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The USS Fitzgerald Incident — A Yokosuka Surface Officer’s Take

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I was asked for my take on the USS FITZGERALD (DDG-62) collision at sea incident, so here’s what I posted to Facebook yesterday, having read this New York Post article. With edits and enhancements:

No fucking excuse.

None.

There is no mystery here.

The Underway Officer of the Deck Fucked UP so bad it’s difficult to imagine. I’ve been OOD in and out of Yokosuka—USS REEVES (CG-24); about the same displacement—a hundred times; during all times of day, night, adverse weather, and wee hours. In fact, coming into Yokosuka, 4 am in that part of the entry lanes is quite common, so we’d be tied up by the morning’s work day and shipyard workers could get busy.

The Captain fucked up by having someone so incompetent as OOD. They both need to go down hard, full force; because there is no excuse. None. That’s the Navy tradition that has always served the surface fleet well. Ultimate accountability, no passes ever. Your career is over.  …And all this bullshit in the NYP article about ship-to-ship comms is utter nonsense. Almost never happens and even if you try, you almost never get a response. With commercial vessels, you instead always assume it’s on auto-pilot, there’s one dude—if anyone at all—on the bridge, he’s drunk, and probably asleep.

This shit is easy to avoid, even in very heavy choke-point shipping traffic in and out. Surface radar easily has a 30k ton container ship painted 20-30 miles out, and you can see them with your own eyeballs 10-12 miles out. Once you do a minute of scope head plotting with the grease pencil, you can see how close you’ll come to each other if both vessels maintain course and speed. If inside of 10,000 yards (5 nautical miles), all it takes is a 2-5 degree course change, early, to port or starboard, to keep him outside of that envelope.

And, every set of Standing Orders on US Navy ships typically demands that if for some reason it’s unavoidable to keep another vessel outside of 10k yards, you are to notify the Captain immediately.

It’s a complete fuck up, and now eight people are dead.

…Someone also asked for my take on the sailors being sealed in a flooding compartment:

The NYP article I read says they still haven’t determined much about that, whether it was an order from whoever was commanding the conflagration or an on-scene call by whomever. If on-scene, it could have been a case of either not knowing it would seal people in, or knowing that and making a tough call because of the hatch location. Depending on which deck, where it was located, and how much would / could flood if the opportunity to seal it was missed, there are certainly legitimate scenarios where you just gotta do what you gotta do.

Everyone on board should understand and accept this, even if hindsight sheds light on possible alternative actions. Time for deep analysis is not a luxury. If this is not understood and accepted, don’t sign up for the Navy.

Additional thoughts:

There are but three scenarios I can imagine where the Captain and OOD may not be culpable for being collided upon by another vessel:

  1. Tied up to a pier
  2. Moored at anchor
  3. Adrift at sea

Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Singapore are three of the busiest ports in the world and I’ve been OOD coming in and going out numerous times in all of them, in all weather and night time conditions. It can get very complex, sometimes tracking several dozen other vessels at a time. You have to be fully vigilant, fully aware, and you have to think way ahead. You never let yourself get into a situation where solving one problem creates two others.

Do small course and/or speed adjustments early in order to open up the closest point of approach (CPA) to as many vessels as possible, lightening your management load. Or, just turn a 360-donut or two and let the Great Convergence happen an additional mile or two in front of you than it would have been before (too close for comfort). “Helmsman, right fifteen degrees rudder.”

An order to the helm in five simple words.

There’s almost an unlimited number of alternative options for ameliorating a complex scenario and a fuck-load of them are going to be good options. It’s essentially so damn easy, provided you know and understand what you’re doing and have a very keen sense of relative motion in two-dimensional space, amongst many targets, all at variable vectors.

In the situation at hand, with Fitzgerald being hit broadside to starboard, the Rules of the Road are simple and clear as all fuck, so much so that it would be inexcusable for even a Junior OOD in training on his first watch to fuck it up.

