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Game Changer: Reflecting on the COSCO BUSAN Debacle

Impact of Cota’s jail term goes far beyond liability issues.

The wide-reaching implications were not lost on me last week when Captain John Cota was sentenced to 10 months in prison for his part in the Cosco Busan disaster in San Francisco Bay. The sentence, whether or not it was severe enough for the crimes that Cota pled guilty to, first served to remind mariners everywhere that the U.S. Department of Justice is not messing around. Not withstanding what may or may not happen to the operators and crew of the ill-fated ship, mariners everywhere now know – if they didn’t already get the message – that mistakes made on the water will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. And this goes far beyond the liabilities inherent in honest mistakes, blatant negligence, or anything in between.

I report on all sorts of pilot issues on a regular basis through this vehicle, as well as in our print editions. That coverage extends to pilot rates, equipment, safety and a host of other subjects. The important thing to take away from last week’s DOJ announcement, however, is that no aspect of pilot business – at least in this country – escaped unscathed. Guiding deep draft marine traffic in and out of America’s harbors has changed forever. And, there is little in the way of good news for anyone in any of that metric. Cosco Busan was a game changer.

Nothing passes for a minor incident anymore on board any ship in U.S. waters. And, for those who are unclear on the concept, the final DOT rule on “Direct Observation” is now out and is official (see elsewhere in this e-newsletter). Rest assured: they are going to watch you pee. And, that’s not the worst of it. The seemingly weekly DOJ announcements that we research, pick up and put on line are ample evidence to all of that. Mariners are liable for everything, everywhere and every time. Get used to it. In the meantime, however, those of us hanging around watching from the cheap seats in the office ought to start paying attention, too.

With the liability issue settled and behind us, it is time to look at this issue from the perspective of the “maritime executive.” That’s our demographic – or at least, I hope that’s the case. The typical reaction of most maritime businesses to the cost of pilotage is to complain about the high and ever-increasing cost of this service. I suppose that you could count me as one who has expressed that opinion once or twice, as well. The latest surveys that I have seen have the average pilot making about $400,000 annually; some more, some less. Looking at the current situation, however, I might have to someday reconsider my position.

A while back, I was chastised by some MarEx readers for taking exception to the NTSB’s handling of the Cosco Busan allision investigation. The readers (a.) didn’t necessarily think that Captain Cota would qualify as the “poster child” for that sort of argument and/or (b.) bemoaned the fact that the vessel in question could have probably been driven sideways under the bridge without hitting it, had the job been handled correctly. Fair enough. But, these arguments are beside the point, now.

Highly trained and skilled marine pilots are also highly paid professionals. And if the reasons why weren’t evident before, then they certainly are now, at least to me. The people who guide deep draft traffic in and out of port have to get it right, every time. If not, then they are probably going to jail. That sort of risk deserves to be appropriately compensated. At what level those rates should be set is another question altogether and, a job for someone else.

The business of running a safe, compliant and efficient pilot organization is not an inexpensive proposition. Those costs are about to go up again. This could involve any number of line items, but I’m guessing that insurance will be a prime contributor to that spiraling bottom line cost. Whatever you may think of marine pilots in general, the stakes got a lot higher last week for all of them.

If, in the past, the pilot was “merely an advisor to the Master,” then those days are over for good. That said, the grand jury indictment also charges Fleet Management Limited (Hong Kong), a ship management firm, with the same alleged offenses as well as false statements and obstruction of justice charges. Trial in that case is set for Sept. 14, 2009. The DOJ says that all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty at trial beyond a reasonable doubt. Still, it will be interesting to see what level of liability is eventually decided for the ship and its crew in this case. Clearly, the bar was set pretty high for the pilot.

Some time prior to next week’s e-newsletter, I wonder if someone couldn’t tell me the answer to the (mock) sample Coast Guard question that I’ve inserted at the end of this column. I think that I used to know the answer, but now, I am not so sure. The one thing that I do know is that the game has changed, forever. – MarEx.

1. What is the relationship of the Pilot and his responsibilities to the vessel and the Master?

a.) The Pilot is in command of the ship;
b.) The Captain and the Pilot share responsibility;
c.) The Pilot is an advisor to the Vessel and Master; or
d.) None of the above.

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Joseph Keefe is the Editor in Chief of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He can be reached with comments on this editorial at jkeefe@maritime-executive.com. Join the Maritime Executive ‘Linked In’ group at by clicking http://www.linkedin.com/e/gis/47685