Ship master disobeyed rules day of grounding
By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Jan TenBruggencate
The captain of the 550-foot bulk cargo vessel Cape Flattery that ran aground Feb. 2, 2005, violated maritime law and his own company's policies when he tried to enter the Kalaeloa Barbers Point channel without a harbor pilot, according to the ship's owners.
The big ship severely damaged several acres of coral reef at the eastern side of the channel entrance, and efforts to remove the vessel caused further damage as cables and chains ripped up a field of coral heads. State and federal agencies have been working for the past year and a half to repair damage and prevent further injury to the marine life in the area.
The Cape Flattery, which was hauling 27,100 metric tons of dry cement, was on the reef for eight days before being towed free. Recovery work and assessment of the condition of the reef is continuing.
"We regret the accident caused by an error on the part of the master and can confirm that the master is no longer employed by the company," wrote Jim Lawrence, a spokesman for the Hong Kong-based Pacific Basin Shipping, Ltd., which operates the Cape Flattery.
The report from the Coast Guard investigation into the incident found that the ship's captain attempted to enter the channel without waiting for a pilot to come aboard and guide it in.
The Coast Guard has not provided that report to the state Division of Aquatic Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or local offices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agencies responding to the ship grounding.
"Pilots are mandated by law," Lawrence said. "I believe the only exceptions are for U.S. military vessels and sometimes U.S. flag vessels, but only if the master has the proper credentials and certification. This is the general rule worldwide."
One of the first questions raised in the Coast Guard investigation into the grounding was whether a harbor pilot was aboard, Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Steve Carleton said last year.
Large vessels customarily bring a pilot aboard when arriving at Hawai'i harbors to ensure safe entry. Harbor pilots are highly skilled skippers with knowledge of local conditions.
Lawrence said the Cape Flattery grounding is being used in training throughout Pacific Basin's more than 50-ship fleet to ensure ships' officers understand the proper procedures for entering port.
"The end result of any unfortunate incident must be safer practices and safer seas. Pacific Basin is committed to best practices and learning from the report on this unfortunate incident," he said.
The Cape Flattery, which is just two years old, was repaired and returned to service, he said.
But the Barbers Point reef remains in bad shape.
"There's all degrees of damage out there," said Gerry Davis, the assistant regional administrator for habitat conservation in NOAA's Pacific Islands office.
Divers reported that the reef that was directly under the ship's hull was crushed to white powder.
In other areas, coral heads were broken or ripped entirely free.
An extensive process during early 2005 cemented hundreds of coral heads back to the reef, and cemented pieces of coral back together.
"The stuff we've cemented down seems to be doing fine," he said. Divers are still identifying pieces of rock rolling in the swells that come into the region, and dropping them into holes in the reef or into deeper water to prevent the rolling from causing more damage.
Davis said the work on the reef is a collaboration of NOAA agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Division of Aquatic Resources.
An assessment of the condition of the reef should be completed later this year. That assessment should review the extent of damage, the amount of restoration done thus far, and what it will take to complete restoration, he said.
Davis said the shipping company's representatives are reimbursing government agencies for the work being done on the reef damage.
"The responsible party is still covering our costs. We haven't had any resistance," he said.
Lawrence, of Pacific Basin Shipping, said the firm continues "to work with the relevant environmental organizations to best resolve the matters of environmental concern associated with the incident."
One point of frustration for the state and federal agencies conducting the restoration work is that the Coast Guard has completed its investigation and prepared a report, but has not provided them with copies.
"We've requested that several times from the Coast Guard, and we've not received it," said Dan Polhemus, head of the state Division of Aquatic Resources. "We have never yet cited the Cape Flattery. If it is true that the Coast Guard has made a finding of negligence, we would have a stronger basis for citing them for unlawful take of coral, or live rock or damage to submerged lands."
Public information officers for both NOAA and the Fish and Wildlife Service said their Hawai'i offices also have not received the Coast Guard report, although it has been released to one news media organization.
A Coast Guard attorney said the document should be available to any government agency that requests it and said she does not understand why those agencies had not received copies.
Reach Jan TenBruggencate at email@example.com.