Auckland Branch – Newsletter

August 2018

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MIND IN NEUTRAL Michael Grey from Lloyds List 03 August 2018

Why on earth do well-found ships, properly manned by certificated officers and crews, manage to run aground or collide, in circumstances that seem to defy rational explanation?

There seems little excuse, in an era when circling satellites provide all the positioning data those on board a ship might need.

It was understandable in the days of dead reckoning and before the all-seeing eye of radar. But the equipment on a modern ship, if properly set up and diligently used, ought to make such casualties impossible.

It is by no means an original suggestion, but may the versatility and capability of the equipment itself contribute to the human navigator, or engineer for that matter, just losing concentration?

And then, when an unforeseen hazard occurs, failing to put a mind that is coasting along in neutral, back into an operational gear? If we are relegating a ship’s officer, who has probably passed all sorts of statutory examinations, to the role of a mere overseer of smart machines, how can an intelligent person remain focused?

More years ago than I care to remember, when I was serving an apprenticeship at sea, we were forced to relieve the quartermaster on the wheel for a two-hour stretch from 0600 hrs every morning. Quite what it was supposed to teach us I cannot recall, other than patience and fortitude, as it was one of the most mind-numbingly boring jobs you could imagine on a deepsea passage.

Just keeping the wretched ship on course, half-asleep and looking forward to a large breakfast, was a real challenge of concentration. The occasional sarcastic question from the Second Mate, looking up from his star calculations, to find the ship falling off the course and the gyro ticking away reproachfully, was a reminder that I really was not cut out for the job.

“Trying to write your name in the sea, Grey?” It is why automatic steering machinery was invented.

Vigilance and attention are important qualities. Those involved in search and rescue operations are regularly relieved from their visual or radar lookouts because it is known concentration wanes after about 20 minutes. It is the same with air traffic control operators, whose lapse in attention could be fatal. Maybe we should learn from these roles.

There is a debate about whether the “driver-assist” features on the latest high-end road vehicles are too clever for their own good, easing the job of driving to such an extent that concentration lapses. Anyone with half a brain, who is not making or selling cars for a living, can see this problem a mile off.

Devices that ought to be banned

One can only hope that before too many people meet an untimely end on our roads, something may be done about this, because anything that distracts the driver from the main task of keeping the car safe is potentially lethal. It ought also to divert our regulators from their current enthusiasm for “driverless” vehicles, before too much taxpayers’ money is shovelled into this fatal project.

Devices that minimise the need for concentration, permitting the mind to wander and even to become engaged on other tasks, ought to be banned, whether we are talking about a “self-driving” truck or a large ship with equipment that removes all the actual work from sentient human beings aboard.

Initially, automation on land or sea was regarded as wholly positive, as it removed the need for people to be engaged in boring, repetitive work that they probably could not do as well as a machine.

The people could be doing something more useful. But on the bridge or machinery space of a ship, if the watchkeepers have to be there, they are better engaged with the main task of navigating and collision avoidance, and not relegated to “long stop”, overseeing the equipment that is doing all the work and intervening only when it breaks down.

Casualty after casualty reveals the person whose attention might have averted the incident was either suffering from a wandering mind, or possibly even asleep, as there was little to keep them awake in this supine role of overseer.

Casualty investigators often cite “complacency”, but I would suggest that a “mind in neutral”, lulled into a semi-comatose state of non-intervention is as often to blame.

What is the point of this equipment, with its need for frequent updates, its cost and complexity, if it contributes to this state of “operator” non-involvement? Might actual practice demonstrate the negatives outweigh the positives?

You will not get any of the clever folk developing and manufacturing this equipment to admit this, because they energetically lobby the International Maritime Organization to persuade it that fitting their latest all singing, all dancing gizmo should be made mandatory.

I recall a friendship of many years with a chief sales manager of navigational equipment being somewhat strained when I suggested he should wire up watchkeepers to electrodes and give them electric shocks to keep them concentrating, such were the tasks his latest “integrated navigator” was removing from their roles.

I suggest the rule makers ought only to listen to those who actually run ships for a living before letting the manufacturers into the IMO building. But I doubt that this will happen.

Unlike those people at sea, trying to stay awake and focused, the vested interests never lose their concentration.

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Collisions in Suez Canal

Collisions in Suez Canal

Taken from Lloyds List 18 July 2018

It is not yet clear in full detail what happened, and how, in Suez Canal, probably later more details will come up. It was a major accident, which involved 5 ships and blocked the Canal. It seems like not only vessels are to blame for mayhem, but Canal management also. One disabled ship in Canal shouldn’t lead to multiply collisions and general chaos.

The mess in southern section of Suez Canal near Suez was unleashed by container ship AENEAS, which while proceeding in southbound convoy on Jul 15, suffered engine failure and stopped, causing collision of three bulk carriers PANAMAX ALEXANDER, SAKIZAYA KALON and OSIOS DAVID, as they weren’t able to stop or maneuver. All ships reportedly sustained damages and were taken apart alongside Canal with the help of tugs. It wasn’t yet the the end of the story – later NYK Post-Panamax container ship NYK ORPHEUS struck PANAMAX ALEXANDER, collision inflicted damages on both ships.

