USS Fitzgerald Editorial - gCaptain has stirred the hornets nest


John, I agree with most of what has been written on all sides of this matter but I tend to take a simplistic approach regarding who is at fault. I believe that when all the facts are known it will be determined that the merchant ship is at fault because, eventhough the damage is to the starboard side of the Fitzgerald and the port side of the merchant ship, the damage to the bow of the merchant ship seems to me to indicate a glancing blow at a narrow angle indicating that she was probably MORE that 112.5 degrees abaft the starboard beam of the Fitz. This would indicate an OVERTAKING situation, not crossing, and would place the responsibility to keep clear on the merchant ship. Yes, both bridge crews share some responsibility but I think the legal responsibility will start with the merchantman.


You are mistaken. Please see rule 17b.


On June 3rd 1969 there was a collision between the USS Frank E. Evans and the Australisn Carrier the HMS Melbourne and the OD of the Evans was found to be at fault due to in experience and making poor decisions and not taking recommendations from CIC. At this point I would blame the OD of the Fitz. .
In the first place the OD should not have been that close to the Merchant ship. It is assumed that freighters are always on what we used to call “Iron Mike” with no one on watch. I would like to know the age and the experience of the OD.

The Collision of the USS Frank E. Evans (DD-754) and the HMAS Melbourne (R21)


I found your reply to be very informative and thank you for your service. I’ve been serving as a master Mariner on vessels from tugboats to super tankers for almost 40 years. I’m just wondering why it is often the case that when we do communicate with the naval vessel there is a long wait for a reply as if somebody is asking somebody up the chain of command what their reply should be If we are actually speaking to the officer the deck?


DamnYankee, sir (since I understand you are a Ship Captain), in case you have not seen my prior posts, I was a STS3(SS) in the United States Navy. Sonar Technician Submarines 3rd Class Petty Officer (Qualified in Submarines). A petty officer is an enlisted person. I think the equivalent in the Merchant Marine might be “able bodied seaman”. (“seaman” is an enlisted rank in the Navy as well, below that of Petty Officer.)

I’ve never never served on a surface ship; I’ve been interested in joining either the Merchant Marine or Military Sealift Command for a while now, since I did not enjoy the Navy itself, but I enjoyed working at sea.

I can tell you that in the US Navy the officers have a radar display that they can operate, and a sonar display that they can operate, but they don’t have training on how to repair and maintain those systems, nor do they manage contacts. For example, with sonar, we in the sonar room listen to the sonar and determine whether a given trace is a ship or merely a “biologic” (a whale, dolphin, snapping shrimp etc.). If it is a ship or submarine, we add a “tracker” for it in the sonar software. The Sonar Supervisor (an enlisted person) reports to the OOD over the 7MC amplified circuit (allowing communication between the OOD, radio, sonar, fire control etc.), “conn, sonar, new spherical array dimus detection, designated sierra one, merchant ship”. The OOD will reply, “sonar, conn, aye”.

Here is what our sonar “waterfall” display looks like on my first boat (we can do many, many other things in sonar, but this is the only non-classified display):

The OOD sees this display in Control. Each dot represents a sound detected at any frequency along that bearing, and the vertical axis represents time. Here’s the newer sonar system that’s in color…since this pic was taken for release to the public, they have onlly the non-classified displays enabled. The guy sitting on the left is the Sonar Supervisor, the one who communicates with the OOD and reports contacts gained, etc. Indeed, we have much less space inside than surface ships do. :slight_smile:

The OOD didn’t gain the contact and doesn’t listen to the sonar audio. But he (or she, now) has a repeater display and s/he can see our course and the various traces on sonar believed to be ships or submarines. I actually found this picture here that happens to be from my first boat…albeit after they converted from SSBN to SSGN…but I believe the Captain is looking at the sonar repeater display in this pic. The Captain is standing in the background, Commander Ott. Sitting to his left (from our perspective) is “fire control”, who manages targeting and integrates sonar, radar and ESM contacts. Seated in front of him is “Dive” (Chief Petty Officer Moore), who coordinates the helm and planes (Seaman Porter and Petty Officer Durran) to “reach and maintain ordered depth”.

