How Navy culture may have caused the Fitzgerald disaster

Standing orders

Fitzgerald. There is pressure to qualify officers for the deck watch, because not to qualify a young officer is a death warrant for that officer.
  • Fitzgerald. There is pressure to qualify officers for the deck watch, because not to qualify a young officer is a death warrant for that officer.
  • Image by Petty Officer 3rd Class Paul Kelly

It is a big ocean. Until you’ve been far into it, it’s really hard to appreciate how big it is. Bringing a ship back from Japan to Hawaii, I once went ten days without seeing another ship, either by eye or radar. That’s a long time to be utterly alone in the world, especially if you’re moving in a straight line and at good speed. On the other hand, I think you’d be surprised at how crowded the ocean can get in certain places.

The easiest example that I can think of to illustrate this point is the Strait of Malacca, which divides the island of Sumatra from Malaysia. Not only is Singapore at the southern end — one of the great maritime ports of the world — but it is not unfair to say that all the shipping moving between Asia and Africa and the Middle East and Europe travels through this increasingly narrow, 600-mile passage, either to or from Pacific countries.

Course of Crystal showing presumptive point of collision with Fitzgerald

Course of Crystal showing presumptive point of collision with Fitzgerald

Every year, 100,000 ships go through it. It is infested with pirates and criss-crossed by thousands of fishing boats every day. If you look at it on a chart, it may seem wide, but the passable channel for big ships is only a couple of miles wide, and again, clogged with fishing boats. It’s not fun to navigate, but it is thrilling.

Detail of the Crystal's movements

Detail of the Crystal's movements

Tokyo Bay or “Tokyo Wan” is like that. Yes, the area off the coast of Japan where the USS Fitzgerald collision took place on June 17 is more wide open than the Wan itself, but just like the approaches to Norfolk, Boston, or Los Angeles, dozens of ships are approaching at any time, all heading for a very narrow entrance channel, all on tight schedules. Think of it as a funnel necking down to the shipping channel that goes into the port. Outside the shipping channel, which has strict rules, the mouth of the funnel is the Wild West for ships coming and going. It can be challenging during the day, but at night it can be frightening.

On any given night, ships will mill about, outside the shipping channels, waiting for dawn when they can both use their eyes to help and meet the pilots who will berth their ships in port. All those huge ships, lollygagging about, may drift or they may travel in circles or they may give themselves a box to stay in while they await the light. Personally, I used to avoid this mess by slowing my track so that I didn’t arrive at the funnel mouth until dawn. But sometimes you don’t have a choice, and you spend tense hours trying to avoid other ships, praying for the light.

Imagine you are on the bridge of your ship and you are waiting off Tokyo…or more specifically, Yokosuka, which is right down the coast, and the home of the Fitzgerald in Japan. There may be moonlight, which is a help, or the sky make be overcast, or there may be no moon, or maybe the moon rose and set earlier, or maybe it will rise and set later. Maybe it’s only a sliver of moon.

My point is, it can be utterly black at sea.

And what do you see with your eyes there off Tokyo? You see a horizon full of lights. You see a universe of lights, some on land, some from ships. Some moving, some not moving. Different colors. Many of these lights are engineered to be visible at specific ranges, and that may be a help. For example, the visibility of a ship’s masthead light is supposed to be six miles. A sidelight is three miles. But the weather and other atmospheric and physical variables may increase or decrease the visibility. In other words, if you see a ship’s masthead light suddenly appear, you may want to believe that, “Oh, that dude is six miles away for me.” But, maybe not. You will need to worry about all of these lights until you figure each one out. What are they doing? Where are they going? Are they closing in on me? Should I worry about them? Which ones and how soon? The composition of these lights is constantly changing as ships come and go. As fishermen appear and disappear. As lights on shore go on and off through the night. In other words, it’s a complex puzzle for even the most experienced mariner.

You decode the puzzle by using your radar and your charts to associate these lights with ships or objects on the beach. Just as your eye is not perfect, though, neither is a radar. Different radars have different characteristics, and they are each better or worse at different ranges and in different situations. Some are good in rain, some don’t even remotely help in a heavy rain. Every sailor can think of a time that they came across a ship or boat, which in seeming denial of the laws of physics remained undetected by radar, only to be seen and avoided at the last minute. Ideally, you use several types of radars in concert, as well as a system called automatic identification system, which tracks a discrete identifier on most ships.

It is an experienced mariner who is able to sort things effectively.

Who do you think was figuring this all out on the night of the Fitzgerald collision? Was it an experienced mariner? I don’t know.