As of 0300 UTC Jul 17, NYK ORPHEUS, PANAMAX ALEXANDER, OSIOS DAVID and SAKIZAYA KALON were still in Canal. AENEAS was under way in Red sea, continuing her voyage.
PANAMAX ALEXANDER, OSIOS DAVID and SAKIZAYA KALON were taken back north and anchored in Great Bitter Lakes, their transit interrupted NYK ORPHEUS seems to be able to continue her voyage to Rotterdam.
Traffic in Canal is resumed.

Container ship AENEAS, IMO 9426790, dwt 63059, capacity 5090 TEU, built 2010, flag HK, manager Anglo-Eastern Ship Management Ltd.

Bulk carrier PANAMAX ALEXANDER, IMO 9233492, dwt 74247, built 2001, flag Cyprus, manager Cyprus Sea Lines.

Bulk carrier SAKIZAYA KALON, IMO 9749908, dwt 81691, built 2017, flag WISDOM MARINE LINES SA, Taiwan.

Bulk carrier OSIOS DAVID, IMO 9593361, dwt 55831, built 2012, flag Marshall Islands, manager AM NOMIKOS TRANSWORLD MARITIME, Greece.

Container ship NYK ORPHEUS, IMO 9313008, dwt 14525, capacity 9120 TEU, built 2008, flag Panama, manager NYK Line.’

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Wellington July Meeting

There were fifteen attendees at today’s monthly meeting Including Captain Michael Millar, our member and speaker.

This was an acceptable number considering we are only a total of 49 including over 22 who come from both well out of town and the South Island.

With respect to our falling numbers, the committee were saddened to learn that our very long time member Peter Attwood has recently resigned for age related reasons.

After an appetizing Bolton lunch we were absorbed by Michael’s talk of the period of his naval career when he was head of the United Nations military mission formed to reveal the weapons of mass destruction allegedly held by Iraq and which triggered the second war in the Persian Gulf.

The obstacles/difficulties confronting such an assignment featured prominently in his talk, including   personal danger and discomfort, with deteriorating living conditions. These impediments however were not sufficient to exclude the purchase of  Johnnie Walker Blue Label, [at $8 (US?) a bottle] in a Muslim country !

Issues touched on by Micheal among others included reference to the Russian supply of weapons for and use by, the Iranians in cross border fire. This involved some ducking and running. As well was the discovery of the stocks, or recently moved stocks of, the components necessary for the manufacture of chemical and nuclear weapons, mustard gas, sarin etc.etc.

During the talk there was brief reference to the technology of warfare of the day bearing in mind this was now a quarter of a century ago.

After the meeting I was left with the impression that there is, without compromising his level of security, a lot left to to be learned from Michael about the RNZN, particularly today in 2018.

For instance, what actually meant when we read in the press that a unit of the RNZN had been at sea taking part in combined exercises with an Australian/US fleet and what is modern naval ship weaponry ??

I am sure Michael can be persuaded to speak again.


Next month at 1200hrs on  Wednesday 8th August is the Company’s AGM which is to be held again in Wellington.

It will be attended by the Master from the Auckland Branch and the Wardens from Tauranga and Christchurch as well as Eric representing us in Wellington.

Please put this date in your diary now. There is an unwritten onus on members to attend whenever they possibly can in order to properly support those they have selected to correctly run their organization.

Ken Watt


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Press reports from Sydney, NSW this week describe distressed residents hearing a ships whistle every 2 minutes which kept them awake one morning this week when Sydney was covered by a thick blanket of fog. Many misinterpreted it as a ship in distress.

Press reports from Wellington this week say that ferry schedules were disrupted by a southern right whale which took up residence near the ferry terminal.  The manger of the shipping company said “the crew were operating the ship’s horn to warn off the whale”.

I wonder if the whale knows the collision regulations or can hear the “horn” when submerged.

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Designed For Danger

This article highlights once again the paucity of good ergonomic standard bridge design often influenced by well meaning navel architects, salesmen of bridge equipment or retired naval officers who have had no or little practical experience in keeping a bridge watch or close quarter ship handling.

Lloyds List 22 Nov 2017  by  Michael Grey

EVERY well-designed ship represents a compromise of aims for the designer. Even the dimensions involve a balance between the demands for a capacious cargo-carrying space and the need to reduce resistance. The need to minimise the draught or keep the length beneath certain parameters, or the requirement for an air draught to enable the ship to pass under a certain bridge may demand compromises in other directions. The need for power, great manoeuvrability or cargo requirements mean balances must be made if the ship is to function well.

It is also curious to note how design features that were once thought important have now been relegated to the history books, largely to reduce the cost of building ships. It was, for instance, regarded by mariners as desirable that the ship’s bridge should be close to the mid-length of the hull. Elderly people may recall tankers with a centre castle, even though the machinery was in the after part of the ship. They might also remember ships with camber, to keep the decks dry, and a rise of floor forward and aft, which, along with raised forecastles and poops, would keep the seas where they belonged.