I was looking for a good pic of the area around the sonar repeater, but I didn’t find one.

Anyway, radio is similar; the OOD has a repeater display that shows them the ESM contacts, and a radar repeater.

Again, I can’t speak for the surface; BK05 can tell you about that. But on submarines, the OOD has a display that shows them the status of sonar and radio contacts but they don’t actually gain contacts or perform any technical operations with sonar or radio.

When we are running on the surface, the OOD is in the “conning tower” or “sail”, along with one or two enlisted people who are operating as lookouts. The OOD talks to the helm via a headset and microphone. While submerged, we can’t see the surface (unless we’re at periscope depth with the periscope deployed; usually we are hundreds of feet below the surface) and sonar is the only means we have of knowing what is in the water outside of the boat.


How on earth can you use the investigation of a collision from 1969 to place the blame of this collision on a single person? And then to assume that nobody is on watch on board the container ship runs directly counter to that same statement…


murphy1966, indeed, the mistakes would have been made by the OOD (or whatever you guys call that in the Merchant Marine). Although I heard the Captain of the merchant vessel was below deck. The Captain of the Destroyer will probably lose his command, since in the Navy the responsibility is on the Captain, ultimately, even if he was not on the bridge at the time. I don’t know if it works that way in the Merchant Marine or not.


It might be something as simple as OOD is telling the JOOD exactly what to say and not to say so they can get some practice. An OOD definitely doesn’t have to get the CO or get permission to reply.


The officer in charge of the navigation watch, regardless of the title (different titles but similar function) is at fault, on both vessels. The Captain of each vessel is responsible.

That above is the easy part. I’m still not sure why you are tying in a collision from nearly fifty years ago as a basis to find fault in one person.

I have yet to see anything made public in regards to either watch officers experience, training, or competence.


Who assumes this and what is that assumption based on?


Could it be based on Naval Arrogance??? Or would Naval Ignorance be closer to the truth??


Yeah, that comment will help all of us come together to really figure out what occurred and determine corrective actions on naval vessels and commercial vessels alike.


Let me say that the Navy does many things right, and trains people in an amazingly short time to do complex jobs fairly well. The heavy procedural compliance allows this to happen, but we cannot be naive and think major problems do not exist in the seamanship, navigational and watch standing practices of naval vessels, especially compared with European navies and the merchant marine.

I love the Navy, and again have experience as both a naval and merchant marine officer. I believe in some hard truths to make us better, and will play devils advocate and explain some below.

Let me touch on training and experience first. Problem number one for the OODs is there are too many on a naval vessel trying to qualify. Too many to push through the PQS process, and depending on what phase the ship is in, the schedule may not be conducive to anything more than “talk throughs” on line items in the PQS. Yet SWOs still get qualified, and many with too little experience. Fallacies persist in this training, as rumors get passed down from trainer to trainee, and is believed to be truth, but instead may be false. One example I noticed being taught was "always maneuver for a vessel CBDR (constant bearing decreasing range), with no account on ROR or who was the stand on. The assumption was when more than one vessel was present (not even involving risk of collision), ROR didn’t apply! This was passed on as fact. Pride can make it hard for some in the fleet to acknowledge fallacies.

Just imagine, a ship nearing deployment, with twelve first tour junior officers (JOs) onboard with maybe four weeks total underway time split between all twelve of them to get qualified. Also, they have had hardly any formal training before this. Basic Division Officer Course (BDOC) may scratch some rules of the road and basic conning, and they did what they could while on the ship for training and line items (PQS), and thats all they got! The ship has to get underway and has to have watch standers. The second tours come from various back grounds. Some with plenty of good experience, some with little! The Navy does a great job with the little training, but it can be little!

