Dense fog makes San Francisco one of the nation's most challenging places to pilot an airplane or a ship. But while jet aircraft have highly sophisticated electronic, computer and communication systems, most oil tankers and other large commercial ships do not, largely because those systems are so expensive.
In the wake of an accident Monday in which a 752-foot tanker struck a Bay Bridge tower in a shroud of fog, some maritime experts are asking whether the industry should be more aggressive in catching up with 21st century technology. They say the Bay Area was lucky that the collision did not spill any oil, but the incident raises serious concerns about the navigational systems of commercial vessels.
"In planes, the computerized controls mean you can sit back, using no hands, in zero visibility," said Victor Schisler, director of professional simulation at the California Maritime Academy in Vallejo and widely regarded as one of the best harbor pilots in the world. To make shipping safer and avoid ecological disasters, "we still have a ways to go to utilize all the ideas and electronic and computer-assisted equipment that are coming along."
In fog, commercial jet aircraft are guided to safety at San Francisco International Airport through an instrument landing system, a ground-based system of radio signals and high-intensity lighting arrays that allow precision landing. Other systems warn the captain with visual and audio messages if the aircraft
In contrast, the navigational systems of most large ships are still relatively primitive. As they transit San Francisco Bay's ecologically delicate waters, tankers like the Overseas Reymar, the vessel that struck the Bay Bridge tower, are not equipped with high-tech innovations in sonar, radar and powerful precision positioning that could make navigation safer, Schisler said.
The U.S. Coast Guard is still investigating the accident. "Exactly what the visibility was at any given time -- that's what investigators are pinning down," said Coast Guard spokesman Dan Dewell.
On Friday, the Coast Guard finished its inspection of the Overseas Reymar and interviews with the crew of the 8-year-old ship and cleared it to leave San Francisco Bay. The 752-foot ship sailed out under the Golden Gate Bridge, with large scrapes on its side still visible, at 11 a.m. It's now bound for Balboa, Panama, a coastal city at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal where there is a large dry dock used in ship repairs.
John Berge, vice president of the Pacific Maritime Shipping Association, was asked why the shipping industry has been so slow in implementing state-of-the-art navigational technology.
As far as why companies wouldn't want to use the latest technologies, Berge said, "It could be cost. It could be a perception about what kind of benefit it actually yields."
Many lawmakers and an increasing number of maritime authorities cite several improvements that could help ships thread their way through the bay's treacherous corridor:
When the container ship Cosco Busan hit the Bay Bridge and spilled 53,000 gallons of fuel in 2007, the Coast Guard's vessel traffic operators warned the ship's pilot that he was off course, but not that it about to hit the bridge. Critics in the maritime community assert that if those operators had greater authority, the accident could have been prevented.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has asserted that she believes the Coast Guard should be given more authority over controlling ship directions and speeds in the bay when conditions, such as thick fog, warrant it. The Oil Spill Prevention Act, which Boxer co-sponsored in 2009, would have made improvements to the Coast Guard's vessel tracking system to prevent navigational errors and accidents. The bill passed the Senate but died in the House.
Ships with this kind of state-of-the-art equipment, however, cost twice as much as ships without it. And, he said, "it has not yet been designed into the architecture of ships" such as tankers, container ships and dry bulk ships.
"The San Francisco Bay in my experience is the most challenging port in California, as far as piloting goes. There is fog, wind and current. Those three factors come together to make the job of moving ships very challenging," Schisler said. "The guys do a great job with it, for the most part -- and once in a while, there's a problem."