Some adventurous designers, whose identity is surely lost in the mists of time, must, at some stage have suggested that all these things were unnecessary and, by pandering to seafarers, only increased the costs of shipbuilding. Henceforth, ships would be constructed to a more utilitarian pattern, with accommodation piled right down aft or up in the eyes of the ship where it would be a useful breakwater. Presumably, those paying the bills would have agreed with these changes wholeheartedly, ignoring protests from those who might have needed to live on board and work the ships.

With our modern enthusiasm for environmental priorities, other pressures pile onto the designers’ computer. Fuel saving, reasonably equated with saving the planet, requires the power to be minimised, while speed, which was once a matter of pride to a shipowner, is now severely curtailed. And waking up to the fact that a wind from ahead tends to slow down a ship, streamlining has become a new fashion.

Mind you, such enthusiasms for new and radical designs bring with them the risk of unforeseen consequences. I sailed in a wonderfully streamlined ship, which looked as if it could go fast, but in fact was no faster than any other of the same power. The bridge front was elegantly curved and the windows set in at an angle, which meant that if you stood too close to the glass you bumped your head. Worse still, while the windows meant that there were no night-time reflections, rain, dew and snow lay on the surface and obstructed visibility. The unprepared would come onto the bridge, conclude it was foggy and prepare to put the engines on stand-by, before realising that it was perfectly clear. It is why the Safety of Life at Sea Convention has required windows to be angled in to their lower edge.

Savings to the environment

I can remember seeing the extraordinary design of the car carrier City of Rotterdam when it arrived in North Sea waters and remembering my beautiful old ship. The designers of this ship and its owners were triumphantly telling the world of the savings to the environment that would result from a forepart that resembled a tennis ball with windows. To maintain the perfect curve, only the window which was on the centreline was perpendicular to the fore and aft axis, with those on either side sloping away to the sides. It was certainly a very striking looking vessel, though once again it occurred to me that the ship was being handled from a position right over the bow.

I wonder if any master or pilot was able to cast his eyes over this singular design while it was on the drawing board. The ship’s flag state, Panama, was persuaded to approve its non-SOLAS compliant bridge arrangement and the vessel went into service, to enthusiastic remarks about its fuel consumption and environmental signature.

So it was sad to learn, nearly two years ago, that the car carrier had been involved in a nasty bump in the River Humber and that subsequently, the Marine Accident Investigation Branch had concluded that a major contributory factor was the design of the wheelhouse. On a wild night, with the outbound ship making a lot of leeway in the wind, the pilot, standing behind one of the angled windows off the centre, was fooled by the illusion that he was looking ahead, when his view was on the bow. He believed that he was steering almost south to gain the right-hand side of the channel but it was an illusion, and he was failing to clear the incoming ferry. The MAIB also reported that pilots elsewhere had found difficulties caused by this ultra-green design.

The report from the MAIB, objective and professional as they are, must not be used in evidence but it seems quite extraordinary that presumably after they had read the report, Maritime & Coastguard prosecutors saw fit to send the master and pilot of the ship to the Crown Court in Hull, where, after they pleaded guilty to a number of charges, they were given custodial sentences, albeit suspended. It is, after reading the MAIB report, difficult to ascertain the logic of this approach, unless it is designed to demonstrate that henceforth, all accidents, no matter how they were caused, render the participants liable to a severe sentence, on the Admiral Byng principle.

It is not too far-fetched to conclude that while plenty of seafarers over the years have lost their lives because of design problems, these two individuals have been criminalised by the same.


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Ship Pilot’s Perspective on What’s Happening to the U.S. Navy

By Captain Paul E. Lobo – As a retired Lieutenant-Commander in the US Naval Reserve, and a San Francisco bar pilot with over 31 years’ experience, I find the recent collisions of US Navy vessels and the resulting loss of life disheartening and incomprehensible.

And, much to my dismay, these incidents could have been prevented – that is, if the Navy would stop operating like, well,..the Navy.

As a bar pilot, my job was bringing all vessels, great and small, into San Francisco Bay. That meant coming aboard and taking navigational control of the ship to entry into the bay. During my career, I piloted over 6,500 ships, 155 of them naval vessels (mostly US, with some foreign).

Despite the skills I witnessed, however, I have to conclude from the recent Navy vessel collisions that today’s Navy seems to be becoming more and more incompetent. Complacent? Within one month, in peacetime, two Navy ships had loss of life (this must be some sort of sad record), and we’ve since learned that training was lacking as was the proper certification.

Today’s Navy seems to have ignored the need to learn the basics of seamanship. One of the first rules of going to sea is relatively simple: if another ship is getting closer and their bearing stays the same, IT WILL HIT YOU. This happened twice in one month! In admiralty law, a ship only has the right-of-way until she reaches extremis,[1] then she must get out of the way or will be found partially to blame. There is no excuse for a modern destroyer not to get out of the way even if it has the right-of-way. Large commercial vessels take miles to stop, but the Navy’s two guided missile destroyers hit midships can maneuver on a dime. I know, because I piloted them.

