Why the gcaptain forum sometimes gets it wrong

With regards to looking at incidents. The NTSB and the CG may do better but they these biases as well.

After the fact explanations always have perfect hindsight… - The Big Picture

The Narrative Fallacy reflects our tendency to see the world as a story: “a linear chain of cause and effect, with a beginning and an end.” We create a screenplay in our heads, a battle between forces of good and evil, with each event leading to the next logical step, until we reach a conclusion and denouement.

Hindsight Bias takes our story telling a step further: not only do we create these narratives to help explain what just happened, but after the fact we believe we knew it all along. Unexpected events, after they occur, seem obvious and predictable,


I don’t think the forum always gets it wrong. Often, maybe 66% of the time, the forum get it pretty close to right fairly soon. That’s a pretty high batting average. I’m not sure anyone else does much better.


There is sometime a lot of horsepower here, varied experience, insights not found elsewhere.


I’ll give a specific example, not of this forum but of mariners getting it wrong because they knew too much of the wrong thing.

When the Exxon Valdez went aground I was in Alaska at the time. The Anchorage Daily News contacted a couple of local mariners with applicable deep-sea experience.

The answer should have been that the EV went aground because of a chain of events that couldn’t be guessed at the time. This almost had to be the case. About 99% chance.

But the experienced mariners that the ADN interviewed didn’t say that. They said that it looked like the EV was trying to make the passage between Bligh Reef and Reef Island. Which is nuts. And they said it showed bad judgment etc. They thought the captain of the EV was taking a big chance to shave a couple minutes off the trip.

That made sense to them.

But that answer wasn’t even close. But only experienced mariners could have come up with that. Someone with no local knowledge but with an understanding of accidents in general could have done better.

Bligh Reef Chart 16708 - soundings in fathoms



Similar thing happened here when the Braer hit Shetland, the local mouth pieces suddenly had the world’s press to bump their ill informed gums too…we had a local reprise on the 25 year anniversary in January. Ill-informed comment from self proclaimed ‘marine professionals’ just pisses me off but sadly make the headlines!

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I thought I was wrong once, but I was mistaken.


My impression is that as we have a number of professionals with slightly different backgrounds and specialities looking the case from different angles, we are more likely to converge towards truth over time compared to a single commentator who may sometimes even cling to his/her initial opinion.


This is going to be difficult to do without tooting our own horn but, I believe it’s important and relevant.

While the forum doesn’t have the best track record (and some of the posts are dead wrong) the gCaptain blog has a very high record of sucess predicting the cause of incidents.

After the final incident investigation report is published we always go back and look at our initial predictions… which we sometimes make just hours after the event. We are always suprised how well we nailed it (and, as Ken says, how wrong the forum is).

How do we do this? I’ve never sat down and analysed our methods but maybe this will spurn me to do just that.

Also interesting to note is the fact that our best predictions come with the most hostile feedback. It has almost become a joke in the office… when our phones and emails start lighting up with hostile vitriol Mikey will call me to say we must be pretty close to the truth on this one.

I will say that the personal predictions I post to this forum (vs what I post to the blog) have a very low sucess rate but that is because the ideas I post to the forum are very different from those I post to the blog. I post to the forum mostly those aspects of an incident I don’t understand very well. Often I post knowing that a specific theory is wrong but not fully understanding why it is wrong. I suspect that the forum’s low sucess rate is because other people do the same thing.

As said, I’d like to enumerate our methods but I will mention what I believe to be our single most important asset… perspective.

Before making a prediction we ingest a large amount of data (we have built many tools over the past ten years that allow us to do this quickly) then we eliminate as much of it as possible. Take the Cosco Busan for example. Many initially said that was a terrorist act… for a number of reasons we eliminated that option quickly.

A lot of theories just wash away with more data.

Once we have eliminated the ridiculous (e.g. Russian subs torpedoing the Deepwater Horizon) and the improbable we are left with a small subset of data, each individual piece points to a different set of probabilities.

I use my own intuition to sort this data then I get on the phone and start talking with people who can offer perspective on the information we have uncovered.

What we are looking for at this stage is information AND personal bias. We call people with specific expertise in whatever peice of the information bubble we are looking at and ask them two types of questions… questions that will lead to possible answers as to the cause AND questions that will reveile their personal bias.

Of these two chucks of information the biases are most important. Every expert we contact has a personal bias and an adgenda… we do not uses their ideas as to the cause unless we fully understand their bias.

