The U.S. Coast Guard’s investigation of the collision led to the 541-foot Cypriot-registered, Russian tanker VIRGO. Canadian authorities detained the vessel when it docked at Come By Chance, Newfoundland, Canada to reload.

Almost immediately the international politics of four nations and the constabularies of two, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the U. S. Coast Guard and FBI, became involved.

On Aug. 14, John A. Cornett of the Coast Guard’s Investigative Service filed a criminal complaint in the U. S. District Court in Washington, D. C., and asked the Court to issue arrest warrants for Capt. Vladimir Ivanov, along with Second Officer Dmitri Bogdanov, and Able-Bodied Seaman Mikhail Gerasimenko – the VIRGO crew members on watch at the time of the collision. The complaint charged each with involuntary manslaughter and destroying the life of another person by their misconduct, negligence, or inattention to their duties as the captains and persons employed on a vessel.

Upon receipt of the arrest warrants, the RCMP arrested the three Russians at the St. Johns, Newfoundland, airport, as they attempted to leave the country, and took them into custody. They were subsequently released on bail after surrendering their passports. Previous to the arrests, according to the Vladivostok News, all 22 VIRGO crewmembers had been ordered by the RCMP to leave the ship “at gun point” and were lodged at a St. Johns hotel.

The Russian Embassy in Canada, in turn, filed an official protest with the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, expressing outrage at the “unjustified actions of the Canadian authorities …” and demanding the immediate return of the crew to the vessel.

The case promises to be an intricate, drawn-out affair. “Unfortunately,” says Capt. Brown of Maine Maritime, “this type of thing happens all too often,” and cited an example he uses in his class (see related story).

International maritime law holds for all vessels. (With a caveat: Brown said, “Each country can bend those rules to their liking.” He said a section of the rules called Special Circumstances deals with these differences.) A course called “Rules of the Road,” taught to second-year students at MMA by Capt. Ralph Pundt, is part of a four-year focus on bridge training, to be learned and absorbed for life, just as first year law students learn to identify issues and first-year medical students learn anatomy. Pundt has an unlimited Master’s license, 21 years of oceangoing time, and eight years as captain of a tanker.

The Navigation Rules, called COLREGs, an acronym for Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, “are written such that they apply alike to all vessels: commercial vessels, recreational vessels, large vessels, small vessels,” Brown said. “Everybody who gets in a boat is bound by these rules.” Pundt calls the Rules “The Bible.”

Reeling off rule numbers as if they were a part of his central nervous system, Brown, who used to teach the “Rules” course, said “there’s no substitute for knowing the Navigation Rules.” Under Rule 2, Responsibility, the phrase “Ordinary Practice of Seamen,” said Brown, “is determined by the Courts to mean good seamanship.” Rule 4 applies to conduct in any visibility. Rule 5 is “Proper Lookout in any Visibility.” Rules 6, “Safe Speed,” and 7, “Risk of Collision,” apply to conduct when vessels are out of sight of each other, as is Rule 19, “Conduct of Vessels in Restricted Visibility.” They all applied in the STARBOUND-VIRGO case, Brown said and added, from his experience of 23 years at sea, “I suspect the fishing vessel did not plot the tanker and the tanker did not plot the fishing vessel.”

Although the STARBOUND had the proper radar systems, Capt. Marcantonio confirmed to the Coast Guard that the collision alarm was not turned on; and despite statements to the contrary, analysis of the VIRGO’s course showed it on a collision course with the STARBOUND.

Brown was right. He just didn’t know how right he was at the time. Unaware of the visibility, he was quoting Rules that apply when vessels cannot see each other.

In fog or other conditions of restricted vision, neither vessel has the right of way. Both are required to keep out of the way of the other vessel. The night of the collision, however, was one of patchy fog with limited visibility of from one to three nautical miles. The STARBOUND was the vessel to starboard of the tanker, meaning it had right of way if the vessels were in sight of one another, and the tanker was the give-way vessel.

As the Coast Guard later confirmed in its formal complaint, using specific COLREGs Rules as examples, both parties were negligent. (The Coast Guard cited the following rules that were violated: Rules 4 and 6, as noted by Brown, and three more that seamen are bound by when vessels come in sight of one another: Rule 15, Crossing situations, 16, Action by give-way vessel, and 17: Action by stand-on vessel.)

Teaching the basics

Although all the rules are important, above all, Brown said, the Rule of Good Seamanship (Rule 2) applies, and for MMA midshipmen, it starts their freshman year.

All students begin bridge training on their first annual training cruise, learning to keep a proper lookout (Rule 5). “The majority of all collisions,” Brown said, “have been centered around an improper lookout. Not paying attention. Not looking out the windows, doing things they’re not supposed to do. The STCW (Standards for Training, Certification, and Watch-keeping) require all seamen to be a proper lookout because it’s such an important duty. Every officer on the ship has a hand in training these students to keep a proper lookout.”

The Deck students take a course their second year called Electronic Navigation, which teaches them the proper use of radar, detecting the presence of other vessels, and determining their course and speed.

Third year students practice navigation on the training cruise. Then, after seniors take Brown’s Casualty Analysis course in the fall of their senior year, they go to the simulator room in the spring and take watch-keeping. In this course instructors Sam Teel and Andy Chase and technician Jim Sanders set up simulations of actual scenarios, such as those found in the STARBOUND-VIRGO collision, so students can learn how to avoid casualties.

Capt. Pundt said the maritime industry is going through changes in standardization of safety training, and to that end, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is setting up approved training centers all over the world. “By February 2002,” he said, “all our maritime licensed officers have to have passed STCW certification. A big part of that certification is proper watch standing procedure, and part of that is [a course we teach called] Bridge Resource Management. It’s a method for developing teamwork on the bridge.”

Taking risks

It’s also a way of avoiding collisions. When collisions do occur, though, vessels can sink very rapidly. Arn Heggers, Fishing Vessel Safety Coordinator for Maine and New Hampshire, usually tells fishermen they have five minutes to prepare to abandon ship. When asked about the swiftness of the STARBOUND’s sinking, he replied, “It is very possible for a ship to go down in seconds versus minutes. A great deal depends on the number of watertight compartments, whether those watertight compartments were properly secured, the loading of the vessels and the extent of damage sustained, the damage stability and intact stability for the vessel.” He said he was thankful that the Coast Guard had caught a hydrostatic release problem on the STARBOUND’s inflatable life raft (subsequently corrected) during a Voluntary Dockside Exam in April and that it had saved Marcantonio’s life, but noted, “I’m sad that only one person was able to get out alive.”

He cited numerous issues that could play a part in late night collisions in fog. They included fatigue, boredom, alertness, number of persons on watch, multi-tasking, use of technology, over reliance on technology, satisfactory deployment of Loran and Radar and proper operation of EPIRB devices. In addition, he mentioned emergency egress training, crew training in general, proper lookout, and International Standards for Training and Watch-keeping.

Fatigue is a major factor in many accidents at sea, and several parties interviewed suggested it may have had a role in the STARBOUND tragedy. “Until you correct the human fatigue factor,” stated Gloucester lobstermen Peter Prybot, “you can’t correct the problem.”

Thirty vessels passed through the collision area the night of Aug. 4, and to his list Heggers might have added overcrowded shipping lanes and the risks vessels run when fishing in those lanes.