Getting hit on your starboard side is a sure sign of not knowing the rules — and what have been the consequences, given the fatalities? In 2007, one of my partners crashed a ship and spilled fuel oil into San Francisco Bay. He went to federal prison for 10 months for killing migratory birds.[2] What is the punishment for officers whose shipmates die due to their lack of knowledge? Did these watch officers get drug tested? Did they go to simulator school? Did they memorize the Rules of the Road? (During one of my reserve tours, the ship’s captain couldn’t believe I knew ALL the rules by heart. Apparently, none of the other Officers of the Deck did.)

Second, there are far too many personnel on Navy ships, which is not only costly, but can be distracting when cruising at 25 knots. One example of this over-manning: the Navy still uses “Norwegian Steam” – that is, manpower and muscle versus mechanized winches — to heave in mooring lines. Consider that a modern 1,200-foot commercial container ship operates with only about 20 sailors aboard, and the ship owners are talking about unmanned ships as we speak. A small[3] naval ship, such as the USS McCain[4], has 281 men and women aboard. Not only is this crowded, but you must berth and feed all of them, which means more bodies. I have piloted several carriers and counted as many as 40 people on the bridge while we were entering port, and it makes for a distracting work environment, to say the least.

Being “PC” is another sore point. The Navy seems to be more concerned with political correctness and social responsibility training than with instruction in seamanship.[5] Inclusion of women aboard ship is a commendable goal, but a record 16 out of 100 Navy women were reassigned from ships to shore duty last year due to pregnancy[6]. Female Navy personnel unexpectedly leave their stations on Navy ships as much as 50% more frequently than men to return to land duty. As Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, said in a recent interview, “A pregnancy takes you out of action for about two years. And there’s no replacement, so everybody else has to work all that harder.” On small ships and submarines, she added, “you really have a potential crew disaster.”

The Navy culture also relies on the use of many assistants. There are advantages to the system, to be sure, but aboard ship, without one individual “running the show,” the potential for confusion and error increases exponentially. Yet, still, the Navy way continues. During my career, some commanding officers would not give me the “Conn” until their ship got into trouble – and in San Francisco Bay, that potential always existed. When the worse happened, I was quickly requested to take over piloting and straighten out the mess.

Perhaps the Navy crews didn’t want other ships to know where they were, so they didn’t answer radio calls from vessels that might be confused by their conduct? Well, stealth mode is great in times of war, but in the real world, all ships must obey the International Rules of the Nautical Road.

My training at New York Maritime College and decades of experience as a Navy Reserve officer and bar pilot tell me that any investigation into the recent collisions should focus on the basics. Hopefully, any investigative commission will include recommendations that the Navy look to commercial fleets for ways to improve seagoing operations in the future. Less redundancy in terms of personnel, a greater emphasis on basic seamanship, and a willingness to streamline operations in terms of crew numbers may well avoid future disasters.

Navy traditions are near and dear to this old sailor’s heart, but rethinking the “Navy way” is critical if we are to avoid more tragedy. As we have sadly seen, lives hang in the balance.



1 Extremis, in lay terms, means the point at which action must be taken
2 The Migratory Bird Act is used to stop farmers from killing migratory birds landing in their fields.
3 550’ x 66’ is a tiny ship by today’s standards
4 Named for John S. McCain, Sr. and John S. McCain, Jr., both Admirals in the US Navy. Grandfather and father to US Senator McCain, Jr. of AZ.
5 The Naval Academy discontinued teaching celestial navigation, but recently reinstituted it.
6 From the Navy Personnel Command.

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By Captain John Konrad (gCaptain)

Every ship, regardless of nationality or purpose, is required to carry one terse book. This book is titled the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions but is better known by its acronym “COLREGS”. The chapters are short and to the point and ship officers are required to make marks of 90% on COLREGs tests taken to keep up their licenses. In order to pass this stringent requirement sailors have developed mnemonic aids to help them remember the contents. When the crew loses control of steering, the COLREGs demands that the ship display two red lights in a vertical line. The mnemonic for this rule is “Red over Red, the Captain’s dead”. Sailboats are required to display a red and green light and its said “Red over Green, sailing machine”. There are many more like this but one important rule for avoiding collisions with Navy warships is missing: “If it’s grey stay away.”

While the media, with a very little hard data, attempts to understand the erratic maneuvers of the containership ACX CRYSTAL on the night of her collision with the Destroyer USS FITZGERALD, professional mariners are certain that a long investigation will find the US Navy ship at fault.

Is this conclusion the result of professional arrogance? Or maybe because of resentment and jealousy over the fact that Navy captains are praised and decorated by the public and media while merchant ship captains live mostly unnoticed. Or is it because they are correct?

As a ship captain along with years working with the U.S. Navy both aboard ships and ashore – here are the reasons why I believe they are correct. The USS Fitzgerald was at fault.

Despite recent advancements in electronic collision avoidance tools like automatic identification systems (AIS), the three most important tools for avoiding a collision are a Captain’s eyes, tongue and ears.

Eyes looking out the windows of his ship, are important because they can process information – like erratic course changes – faster and more accurately than electronic RADAR and charting systems.

A tongue because the quickest and most effective way to predict how a ship is going to maneuver in the minutes before a collision is to call the Captain of the other ship on the VHF radio and ask.