The biggest source of bias is that of the editor. Many of our competitors have abysmal records in predicting the true cause of an incident and, it’s gotten to the point when I know what “bend” each website and magazine will take before they even publish them because I know the biases of their editors.

How do I eliminate my personal biases? I kinda get two gut feelings after I’ve digested the initial facts. The stronger gut feeling is the cause I want it be… exploring this feeling brings some amount of joy and intrigue when I pick at it. The smaller feeling is wholly negative and picking at it makes me feel ill. It’s this second gut feeling I dive after.

I also enrolled in a two year training course for elite authors that focuses just on this topic… eliminating personal bias from your own work.


To condense this… we discount all information and opinions (expert or otherwise) we receive until we understand the bias of the source. We do this by actively investigating bias while we are investigating the facts. We avoid writing the conclusions we want to write.


What could be interesting, and usually is to me, are the reasonable but wrong theories. To use the EV example, if reasonable and experienced mariners thought Valdez was taking a dangerous shortcut could it be that ships have tried to take that dangerous shortcut in the past? In other words, was the shortcut a ticking time bomb that didn’t go off that time?

Or more recently, it was strongly believed that Tote pressured El Faro to sail into danger when, in hindsight, that wasn’t exactly the case. Reasonable mariners believed it was possible. Wouldn’t that show the possibility of company pressure on a master as a ticking time bomb to future accidents?

Incorrect but widely believed theories can be useful to study to prevent them from becoming reality in the future.

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The forum called the Kulluk-on-the-Rocks debacle just about right while it was unfolding.

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I was thinking about that. CC said early on the tow wire parted, that didn’t make sense to me till I saw the video of the wire getting fiddle stringed (Bing!)

To me it didn’t make sense because of my experience on a single screw 3000 hp tug. We didn’t have enough horsepower to tight-wire at sea like that. My experience misled me

The forum called the BOUNTY about right too.

A lot of speculative ideas built on a lot of informed guesses get thrown into the forum and usually get distilled fairly close to what happened.

The forum continues to point out errors and false conclusions in the EL FARO report.

I think that the forum also throws out ideas that make their way to investigators and gets them looking in the right direction.

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Smaller vessels do use that route.

Blight reef is about due East of the south end of the northern most magenta TSS, the "bend in the road.

The problem is that the story that the EV was taking a shortcut fits our preference for a narrative. The answer that the cause was likely a string of, at that time, unknown events is not a satisfactory story.

The safe navigation of big tankers is a process that is heavily defended. (formal plot, VTS, pilots, training, licenses)

In almost in every case the cause is going to be events that will only make sense once known. So there is a 99% chance that the simple story is wrong. But that doesn’t satisfy our demand for a story that makes sense.

Here’s another chart - you can see how much “sense” the short cut story makes in the absence of any other information.

I said it before and I was right. The Captain of the EF was mired in his own biases, and only perhaps realized at the very end his role in endangering the vessel. You could see it in the transcript, in the offhanded way he dismissed the concerns of the mates. It’s hard to criticize the dead, given the tragedy of their demise but if we don’t, we don’t learn.

I’m surprised that local masters suggested that EXXON VALDEZ was taking a “short cut” behind Bligh Reef. It would be insane to take a big ship through there. That would be the last thing I would expect.

When I heard about this incident I was incredulous. Given how wide open and clear the passages is along the VTS track, I did not see how it was possible to stray that far off course and run up on Bligh Reef.

It would have been difficult for anyone to intuit that the fatigued 3rd Mate was given the conn with the ship headed off track directly toward Bligh Reef to avoid ice, and that he then failed to make the turn back on track after clearing the ice. Sometimes the weirdest things can and do happen.

11 posts were split to a new topic: The El Faro and Commercial Pressure

Pretty much, yeah.

Whenever I did have a opportunity to see the popular tv news on a “real” maritime incident the media didn’t have a clue what questions to ask, nor, evidently, who to ask. Total rubbish was generally the result of their report.
Any more, I go straight to 'G Capt." to learn anything and this is what the public should or is doing.
Doing so will put you leagues ahead of whatever bilge is rolling in the mass media.

I know someone that worked the vessel and most of what i have read about the incident doesn’t jive with his story. From what i am told it was a BRM-Office problem quite simple. The Mate should have recognized what was happening but thats another story.