CROSSING SITUATION (From Rules 15 and 17)

When two power-driven vessels are crossing so as to involve the risk of collision, the vessel which has the other on her own starboard side shall keep out of the way and avoid crossing ahead of the other vessel.

ACTION BY THE GIVE-WAY VESSEL (From Rule 16)

Every vessel in sight of another and required to give way to another vessel shall, so far as posssible, take early and substantial action to give way. [Note: SUBSTANTIAL ACTION. Unlike small course changes very early in the scenario I mentioned above, this calls for a big move, like a 90-degree course change, so as to signal to the give-way that you are taking action.]

ACTION BY THE STAND-ON VESSEL (From Rule 17)

When one of two vessels is required to give way, the other vessel (the stand-on vessel) shall maintain its course and speed.

How simple and basic is that?

No excuses. No passes. No quarter. Court martial. Leavenworth time. Maintain the integrity and professionalism of the US Navy at sea.

Richard Nikoley

I'm Richard Nikoley. Free The Animal began in 2003 and as of 2021, contains 5,000 posts. I blog what I wish...from health, diet, and food to travel and lifestyle; to politics, social antagonism, expat-living location and time independent—while you sleep—income. I celebrate the audacity and hubris to live by your own exclusive authority and take your own chances. Read More

28 Comments

  1. Tom Murin on June 26, 2017 at 04:34

    It is very hard to see how this happened. I think the CICWO would hold some responsibility here as well. When I stood CICWO, I would go up to the bridge from CIC to check things out. We would call up bitch box or phone with contact info. There are a lot of options to make sure you are on the same page. I haven’t been underway since 1993, I think, but I can’t imagine things have changed that much.

    • Richard Nikoley on June 26, 2017 at 07:25

      I agree, didn’t want to complicate too much. After Reeves and then a tour on 7th Fleet staff, I did an exchange tour with the French Navy in the Med. The French Standing Orders have no such requirement to stay outside 10K yards or call the captain (in two years standing OOD, never called the CO once).

      A couple of times I got pretty close to another vessel and bang, here comes the CICWO over to the bridge to check up.



    • John on June 29, 2017 at 09:47

      Why do we ignore the Donald Cook experience? The Fitz may have been dead in the water due to EMP of some sort from the merchant ship. That would explain a lot. The Navy wouldn’t want to publicly admit that our most sophisticated vessels can be neutralized.



    • Richard Nikoley on June 29, 2017 at 10:58

      What are you talking about?

      Ignore?

      An absence of evidence is not evidence of ignorance.



    • Tim Turk on July 26, 2017 at 08:44

      @John – Do you really think the CO would’ve been in his cabin if the ship was DIW in that traffic area, or any area for that matter. C’Mon man!



  2. pzo on June 26, 2017 at 13:30

    Jeez, I knew power vessels on the right has the right of way by the time I was ten.

    Of course, most of the time I was sailing, so I could do what I wanted, he he………

    Yeah, what a tragedy. Eight lives, two careers shot.

    • Ron on June 26, 2017 at 17:12

      I was a tin can sailor, the USS Bristol DD857. I was a Petty Officer so I was never the OOD but I stood plenty of bridge watches. I too couldn’t understand how it happened, how with all those people on the bridge nobody noticed the cargo ship…

      I told my wife the ship must have been disabled and just sitting there because nobody would be stupid enough to run in front of another ship. I guess I was wrong.



    • Bob on August 28, 2017 at 10:36

      Ron, my dad was XO on the Bristol 1960-1963!



  3. Ageless Yankee on June 28, 2017 at 18:26

    Retired O-6 here with 5 years in the surface line (1110) and the balance as a 1440 engineering duty officer. In the 70’s, I did two deployments to Vietnam on the USS Caliente (AO-53) and a third WESTPAC deployment on the USS Gray (FF-1054). On both ships, I was qualified for formation steaming (OODF).

    I think you’re entirely too quick to throw your brother officers under the bus prior to completion of the investigation. What qualifies you to question the competency of other officers who you have never met, never spoken to, and never observed? You have no idea of what actually happened, yet you are all too willing to speculate on the watch section’s incompetence. No other possibilities beyond the crew being at fault.