Here’s how it works at sea in a ship, in general: the captain is on call 24/7. He sleeps in a cabin only a few feet away from the pilot house, where all of this figuring is going on. He stays up late, and he rises early. He often doesn’t even want to sleep, because if anything goes wrong, he’s inevitably and historically going to be identified as the responsible party and relieved of command. In a congested seaway, he will often sleep, if it can be called that, in his chair on the bridge. Perhaps he will have his best team on watch in those most dangerous situations.

Who’s in charge at night when the captain is sleeping, or during the day when he is doing something else somewhere else in the ship? Officers of the deck. These are the young officers, or very experienced chief petty officers, who are charged to act in the captain’s stead when he is not physically in the pilot house. These officers may be salty veterans or they may be green as grass. Only the captain can decide when they’re ready to stand the watch as officer of the deck.

But there is pressure to qualify officers for this watch, because not to qualify a young officer is a death warrant for that officer. If you’re not an officer of the deck, you’re of no use to the fleet, and you should just go home. Also, not to qualify an officer can sometimes get a captain the sort of attention that is unwanted, and not to qualify more than one officer, regardless of their capability or capacity, is a recipe for trouble. The expectation is that the captain will train and qualify the officers he has been given, and not to do so will cause some to think that the problem lies with the captain and not the quality of the young officers sent to his ship.

There are, however, some unfortunate solutions available. The worst thing a captain can do is to wait until just before an officer transfers and qualify them at the last moment, effectively passing on the problem to the next ship. Or qualify them as officer of the deck but never allow them to stand the watch. It happens. Not every officer is a good and able one.

Normally, though, a captain qualifies an officer in due course and then relies upon a system of checks and balances, back-ups, and structure to protect the ship until the officer grows fully into the job. People sometimes talk about the trust reposed in young officers. I can tell you from personal experience that it is something — something big — to be an officer of the deck, entrusted with a billion dollars of ship and the lives of 360 sailors. This is the burden of command of which people sometimes speak. A captain puts the lives of several hundred people into the hands of a young officer, typically 25 years old, typically green.

So, what does that captain count on to prevent disaster? What are the safety measures? The first is something called standing orders. These are the rules in his ship that everyone (especially the officer of the deck) lives by. These are the unbreakable laws modifiable only in writing, by the captain himself. One of these laws is “Call me when any ship comes within 10,000 yards [five miles] of my ship.”

So, all through the night, the captain is receiving phone calls when the ship is near to land; “Sir, this is the officer of the deck. I have a contact broad on the starboard bow at 12,000 yards. He is drifting left to a CPA” — closest point of approach — “on our port bow, at 6000 yards, in 20 minutes. My intention is to maintain course and speed.”

The captain receives these calls all the time, night and day. What he does when the officer calls is to envision the situation in his head and then either concur with the recommendations of the officer or give other instructions. Sometimes, if the officer of the deck is concerned with the situation, he will ask the captain to come to the pilot house to see for himself. And, sometimes, the captain gets a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach or the back of his neck, and he goes without being asked. A captain has to know the officers of the deck, their strengths and weaknesses. He has to read voices — does the young officer sound settled, confident? Is there a hint of concern? What time is it?

Things can go wrong when the officer of the deck is afraid to call the captain. Maybe the captain is typically intimidating. Maybe the officer, despite best intentions, let a ship get within 10,000 yards without calling the captain. Now the officer may understand that he is in peril of getting his head chewed off by a captain who cannot possibly understand why the officer of the watch didn’t understand the meaning of 10,000 yards. Maybe he’ll lose the captain’s trust? Maybe he’ll get fired? Pain and humiliation.

Captains have to be careful not to get mad or cranky when called. You don’t want to make your officers afraid to call, because if they expect to get crucified, it’s unlikely they’ll call every time that they should. Maybe the officer of the watch thought a ship was “past and opening” — that is, moving away from the ship — then it inexplicably turned back. Suddenly, the ship the young officer thought was going to get no closer than 11,000 yards is at 6000 yards.

It takes a ship going 15 knots only six minutes to go 3000 yards. What if you’re going 15 and she’s going 15? The range can decrease by 6000 yards in six minutes. Six minutes can go by in a flash. At night, with all the confusion in a busy seaway, she can be on you before you know it.

This is only a guess, but here is one possible, and very realistic way things might have gone wrong for the Fitzgerald. Forget the other ship, the ACX Crystal, a Philippines-flagged container ship. Why was she turning? Doesn’t matter. For whatever reason, the evidence shows that when the collision occurred, Fitz was crossing in front of the merchant ship. The “rules of the road,” the law by which mariners live, suggest that the Fitzgerald was obligated to pass astern of the merchant, not ahead of her. Everyone at sea knows these rules. So, why was the Fitzgerald doing something in violation of the law?

