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.

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Footnotes:

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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