    If I were you son, I’d take this particular blog entry down. It reflects badly on the Navy (your employer) and is probably career limiting for you. You have nothing to gain and everything to lose. Think it over.

    • Richard Nikoley on June 28, 2017 at 20:35

      Well, sir, I’m comfortable with the post, as I have been with the other roughly 4,500 posts published over the last 14 years here.

      Neither am I certain that your advanced years qualifies you to refer to a 56 year old man as “son,” though I don’t make a habit of making a big deal over such things.

      And I limited my carrier myself in 1992 after 8 years and went my own way as an entrepreneur. Still, I miss my time at sea (all three tours were shipboard, seagoing). I also miss the sense of pride through unwavering accountability.

      That said, I’ll sure be willing to admit I’m wrong should some freak unknown surface that absolves those officers. But I won’t hold my breath and until then, my prejudgment stands.



  4. Ageless Yankee on June 29, 2017 at 07:14

    Thank you for your response, Richard. My error for referring to you as “son” – I had not read the entirety of your blog and was under the impression you were a junior officer still on active duty.

    Since that’s not the case, I support and applaud the expression of your opinion regarding what happened to the Fitzgerald. Even if I disagree.

    I guess what it boils down to is that I have more confidence in the officers and crew of the Fitzgerald than you do. I don’t believe that BUPERS/NAVPERS would staff a front-line DDG with anything other than the cream of the crop who have been trained to a fair-the-well.

    Secondly, given the redundancy of the Navy underway watch structure, any OOD that allowed the ship to stand into danger would get lots of “support” and “guidance” from other officers and petty officers in the watch section. At a LT standing OOD on the Gray, I had a PO1 CICWO come flying up out of combat to get in my face because I didn’t follow Combat’s recommendations to alter course. (It was the middle of the night on a trans-Pacific transit, so I decided to run a torpedo attack drill. I was the ASWO, so my guys in Sonar played along and made it quite realistic.) My CICWO felt personally threatened and went right to the edge in confronting me on what he believed was bad decision. That’s the way the system is supposed to work, and my experience has been that it does.

    Transitioning to a related topic. Have you seen the reported track and speed of the ACX Crystal before and after the initial encounter with the Fitzgerald? I have never seen a commercial ship in open ocean operate like that. The container ship starts by altering course to starboard when it appears to be the privileged vessel. Following that, it wanders around like a drunken sailor with lots of minor course and speed variations. After holing the Fitzgerald, the container ship steams away to the north on a distinctly different track than their original. See anything wrong with this picture?

    • Richard Nikoley on June 29, 2017 at 14:12

      Hi CAPT:

      I suspect that things have changed substantially since your time. Even by 1984 when I stepped aboard my first ship in Subic Bay, the surface feet was the throwaway for many new JOs. Unless you wanted to be a SWO (many do), the rest are made of up officers who couldn’t hack the pipeline for aviation or Nuke.

      Just in my 2 1/2 year tour on Reeves, top-rated JO according to my FITREPS, I saw three guys wash out, could not even qualify OOD (underway), much less full-fledged SWO.

      1. A 4.0 GPA MIT grad with an eidetic memory. Just couldn’t handle practicalities, stress, or be real in social situations.

      2. Just an average guy. Just incompetent as hell, even as CommO. How hard can it be to be CommO?

      3. A surface Nuke. their first tour is 18 months on a nuke where they get their EOOW, then they go to a conventional 18-month tour to get their OOD (underway) and SWO. He relieved me as 1st Lieutenant so I could take over Electrical O and get my EOOW quals. And the deck promptly went to shit and he had to be supervised by the Dept head for simple shit like VERTREP, UNREP, and plain mooring alongside or at anchor. Pathetic. Smart physics geek, I guess. No practical ability.

      …Probably never went hunting, fishing, or camping with dad, or something.