Do these officers standing OOD understand much about interacting with VMS (ECDIS), AIS, and ARPA? Not in my experience. (except for LCS sailors, as they go through a pretty extensive pipeline and simulators, learning how to use bridge equipment intimately, and are mostly taught by merchant mariners).

Why so many JOs on the ship? Attrition is the answer! They need that many because most get out or transfer, and only the remainder end up department heads (DH). These people may not even really have an interest in learning about SWO life and being a mariner, but simply want to check the boxes off to move on quickly.
What kind of experience now does the DH have? It depends, but it could be very little. They no longer stand bridge watch, eventually move on to shore tours, then maybe come back as an XO then CO… again, with questionable experience.

Now just for one example I have seen, the OOD argues with a JOOD for them to conduct a moboard on a situation involving three vessels. The OOD grows agitated as the situation becomes worse and the JOOD could not complete said task. Per standing orders, he believes he needs to provide a contact report to the CO, but is not sure based on the incomplete mo board. He scribbles some stuff down with a grease pencil on a laminated cheat sheet for the contact report, and eventually calls the CO. Much time has passed, and one vessel changes course during the contact report, making the contact report irrelevant as the situation has changed. More time has passed… Another officer not even on watch, seeing the problem, finally gave a recommendation and the situation was adverted. One simple look at the ARPA vectors could have made the solution clear. Instead, it was a fiasco for something simple. Why? Lack of experience, training, and knowledge of the equipment. Same with the Porter. I sat in a simulation with audio overlay, and a quick glance of equipment, verifying with what I saw out the window, and I could easily asses the situation.

I would also argue that since 2000, there has been many groundings, collisions, and allisions due to a lack of proper seamanship. Take the USS Antietam not putting enough anchor chain out to even reach the bottom. The chaos on the USS Porter bridge, or the USS Port Royal missing a turn as a few examples. There is a reason the professional maritime world comes out swinging when naval vessels get in incidents that make the news. Why? Because of all the near misses they see first hand!

Now with that, I will say there are great ships and great OODs out there, but they certainly are not all great. The Navy does a lot of great things, but has room to improve.


Many people in the Navy think merchant ships are on “auto-pilot” with no one on watch. The infamous “dog barking on the bridge” is factual in many naval officer minds.


It seems like the more stories we hear the more it makes sense that the Navy should at a minimum have a clear distinction between navigation officers and engineers. Possibly even have a separate sailing master and captain (in charge of the vessel in combat only). Their system if having their officers be qualified in and spend tours doing everything is obviously flawed.


As I mentioned, it can occur, and it has occurred. While not correct in any way shape or form, the fact that we have BNWAS units is because it has occurred too much. On a wholesale level, no, but enough to cause the powers that be to mandate these new, fine, watch aids. So while it should be the assumed standard condition, there’s been enough real times for it to at least be in the back of somebodies mind. I’ve experienced it myself. No response from a crossing vessel with a small CPA and no response to multiple attempts at communication. While they may not have been asleep, it certainly was in the back of my mind.

For the most part, it does not happen. If required equipment is used effectively there is a reduced chance of it (sleeping while in bridge watch) these days. And the same equipment can get help from the Captain or other designated officer should it happen.


Now might be a good time to take a look at what I believe to be the most useful reference, both practical and legal, we have for rules of the road and collision-avoidance discussions (and training): that would be Farwell’s Rules of the Nautical Road.

It gets into all the nitty-gritty what-ifs you might want and, insomuch as everyone is primarily interested in who is “at fault” in this incident, it provides many case studies of how the various courts have decided actual cases. That’s the final word on a practical level. What we think or how we as individual mariners interpret the COLREG’s doesn’t much matter after the fact. It’s up to the judges to decide what the correct interpretation and application of the rules are in a given situation. Then it’s up to us, in turn, to apply it practically in our everyday navigation. Or for a company to write up policies and practices in their safety management systems. Or a military branch to set their guidelines and training standards on.

