The big ship swings out of the channel and groans to a halt, stuck on a mudbank at dawn. The pilot vanishes from the bridge, descends to a launch and leaves before the Coast Guard arrives.
Ten points if you are suspicious.Zero if you believe he's guilty.
The pilot has every right to leave the scene of the mishap before authorities arrive. He could leave the ship with injured crew aboard, with oil leaking and water coming in. He could depart even if the hull listed over.
It was nowhere near that bad last week when the Nedlloyd Dejima grounded on soft mud in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. The ship, undamaged, slid free after four hours of rising tide. Nobody suffered injuries.
But it raised again the issue of when and how pilots and crew are tested for drugs and alcohol. Pilots, by nature, are the ultimate designated drivers.
Two years ago, a pilot in Maine walked off his ship after plowing it into a highway bridge and before the Coast Guard arrived. He went to a clinic on his own, where he requested a test for drugs but not alcohol. Both are mandated.
An investigation turned up that his ''scheduled, periodic tests,'' part of his annual routine repeated over the years, had searched for the wrong substances.
The pilot's secretary, at his behest, would call his clinic, sometimes weeks in advance, to make an appointment for the ''random'' testing.
A pilot in Tampa, Fla., found loopholes, allowing him to work ships despite convictions for motor-vehicle drunken driving. He has since quit piloting after being involved in a fiery ship-barge crackup.
An incident on the water is not as convenient as a traffic stop on an interstate. Even a grounded ship can remain in motion, pushed by tides and weather, becoming a hazard to navigation. It can take hours to position Coast Guard crew aboard. Dealing with other emergencies, such as casualties or fire, would pre-empt substance tests.
PILOT HAD AUTHORIZATION
TO HEAD TO THE CLINIC
According to the law, the pilot who left the Nedlloyd ship in New York Harbor had done nothing wrong when he headed for a shoreside clinic. He had done so at the discretion of the Coast Guard's captain of the port because he had received no information indicating the pilot's judgment had been impaired.
At the clinic, the pilot underwent tests some six hours after the incident. The time frame, too, is within regulations. Results are due in weeks.
''The captain of the port has the final say. He makes the decision on the scene. He is closest to it,'' says Douglas Rabe, chief of investigations for the Coast Guard's office of investigations.
U.S. ports, by design, are like small democracies on the verge of military coups. The Coast Guard is always there in time of crisis, but it prefers to allow local port interests to solve the problem without interference.
The Coast Guard port captain decides how far to hang back. The local ''interests'' are usually the vessel's owner, the cleanup services and all levels of government environmental and security technocrats from police and river watchers to the regional office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The Coast Guard, in fact, has created what it calls the ''unified-command'' system for dealing with accidents. Companies and agencies form a decision-making panel, or unified command, which is joined by the Coast Guard.
THE COAST GUARD ACTS
ONLY WHEN IT'S NECESSARY
The Guard monitors progress unless it believes the team is making bad decisions. Then the Coast Guard jumps in and manages the disaster.
From this unified-command practice has sprung a quotation from a Coast Guard commander somewhere that rings in the ears of carriers, tug companies, fire departments and handlers of hazardous materials:
''You're better off spending your money to clean up the mess, rather than have the Coast Guard spend your money to clean up the mess.''
Since it involves so many members of the port community, the unified-command system requires an unusual amount of trust among the partners. This trust extends to day-to-day operations. As now-retired Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert E. Kramek says, ''We try to be low-key unless we have to take action.''
Aside from the unified command, the port captain is armed with a series of minimum thresholds that give the captain the power to tell everyone to freeze. Then the Coast Guard steps in and manages the crisis, deciding whether to conduct all drug-testing at the scene of the incident.
The Coast Guard calls it a ''serious marine incident'' when there is one or more deaths, when injuries to crew require intensive first aid and the crew cannot perform duties, damage to vessels exceeds $100,000, a vessel is sunk or lost, or it is discharging at least 10,000 gallons of oil or other amounts of hazardous material.
''The captain,'' says the Coast Guard's Mr. Rabe, ''can take charge even if none of these thresholds is broken. Suppose the captain gets word that there are suspicions a crewman or the pilot is intoxicated. The captain of the port can take control. But if he hears nothing like this, he can allow the parties to proceed on their own.''
The Coast Guard, in a program initiated under Adm. Kramek, wants to spend less time and money involving itself with well-run ships and concentrate on repeat violators, hoping to drive them from U.S. shores.
''This was a clean job. We were on-scene but the parties themselves worked it out very well,'' says Lawrence Brooks, the Coast Guard's captain of the port in New York, speaking of the Nedlloyd Dejima. He did not have to create a unified command, but the Coast Guard observed as the ship's owners, crew, tugs, pilots and other ships cooperated to free the vessel.
BE PREPARED, BUT WATCH
OUT FOR THE OTHER GUYS
There exists a subtle undercurrent to port operations. Despite all the planning, all the preparedness exercises and the discussions on teamwork, the pilots and Coast Guard approach each other like boxers in the ring.
Each group traces its ancestry to pre-Colonial times. Since then, each has steered opposite courses.
The Coast Guard descended from raiders of British commerce and then revenue cutters after U.S. independence. It became a part of government. Pilots' associations sprang from groups who sometimes evaded the ''revenuers.'' Pilots have largely avoided being pressed into government.
The pilots are locals. On shipping's operational side, they are princes with calloused palms. Coast Guard staff comes and goes. They can be from anywhere. Yet their authority cannot be trifled with.
Neither side likes to admit it. Listen to one when the other's not around.