      Regarding the Crystal, it seems there is some dispute still in even recent reports I’ve seen as to the actual time of the collision. Until that’s certain, then the tracks of both ships can have entirely different interpretations in terms of before, or after collision.

      My point is, there is no excuse for being hit by anything other than an aircraft. Any other ship? Sure wouldn’t happen to me, no matter what they do. Moreover, as a gas turbine, it can do 40kts+ quick and easy, “turn on a dime” relative to Crystal, and can stop in a few ship lengths.

      And even if (given the more glancing blow rather then T-bone) Fitz was being overtaken and was stand-on, you don’t let someone overtake you close enough that they could turn into you and hit you before fading aft past your quarter.



    • Tim Turk on July 26, 2017 at 09:17

      Entertaining read…

      @Ageless Yankee – I agree with Richard, Sir, that things have changed significantly since your service. I saw more than one marginally qualified JO given an OOD letter and pinned as a SWO in my 25 years of service. As a Surface Electronics LDO, I was not “required” to stand bridge watches, let alone get qualified as an OOD or SWO. I did so, however, because as an ET3 standing sound-powered phone watches on the bridge, I knew I could be a better OOD than most of those doing it. After my commissioning, and on my first deployment, I observed my boss, the Combat Systems Officer sleeping on watch as the OOD; I was his Conning Officer. First off, as a former ETC, if I ever caught one of my Sailors sleeping on watch in Repair 8, there would have been a visit to the nearest fan room for some “counseling” and Mast would have been next, if it happened again. That said, I, mistakenly, held the SWOs to higher standards and quickly learned otherwise. I confronted my boss on watch and reported him to the Senior Watch Officer (OPS), who spoke with him. The behavior continued and I escalated to the XO to remedied the situation. This was not a one-off event, either. There were similar stories on subsequent ships.

      I don’t mean to imply that all SWOs are like this, but they are out there, on every ship, and I believe, just like Richard, this collision is going to prove to be a colossal fuck-up on the part of the entire bridge and CIC watch teams. Absolutely inexcusable and now seven lives have been needlessly lost. Heads must roll…



    • Richard Nikoley on July 26, 2017 at 13:33

      Dude, thanks for reminding me of the LDO and a Warrant O we had on Reeves, both boiler engineering types, and both Qd OOD and SWO.

      Loved those guys.



    • Tim Turk on July 26, 2017 at 13:54

      Thanks for the blog…got a good laugh out of your original post. Working in the “real world” these days and I don’t hear that kind of real, Salty language much any more. Keep it up!



  5. dantheman on July 3, 2017 at 10:06

    Richard, have U considered an Overtaking situation instead of Crossing? That makes Fitz privileged and Crystal burdened. We now know one thing for certain; Advincula’s lying. He claims he made a “hard turn to starboard ten minutes prior to collision.” It is IMPOSSIBLE for either vessel on a collision course to make a hard turn to starboard ten minutes prior and still collide. As well, the overwhelming case you’re making for Fitzgerald’s malfeasance is too overwhelming, i.e., not a single person out of 300 or so had a clue that their vessel was in extremis? Just does not compute.

    My bona fides: Five years DD OD; 100 mid watches give or take.

    • Richard Nikoley on July 3, 2017 at 10:37

      I have indeed considered that. However, still not enough. I’m sure as hell not going to allow myself to be overtaken so closely to either side where any significant turn on his part, even increasing to flank speed, would allow him to touch me before fading off behind the quarter.



  6. Les Brown on July 3, 2017 at 13:56

    Totally one hundred per cent agree with author. Been, or seen most every situation he describes. Been off course off hong kong, captain was awaken when it was discovered. Immediately went to general quarters and fired everyone on the bridge. Very scary night. My duty station was below the water line and heard the scuttles chained locked during water tight integrity condition zebra. Save the ship! Was an eye witness to the investigation of the USS Leahy running aground in Tokyo Bay. Being enlisted is easy compared to the heat an officer takes when something goes wrong. The OOD and bridge personnel on duty will be held responsible for the Fitz screw up. Yokosuka ’77-’79 USS Blue Ridge ’79-’81. Les Brown

    • Richard Nikoley on July 3, 2017 at 14:40

      Blue Ridge ’87-’89. 7th Fleet Staff.



