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Rules of the Road: U.S. Navy collisions at sea have lessons for yacht crew

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Rules of the Road: by Capt. Jake DesVergers

In November the U.S. Navy released several reports detailing the events and actions that led to two ship collisions this year in the Pacific Ocean. The first report outlined the Navy’s findings for the collision between the USS Fitzgerald and the merchant container ship ACX Crystal. This accident occurred off the coast of Japan on June 17.

The second report provided the Navy’s findings for the collision of the USS John S. McCain and the oil/chemical tanker Alnic MC. This accident occurred Aug. 21 off the coast of Singapore and the Strait of Malacca in the South China Sea.
Initial comment from Adm. John Richardson, the U.S. Navy’s highest ranking officer, was clear: “These accidents were preventable and the respective investigations found multiple failures by watch standers that contributed to the incidents. We must do better.”

Though three U.S. Navy investigations concerning each of these incidents have been completed, collisions at sea between U.S. registered vessels and foreign registered vessels are also subject to a Marine Casualty Investigation.

These investigations, conducted independently by the United States Coast Guard on behalf of the National Transportation Safety Board, are ongoing. Normal turnaround time for a full investigation is approximately 10-12 months, and the results will be published by the NTSB.  

The key highlights from the U.S. Navy’s reports indicate multiple failures in the ships’ operations.

USS Fitzgerald: The collision between the U.S. Navy combatant and merchant ship was totally avoidable. The accident resulted from an accumulation of smaller errors over time. Ultimately, the resulting lack of adherence to clear and concise navigational practices created the incident. Specifically, the U.S.S. Fitzgerald’s watch teams disregarded the established norms of basic bridge resource management. More importantly, the ship’s leadership failed to adhere to well-established protocols implemented to prevent collisions at sea. Additionally, the ship’s command triad, specifically the commanding officer, executive officer, and command master chief, was absent during an evolution where their experience, guidance, and example would have greatly benefited the ship.

The accident killed seven sailors on the Fitzgerald. At least three more of the crew of nearly 300 were injured, including the ship’s commanding officer. The top two senior officers and the top enlisted sailor were relieved of duty; about a dozen other sailors received nonjudicial punishment.

USS John S. McCain: The collision between McCain and Alnic MC was also totally avoidable. It resulted primarily from complacency, over-confidence and an absence of procedural compliance. A major contributing factor to the collision was a substandard level of knowledge regarding the operation of the ship’s control console. In particular, the McCain’s commanding officer disregarded recommendations from his executive officer, ship’s navigator  and senior watch officer.

They had advised the captain to set sea and anchor watch teams in a timely fashion. This was to ensure the safe and effective operation of the ship as they approached the Strait of Malacca, one the world’s busiest seaways. Regarding standard operating procedures, no one on the bridge watch team, including the commanding officer and executive officer, were properly trained on how to correctly operate the ship control console during a steering casualty. They had never run a contingency drill for a loss of steering.

These were military vessels with  highly trained and experienced crews. How does something like this happen? And more importantly for this column’s readers, how does this affect yachts?

We cannot overlook lessons learned from these incidents simply because they are not yachts. The failures identified can happen on a white hull just as easily as a gray hull. Poor bridge resource management, failure to follow navigational procedures, ineffective command structure, and an absence of emergency preparedness are clearly issues of human performance.

For those yachts that operate under an ISM Code system, or even a mini-ISM operation, you know that there are two ways identified for preparation of an accident:  One is crew familiarization, proper training and shipboard drills. The other is have the actual accident. Obviously, Option 1 is the preferred method to Option 2.

The most important finding in both reports is the identification of complacency. When you hear a fellow crew member say, “That will never happen to us,” or “We have always done it this way,” that is your one and only warning.

Capt. Jake DesVergers is chief surveyor for International Yacht Bureau (www.yachtbureau.org). Comments are welcome below.

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