My Turn: Lack of sleep may explain some marine mishaps

Posted: Monday, August 02, 2004

I 'd like to invite a rethinking of the grounding of the state ferry LeConte. This May, I noted with interest U.S. Coast Guard Lt. J.G. Buchsbaum's reported statement (May 9) that investigators had examined the work schedules of the ferry's captain and chief mate (who was steering), and had ruled out overwork as a cause. In response to this, ADOT spokeswoman Nona Wilson quipped that "it angers (me) that carelessness could be to blame for grounding a $35 million ship." At the time, public outrage seemed appropriate. Now, months later, you may be thinking, "That's old news, both of those guys got fired; end of story."

I don't think so.

Melanie Petrich, the chief mate's wife, wrote the Empire a letter in defense of her husband (June 17) which claimed that the aforementioned investigators had "determined that (her) husband only was able to get, at best, 13.5 hours of sporadic sleep during a 72-hour period in order to get the work done that the state required of him." I feel this deserves careful attention.

Frequent Southeast Alaska ferry passengers know that the LeConte stopped often, at all hours, and was an essential link between otherwise isolated communities. Its schedule was not necessarily convenient, but its services were appreciated by many and its loss is sorely felt. Few realize that what made, and continues on other ships to make, this service possible is the sacrifice of a normal night's sleep by the crew, the watchstanding members of which generally work six hours on, six hours off. In addition to maintaining this schedule, increased seasonal traffic puts pressure on the chief mate to be up for every port; if a stop falls in the middle of a designated sleep period, the mate simply doesn't get to sleep.

According to Dr. William Dement, founder of the sleep research center at Stanford University, in his authoritative book, "The Promise of Sleep," research subjects limited to four hours' sleep for as little as one night exhibit impaired responses to external stimulus. After only a few minutes of responding to a flashing strobe light, subjects actually lose the ability to discern whether the light flashes or not. With that in mind, consider this: No watchstander working six-on/six-off on an Alaska ferry can ever get more than five hours of continuous sleep during the entire time he or she is in work status on board the ship, which in the case of chief mates and captains is most commonly for a period of two weeks.

Another of Dement's observations: The final report of the National Transportation and Safety Board determined that the grounding of the Exxon Valdez was due not to a certain notorious captain's drinking, but rather to the sleep deprivation of the mate who was steering the ship when it hit Bligh Reef, which happened because he had made a course correction but had forgotten to turn off the autopilot after having had a total of six hours sleep in the 48 hours preceding the accident. Does this sound familiar?

You know what I'm thinking? That sleep deprivation just isn't sexy enough in the public imagination, which prefers the drunken captain, or a mutiny, or a completely irresponsible chief mate to the truth. Can a man be completely condemned for missing a crucial flash of the strobe light when that's just the way human beings behave when they've accumulated massive amounts of sleep debt, as marine highway employees must do just to keep their jobs, as Exxon employees must do to keep theirs? Could it be, then, that mere carelessness wasn't the cause of the LeConte's grounding? Or, more precisely, could it be that a different kind of carelessness was to blame: namely, disregard of a basic human need?

I'd ask anyone disembarking at Tenakee or Wrangell at 3 o'clock in the morning to think about that. I'd ask them to consider whether they're comfortable with the AMHS administration being willing to put a $35 million vessel, not to mention the lives of every passenger on board, into hands not careless, but exhausted, for no better reason than because the vessels can be operated with less crew by requiring each of two watches to stand 12 hours apiece out of every 24, when alternatives (like hiring enough watchstanders to maintain a succession of three eight-hour watches, for instance) exist.

How many more ships are we going to have to see wrecked?

Alaska has received the wakeup calls; I think it time that people start listening. Good luck, Will. Same to you, Harvey. You'll be vindicated in the end.

• Mike Orford is a marine engineer in Juneau who worked for the state ferry system in the past.

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