "Bridge markings, buoy markings, depth contour curves, what measurements the depths are in, whether they're in fathoms, feet or meters - basically every aspect of the chart other than the outlay of the land could be different."

Robinson wants to see a new system in which a pilot could hit a button that would prompt the electronic charts to revert to a "standard mode," or default setting, that would be uniform across all manufacturers and show charts with standard symbols.

[Last modified November 30, 2007, 01:29:24]


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