A MARINE ACCIDENT JUST WAITING TO HAPPEN

A MARINE ACCIDENT JUST WAITING TO HAPPEN

Across the waters from the beaches of the English coastal town of Margate last Tuesday morning, the thick clouds of black smoke across the horizon told the tale of another maritime disaster. But this one - involving a collision between the Panamanian-registered container ship Ever Decent and the Bahamas cruise ship Norwegian Dream - had its own brand of story to tell.

It was going to be media meat, simply because it involved a cruise vessel with passengers on board. It was going to be, ''Oh no, not another container ship carrying dangerous cargo in trouble!''And it was going to be a beauty for the British government. Only days before, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott launched his tax initiative for British shipping. He also decided not to wield the ax of destruction on the remaining independent coast guard services around the nation, which would have allowed independent agencies to swallow up these prestigious services.

But, of course, the media hype and political nonsense are far removed from reality.

This mishap looks very much like it happened through human error. And it took place in international waters, which makes moot the issue of British-government involvement. It does not necessarily follow that flag-of-convenience, or flag-of-necessity, ships are a threat to international safety. But it may raise questions about the training of ship's officers and their understanding of the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea.

This is the bible of ships' navigating officers: masters, pilots and anyone else given the responsibility of navigating a vessel safely at sea without running into someone. It is a highway code of the seas without the complexities of driving on the left side or the right side of the road. It is global.

The Evergreen ship was heading southeast to cross the southwest-bound traffic lane that runs from the North Sea to the English Channel. That is allowed because, according to the regulations, ''that ship is crossing at right angles, or near right angles to the traffic lane.''

The cruise ship was heading southwest in the correct lane. That, of course, is allowed.

Any ship detecting another on its starboard side is deemed the give-way vessel, and thus should take positive efforts to avoid collision. The other vessel, in this case the container ship, should ''stand on,'' maintaining its course.

But here's the interesting bit. Should that stand-on vessel conclude that the give-way vessel is not taking action to avoid collision, then the stand-on vessel gets the responsibility to take evasive action. In layman's words, if you think the other guy hasn't seen you or doesn't understand the seriousness of it all, then it's up to you to do the rest.

It's wonderful in theory, but questionable in practice in a busy shipping area.

Ultimately, when the investigators finish their questions, there will be an apportioning of blame. There's unlikely to be a cut-and-dry, good-guy-bad-guy answer. There will be some 80-20 splits, 70-30s or 60-40s. Even if it doesn't make a good photo op.

On to the concerns about cargo and fire: Before we all run away with the idea that every container ship carries environmentally threatening cargoes - just like the pre-double-hull tankers that spilled their contents onto beaches in the 1980s - it's best to take note of what is happening.

A container ship is not some floating power-block of disaster that can go bang in the night and wreck our shores with noxious or toxic substances. Container ships are vessels carrying the same cargo substances carried by their general-cargo predecessors several decades ago. The only difference is that, today, those commodities are carried in steel boxes.

The International Maritime Organization Blue Book on the recommendations for the carriage of dangerous goods at sea has been around for years. It is, and has been, available to everyone in the shipping industry as a reference source.

It details most ''hazardous'' and ''dangerous'' cargoes liable to be carried at sea. It specifies where the cargoes should be stowed on board. It tells what precautions should be taken in shipment and handling.

The Blue Book is updated with new developments. And it includes information on chemical manufacturing processes that may help the seafarer understand more about the constitution of a substance.

So nothing really has changed anywhere in this part of the business.

Perhaps the answer to all the concerns that will surely burgeon from the latest accident off the English coast, and its extensive media coverage, is a greater realization of the need for more professional training.

And equally important, a better understanding by everyone - media included - of the real facts.