U.S. Navy is getting that sinking feeling

I joined Navy ROTC in college, and spent six weeks one summer on the USS Severn. When I came aboard in early June, the ship had just gotten a new captain.

A month before, the Severn had run aground in Narragansett Bay while returning to port. The officer of the deck had misread a buoy and ordered a wrong turn. The result ended in career-ending reprimands for the captain, executive officer (second in command), the officer of the deck and a few others.

A few years later while on active duty with the USS Eldorado, we were tied up to the pier in San Diego early one morning. I was shaving when suddenly the bulkhead (wall) five feet from me buckled inward and then snapped back into place. A minesweeper had been turning around in the harbor, and hit the Eldorado. I’m lucky it was a minesweeper, a relatively small ship.

Those memories came back to me with the news that the USS John S. McCain had collided with an oil tanker shortly after dawn on Aug. 21, resulting in the deaths of 10 sailors. This follows the deaths of seven sailors aboard the USS Fitzgerald two months ago when it collided with a freighter.

Those two collisions bring to four the number of U.S. Navy ships damaged in accidents in 2017 alone. The difference is that most accidents don’t result in the loss of life, and that the Navy has now decided to review all of its operations to determine if it has a systemic problem.
As a former naval officer, I’m having a hard time understanding how the collisions of the Fitzgerald and McCain occurred. I have a better understanding of how the first two accidents happened, those involving the USS Antietam and the USS Lake Champlain, both guided missile cruisers.

On Jan. 31, the Antietam was anchored in Tokyo Bay, near its home port of Yokosuka, Japan. The wind was blowing at 30 knots (about 33 mph) and the Antietam began to drag its anchor. The ship’s engines were started, and the crew tried to maintain control, but it ran aground first, damaging both of the ship’s propellers. Unlike the Severn’s grounding, the Antietam’s was caused primarily by bad weather.
On May 9, the Lake Champlain collided with a South Korean fishing boat in international waters. The fishing boat had no radio. The Lake Champlain made repeated attempts to warn off the fishing vessel to no avail.

I understand how the accident happened because when I served, we went into ports like Bangkok and Hong Kong, and dozens of these so-called “junks” were going every which way in the harbor. I can believe that the fishing vessel had no radio or radar and wasn’t paying any attention to the warship.

The fatal collisions of the Fitzgerald and McCain are different. The Fitzgerald’s captain, executive officer and chief enlisted man have already been relieved of their posts. At 1:30 a.m. on June 17, the ship was about 56 miles out from Yokosuka when it was hit by a container vessel. At this writing, only a preliminary report has been issued on what happened after the collision — nothing yet on what happened before.

On Aug. 21, shortly after dawn, the McCain collided with the oil tanker near Singapore. It has been alleged that a steering malfunction occurred. It’s also said that the accident’s location, upon entry to the Strait of Malacca, is a chokepoint for maritime traffic. Coming on the heels of the Fitzgerald’s accident, however, it’s worth asking if the McCain’s was more than a coincidence.

I can remember days at sea when we did not see a single other ship. When we did, we tracked them all to make sure we avoided collisions. Standing watch can often be as boring as watching paint dry, but every sailor knows — or should know — the importance of staying alert.