Ears are important because language barriers and cultural differences are prominent at sea and you must listen intently to the other ship’s reply if you want any chance of understanding her intentions.

The USS Fitzgerald’s Captain used only one, or possibly none, of these tools when communicating with the ACX Crystal.

In the moments leading up to a collision a merchant ship captain has to do everything but steer the ship himself. With the help of one officer he has to watch the RADAR and AIS, plot the relative courses of nearby vessels, communicate with the Engine Room, talk with other ships on the VHF radio and issue orders. But on a navy ship each of these jobs is performed by a small team of sailors who report changes to, and obey orders from, the officer of the deck (OOD). The OOD relays the important information to the Captain.

This system of many team members – each working on equipment they have been very well-trained to operate and reporting through a command structure that filters all but the most important information to the captain – is highly effective in war when a warship is exchanging salvos of high speed torpedoes and missiles with numerous hostile targets (anyone doubting this should read Jeff Edward’s excellent book “Torpedo”). But this structure is ineffective when dealing with a single, slow moving, merchant ship.

An eye on the target and direct communication – Captain to Captain – is the most effective means of avoiding collision but this never happens on Navy ships. When a merchant ship attempts to call a U.S. Navy warship he first has to establish contact. Calling another merchant ship is relatively easy, you find the name of the ship on your AIS and hail it on the VHF. But the US Navy often turns off its AIS transmitter to prevent an enemy from tracking warships via internet sites like which pick up the AIS signal via commercial satellites and publish the positions online.

The alternative way to contact a Navy ship is by calling out its hull number (painted in huge white numbers on the bow) but, for various reasons, the Navy doesn’t always respond to this number.

Provided you do establish contact with the oncoming destroyer you run into another major obstacle. The person who responds to your call is not the Captain but a junior enlisted radioman who relays the message to the Communications Watch Officer who then relays the message to the Officer Of The Deck who relays it to the Captain. The Captain’s response then has to go back down the chain where time and information is lost, mistakes are made and the delays occur. Hard data is, more often than not, conveyed accurately, but more nuanced information – like the sound or anger, hesitation or exhaustion in the captain’s voice – is lost.

The communication problems don’t stop there. Navy ships require that information from complex systems move quickly between officers and they carry this out with a large vocabulary of acronyms, abbreviations and units of measurement that are highly effective for communication between American naval officers but are gibberish to foreign ship captains.

For example… a foreign ship captain will order his helmsman to turn port or starboard but an American captain orders left and right turns. Merchant Captains prefer true bearings based off the compass but Navy Captains prefer relative bearings based off the centerline of his own ship. And most frustrating of all, merchant mariners use Nautical Miles to denote distance but the Navy measures everything in yards.

Small differences? Maybe but a series of small discrepancies can lead to big problems.

Was VHF contact established between the two vessels before the collision? Why was the USS Fitzgerald Captain in his stateroom and not on the bridge looking out the window? Was he tuned into the VHF radio monitoring the conversation? Was the containership captain fluent in English and, if not, did the navy radioman listen with patience and speak with simple clarity? Did they communicate externally with international accepted standards or use U.S. Navy centric jargon?

This is important because basic communication problems have been found to be a primary cause in nearly every multi-vessel incident gCaptain has reported on in the last ten years.

In the not so distant past, merchant ship captains holding a “Master Unlimited” license, the highest license issued by the Coast Guard, were legally sanctioned to command any ship of any size upon oceans. The only limitation placed on that license was large sailing ships (Tall Ships). While that is still technically true today, a containership company would not hire a tanker captain and a cruise ship company would not give a large cruise ship to a containership captain. They want people having experience aboard similar types of ships.

It takes a bachelor’s degree from a Marine Academy plus approximately 10 years and the completion of intense testing to earn a Master Unlimited license. There are ways around some of these requirements (like having a college degree) depending on the flag state, but all maritime nations have strict rules governing how many days of those 10 years were spent at sea. A civilian ship captain will spend at least a few hours on the bridge of the ship every day of work. That translates to a lot of experience avoiding collision.

The U.S. Navy also has specialized strict standards for enlisted sailors. If you want to operate a RADAR, for example, you must pass general examinations, be selected, attend the Navy’s challenging “A” school and commit to a five year service obligation. Then enlisted sailors have to prove their ability aboard ship under the watchful eye of non-commissioned officers.

Each individual piece of critical equipment aboard a navy ship has a highly trained and competent person(s) assigned to it. The total number of people working, on both the bridge and the Combat Information Center (CIC) to navigate the ship exceeds a dozen.

The merchant ship captain, who has to operate all equipment himself, often has to use his experience and expertise to fill in gaps of information. But the Naval officer has the opposite problem. He is often working with too much information as it comes in from all the enlisted people who work for him… and he has to use his knowledge and experience to filter out unnecessary data. The question is, how much experience does he have?

The captain of a merchant ship does not work in an office, he never gets sent to the engine room to stand a watch, and with just two dozen people aboard his ship at any one time he is free of most of the administrative and disciplinary duties that come with commanding a Navy destroyer with five times the number of sailors.

