USS Fitzgerald Collision: NTSB Investigation Report Highlights Navy Failures,

I used to tell my assistant engineers much the same. . . “Call me before an alarm wakes me up”. . .


I’ve been away for a while but have an intimate interest in such naval disasters, so have read back and find it astounding that discussion on calling the captain includes comments to the effect that if you called the captain in the dead of night for passing another ship he would have your head on a plate.

I come from a Navy beginning, the RAN as it happens which draws its traditions and training from its ‘mother’, the RN. Being trained in that mould hammered into my head the standard wording of every captain’s standing orders that he preferred to be called any number of times unnecessarily than to be not called when in doubt. There was always specific words saying no officer would be criticised for doing so.b

Captains did not come to the bridge if they were assured all was in hand. That sort of thing would be included in the report to him when he was called. Such reports always, ALWAYS, made reference to the bearing drawing left or right. Those were visual bearings taken by the OOW. I’ve not read here a single reference to anyone ever mentioning visual bearings. It seems the merchant mariners never bother with such archaic tests - the actual test required by the COLREGS.

I sail a commercial sail training ship now and the same rules apply even though as captain I’m keeping watches as one of only three deck officers (total of five qualified mariners aboard with a total complement of 55) so I’m called frequently. The trick is to encourage the other, less experienced officers to call more often initially and reassure them as they gain confidence that each call is appreciated, important and valuable regardless of its relative safety consequences.

Why isn’t this simply universally standard practise?


Which is exactly why I wanted my guys to wake me before it became any kind of emergency. . . .

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The method of taking visual bearing is most often not necessary and would be too much workload in high traffic areas where multiple ships need to be tracked.

In heavy traffic bearing change can be observed visually without taking a bearing. Typically the only time a bearing is used is to ensure that the ship under visual observations matches (same bearing) the one being tracked by ARPA.


Typically ships which have potentially have risk of collision are identified by eye then the vector is checked (or a plot is started) on ARPA.

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My point about visual bearings is essentially that it connects in his mind the OOW/OOD’s radar/AIS/ARPA etc picture with a physical sighting which includes aspect, lights visible, speed appreciation and type of ship (might have some bearing on likely reaction).

My very limited experience of large merchant ships is that the pelorus on the wings is usually covered and not ready for immediate use because nobody ever bothers to do it this way and it’s windy and not air conditioned out there or something. Am I right about that?

I always used the centerline compass repeater in the wheelhouse.

As far as the wing repeaters; on the ships I was on they had covers that could be quickly popped off.

Many comments seem to assume encounting only a single vessel or very few. Ship traffic has increased fourfold in the last couple decades.

Collision avoidance in heavy traffic areas sometimes involves simultaneously tracking a dozen ships while weaving through hundreds of fishing vessels. The idea of going out on the wing for a bearing strikes me as quaint.

Agree - think only time I used the wing repeaters and an alidade is if i was confirming something i was seeing in the radar. Often checking for false targets. Or if multiple target near the same bearing to id them specifically. You don’t need to use a compass to check bearing drift. If you stand in the same place there are ref points all around you to check for drift. To some junior or less experienced folks it may look like you are doing nothing but quite the contrary. Another similar thing was checking your position at anchor using natural ranges. As long as that tree and that building off the beam stay in line, i know I have not moved. Sailing both on large Coast Guard ships and then on tankers - these are types of things that most of the military sailors i sailed with did not appreciate. More committed to their tools and process.

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an aside sea story on topic. One night in bound to NY in the Barnegat - Ambrose separation scheme i was picking up a strong radar contact on a steady bearing. I couldn’t see anything there, went out to the wing repeater and didn’t see anything on that bearing. I wiggled the ship a little bit right and left and it still acted like a real radar contact. I watched it for a bit, it was still 45 min or so before it would be close aboard if real Nothing changed it was acting like a real contact on the radar, but nothing was there. Finally I called the Captain - asked him to come up and have a look at this. He did all the same stuff I did, was just as perplexed. We were both pretty sure it was nothing - but it was strange. Finally from the chart room i hear him laugh. When he plotted that bearing from our position it went right to the World Trade towers. The radar was picking it up - but it was so far away it did something strange to the range. Not sure I ever lived down calling the Capt to the bridge to miss the world trade center.

With no view aft? I would see this as a contributing factor in the collision we discuss on this thread, an OOD welded to the centreline and no peripheral situational appreciation.

Quaint, yes but it works. Again, the OOD did actually go to the bridge wing and look but not well enough to understand what the situation was.

And I’m well aware of the pressure of high traffic but again come from a background in which we took visual bearings of everything and wrote them down if necessary. Our naval collision avoidance expertise/training was visual, not electronic as we often turned off all radars and never had AIS or ARPA. I’m simply emphasising this visual aspect which seems neglected and was particularly in this case. Why did they run into a ship they could clearly see all the way until the hit? Why was there any other priority to occupy the OOD?

