Why Ships Keep Crashing

gCaptain John Konrad featured in The Atlantic.


But when I asked Captain John Konrad, a merchant mariner who runs the maritime-news site gCaptain, how many major ship incidents were a result of bad bridge resource management, he answered, “Every one. They are all BRM problems.”

That’s a tad hyperbolic, isn’t it? However, instead of rattling off examples to the contrary, I guess we can just accept that it’s a very important factor in most marine casualties and leave it at that.

I struggle to swallow the premise that there is zero headway being made wrt BRM implementation, though. I run into some mariners who discount it as BS, but they are invariably the old and cantankerous variety, and those are being put out to pasture. Meanwhile it’s a core part of deck officers’ training, and is even making its way into the recreational boater safety courses this side of the pond. Most mariners I talk to seem to understand and respect it, including here on gCaptain, which is more than could be said a decade or two ago.

The article glosses over a lot of detail, so I’m probably just missing something.


The article touched on a number of casualty causes that were admittedly due to failures in BRM but there other causes effecting shipping but not the aviation industry.
A container ship that I had previously been master of was a constructive total loss due to an undeclared DG. Air cargo is subject to more control.
Pilots have input into airport design and facilities, masters just have to get on with it.


Undeclared DG?

Yeah, it’s a bit thin compared to other articles at The Atlantic. I guess they wanted to get something out there about the Ever Given while it was still hot.


Dangerous Goods :wink:


This is from Charles Perrow book Normal Accidents (1984).

This is from the chapter on marine accidents, this particular part starts out comparing maritime to aviation then switches to the “perversely inverted” marine system.



According to Perrow one important role of the pilots’ union is to push back against the tendency of the organizations like the NTSB to simply attribute accidents to “pilot error” when in fact there were other factors.

From Wikipedia:

And since real world accidents almost always have multiple causes,…
In particular, it is a mark of a dysfunctional organization to simply blame the last person who touched something.


Yes and he is working on a longer article To be published at a future date.

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Yes but not all sailors. The very title of it shows it’s biggest failing. Engineers are sailors and they too could benefit from brm lessons but there are no books published about engineroom resource management. Pilots do use brm but only if they want to because pilots don’t need to take stcw. Neither do tugboat captains but Aren’t they are critical component of BRM during difficult maneuvering? What about VTS operators, weather routers, agents, operations managers.

The core of BRM is very good and has proved effective so why is it that deck officers need to learn it?

My research into this topic started with the el faro. I cannot help but think that if the chief engineer was part of the BRM process that incident will not of happened. The junior officers felt they couldn’t talk to the captain so why didn’t they talk to the chief engineer? They didn’t talk because we have compartmentalized operations. Everyone has their own specialties and only the bridge team gets brm training. Why?


Yes! There is a reason why the director of the FAA is a veteran pilot.

Sitting next to the FAA director at secretary Pete’s Department Of Transportation is the Maritime Adminstrator… But when was the last time a Captain was appointed as Maritime administrator?

The critics will say it’s not a captain because the USCG does a lot of the investigative and regulatory and united nation work the the FAA director hast to do. Ok then when was the last time I ship captain was the head of the United States Coast Guard?

And maybe now that the Coast Guard since 9/11 is focused on things other than shipping And those other things have raped the US Coast Guard’s time and budget they (through no fault of their own) or dropping the ball on Maritime affairs.

So maybe representation at the IMO and other commercial maritime dutys should be given over to MARAD?

And I know what you will say next “Please don’t give anything to marad, they are worse than the USCG!!”

Well maybe they are worse than the USCG because they have policy wonks instead of Captains and chief engineers in all the top positions?

It’s an ugly circle.


The aviation side of the house does a much better job of keeping the office out of the cockpit than maritime does keeping those second guessing, Monday morning quarterbacks off the bridge.

They are like cockroaches. The only way to get rid of “them” is burn down the house.

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Chuckle … I can assure you there a lot more people “in the cockpit” than the flight crew, every minute of every flight and hours before.

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Amen, Steamer! While the time lines are shorter, Airline companies are just as fixated on “get it there on time” as any shipping company - though they may be slightly more sensitive to the consequences of pushing a flight crew into making a mistake.
The time line aspect is another difference between aviation and maritime - the longest duration commercial flight on earth would be a very short voyage in a ship.