But unlike the merchant captain and the enlisted specialists working on navy ships, the U.S. Navy Captain and his bridge officer (OOD) are generalists. A large percentage of their careers are spent working shore side jobs and their shipboard time was spent rotating through positions: the engine room, the combat information room, in administrative positions and elsewhere.

In short, the merchant ship captain and bridge officers have significantly higher number of hours spent on the bridge then their naval counterparts.

One myth that persists among the general public is that Captain Joseph Hazelwood, master of the Exxon Valdez, was drunk at the wheel of his ship when she grounded on Bligh Reef. The truth is far different.

Captain Hazelwood rightfully shouldered the blame for that incident because a Captain is responsible for the actions of his crew but his level of intoxication, if any (blood alcohol tests were inconclusive) was found not to be a primary cause of the incident. How could it be? He was not on the bridge of the ship when it grounded. He was in his cabin! The ship was grounded not by Hazelwood but by a junior officer he trusted to navigate the ship safely.

Ship Captains never take the wheel and drive the ship, helmsmen and autopilots do that job. Ship captains spend most of their time in the office doing paperwork or managing people all around the ship. The actual navigation of the vessel is done on the bridge by a junior officer called the Officer In Charge Of The Navigational Watch (OICNW). The US Navy operates the same way but that officer is the Officer Of The Deck (OOD).

It is this officer’s duty to navigate the ship safely according to the voyage plan laid out by the captain. This officer is in charge of communicating with and avoiding other ships. He is the one responsible for avoiding collisions and he holds this responsibility with important caveat; it is his duty to call the captain whenever there is possible risk of collision or danger of any kind.

And it is the Captain’s duty to go to the bridge whenever he is called for help.

But the captain of the USS Fitzgerald, like Captain Hazelwood, was not on the bridge. He remained in his cabin where he was injured during the collision. Did the OOD fail to call him up to the bridge for help managing the situation? Did he ignore the OOD’s call for help? Or, like the Exxon Valdez, did the bridge team not realize they were in trouble until it was too late?

Either way, a major error was made by someone aboard the USS Fitzgerald.

Let’s take a quick look at just some of the resources the USS Fitzgerald’s captain had at his disposal prior to the collision.

The USS Fitzgerald is an Arleigh Burke class destroyer with a top speed well in excess of 30 knots. Speed is helpful in preventing collision because it allows you to put more distance between you and a dangerous ship in the same amount of time. (Yes, speed can also be dangerous.)

She is powered by four gas turbine engines with over 100,000 horsepower available to turn her propellers. Gas turbines are expensive and burn lots of fuel but the Navy uses them because they can provide an immense amount of torque in a very short period of time. Torque translates to acceleration and acceleration is important if you need to get out of the way of something fast.

The Arleigh Burke class destroyer has highly advanced AN/SPY-1 three dimensional RADAR, variable pulse width surface RADAR, AIS transceivers and a hull mounted sonar array tied into an Electronic Warfare Suite capable of tracking objects of small size moving at a high speed in real time.

The USS Fitzgerald is highly maneuverable with a very tight turning radius.

The AXC CRYSTAL however has a theoretical top speed of about 20 knots but is rarely pushed that fast.

She has a single 8-cylinder diesel engine capable of pushing one propeller with 29,200 horses for 3/10ths the amount of power of the destroyer. The acceleration of a ship like this is measured in miles, not minutes like the destroyer. Diesel engines like hers are the size of a modest house and are locked into a certain speed at night. The bridge officer can cut speed immediately but at the risk of damaging equipment. Changing speed safely requires that the engineers wake up, change into work clothes and walk down to the engine room to check the equipment before moving the throttle.

She has two RADAR sets of modern design that is likely able to overlay digital charts. Said RADAR system requires a minimum of 3 minutes of pinging to properly calculate another ship’s change in course and/or speed.

She also has an AIS receiver that plots the position, course, speed, rate of turn and other useful information on the RADAR display in (close to) real time. In turn, her AIS system transmits her information to other ships including warships. She must, by law, transmit this information at all times. Her AIS unit does not, however, receive any data from Navy ships who cloak their positions.

She weighs four times as much as the destroyer. She can also stop and turn on a dime… but only if that dime is owned by giants and has a diameter measured in nautical miles.

She has 8 officers, a captain and around a dozen unlicensed sailors… versus the destroyer’s 33 officers, 38 chief petty officers and 210 enlisted sailors.

The media has been publishing reports on “crazy ivan turns” and erratic behavior all based on incomplete and one sided AIS data which cannot yet be correlated with the exact time of collision. It is too early, and information too scant, to publish a list of her faults.

That said, she is at fault! Remember the COLREGS? What I failed to mention in the beginning of this article is that, while terse, the book is littered with terms like “safe speed”, “all available means” and “Nothing in these Rules shall exonerate”. These words are nebulous and have remained so for centuries for a reason… so that no captain can ever shirk his responsibility for avoiding a collision. The COLREGS are terse, specific and targeted when it comes to assigning blame but soft and imprecise when it comes to removing responsibility and blame. Thus, every modern admiralty court trial of ships colliding has found fault with both ships, even if one is securely anchored!

Under COLREGS, whenever two ships touch each other, both ships are to blame.

