USS J McCain / Alnic MC collision near Singapore

No change in that when I left my last ship in 1987.

It’s still like that to this day, I’ve never seen a ship where this wasn’t the enforced policy, at least on paper.

It almost seems like, listening to the audio, that the CO is specifically avoiding doing this to not have to fire his OOD. Should have just taken control and been done with it.

I think I did hear him give an order or two directly, but no one said “Captain has the Conn.”

A cluster all the way around.

Not from my experience.

Exactly opposite in my book for how it should be. The Captain takes the Conn when he or she states that they are taking the Conn.

By virtue of them giving an order to the helm, they have automatically taken the conn. It’s automatic as soon as the words leave their mouth.

Yes, same on merchant ships, the announcement (CO has the Conn) is just so there is no confusion, the switch happens when the CO starts giving commands.

That’s a small detail, the far larger problem was that the CO had no idea what was going on.

Yes, same on merchant ships, the announcement (CO has the Conn) is just so there is no confusion, the switch happens when the CO starts giving commands.

Was replying to the rmurphy guy, who said that the CO only takes the conn when they state they do.

Didn’t do the quoting because at-sea internet is a bit shit and it wasn’t working at that time, and forgot to just do the > to block quote.

But I 100% agree with you.

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On a merchant ship at sea there is only one watch keeping officer on the bridge any time, but if she/he needs assistance the Master’s cabin is just below. In restricted waters with plenty traffic around and/or approaching port, the Master normally is present on the bridge. If a pilot is aboard you may have a helmsman doing the actual steering ordered by the pilot with Master & Co watching. No magic. If it is pitch dark outside, it can get very interesting. In the engine room there is also watch keeper that easily can ask for assistance. If you are not happy you can always call the ship owner (on a good ship).

Reasons why USN war ships lose so many sailors in collisions are multiple.

  1. The scantlings of hull plates and stiffeners on USN ships are reduced to a minimum to save weight and probably <50% of a merchant ship’s. In a collision the merchant ship always wins, while the USN ship is ripped open like a sardine tin.
  2. The sailors’ accommodation on USN ships 2017 is 1900’s style, cramped below waterline with unsafe escapes and not as per merchant ships. If a USN hull compartment with sailors’ accommodation is flooded due to collision, it seems ~30% of the sailors present in them will drown like rats.
  3. USN ships are only there to show the flag anyway. Nobody in the real world really gives a damn what happens aboard them. Allowing it to be known would probably jeopardize state secrets.


I just joined this forum, though have read about both the accidents.

I am a merchant navy master, with long years at sea / ashore and I have authored a guide on preventing collisions.

In my years of experience and many surveys, the knowledge of the rules by way of correct interpretation is lacking grossly along with application of ordinary practice of seamen or seamanship.

Too much over reliance on electronics is another problem.

Recently got off a VLGC where I was master.

If the basics are known and practiced well, collisions can be avoided.

Naval vessels are more prone to accidents, sometimes because of lack of experience and unfortunately simulators are not the best substitute. This applies to all Navies perhaps, am aware of Singapore, Indian and US Naval ships collisions in Malacca straits.

See me on


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When I was in combat, or sailing in seas with heavy traffic (both were quite dangerous), what I call “personnel redundancies” kept us out of harm’s way or KIA. Moreover, in comport with what you mention, the various Captains I (proudly) served under did NOT rely on electronics and electrical “doo dads” to run their boats or ships.

In Vietnam and the early 70s (when I served) the basic philosophy from command was that officers down to a newly minted PO3 knew how to swab the deck or track direction/distance of a target from a bridge wing or fantail. An example of the benefit of this practice = almost by rote any crew walking above deck would look about and instinctively track targets, just as if he was on watch, even though it was his off time. We would listen to the engines and shafts, and notice if something was up.

Everyone knew how to do each other’s job, not expertly, but in the press of battle we could do whatever was necessary to get the job done.

What I learned back then: Each man was in a constant state of learning, training, and getting hands-on experience. We were all curious, wanting to learn as much as we could. Everyone was willing to teach what they knew to those who wanted to learn. There was respect for each other, No one thought he was better than others.

I suspect that little or none of this goes on in the modern U.S. Navy.


I am curious to know if USN ships have an International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea 1972 Annex III Whistle aboard?

And I am curious to know if the ships involved did follow Rule 34 of said rules : Manoeuvring and warning signals, i.e. (a) When vessels are in sight of one another, a power-driven vessel underway, when manoeuvring as authorized or required by these Rules, shall indicate that manoeuvre by the following signals on her whistle:
one short blast to mean “I am altering my course to starboard”;
two short blasts to mean “I am altering my course to port”;
three short blasts to mean “I am operating astern propulsion”.

