Steering Ships, in Port, Clear of Trouble

In a business where there's no cheap accident, safety is sometimes weighed against cost

Seafarers here call it "Texas Chicken."

Each day, huge oceangoing freighters laden with petrochemicals squeeze by each other in a space barely wider than a soccer field. To do it, pilots must run their ships straight at each other, then, at the last moment, veer rightward.

If it's done correctly, the ships form a hydrodynamic cushion that forces the hulls apart.

If not, it's a front-page story.

"In this business, there's no such thing as a cheap fender-bender," says Jack Lane, a Galveston, Texas, pilot. "If a ship that weighs 60,000 tons encounters something in the waterway, it's going to do a heck of a lot of damage."

Although accidents are rare here at the nation's second-largest seaport, this month's freighter crash in New Orleans shows how perilous the shipping business can be. At a time when freight lines are struggling to cut costs, pilots must often contend with poorly maintained boats, unwieldy cargo loads, and multinational crews who speak halting English.

As ocean-borne traffic increases throughout the world, some experts say, so do the regulatory challenges and the likelihood of more environmental disasters.

"The shipping industry is one that has historically stood very close to the edge," says Bob Bea, a civil engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley. "It needs to begin making positive moves to prevent accidents."

In an average year, according to the US Coast Guard, about 200 seafarers die in crashes in the US alone, and 3 million gallons of oil and chemicals are spilled into waterways. Here in Houston, there have been 10 accidents this year and three lives lost.

Although these numbers sound alarming, maritime officials say accidents are exceedingly rare in an industry that moves more than 5 billion tons of cargo each year on 80,000 vessels. Oil tanker operators boast that only .02 percent of the world's oil shipments are spilled each year.

In Houston, where more than 5,500 vessels arrive and depart annually, delivering 150 million tons of cargo through a narrow channel that's prone to fog, the small percentage of mishaps is, by all accounts, a credit to the pilots who navigate its waterways.

More traffic

Yet here, as in many of the nation's major ports, traffic is increasing, and ships are getting larger. Beyond that, observers say, the port is increasingly vulnerable to trends that are plaguing the shipping business worldwide.

In recent decades, as profit margins have dwindled, shipping companies have begun registering their vessels in small countries like Panama, Liberia, and Malta, where standards of maintenance and crew training are more lenient than in countries with more established seafaring traditions like Britain, the United States, and Norway.

According to the US Maritime Administration, there are only 298 oceanfaring vessels registered in the US.

The corn-laden freighter that crashed into the New Orleans Riverwalk earlier this month was registered under the Liberian flag. That tiny West African nation of 2.4 million currently boasts the world's second-largest merchant fleet.

Along with this trend toward "flags of convenience," shipping companies have increasingly relied on multinational crews from impoverished nations who will work for less than Western sailors.

A typical Philipino seaman, for instance, will work for $10 a day. Often, the crews struggle with English, the official language of the seas. These cultural polyglots can contribute to accidents. After the New Orleans crash, the US pilot complained that the Chinese crew of the Bright Field had trouble understanding him.

Yet the most pressing problem facing ports today, officials say, is the often shoddy condition of ships entering their waters. Engine failures are common, and in close quarters like Houston's channel, a moment's loss of propulsion can be disastrous.

In order to crack down on decrepit ships, the Coast Guard has instituted a more aggressive inspection program. Each year, teams board about 20 percent of freighters. Previous offenders are tracked by computer. If the teams find safety violations, the ships are detained in port until they are fixed. In the first half of 1996, 34 vessels were held here.

Safety drive

Often, what they find is downright frightening. Last year, officers here boarded a Liberian-flagged tanker and found an illegal cargo of highly combustible ethyl alcohol. Other ships, the Coast Guard says, have mechanical problems that make them a serious safety threat.

Worldwide, there are efforts under way to bolster safety. Some European countries have begun publishing the names of delinquent ships and companies. Norway has opened a training school in the Philippines to ensure that seamen hired there meet their standards.

The London-based International Maritime Organization, an agent of the United Nations, is developing an international protocol for accident probes, and is phasing in updated training and certification standards next year.

Yet like any UN activity, Professor Bea says, these efforts lack teeth without the full participation of all member nations. As competition heats up in this multibillion dollar industry, he says, there's plenty of incentive to cheat.

In Houston, there's some hope. This year, Congress is likely to approve a plan to widen and deepen the 20-mile ship channel. This would improve traffic flow, but would also allow larger ships through.

Any further budget cuts to the Coast Guard could limit its ability to police the waterway. "We don't make a lot of mistakes," says Mr. Lane. "But there are some factors that are beyond our control."

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