For this reason, I am 99.9% confident the USS FITZGERALD will be found at fault… and so will the ACX CRYSTAL.



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In the same bit of sea from Lloyds List

19 Jun 2017

Micheal Grey

AMID all the larger tragedies in recent days, the fatal collision between the US warship USS Fitzgerald and the containership ACX Crystal, 56 miles off the Japanese coast, has been widely covered in the international press.

Pictures of the damage to USS Fitzgerald indicate that the bow of the containership hit the warship almost beneath the starboard side of the bridge, substantially crushing the lightly-built superstructure. The bulbous bow also inflicted grievous damage beneath the warship’s waterline, reports indicating that more than one compartment was breached, with the pictures showing a pronounced starboard list.

There has clearly been smart damage control on board the warship to contain the flooding, although this would be practised regularly by the highly trained crew of a front-line warship. It would appear that all of the seven missing US Navy seafarers have been found dead in the severely damaged ship, with its commanding officer badly injured. Both ships made port reasonably promptly after the emergency was declared.

Reports in the immediate aftermath of the collision commented with some surprise at the contrasting sizes of the two ships, although the warship was a medium-sized vessel and the 2008-built Philippines flag containership was, at 2,858 teu, what might be described as a medium-sized vessel working Asian regional trades, on the Asia Container Express service. It was also noted that a powerful warship was probably more manoeuvrable than the larger container vessel, although the latter has a 25-knot service speed.

As with every collision involving modern vessels, the first question which is always asked will be how on earth two ships, especially one fitted with some of the most sophisticated radar equipment available, could end up sharing the same bit of sea.

The contrast between the manning on board the two vessels could not be greater. The bridge watch on the warship would have involved at least one officer of the watch supported by radar technicians, navigator, several ratings and a working operations room. At 0230, when the collision occurred, the containership, with a crew of 20, could probably count on a single officer of the watch and hopefully a lookout, on a routine passage.

And as always, even suggesting actual causation at this early stage will be premature, but should not be difficult to determine, assuming that both vessels had a working vessel data recorder, with the data actually saved and available for playback. We can only guess at the sequence of events, or the circumstances surrounding the scenario as the two ships approached one another. These are notoriously busy waters, with the commercial traffic often complicated by great fleets of fishing boats, which are not there to make for any watchkeeper’s peace of mind, and tend to wear their fishing signals even when tied up in port.

Basic failure

Ships collide less often than they did, before those on board had the benefit of good, reliable radar. But even the briefest analysis of contemporary collisions reveals that the causes of them have rarely been anything other than a basic failure to keep a good look-out, obey the prescribed rules for the avoidance of collision and operate at a sensible speed. Of these three, it is possible the last that is most generally ignored, in an age where precision is demanded and any excuse for not arriving on time is unwelcome.

Perhaps the need to save fuel and reduce costs in a profit-free sector has resulted in ships not operating at their maximum designed speed, but there is nothing unusual, in congested waters, to see ships blasting along at high speed. In fog in the English Channel, heavy traffic in the Singapore and Malacca Straits or the congested, fishing boat-infested eastern waters, stories of containerships rushing along at an injudicious speed are legion. Most of the time they get away with it, sometimes they come unstuck.

Deepsea pilots boarding containerships inbound for European ports are not infrequently handed a pilot card instructing them to keep the engines at full revolutions until a few miles off the Rotterdam approaches, regardless of visibility. There is also a lot of information that is entirely wrong about the “difficulties” of using the ship’s engines at anything other than slower, manoeuvring revolutions. Hence people will do almost anything rather than slow down, effectively removing one useful prescribed strategy for avoiding a close quarters situation.

But we shouldn’t, at this stage, even hint that one ship was guiltier than the other in their violent meeting. It takes two ships to collide and the rules clearly prescribe the action to be taken in the event that the “give way” ship fails in its obligations.

People say that the rules ought to be simplified so that both ships, in all circumstances, are required to take action and the “stand on” vessel no longer has this obligation until its own action becomes inevitable. But that, as previous debates on this subject have shown, opens up a whole extra dimension for fierce professional argument and we shouldn’t go there. It will take a bit of time, but the causes of this sad collision will be identified.

Webmaster’s Note. Collision Rule 15 is clear and unequivocal – in a crossing situation if there is a risk of collision the vessel which has the other on its starboard side gives way.

This accident is not an isolated incident. In 2012 there was the a similar collision in the Strait of Hormuz.

Click on this link to hear the audio from the bridge of USS PORTER v mv OTOWGSAN, a Japanese VLCC. It sounds like a shambles and is an illustration of an overmanned bridge where the large presence of personnel and division of duties greatly lengthens and the error chains and creates opportunity for incidents like this to occur as does BRM in an effort to prevent accidents such as this. Many have yet to be convinced. What is needed is more on the job training and bridge experience which can not be done ashore at a training college.

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by Michael Grey

WHO remembers this helpful advice — “when in danger, or in doubt — run in circles, scream and shout”? That is not entirely correct; the real advice, written in night order books in every language, on every properly run ship in the world, would be: “If in any doubt, call the master”.