If it had him confused too, you have nothing to be ashamed of and he should have told you that.

no issue - we sailed together for years and joked about it

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An officer in my ship ordered full astern and hard rudder in the middle of the night of a trans-Pacific passage to miss a suddenly appearing strange bright light right ahead.

The captain, navigator, engineer and a few others arrived on the bridge in seconds to observe the rest of a full moon popping out from behind a heavy cloud bank.

He never lived that down. The captain merely noted in the following night’s night orders that he only wished to be called if the moon didn’t rise.


Not sure this part of the collision has been discussed - forgive me if it has. But in my quick look at the events, a major issues was not seeing the situation developing much earlier. The Fitzgerald has 3 ship crossing from starboard in what they considered limited sea room to starboard. The time to diffuse that situation is to take action very early, change the situation. An alteration to port before the vessels were in risk of collision could alter the situation - even a round turn to kill some time. As the JOOD says slowing down as well. The best way to avoid these situations is to prevent them from happening when you can. Since nothing was done early - what you are left with is what the NTSB reported on - IMO correctly.

Jughead mentioned that the naval training in collision avoidance was visual but it wasn’t entirely. Firstly Warships and those that operate them have to be trained to operate in conditions where the use of radar is denied.
In the then approach to anti submarine warfare two frigates could be operating within a couple of cables of each other with the CO in the CIC directing the attack. Wheel orders were passed to the bridge by the CO as come left or right or even come hard left or right. The OOW checked it was safe to do so and passed the orders to the wheelhouse as Port 15 etc. You did this very quickly looking over the shoulder at the radar which was behind you. Using the centreline compass was instinctive.
In general centreline compasses are not found on merchant ships internationally but on a container ship in the 70’s on passage through the English Channel moving at 24 to 27 knots it was invaluable. I saw little need to look frequently astern.
The first ARPA that I used on a commercial ship, a tanker, was a Raytheon Selima unit. The programme was bootstrapped by punching in a code (octal?) of about 20 lines then loading the rest on a paper tape. It was viewed with some suspicion by the masters I sailed with. We still had the plotting diagram printed by the USCG that glowed in the dark with Fluor pencils and were expected to use that as a check.
My instruction in the ARPAs use was the operators manual that came with it.
I appreciate the advances made with ARPA’s and all the rest of the navigation aids to be found on a ship today but as OOW of a warship I was expected to be the best lookout on the ship and I would have certainly taken a bearing of any vessel sighted on my starboard side and if I had established that the bearing was steady or almost so the CIC would have been informed of my displeasure if I had not been advised of the impending close quarter situation .


I always used: “If you find yourself saying: I don’t know or I’m not sure, you need to call me.” I was told as a third mate: “When in doubt when facing disaster, save your license, call the Master.”

The CIC/Bridge team was dysfunctional. That’s why they didn’t make the right move.

Question is why was that? According to the report:

Insufficient training.
Increased ops tempo led to high levels of fatigue
Increased ops tempo caused ship to overrun planning
Lack of crew experience.
Lack of leadership led to poor or nonexistent cooperation between CIC/Bridge
Bad luck

Fatigue effects individual performance in ways that are analogous to impairment due to alcohol.

Having to deal with crossing the traffic lanes when only open sea steaming was expected is analogous to an emergency in the sense that a crisis arose unexpectedly.

If a crew had been drinking and then performed badly in an emergency few people would see any point in a careful analysis of the crew’s specific errors or a debate as to what actions the crew should have taken.

That’s why the post title / headline reads "Navy Failures:.

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Rule 7: Risk of Collision

a. Every vessel shall use all available means appropriate to the prevailing circumstances arid conditions to determine if risk of collision exists.

b. Proper use shall be made of radar equipment if fitted and operational, including long-range scanning to obtain early warning of risk of collision and radar plotting or equivalent systematic observation of detected objects.

Well done! You can copy and paste. Go to the top of the class … except you neglected to read down the rule book a line or two below and so left out the ONLY means specified for determining a risk of collision. Let me know when you find it.

Just a reminder, navies train for war all the time and transmitting on radar, AIS, VHF, sonar, echo sounders and other means can at times tell the enemy not only that we are there, but positions, courses and speeds, the type of ships, force composition, and other things whilst detracting from our ability to passively detect the enemy doing any of those things.

Just to blow your mind, we also turn off navigation lights or rig deceptive lighting to look like something other than the reality. We even sneak up alongside merchant ships and try to blend into their radar echo.

If you want a Navy that can win wars, simply be aware we don’t always blindly play by these COLREG rules. That would be suicidal in operations so we must train for it in peace.

I utterly accept that when we do such things, we expect we have to keep out of your way and, as I’ve said previously on this thread, my experience was always that we went out of our way to avoid impeding your safe passage. But I’m talking about another navy


Nothing wakes an engineer up quicker in the middle of the night than pulling back the throttles. . .


And he was furthest from the bridge too!

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