  7. Bob on July 11, 2017 at 06:38

    Retired SWO active/reserve with 3 deployments on DDs/FFGs. I’m a little shy about keelhauling the bridge/combat watches until the facts are known. However, in baby SWOS one of my instructors said that there would come a time when you had to pick out the darkest piece of water and go for it.

    I’ve done that twice. Once when staff sent out the wrong formation command at night and the whole task group was FUBAR and one night approaching the Bosporus Straits. This watch team should have done that before colliding.

    • Richard Nikoley on July 11, 2017 at 07:07

      Yep, Bob, short of some wartime imperative, there is really no place you have to be at a certain time that justifies risking the ship and lives like that. Do a donut, let the clusterfuck pass by. The whole picture can change in a small matter of a minute or two.



    • Tom on August 23, 2017 at 20:22

      The navy closed SWOSDOC in 2003. A sort of replacement was only opened in 2012.

      http://cimsec.org/circles-surface-warfare-training/24050



    • Richard Nikoley on August 24, 2017 at 06:57

      Wow, I did not know that.



  8. Roy on July 16, 2017 at 09:27

    Hi, Richard…Just stumbled across your blog. I was a fleet qualified OOD on a Spruance class DD in the late 70’s / early 80’s. 2nd and 6th Fleet experience so I’ve never been in that particular piece of water. However, I can’t get my head around the Captain not actually being on the bridge when the ship is in what appears to be a fairly restricted maneuvering area with significant traffic. Did they at least station the Maneuvering Watch with the Nav or XO on the bridge? I generally agree that this is probably the result of multiple screw-ups but the whole situation made no sense from the get-go. I’ve had to execute the donut dance numerous times trying to get north or south through the Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti. Huge amount of merch traffic going east – west on the north side. Another solution was to bring all 4 engines on line and get everybody on the right drifting right and everybody on the left drifting left with CPA’s held to at least 5Kyd with Captains pergra.

    • E. N. Thomas on August 20, 2017 at 16:35

      There is not an active US Naval combat ship that does not have a standing night order that covers this situation. The “old man” should have been called to the bridge. The standard of judgement in the standing orders is a distance factor as to when the CO is to be called. Apparently this never happened. As a qualified OOD on a carrier this was drilled into our heads.

      I got a kick out of the comment on the original blog “scope head plotting with a grease pencil”. Been there, done that.



  9. Tom on August 23, 2017 at 20:16

    The fourth incident in a year now.

    • Buck Chisolm on August 29, 2017 at 12:41

      Hi Richard,

      Found your blog today and agree with your rather “salty” analysis of this FUBAR collision.

      Like you I was SWO (79-81) generally as the MPA on a FF. You hit the mark when you mention using the bridge repeater and some grease in addition to the MO board as our basic tools to avoid “sharing the same patch of ocean with another vessel”. CIC was icing on the cake and the Mk 1 eyeball provided the final input. And why the hell was the CO not called? Really basic stuff at least to me.

      Reading many comments here, and on other blogs, and wonder how the level of training/qualification could have fallen so low. Yet, I cannot think of any other excuse to explain away two collisions at sea that should never have happened.

      Bookmarked you blog and will come back from time to time to see what’s up.

      In closing, I was an 1110 and 1310 (after leaving DO tour. Sort of a reverse of being a “fallen angel”). I do miss the challenge and, as I mention to a friend the other day, tremendous responsibility piled on your shoulders at a young age.

      BC
      Berlin



  10. Gospace on January 14, 2019 at 14:28

    I was in a shipboard collision while tied up to a pier. The other vessel was entirely at fault. Snowicane 1993. Vessel at opposite berth had failed to moor properly. Hearing the collision alarm while moored is unsettling.

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