Author Topic: Yet another destroyer/merchantman collision.  (Read 380 times)

Offline HenryC

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Yet another destroyer/merchantman collision.
« on: August 23, 2017, 12:10:52 PM »
I don't know any more about the recent collision of USS McCain with a merchant vessel this week than you do. I just have a few very brief and possibly flawed press reports.  But I have also learned that there have been four similar incidents in the last nine months (three collisions and a grounding) and it is only natural to wonder if they are not totally unrelated accidents.  Although the prime cause of the accident may have been the fault of the other vessel, a Navy destroyer is fast, maneuverable, fully manned by trained sailors at all times, and studded with sensors and technology. It should have seen this coming and gotten out of the way.  I know that, it was my job when I was a sailor. The McCain incident seems very similar to the recent USS Fitzgerald tragedy.  What is going on? Even the Navy has seen it fit to relieve the Admiral commanding the 7th Fleet.  With authority comes responsibility and accountability. 

We won't know more until all the facts are out, but I can speculate.  I believe these accidents are the result of an over-reliance on technology and the resulting degradation in the training and experience of seamen.  This is a topic I often bring up here, but bear with me; I believe it is relevant to all mariners, even weekend sailors like us.

I was a QM on a missile destroyer in the late 1960s, a navigation technician on the underway bridge watch, so I was involved in many similar encounters.  We had radar and electronic navigation back then too, but it was only an addition to traditional seamen's skills that went back to the age of sail.  The technology was meant to assist, not replace, the old methods.  Our equipment gathered data which we plotted on the chart, but we drew lines and measured angles on paper just like the old timers did.  We had situational awareness.  I am going to stick my neck out and say these recent accidents are the result of our failure to rely on traditional skills and procedures.  We are losing the knowledge, and those of us who have it aren't practicing it often enough to keep it sharp.  We are losing that sixth sense that tells us when we mark down a course or bearing; "Wait a minute, that just doesn't look quite right,  I better check it again."  Only experience and training can give you that.  And only experience and training gives you the confidence to act decisively in a crisis situation when things start happening fast and data and communications are contradictory and garbled  After all, our equipment may be functioning perfectly, but if we don't trust it we will hesitate and make mistakes. 

On my recent trip to view the solar eclipse, my companion and I drove from Durham, N Carolina to our hotel at the eclipse site in Columbia, SC.  Things went smoothly on the road and we relied on the auto GPS to navigate straight to our destination.  There were no problems.

But on the way back, the roads were crowded, it was dark, there were accidents and construction delays, and soon there were Interstate traffic jams and police activity, people were tired, in a hurry and acting crazy.  We were forced to detour down side roads, and soon the limitations of the GPS became apparent.  Its data was out of date, and it had a few program (people do make mistakes when stressed!) glitches, probably exaggerated by our own fatigue and crowded conditions in a small sports car.  Soon we had to rely on "traditional" , low-tech methods.  Fortunately, my friend had a full suite of paper maps at several scales, prepared of our route and several alternates, and we were able to execute several Plan Bs when the electronics either failed, or sent us into yet another traffic jam. 

The GPS was a great convenience, but it was the paper charts that saved our lunch.  Electronics present information in a very dry and abstract way, and it takes a lot of training and experience to fully exploit its capabilities, and there are so many places where you can screw up.  And to properly train yourself in this  tech it is tempting to neglect the old traditional skills; setting up straightforward procedures, reading a map, using a compass, simple piloting and dead reckoning calculations, and not relying on just one source for your vital information.

I don't know what happened out there, and I grieve for the sailors and their families.  But I suspect at least some of these tragedies could have been avoided.
These may have been "radar-assisted" collisions.  Don't let them happen to you.  Every now and then, you have to look out of one of those little round windows.