Navigation Responsibilities and Pilotage

Some have questioned who was in charge of the motor vessel Cosco Busan during its transit out of San Francisco Bay and what rules the vessel should have followed.

The ultimate responsibility for safe navigation of a ship remains with the master or person in charge of the vessel. The responsibility of those in charge of a vessel are contained in the Navigation Rules.

Official versions of the Navigation Rules can be found in the International Navigational Rules Act of 1977 (Public Law 95-75, 91 Stat. 308, or 33 U.S.C. 1601-1608) and, the Inland Navigation Rules Act of 1980 (Public Law 96-591, 94 Stat. 3415, 33 U.S.C. 2001-2038). However, an easily readable version of the rules can be found at the Coast Guard Navigation Center website.

Applicable rules include guidance on maintaining a lookout, safe speed, risk of collision, and conduct of vessels in restricted visibility.

Additional regulations:

Regulations require the master or person in charge of a vessel to ensure electronic and other navigation equipment, external aids to navigation and other means, are used to safely navigate. Vessels larger than 10,000 gross tons are required to have two independent and operating radar systems, which are used for navigation and collision avoidance. Specific language can be found in 33 CFR 164.

Regulations require that the person in charge of a ship chooses the vessel’s speed considering the prevailing visibility and weather, proximity of structures and shore, as well as the comparative size of the vessel and size of the channel among other factors. Specific language can be found in 46 CFR 8501-8503.

Questions have also arisen over Coast Guard regulation of pilots. The following summarize the authority of the Coast Guard and the states.

A pilot of a foreign flag vessel operating in U.S. waters is generally acting under the authority of a state license. As such, the suspension or removal of a state licensed pilot must be done by the state not the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard has no role in establishing or monitoring state pilot licensing or qualifications.

However, the Coast Guard can investigate accidents and issue civil penalties for violations of law and the Coast Guard vigorously pursues civil penalties when a pilot’s negligence contributes to a marine accident. In addition, the U.S. Attorney can pursue charges for criminal violations of federal law. The U.S. Attorney is pursuing a criminal investigation in this case.

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