Sunday, June 18, 2017

The USS Fitzgerald collision.

Regarding the collision of the USS Fitzgerald and the container ship. While it is too early to say exactly what happened or who is at fault there are things to be considered. It has been said that the container ship doubled back on its course before the collision for unknown reasons. If this is true it does not relieve responsibility for the collision from the Fitzgerald. Why? 
Think of safe navigation of a ship and collision avoidance like defensive driving. You always assume that the other driver will do something unexpected so you give yourself room to maneuver or stop just in case the unexpected happens. Never assume the other vessel will take action to avoid collision or will not pull a bonehead move. 
I served on submarines for 11 years and part of my job as a navigation electronics technician was to assist in the safe navigation and maneuvering of the ship, it is what we do. From the navigator who is in charge of navigation to the lowest person on the piloting party we undergo extensive training on collision avoidance. We are taught the "rules of the road" and Colregs which deal with collision avoidance. We attent piloting trainer while in off crew which is a simulator for navigating the ship in enclosed waters like entering port. We go over past collisions to see why they happened and how it could be avoided. The training continues your whole career. Why? Because one of He most dangerous things faced by a submarine or surface vessel is the act of entering or leaving port, especially in a high traffic area. We are taught to never depend on the other vessel to avoid a collision even if we have the right of way. We track every vessel, contact, around the ship and plot their course, speed, and closest approach. We have certain standing orders to maintain a safe distance from other vessel and to not let the closest predict approach come within a certain range around the ship. Above all we are taught to pay attention to detail and not slack off because the moment you do is the moment the unexpected happens. This has to be done no matter how busy a port is or how many vessels there are. If it gets real busy only vessels within a certain range are tracked, especially those that will intersect plotted course.
A submarine is unique because most of its hull is under water and that part that is not is low to the water compared to surface vessels. A submarine is not as maneuverable as surface ships so that is taken into account. We also note the type of vessels around us so we have an idea of how they maneuver. A container ship is large and is not as maneuverable as a ship such as the USS Fitzgerald so the control Party would take that into account. Allowances would have been made, or should have been made to give the container ship a wide berth. The moment when the control team saw the container ship swing around the officer of the deck should have maneuvered to put distance between the two ships. And since a container ship cannot turn on a dime there should have been plenty of time for the Fitzgerald to take evasive action unless they left it too late or allowed them to get to close to begin with. Since it seems likely that both vessels were on a similar course to begin with before the collision and the Fitzgerald was probably over taking the container ship, bridge to bridge communications should have been established with the Fitzgerald declaring her intention to over take the container ship and keep a safe distance. The vessel being overtaken has the right of way. If the Fitzgerald tried to overtake the container and the container ship maneuvered into the Fitzgerald the onus would still be on the Fitzgerald.
The Navy and other authorities will look at the logs of both vessels, examine plots, and communications to reconstruct the collision. It is sad but the fault will be placed on the USS Fitzgerald unless there are extenuating circumstances, the container ship deliberately tried to ram. If the officer on watch or others In control failed to follow procedures or were derelict in their duties they will be courts  martialed, probably for the military equivalent of manslaughter times seven.
This was a preventable tragedy and it is now up to the investigators to determine why and who is at fault. 

My thoughts and prayers are for the crew and Families of the USS Fitzgerald. And though It has been 20 years since I left the Navy, I am and will always be a sailor. These people are my shipmates just like all those who served, now serve, and will serve the Greatest Navy in the World and in History. Fair winds and following seas shipmates.