For practical purposes, if you’re involved in a collision in any way (doesn’t matter if you were at anchor, fully-lit, minding your own business) you are “at fault” to some degree. It’s virtually impossible to be completely blameless. The only question is how the blame gets divied up by the judge.

The concept is known as proportional liability, and it’s very important to understand.

I quote from Chapter 1: History of the Nautical Rules of the Road from the most current edition of Farwell’s (the 8th):

“Finally, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard have each promulgated service directives prescribing watchstanding procedures and have implemented extensive personnel qualification standards (PQS) for vessel watchstanders. The international, national, and service requirements referred to throughput this book enable the reader to place any given watchstanding and risk of collision situation in the context of both the relevant COLREGS or Inland Rules provisions and the other legal regimes that might prescribe standards of training and conduct relevant to the situation.”

We don’t know all the facts yet and in collision cases everything depends on the smallest details of who, what, when, where and how. Then they must all be placed in context. Without that information it’s all just conjecture. I think it’s safe to say that we could all benefit from a better understanding of the navigation rules, and Farwell’s can definitely help. Graduation from a maritime college or a military academy does not automatically make anyone an “expert” on anything, and clearly does not immunize any of us from our own ignorance.

The only thing I’m pretty (but not absolutely) sure of right now is that the navigation watches on both vessels blew it, badly, and young seafarers who had nothing to do with it paid the ultimate price. As someone who once resided for 3 years in below-the-waterline berthing on an American combatant vessel in the Pacific (specifically, a mid-80’s era Hamilton-class High Endurance Cutter in the USCG) that’s something that hits home very hard for me, and it’s where I assume my standing to comment critically. Those kids were failed by the SWO community and the higher leadership, and the bureaucracy of the USN will most likely try to brush it under the rug as best they can to avoid institutional responsibility and “protect” their institutional interests, because that’s just what institutions usually do. They will likely succeed at it, too. The reality is they only harm the institution in the long term by doing so, and no matter how many times this happens that mindset probably won’t change much unless an external force with enough strength and commitment asserts itself. Don’t hold your breath.

There’s no direct equivalent in the USN, but those HEC’s were a little smaller than and similar to a Perry-class FFG, and were assigned to similar duties in a carrier battle group in wartime. We were relatively lightly (and obsoletely) armed by naval standards of the time, were considered to be of low-value, and sacrificial in nature. “Torpedo-catchers” was the term we used to describe ourselves. We were the infantry privates of our battle group and we knew it.

Sailing thusly in the Coast Guard, but in formation with the USN every year during REFTRA off San Diego, taught me an important early lesson that I’ve never forgotten: for all the lofty goals and happy-talk about standards, training, certification and constant improvement, still and all there’s the way it ought to be and then there’s the way it actually is. Then as now, there’s more than just a little room for improvement and, to quote the philosopher Byrne, that’s the same as it ever was.

Those damned rose-colored glasses just never did fit me very well.


I think taking a hard look at how the British and some European navies do it would be a fantastic idea.


Yes, 17 b does not absolve the stand on vessel from some responsibility, but it certainly doesn’t absolve the burdened vessel either. I suspect that there are pieces of information missing from our analysis because to me it looks like there was a great difference in speed between the two vessels because of the severe damage to the Fitz and the relatively light damage to the merchantman.


It’s worth pointing out that no rule ever really “absolves” any vessel of anything, ever, regardless of whether you’re the “give-way” or “stand-on” vessel. That even includes vessels that meet the legal definition of being restricted in the ability to maneuver. The duty to do whatever is necessary to avoid collisions is absolute, applying to everyone at all times, regardless of whether another vessel is meeting its obligations or not. Getting run down from dead astern by a much faster vessel would still be no excuse, even though you might ultimately only get 5% of the blame.

A single-vessel failure to obey the rules should never result in a collision. Both vessels would have to fail to execute for it to happen. That is by design, to improve the odds of success.