Interesting Observation About Utility of AIS

Richard Gano, a former Grand Banks cruiser and now piloting a Mainship 30, was a career naval officer, including a stint as chief weapons officer on the battleship USS Iowa. This analysis of the recent collisions involving naval vessels is reprinted from the Trawlers & Trawlering online forum.

Thanks to a couple of my classmates from the Naval Academy, I have now read the Navy's report of the two destroyer versus civilian ship collisions in the western Pacific earlier this year. I am amazed they got out so fast. I now feel that I have enough information to comment on these accidents.

Most people with any interest in these cases have seen recent news reports of the relief for cause of several people connected with each ship, which indicated early on the expected unfortunate direction of these investigations.

The Fitzgerald collision was a case of gross personnel error, mostly I feel on the part of the officer-of-the deck not comprehending the situation and not getting his captain involved, as he was supposed to do. The ship had passed several ships at what I would call very close quarters in the hour or so before the collision, and the captain was not called, as required by his own standing orders.

There were also other failures in combat information center and on the bridge, but I lay the majority of the blame on the OOD. I do not know his experience or state of training, but they were obviously insufficient. AIS was NOT in use.

The John S. McCain collision, with both the commanding officer and executive officer on the bridge was the direct result of an undertrained helmsman and lee helmsman being ordered by the captain to make changes to the way the ship control (steering and propulsion) console was operated in the middle of an extremely congested waterway (Singapore) while making too much speed and the subsequent loss of situational awareness concerning the civilian ship.

The master helmsman who would have been on the helm if the navigation detail had been called to duty in a timely manner would not have lost control of both steering and propulsion as these undertrained people did. However, I feel that all helmsmen and lee helmsmen should have be adequately trained to handle the ordered shift, and the OOD and/or the conning officer should have been knowledgeable enough to jump in and rapidly assess the problem. Apparently none were. This console and its shift of control procedures are complicated. Everybody on the bridge lost track of the vessel they had just sped past as the McCain veered out of control directly into its path resulting in collision.

BTW, AIS was in use but considered "useless" by the operators due to the clutter of so many AIS targets. I have complained about that here about when in places like Fort Lauderdale with every docked megayacht pulsing away on their AIS transponders. It remains unclear if the ship was in transponder mode or receive only.

My experience with these type ships and their bridge steering and engine control ran from 1996 until 2012 during which I piloted probably fifty of them through a long night of acoustic signature trials at speeds from 5 to 30 knots running 200 yards from a moored 180-foot acoustic support vessel. We always got the ship for these trials after a couple of days of intense exercises, meaning the senior leadership had been up for 24 or even more hours straight.

Each ship had its own take on how to handle the situation. On some, the best helmsmen were used along with the best conning officers. On others there was a mix of nuggets and experienced hands. On some the CO or XO would remain on the bridge all night, usually asleep in their "big shot chairs," while on many, after an hour or two, I was left to run the show with the OOD and conning officer making the runs I ordered following the minute course and speed corrections I issued from my observation of my laptop support vessel tracking program while they maintained their own required navigation plot and situational awareness of other ships and aircraft.

We never shifted steering control but did occasionally shift throttle control to another mode when I needed it (this was part of what the CO of the McCain was trying to get done). I think in all that time (1996 to 2012), one ship had a steering casualty which was quickly corrected. We pulled off the range and wrung the system out for a bit before resuming. My pre-exercise briefing directions to the OOD in the event of loss of steering while inbound on a run were that my control of the ship immediately ceased and to immediately use extreme propulsion measures and any steering available to turn away from the support vessel.

In the McCain, even had they been aware of the ship about to hit them in time to do anything about it, the issuance of proper steering and engine orders would not have resulted in ship either the rudders or the engines operating as desired because nobody on the bridge knew who had control.

The Navy knows there were failures on the two civilian ships involved in these collisions, but they are not addressed in the Navy report. The Navy is not, however, trying to shift any blame.

Having served safely in a few destroyers and other type ships in the very waters in which these collisions happened with electronic equipment generations older than the amazing Aegis systems these two ships have, I am vexed that my Navy is having these problems and killing 17 Sailors in the process. I suspect there is insufficient experience in the officer ranks which results in their not knowing how to ensure their people are trained properly.

I can only console myself in the knowledge that there are a
couple hundred or so other ships and subs of the most powerful Navy in history being operated safely and professionally on a daily basis.

If you spent a career at sea and never had a close call, you are a darned liar, but experience and situational awareness and luck as a direct result of the first two will usually save you. These cases seem egregious to me in lack of either.