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Posted on Thursday, October 05, 2000 - 09:17 pm:   

When sips sink ships
Michael Brooks on the danger of drinking and sailing

Michael Brooks

Thursday June 1, 2000

What we should do with the drunken sailor is not the problem. It's the sailor who's only very slightly tipsy that poses the most risk. When Joseph Hazelwood returned to the Exxon Valdez late in the evening of March 24, 1989, he had supped only a couple of drinks.

The ship's pilot smelled alcohol on Hazelwood's breath, but there were no signs of actual drunkenness, so he said nothing. A few hours later, Hazelwood's condition led to a "failure to provide proper navigation", according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The tanker grounded off the Alaskan coast, and devastated the area with 11.2 million gallons of spilled oil.

Hazelwood insists he was not drunk, and the jury at his trial agreed. But it might have been better for the Alaskan wildlife if he had been. Then someone might have removed him from his post, says Jonathan Howland, a professor of behavioural science at Boston University's School of Public Health.

Howland has conducted trials on marine engineers that show the remarkable effect of just a small amount of alcohol. His results, published in the journal Addiction, demonstrate that a couple of drinks - which leave people well below the legal alcohol limit for steering a ship, driving a car or operating machinery - can double the time it takes to perform crucial tasks. And performance can still be significantly impaired the day after heavy drinking.

Howland's research began because of a general interest in the causes of accidents and injury. "I thought there might be unexplored sources of injury and system error due to low doses of various agents," he says. That could mean simple tiredness, cold medicines, antihistamines and painkillers as well as mild use of alcohol or drugs. "There are many people exposed to these low levels, so even if the individual risk is low, it can add up to as much as the risk from a few people receiving high levels."

He searched the scientific literature, but failed to find any reason why the US department of transportation had set the blood alcohol concentration limit at 0.04% for people operating commercial ships. "We couldn't see that much research had been done to detect whether 0.04 was a safe level. We're hoping our results will cause people to re-visit that figure: there should be a scientific basis for the limits."

So he gathered a group of engineering students from the Massachussetts Marine Academy, and made them perform an emergency routine on the academy's engine room simulator. The next day he separated them into two groups, and gave each group something to drink. No one knew what they had drunk, but one group had received an alcohol dose equivalent to a couple of beers, while the others got placebos. Then he asked them to perform another emergency simulation. "The effect was enormous," Howland says. The students with a couple of beers inside them took twice as long to perform the task as they had done the day before.

But, Howland adds, the most frightening result was not that the students' perfor mance was so poor after such a low dose of alcohol, but that they didn't even realise it.

"They're not sensing the fact that they are dosed, and they don't notice that their performance isn't as good as it was before. That's the critical thing: people can't voluntarily remove themselves from operating a system if they don't know they're impaired. And if they don't know, and they're not acting impaired, no one else is going to remove them."

He has repeated the experiment on a simulator for deck officers - the kind of job that Hazelwood failed to do. The results were exactly the same. "This is not a freak finding," he says.

Several shipping companies have already asked Howland to discuss his results with them, and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recently presented the research to Congress.

But Howland is not confident that legal levels will be altered. "Similar studies were done on military pilots 20 years ago, and the regulations stayed where they were," he says. And his "hangover studies" seem to show that even a 0.00 per cent blood alcohol concentration is no indication of fitness to operate a ship.

This research is still going on, so Howland believes it is too early to draw firm conclu sions. But getting the Marine Academy engineers drunk, letting them sleep it off, shower and breakfast before trying out the emergency drill does seem to show a residual slowness. "This is even more relevant to the industry," Howland says. "Sailors get shore leave, they go and get drunk, and they are still impaired eight or nine hours later, even if their blood alcohol concentration is zero."

Putting him in the longboat till he's sober, hosing him down in the scuppers, or anything else the sea-shanty suggests you do with a drunken sailor just isn't enough. Drinks and ships simply don't mix.

Posted on Thursday, October 05, 2000 - 09:31 pm:   

The above is an extreme reaction to a situation that many of us will have been familiar with having been at sea. The Captain was clearly foolish to have drunk anything before meeting the Pilot since the rules (as I understand them) are that the Pilot issues the steering orders but the Captain remains responsible. Indeed in my experience (twelve years at sea), the deck officers were wise enough to take coastal navigation extremely seriously both dry cargo and oil, and not drink beforehand at all.

What seems to be lost in these discussions, and let us thank NUMAST for putting the other side of the case, is that a ship is a home as well as a place of work, and the inclination by the employers to ban alcohol entirely is an unnecessary over-reaction which diminishes the quality of life onboard and does nothing thereby to encourage young people to choose a career at sea. There may be alcoholics at sea, we have all met them no doubt, but there are alcoholics ashore as well and the result of a complete ban onboard is the shore binge, for which read the "Drunken sailors" story elsewhere in Media on this Forum.

A ship in mid-ocean with little passing traffic is a very different beast from a ship entering Singapore harbour at 2a.m. seeking an anchorage, and in my own experience with many different nationalities, all have had the common sense to drink only according to what was sensible and not prior to entering port.

If anyone wishes to contribute to this discussion and argue the case for dry ships please do, I will be happy to continue the discussion and will continue to argue the case for alcohol to be available on ships for off duty seafarers as part of their rest and recreation. The isolation and removal from day to day shore life is bad enough without the added deprivation of a couple of pints to wash away the days troubles. Diminished port stays resulting from ever faster turnarounds, and decreased manning all contribute to a more stressful way of life. No-one ever found the answer to their problems in the bottom of a glass but alcohol oils the social wheels and makes life on board more tolerable for all. It also avoids the dreadful "feast and famine" cycle that is well known to occur in the oil sector where people spend several weeks dry on a rig then go wild during their leave, and worse, just prior to their return to the rig.


Posted on Tuesday, October 31, 2000 - 03:34 pm:   

I have to agree, although I do remember sailing on a number of occasions up the Orinoco in South America where the sparky was suppose to do a 2 on 2 off watch for the 24 hours of the transit!!

I caught one junior with a tin of orangeade during his watch and when I inspected the tin, (which never seem to empty) found that it was in fact whiskey and orange!!

The navigation up the Orinoco is narrow and dangerous, and I felt that this little man was not looking after my safety or those of the rest of crew. So, yes, I reported him.

Was that rotten of me , or not?

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