Saturday, May 30, 2009

Oil and water DO mix

In my post on Joseph Hazelwood, I mentioned one of the misperceptions about the Exxon Valdez oil spill, that it was the largest ever. It wasn’t and, while large oil tanker spills make for very dramatic news reports, they are not even close to being the largest contributors to marine oil pollution.

It’s estimated that more than 700 million gallons of oil end up in the world’s oceans each year. A small amount, about eight percent, comes from natural sources. This is commonly called seepage. By comparison, only about five percent comes from large oil spills. Nearly twenty percent comes from routine maintenance performed on ships, primarily from bilge cleaning operations. Another two percent is a by-product of offshore drilling.

So where does the rest, nearly two-thirds of the total, come from? From shore-based end users, that’s where. First the rain washes that little oil drip under your car away, combines it with hundreds of millions of other little oil drips, and dumps it into the world’s oceans. Some takes an even more direct route, poured directly into storm drains after oil changes. One automobile oil change can pollute up to a million gallons of water. This runoff, from both automotive and other sources, accounts for more than half the oil in the world’s oceans. Another thirteen percent of the total becomes airborne first, from car and industrial exhaust, then settles to the sea and breaks down.

The November 2007 San Francisco Bay oil spill made big headlines. The pilot on the COSCO Busan was fined up to $30,000 and may serve up to ten months in prison. Sen. Barbara Boxer, the mayor of San Francisco, and the Sierra Club, among others, heavily criticized the US Coast Guard’s response to the spill. The ship’s owners were indicted for several crimes, including six felonies. It’ s easy to look at the havoc caused by a big tanker oil spill and feel concern and even outrage.

Now, are you going to do something about the dark, oily spot in your driveway? It’s about to rain…

Filed from the M/V Spirit of '98 in the Columbia River Gorge

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Shining a light on "The Lighthouse Story"

The story goes back to at least the 1930s, although the advent of the Internet has given it viral growth: a large ship (often a battleship or an aircraft carrier) is steaming along at night when it spots a light ahead. The commander (often a medal-bedecked admiral) hails the other vessel, instructing them to change course. The other vessel refuses, and the admiral gets increasingly puffed up and indignant, finally trying to assert his lofty rank and the size of his huge vessel in an effort to intimidate the other vessel into changing course. Then comes the punch line: the other person is a lowly seaman and the other “vessel” is actually a lighthouse!

This urban legend is passed around as a true story and an object lesson in arrogance and what students of logic call the Fallacy of the Argument from Authority. It is, of course, total bilge water. Lighthouses are rarely manned these days (and never by Navy personnel), are lit very differently than ships, and of course are clearly marked on nautical charts. It’s also unlikely that two vessels, or a vessel and a shore station, would communicate that long without both of them indentifying themselves very early in the exchange. And, just like there are rules of the road governing how two automobiles must interact (the rules governing a four-way stop, for instance), there are nautical rules of the road as well, and the larger vessel, military or not, does not necessarily have the right of way.

People love this story for the way the swollen-headed admiral is cut down to size. And despite its nearly complete technical inaccuracy, it serves to remind mariners of the importance proper communications, situational awareness, and Rules of the Road (and no, the “tonnage rule” is not an actual Rule of the Road).

Posted from M/V Spirit of '98 at the confluence of the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Misunderstood Mariners: William Bligh

April 28 marked the 220th anniversary of the famous mutiny on the HMS Bounty. William Bligh, commander of that ill-fated expedition, has become synonymous with the image of a cruel captain, an image reinforced by popular fiction, especially movies.

Bligh was an officer under Capt. James Cook on that explorer’s third and final voyage, and served aboard vessels engaged in some of the most important naval battles of the Napoleonic Wars. Before taking command of the Bounty, he left the navy for a brief period to work in the merchant service. The Bounty’s log showed him to be, if anything, more sparing of cruel punishment than a lot of his fellow captain’s of the day. He also took from Cook a concern for the health of his crew, including making sure the food onboard exceeded the standards of the day and that the crew got daily exercise.

Bligh was also an early reformer of watch standing systems to combat crew fatigue, splitting his crew into three instead of two watches. It was this third watch that required an extra officer to be in charge of it, which led to Bligh recruiting Fletcher Christian for the 1789 voyage during which the mutiny occurred.

Bligh gets little credit for his forward thinking, although even popular accounts of the mutiny acknowledge Bligh’s skill in bringing a small boatload of loyalists 3600 nautical miles to safety with only one casualty. It’s probably inevitable that today Bligh is considered the bad guy in the mutiny, what with Christian being portrayed on film by heroic leading men Erroll Flynn, Clark Gable, and Marlon Brando. The fact is, the 1984 film The Bounty, with Mel Gibson as Christian and Anthony Hopkins as Bligh, is probably the most accurate, with many scenes lifted right from the Bounty’s log.

Filed from the M/V Spirit of '98 in the Columbia River Gorge.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Dreaded Cruise Ship Disease

A few days ago a relative of mine asked me the name of “that cruise ship disease.” I knew exactly what she was talking about: norovirus. And while outbreaks of norovirus on cruise ships make the six o’clock news, there’s nothing inherent about cruise ships that make people on them susceptible to the virus.

Norovirus, formerly called “Norwalk virus” after the town in Ohio where it was first identified, is a virus transmitted, in the Center for Disease Control’s matter-of-fact bureaucraspeak, via the “oral-fecal route.” That’s right, it’s transmitted because people don’t wash their hands after going potty. About 24 to 48 hours after contact, you start coming down with symptoms: nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhea, often all at once. I’ve personally been through this twice and can tell you the symptoms come on fast and are at their worst for 12 -24 hours. Recovery can be slow, often taking another 2 or 3 days.

Cruise ships are perfect for outbreaks of norovirus because a large number of people are confined to a relatively small space for a week at a time. You’re just as likely to catch it on a plane or at a restaurant (especially an all-you-can-eat buffet), but by the time the symptoms manifest themselves, you’ve long since moved on. Cruise ship passengers are all still together – probably with the fellow traveler who just couldn’t be bothered to wash his hands before rushing the seafood buffet.