I read the article. It’s a generic article aimed at Joe public’s gnats attention span. So a very general statement with very little actual information. Which is ok it’s clearly not intended to inform the industry.
I disagree with the article due to its generic nature tarring the entire industry. Ignoring where it works well.
How does one quantity how many accidents have been avoided by good BRM or CRM.

It’s easy to point at an accident where a single watch keeper made an error or even fell asleep. Refer to it as poor BRM, instead of suggesting crew size and fatigue might have played a role.

As for BRM, CRM, Closed loop communication. Thinking aloud. Long before I ever heard these terms or read them in academic papers. I was taught to use these techniques, by old salts who had been using them since WW2. Have ing learned them from even older salts.
One of the reasons Nelson was so successful. He was trusted by his subordinates because he consulted them.
He is famous today for Trafalgar. He made his reputation when he defied or chose not to see. The order to withdraw from the Admiral in command at Copenhagen.
The rest of the fleet followed Nelson.
I suppose it could have been called.

Fleet Resource Management. :grinning:


This is the worst Atlantic article I have ever seen.

I don’t agree with John’s assertion that all shipping incidents, including the EVER GIVEN, are caused by poor BRM. I’m in favor of better BRM, but BRM is only one factor among many in most of these incidents.

Do giant ore carriers suddenly and unexpectedly sink mid ocean in good weather due to poor BRM?

Did poor BRM cause the EVER GIVEN incident, or was it just one factor among many ? I doubt that anyone knew the sand storm conditions or that the ship was too large to transit the canal during those conditions. If anyone should have known better, it would only have been the pilots. I doubt that the pilots knew jack shit. I’ll be surprised if the pilots “advised” the master not to proceed, or that discussing the hypothetical concerns of the junior officers would have made any difference.


I have to agree.

Would better BRM have made a difference with the Captain questioning the pilot “say Mr. Pilot, if we continue to build speed to fight this microburst from the sandstorm, won’t we increase bank cushion effect and shear off in the other direction?” Probably not. Though I would be happy to be on record on the VDR if it did happen like that if I were that Captain.

The Elephant in the room is the shear size of these vessels and that is the conversation ship owners do not want to have. It is much easier to place blame on human error and just say that better training will fix it.


I think the “aviation side” is being viewed as somewhat better than it is. If you are talking ONLY flying passengers for a major airline and you are in a union, that is one thing. There is a vast fleet of airplanes doing 1,000 different jobs and those pilots are very often pressured to fly junk in horrible weather or there is the door - don’t let it hit you in the ass on the way out.
One of my first freight jobs was explained like so: “You are in command, no one else. It is your responsibility to make the flight or not. No one can decide for you. It is also your responsibility to figure out how to feed yourself after we fire you, so choose wisely”
Before I worked there I never knew you could do a runup next to the RVR machine to blow the fog away from it and magically make takeoff minimums :roll_eyes:
Yes - we all got the CRM/BRM training too, as far as I know it was the first industry to do this and it does help.
The more significant IMHO thing the aviation industry did was when the pilot’s union pushed for going beyond pilot error to WHY the pilots were making errors and doing a lot to prevent companies from giving pilots “take this flight or else” orders.
Think about the El Faro: The captain would have been in the ALPA of the sea and been more or less immune to being fired for going around a huricane. The mates would have felt somewhat freer to speak up - maybe. And maybe most important of all, the dispatchers would have been on the radio yelling at him! “Where the f*** do you think you are GOING? There is a hurricane in front of you!”


Ah yes, memories of flying a C-45 on a USPS Essential Air Service run across the Rockies in Montana in all weather, all year, all night. The post office did not take kindly to a contractor who said no. If the airport was open you flew. The weather between airports was not in the contract.


The point is to compare the way maritime transportation is run in contrast to a comparable system that runs relatively safely. The closest thing would be commercial passenger air travel.

There’s no real point to bringing up, say crop dusters or Alaskan bush pilots that don’t use that system.

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Not all commercial passenger airlines are equal. The FAA happily permits scheduling that creates chronic fatigue and they allow it because the airline makes more money. Look up “continuous duty overnight”.

The El Faro wasn’t operating much differently than a bush flying service.

Actually there is. Passengers won’t fly on an airline that routinely crashes a lot more often than the competition, but people shipping freight are usually are looking for the best rate and are not risking their own lives.
Farmers don’t care that much how safe the crop duster is as long as it doesn’t crash into their house either because they are not riding in it :wink: