Examining Collisions at Sea

Via the Naval Institute’s Proceedings. Article by Capt. Kevin Eyer, U.S. Navy (Retired)

In the past two months, two major U.S. warships have collided with merchant vessels. In both cases, lives were lost; personnel were injured; and ships sustained major damages. In both cases, the Navy assigned teams to determine the causes of the accidents.

In theory, these investigations are undertaken to determine what errors were made, by whom, and whether any conclusions or lessons learned might be drawn that would allow for similar disasters to be avoided in the future. While the intent of these investigations is plain—determining the raw material of facts and recommending the assignments of guilt—the question is whether they will produce anything else useful

Part I.   Recommended reading for Navy veterans and military professionals about failures throughout the organizational structure.   It is not the “stand-down”  and the bandaid the Navy rushes in to fix this.  It is long-term, lasting changes.  How many times will the services go through loss of life, damage and loss of equipment, scandals and loss of prestige.   When politicians and bureaucrats at the highest levels wanted to adapt corporate practices, social experimentation, and project power with unclear objectives, the military culture suffers.

In the Navy, anything that causes loss of life, damage or destruction of multi-million dollar systems, or negative public opinion will get reviewed by a Board of Inquiry.  This is a first part of a sobering view of military culture, scandals, and the nature of the bureaucracy to not examine too deeply for root causes.


mammalian diving reflex

When I was very young I was taught to swim, and recall that I was quite fond of holding my breath and ducking underwater and pushing off to see how far I could swim before I had to come up for air.   My father had been a great swimmer my mother tells me, but when he was still in his twenties,  illness took away his athleticism.  With his DNA, I enjoyed being in the water: swimming pools, rivers, ponds, and the ocean.  With my mother’s DNA (she grew up by the Irish Sea), cold water was not preferred but also not dreadful for me.

As a pre-teen I took a Red Cross Life-Saving certification class at the community pool near our apartment building.  I had always been a good swimmer and athletic, but the certification test proved to be my brush with drowning.   The backup instructor was a huge Marine-looking man who jumped into the pool and pointed at me.    I swam toward him as trained and he started to thrash about.   Then he seized hold of me, and climbing up my shoulders, forced me under the water.   That simulation was all too-real.   Whether fear of death or anger at embarrassment,  as I started to choke inhaling pool-water, I managed to strike him as hard as I possibly could.   They awarded me the Life Saving certificate.  I don’t think the instructor wanted to advertise that a lanky kid had overpowered him.    I have told the story previously how, on a beach in Cape Cod,  my mother and I were walking along a tidal sand bar with the tide going out.  I ran ahead into a channel that appeared to be no more than knee-depth.  It wasn’t and I lost my footing in the swifty oceanward water and was washed about a quarter-mile into the Bay.   I was rescued by a couple in a power boat who were near enough to see my mother’s frantic waving and my bobbing.   In the Navy at seventeen,  it was not water that got the better of me but a failure to properly secure my gas mask in the tear gas training chamber.  Lord!  I was crying, spewing and hacking with stuff running out of me long before we all had to remove the masks and sing “Anchors Aweigh” for our boot camp instructors!    Years later, after my first enlistment ended and I was a student at the University of Arizona,  I took scuba diving lessons, certified and spent several weekends in successive summers, in the Sea of Cortez.  During one of these, I was a now, more-experienced diver paired up with a newly-qualified teen (ten years my junior).  “Jacques Cousteau” did not heed the diving limit so we found ourselves about a hundred feet instead of the sixty-foot maximum set by our dive master.    Pointing him to the surface, we were several hundred yards from the dive boat and had a challenging swim to get back to the boat.

In all the scenarios that we undertook during my second enlistment in the Navy and eight years of sea duty,  we performed a lot of dry simulations of flooding casualties to the ship.  We had hands-on training ashore for firefighting, and we had both well-lit, and blackout compartment simulations on entering, exiting, and securing compartments.  As part of the training for the Enlisted Surface Warfare qualification, I had a familiarity as well as a number of hours monitoring and performing skills that might save my life or my shipmates someday.

USS John S. McCain DDG-56,  By Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Todd Frantom – 030126-N-1810F-002 from http://www.news.navy.mil/view_single.asp?id=4306, Public Domain,  via Wikipedia
FILE: USS Fitzgerald
USS Fitzgerald, DDG-62

I have no idea what has caused shipmates on two Navy combatant ships,   the USS John S. McCain, and the USS Fitzgerald, to collide with merchant ships this summer, but the intense bravery and training of the men and women who saved their ships has not been told in the questioning by observers on how that could possibly happen in the first place.  The facts will certainly be collected, studied and whether training or terrorism-related, the truth will be known.  It is the response of the crew to a potentially fatal breach of the hull that should be studied equally and used to train subsequent generations.  There were definitely those who, knowing they could possibly die, chose to try to save their shipmates in the flooded compartments instead.

Numerous injuries and the deaths of at perhaps seventeen Sailors at sea are horrible.  The mere seconds between personnel sleeping, eating breakfast, taking pressure readings, monitoring electrical panels — and the aftermath of a collision: the crushing metal, screaming men, pitch darkness, and flooding seawater, are mind-numbing for those who have not been in peril.   We should all pause and pray for those Sailors and their families.   The loss of life in combat, in training accidents, in freak-occurrences on routine days, or even the acts of a madman or terrorists are never acceptable, but the mental preparation as members of the military one might accept the possible call to put yourself in harm’s way to save your fellow service members.