Were there no signals and Alnic MC just rammed J McCain?
Maybe all aboard were asleep?

That would imply they knew were it was, what it was, saw the other ship, and thought even for a moment to use it.

A tall order for some.

Why do you ask that of the USN ship? With the Fitz/ACX Crystal collision, the Crystal’s master stated he tried to warn the Fitz via signal lamp. No mention of VHF or ship’s whistle.

Might be a tall order for merchant ships also.

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Thanks. Are there any special instructions using them? Blowing the whistle may inform the enemy of your presence and the President of the USA might not like it.

I heard the answer to why the USN has so much trouble…
“the other ships are not on the charts”

Tells us what we know already:

Naval vessels are hard for commercial ships to see

With four collisions between US navy vessels this year, the New York Times has observed that the moonless night when USS John McCain was struck by an oil tanker could have been only one factor in the causes of the accident Navy vessels are designed to be hard to see and hard to track electronically, and have therefore long posed special perils to night-time navigation.
The report said that this issue had prompted growing alarm in the commercial shipping industry — which has started to warn merchant vessels to be extra careful around warships — and in the US Navy.
Captain Raymond Ambrose, president of the Singapore Nautical Institute, said that “we need an attitude of defensive driving out at sea.”
Naval ships are exempt from an international requirement that vessels automatically and continuously broadcast their position, course and speed. They also tend to have fewer lights than commercial vessels. They are painted grey to blend into the sea, making them even harder to spot at night. Finally, a growing number of modern naval vessels, including the John S McCain, are designed to scatter incoming radar signals.
The destroyer collided with tanker Alnic MC early on Monday August 21st in waters east of the Strait of Malacca and Singapore, one of the world’s most congested shipping lanes. After the collision, the McCain proceeded to Singapore under its own power. In June the USS Fitzgerald, another Arleigh Burke-class destroyer with the 7th Fleet, collided with a merchant vessel off the coast of Japan, killing seven sailors. In January the 7th Fleet’s Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser USS Antietam ran aground near Yokosuka, Japan, where the fleet is based. In May another Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser, the 3rd Fleet’s USS Lake Champlain collided with a fishing boat in international waters off the Korean Peninsula.
The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore told The Singapore Straits Times that the Singapore government’s vessel traffic information system was unaware of the presence of the John S. McCain until the Alnic MC, carrying 12,000 metric tons of fuel oil, smashed into the destroyer’s port side.
Spotting naval vessels becomes even harder in busy waters such as those around Singapore, as the congestion causes both military and commercial crews to turn off the early warning systems that alert them to potential collisions, simply because if they did not, the warnings would be going off all the time, according to Captain Harry Bolton, director of marine programmes at California State University Maritime Academy and a merchant marine officer.
However, relying on sight and radar can be problematic with vessels such as the John S McCain, which are low to the waterline, with equipment masts tilted to the ship’s stern, rounded edges and no large “citadels” rising high off the deck, as would be seen on cruisers. Commercial vessels traversing the Strait of Malacca illuminate their hulls and the waters immediately around them so that they can spot any pirates who may be trying to climb aboard, but heavily armed naval vessels with large crews do not need lights to discourage pirates.
Unlike with modern airplanes, collision avoidance systems in ships do not have the ability to coordinate actions with each other, and introducing that capability would be difficult, as ships are built all over the world, with limited coordination.
The NYT said that the International Maritime Organization had been cautious about imposing requirements that shipowners in developing countries might struggle to meet, although efforts were underway to develop such systems as part of the development of autonomous ships.
Captain Andrew Kinsey, a senior marine risk consultant for Allianz, told the New York Times that “we’re dealing with larger and larger vessels, and the confined waters are not getting any bigger”.

Four? McCain, Fitz and Lake Champlain. Which ship was the fourth?

Is there any other attitude to have when conning a ship? I’ve spent my entire career assuming the worst and expecting the other vessel to do the wrong thing. I hope it continues to keep me off of the hot seat in a courtroom for years to come.


The article is counting the Antietam grounding as number four.

Most probably, the USS McCain was on the stbd bow of MV Alnic, when she had a steering gear failure and turned to port …into the path of the merchant vessel.

If that is indeed the case, can anyone tell me what the USN procedure would be to correct the steering and how long it would take it take to implement them? I’m guessing with the chain of command outlined above that it would be multiple minutes not seconds. Still don’t understand how with multiple redundancies plus manual backup ‘steering failure’ can happen and not be controlled at the flick of switch, perhaps someone can enlighten me?