Observations: The Captains

Published on: January 25, 2012

Captain Nick Bates on the bridge of the Sapphire Princess. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Captain Nick Bates on the bridge of the Sapphire Princess. Mitch Traphagen Photo


At one point in my motley history, I lived in Ruskin and worked in Minneapolis. As a result, I flew back and forth between the two cities weekly. To get the best prices, my flights were often overlapping — some had an origin of Tampa, others Minneapolis and it was always confusing. Time was equally confusing. Although there is only an hour difference between Minnesota and the Gulf Coast of Florida, constantly moving back and forth meant that I never really knew what time it was. I later learned from veteran long-haul commuters that it is best to use two watches, changing them upon sitting down in the seat of an airliner.

I saw almost everything I could imagine on this factory-line form of transportation. I’ve experienced aborted take-offs, aborted landings, delays due to my airplane “touching” another airplane, delays due to a total power failure on the ground in Minneapolis in −35 degree weather, delays due to missing planes or crews, and delays due to empty water tanks. I’ve watched luggage fall off the tarmac loading carts and sit there ignored for hours. Over the course of dozens of flights, I have read and memorized every single emergency exit brochure stuck into the seats backs of every single airplane I flew.

The mystique and romance of flying is long gone. For most passengers, flying is roughly equivalent to “going Greyhound”. It’s worse, actually, as Greyhound generally offers bigger seats, more legroom and a boarding process that doesn’t include a near-strip search and naked x-rays. In the process of airlines squeezing every last bit of romance out of the industry, they have also, in the eyes of much of the public, demoted their captains to not much more than well-dressed city bus drivers.

But, of course, that’s not how it works for the captains and crew. They may be taking pay cuts while being barricaded behind armored cockpit doors, but they remain responsible. Flying a large airplane is not like driving a bus, but that is not intended to be a slam on bus drivers. While it is true that driving a large bus is nothing like driving a Prius, it is also true that in an emergency it is not beyond reason that nearly any adult passenger could bring a bus to a stop — not so with an aircraft. In the rare cases where the stuff hits the fan, it is the captain who is expected to stand tall, as was the case with Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the US Airways captain who successfully threaded the eye of a needle to land his crippled aircraft on the Hudson River just off Manhattan in 2009. Everyone on board survived, and Capt. Sullenberger was the last to leave the sinking aircraft — but only after making a final, careful pass down the aisle to ensure that no one had been left behind.

I’ve met three big ship captains over the past few years. I conversed with two of them on the bridges of their ships. The third I met just a few weeks ago and I told his story in this newspaper last week. He stood as a remarkable contrast to the captain of the Costa Concordia who has made world news headlines of late. Captain Larry Chambers (later Admiral Chambers) just did the right thing without regard for his career or even his life. He did the right thing. That’s what captains are supposed to do.

A few years ago, I watched as Capt. Nick Bates conned the enormous Sapphire Princess cruise ship — at the time the largest ship Princess owned — into her berth in Victoria, British Columbia. While the thousands of passengers on board enjoyed breakfast, without a care in the world, Capt. Bates docked that enormous ship by hand. He did it — not a computer, not a junior officer. Most of the passengers hadn’t met the captain, but they obviously trusted him, and they had good reason. Captain Bates is a captain’s captain. Nearly his entire life has been spent in the command of large ships, including both the Queen Elizabeth 2 and the Queen Mary 2. I have no doubt that had the unforeseen happened, Capt. Bates would be the last man standing on the ship. I have no doubt that he would walk flooded companionways if necessary to ensure it. That’s just what captains do.

But we never know, do we? Captain Bates never sunk a ship. He relied on his skill and the full press of his responsibility to do everything in his power to protect those in his charge. Capt. Bates has since retired but the media have sought out his knowledge in the past few weeks. He had no answers for how the Costa Concordia tragedy could have happened.

By virtue of buying a sailboat and maneuvering it on the waterways, I too have been bestowed the title “Captain”, primarily by bridge and lock tenders. I take it seriously. Safety on my boat is paramount and that extended beyond the confines of the boat’s lifelines. I am responsible to ensure that I would not compromise the safety of others around me. For me, that is defined as not only not crashing into another boat but also as avoiding situations that would require me to call for help. I have a responsibility to do everything in my power to avoid risking the lives of those who could potentially be sent out to rescue me. In my heart, I am certain that in a life or death situation, I would ensure the safety of my wife or others before I secured my own salvation.

But again, I’ve never been in that situation. I can’t say for certain how I would react because I’ve never had to face it. Oh, I’ve faced it hundreds of times in my head, attempting to plan for every possible scenario but, apparently that planning, along with a dose of good fortune, has kept me from staring into that dark void in reality.

The captain has no responsibility to go down with his ship. He does have a responsibility to those in his charge and those around him, however. He or she must be the last person standing because without that presence, it becomes every man for himself. Someone has to be in charge, someone has to make the decisions and show both passengers and crew that despite calamity, things are under control. People need to be reassured they won’t be left behind. Sadly, that didn’t appear to have happened aboard the Costa Concordia.

When it seems there is little defense, it is easy enough to cast blame. Perhaps knowing a deathblow had been dealt to a $450 million ship was enough to cause the captain to lose his mind. Perhaps he was frightened and in over his head. Even though the ship didn’t sink entirely, being on an enormous cruise ship listing over to that degree had to be terrifying. I have little doubt that everyone on board, including the ship’s officers, thought they could die that night. And unfortunately, that came to pass for possibly as many as 32 people. But for the captain, there are no excuses.

What would you have done? I think I know what Capt. Chambers would have done. I think I know what Capt. Bates would have done. I like to think I know what I might have done. But we don’t know for certain, do we?

I’m flying to Minnesota this week and, although Capt. Sullenberger has retired, I will depend upon the aircraft’s captain to do everything in his or her power to ensure the safety of the aircraft and passengers, despite that his or her company seems to be working hard to demote them to bus drivers. But should the unforeseen happen, I can take some comfort in the fact that I’ve long since memorized the emergency exit procedures from endlessly reading the seat-back pocket brochures. I would also try to avoid screaming like a little girl. But I guess I don’t know, do I?