Sadly, it doesn’t always happen, and for a number of different reasons. People might delay, believing that they can sort out the matter themselves, perhaps out of misplaced pride, an overconfidence in their own abilities, or because they believe that their call will show them up as unprofessional. They might try to deal with it themselves because they know the poor old master was just about dead with exhaustion when he went below. But for whatever reason, the result is starkly identified in the subsequent casualty investigation.

Navigational Accidents and their Causes was the theme of the Nautical Institute’s recent London Command Seminar, the NI having just published a book of the same name. Edited by LOC’s Captain David Pockett, who has seen more evidence of man’s inhumanity to machinery than most, this compilation of marine disaster aims to dig a bit deeper into the root causes.

Curiously, on the way to the seminar I was reading a letter in NI Seaways from the director of the Confidential Hazardous Incident Reporting Programme, Captain John Rose, which deserves to be more widely circulated. Focusing on what might be described as the uneven quality of casualty investigation reports, he noted: “All too often, these reports are silent on, for example, the antiquated designs seafarers are asked to work with (eg mooring stations), fatigue and the critical application of minimum manning levels. No challenge is made on the behaviour of charterers, insurers or the flag state and yet all of these bodies have knowledge (or should do) of the type of operations carried out on board.”

Frank speaking

These seminars, which tend to be attended by those who know what it means to command a ship, invariably provide a lot of food for thought and frank speaking. How do you prepare for command, bearing in mind that the paper qualification is but a step along the road? How do you assess navigational competence in practice — as opposed to what that paper might assert? How do you deal with a lack of experience caused by accelerated promotion, which is a growing problem as the demographics bite? What is the contribution of culture and mindset, behaviour and limitations of human performance? All of these and more were touched on by speakers and debated.

We were reminded that command comes in many forms. A serving master who commands huge cruiseships showed how a large multi-national bridge team is organised in a port approach, starting with a comprehensive brief as the ship closes the pilot ground. We were given this in real time, as he had filmed all this as his ship arrived in Palma. It was very impressive, but it scarcely reflected the reality of the lean manning in most of today’s ships, when a “team talk” might be a rather one-sided affair.

There were interesting observations which themselves could have been subjects of their own. How often, these days, are people “shackled by procedure” when their own judgement (some might say common sense) tells them something else? Might there be a growing gap between procedures and practical implementation? Is there a role for intuition — or a feel for the sea, which is different in so many ways, from a safe shore-side environment? Might good seamanship, and its exercise by the individual, increasingly suffering from bureaucratisation?

There were thought-provoking interventions on the human element, suggesting that human-centred design was important, the real meaning of “complacency” as the attrition of expertise seeing people “drifting towards the edge of the safety envelope”. “Confirmation bias” meant people saw what they expected and were insufficiently stimulated to realise any difference. We heard the memorable phrase “death by over-engineering” and the error of being fixated on “zero accidents”. The importance of situational awareness and the value of an alert team member correcting his senior officer, when the wrong order had been given, was emphasised. How often does that problem feature when a ship, in pilotage waters, with the bridge team mentally “switched off”, comes to grief?

There were plenty of people present who knew full well the difference between what is laid down in the procedure and the reality of practice. Seafarers are brought up to improvise, to employ resilience and common sense in a flexible fashion as the situation develops, but this seems often to be rather deplored by those producing the regulations. The answer to every problem, it was inferred by sensible people, was not necessarily a new procedure. It is difficult to remain unaware of pressure from all directions, all-powerful charterers, commercial interests, or rigid procedures — “which must be obeyed”.

There was a lot of support for the concept of mentoring, a telling phrase coming from somebody who “didn’t realise he was being mentored” until he realised just how much he had learned from his mentor. We can probably all look back to the same experience, even when the mentoring took the form of a stern talking to for one’s idleness or bad attitude!

Mentoring was something needed as much ashore as afloat, as people newly ashore sought to establish themselves. And as the Princess Royal told us, in a world where design is distancing the individual from the natural environment, the “passing down of knowledge” was ever more important.

 The above very enlightened report was published in Lloyds List on 08 June 2017. Two days later, a lengthy article appeared in the Wellington Dom Post, which announced the arrival of unmanned ships – God forbid. Unmanned ships will solve all the problems that we have at sea today.

It stated that the IMO will consider changing SOLAS rules to allow ships with no Captain or crew to travel between countries. It is thought that unmanned ships will improve safety at sea where it is claimed human error accounts for 60% of groundings and collisions. The other 40% caused by badly designed ships, machinery failure, weather etc will apparently continue to happen with no loss of life but many shipping lanes blocked by sunken ships.

Control centres manned by land based ‘captains’ would be established ashore where a handful of people would monitor hundreds of ships and control the ships when entering or leaving harbour. “They can go home to their families after work and don’t need to be away at sea for months and months” said Oskar Levander, vice president for innovation at Rolls-Royce. He obviously did not know that before the PC brigade and OSH got involved with shipping, that many seafarers attributed their long marriages to the spells apart.   

A Danish professor stated in the article that ships travelling long distances would have a small maintenance crews as “if a ship gets stuck out in the ocean, it’s a terribly long way to send a tug”.   

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