I think this is what happened: the officer of the deck was confused by what was going on. It was dark, messy, busy, and he wasn’t the most experienced of mariners. Suddenly, the merchant ship he thought was long gone and forgotten, had turned around and was unexpectedly coming back, and already well inside 10,000 yards. I think the officer figured at some point in this unexpected development that he could safely pass ahead of the merchant (even though he was going to violate the inviolable rules) and thereby not have to wake up the captain, who might get upset. Or, maybe he knew the captain was wiped out, and he didn’t want to disturb the poor man. Either way, I could easily believe that he got into a race with 50,000 tons of non-maneuverable merchant ship.

This raises the question of what the combat information center was doing. There is an officer down inside the ship who backs up the officer of the deck. This is the combat information center watch officer. What did that officer know, and when? What did he do? Did he say, “What the hell are you doing?” Did he say, “Call the captain right now or I will”?

That is his job. To watch the officer of the deck’s back. Did he?

Anyway, the race was on. Suddenly, the officer of the deck realized that he was screwed. Maybe he sped up, thinking that speed could save his life. As it turned out, it only made things worse. Now the closure rate was increased as well as the cost of collision. It was too late to turn right (which he should have done long ago) in order to go behind the merchant. At this point, a right turn would just result in her spearing a ship ten times the size of the Fitzgerald, with the bow of her ship. So maybe he raced and prayed.

But, not all prayers are answered.

What could this young officer of the deck have done, other than follow the law of the sea? He could have just stopped: all engines back full. The Fitzgerald, an Arleigh Burke–class destroyer, even when going at flank speed can stop dead in the water inside of her own length, 505 feet. Of course that change in engines would have awoken the captain, and he’d be up there in a shot, upset and shocked. Don’t wanna do that.

Anyway, it is a big ocean, but it can get crowded in spots. And confusing. And if you don’t call the captain to the bridge in an emergency, things can go very wrong. If you call him late, it may be too late. I suspect that the Fitz’s captain was never called. I don’t think the combat information center watch officer helped him.

This is all conjecture, and maybe nothing of the sort happened in the Fitzgerald incident. On the other hand, this sort of thing happens more than we like to imagine, every night, at sea.

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While this was very enlightening, I was gratified to see that the Reader headline writer said "may" in the subhead. There are a number of other explanations and they include a simple matter of someone just making a huge mistake. If you are a bookkeeper, making an error isn't all that big a deal. Once detected, it can be adjusted, and everyone is (usually) satisfied. Heck, nobody died.

Like many other things, such as railroading, a silly mistake can be fatal. Ships and trains and planes are unforgiving. There is an old saying in railroading that every rule in the book is "written in blood." I'd suspect that in the operation of warships in crowded shipping channels, that is true. Or maybe not so true as in railroading because international waters are a no-man's land of unenforced rules and jockeying for position.

Thanks to writer Kevin Eyer and photographer Petty Officer 3rd Class Paul Kelly for a great Reader story about San Diego's own U.S. Navy. This was a real window on the tremendous responsibility borne by ships' captains and crews when navigating busy corridors of the vast Pacific Ocean. Modern-day Melville.

I had read online earlier this summer about the U.S.S. Fitzgerald being struck amidship at night by a container vessel, about sailors drowning in their berths as they slept. Unimaginably terrifying and tragic. RIP.

I was a Surface Warfare Officer for 27 years. I retired as an O6, post command of three cruisers; Thomas S. Gates, Shiloh and Chancellorsville. My purpose here is to try to help those who have never been "there" to develop an idea of how complex things are and can become. Captain Kevin Eyer, USN (ret.)

Thank you CAPT(ret.) Eyer, for taking the time to describe what it is like to be there. Your detailed article hit the mark and to inform the reader, who hasn't been to sea in this capacity, what it might be like out there. In fact, while I am just hitting 31 years service next month, I haven't been to sea in a few years and your article had me reminiscing-especially the darkness-so dark you can't see your hand in front of your face. I do appreciate your article and I shared it with some of my family members to help them understand better. V/r, M. Decker

Now that there has been another collision, one that appears to have had a death toll twice that of the Fitzgerald, maybe there is more that can be said. As a distant observer, once there had been one collision, we might have expected to see all the other ships become hyper-vigilant, and no more such mishaps would be seen for many months or years.

Is there something missing in the seamanship training of the crews? As described by Captain Eyer, there are redundant systems in place to avoid collision. Yet twice recently they would appear to have failed. Whazzup?

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