USS J McCain / Alnic MC collision near Singapore

In the area where the collision occurred is known as the ’ termination of the Traffic Separation Scheme’ The collision regulations ask the ships to navigate in these areas with caution. That is because ships are either converging or diverging to line up in their lanes. Usually both steering motors are already connected up before approaching this point. This ensures that if one steering motors fails, the second will continue to perform hence there will be no emergency. Also either the Captain or another senior experienced officer should fetch up on the bridge whenever approaching a TSS because the traffic situation can turn complicated. An experienced officer can identify a potentially hazardous situation well before it turns ugly. It is all about defensive driving essentially.

Appreciate all that you say Manjit, as this was my experience on UK ships. Also there would be a QM on watch to take over from the auto-pilot should that fail.

So every day each USN ship sends out a message with info like fuel status, what went on each day and so on. One of the lines of the message is autopilot usage.

I can’t remember a single message where it doesn’t say the time spent on autopilot being anything other than 0.0 hours.

Over the years I’ve wondered what situation would cause them to actually use the autopilot.

Most QM’s that I sailed with can’t helm a ship, it was 1st division BM’s that were the actual helmsmen, The only time I saw a QM at the wheel was during GQ,

So you’ve never taken a Suez max container ship through Suez on hand steering? Not much room for error!

The “chain of command” was outlined by posters who don’t understand it.

On a merchant ship it’s possible to have a single mate on watch during the day. As the situation demands the watch conditon can increase adding a helman / lookout, the master can come to the bridge and take the conn, the cadet can come up to assist etc. The extra personnel add to the capabilities of watch. Nobody is confused as to what each crew members role is.

The Navy breaks down tasks so they can be divided up. For example having a helm at the wheel and lee helm at the engine controls. Not confusing if it’s understood and it doesn’t add to the “chain of command”

Thanks. So where is the CO and how reactive is the chain to an event such as an uncommanded 35deg to port?

Not critising just seeking understanding

The limiting factor would be the competency of the OOD.

In the case of steering loss, I would guess that on a powerful, lightweight, twin screw ship heading control could be restored in seconds using the engines.

Standard loss of steering is to use the engines to steer via the twin shafts, however if a ship is trailing a shaft and only has one engine online she can’t do that as effectively. In this scenario, about to enter the straits, it’s normal to at least be at split plant so you have more power available, as well as redundancy(you won’t go DIW by losing an engine).

If you lose steering on the bridge, you’d instantly pass the word for a loss of steering and to man aft steering. While that’s happening, the helmsman switches to the emergency backup steering cables and tests for rudder control.

If that fails, you shift steering to aft steering, who can steer electronically on orders from the bridge. If that fails, they can use the local motor controllers, if that fails they go to manually controlling the fill and drain pumps, then hand wheels.

If all that fails, there are giant as fuck ratchets back there that they can attach to the rudders to try and get them back to zero degrees of rudder.

All that said, if you have a physically jammed rudder none of that helps, as you can’t bring the force needed to unjam it.


If one ship, in an area of dense traffic, suffers a steering breakdown, she can still avoid a collision provided her OOW makes the necessary sound signals, the VHF warning calls, NUC lights etc to warn other ships in vicinity to keep clear; and if other vessels also take prompt avoiding action. A lot has to go wrong before two ships collide.
Even when a collision is inevitable, the impact can be lessened by reducing the angle of impact through necessary manouevre by both ships. When a ship gets T-Boned by another, it indicates gross incompetence.

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It one thing to sit at a computer and make a list of what the watch "should have done’ It’s another thing to have it happen when it has to happen.

The engineers switch over power to do the two hour load test for the emergency diesel generator. Minutes before that happens I tell the watch officer that when power is switched every single alarm in the bridge is going to go off but what I want the watch officer to do is ignore the alarms and switch to hand steering and see if the ship has steering control.

So what happens when the power is switched and every alarm in the wheel house is sounding? The mate takes a couple steps towards the loudest alarm, turns and heads in the direction of the higher number of alarms, turns again, basically in a loop. Meanwhile I’m there yelling swich to hand steering. and they still can’t do it. ( I do this so the mate will do the right thing in case of an emergency).

Point being people in an emergency do what people do in an emergency, not what they do sitting at a computer in a quiet room. The real world is much more confusing.


True enough, and most of the time you don’t get the full measure of someone’s ability to react in a situation until you actually see them in that situation.

The saying goes “A drill is a bloodless battle, and a battle is a bloody drill,” but realistically the feeling is much different when shit’s actually on the line and you’re actually standing into danger, whether that be from incoming ordnance, or an incoming ship that you failed to avoid.

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In this situation, when overtaking another vessel a few hundred yards off, there wouldn’t be time for any of that to happen before impact.

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We, who are familiar with the rules of the sea, know that merchant ships underway shall display (i) a white masthead light forward, (ii) a second white masthead light abaft of and higher than the forward one, except that a vessel of less than 50 metres in length shall not be obliged to exhibit such light but may do so, (iii) green/red sidelights and (iv) a white stern light.

If these rules apply to USN ships and submarines is beyond me. State ships can do what they like.

Then there is a rule for air-cushion vessels, when operating in the non-displacement mode. They shall, in addition to the lights prescribed for normal displacement ships exhibit an all round flashing yellow light.

Finally we have the Wing-In-Ground (WIG) effect vehicles. They shall, in addition to the lights prescribed for normal ships exhibit a high intensity all-round flashing red light when they fly above the seas.

I know that USN hates to tell us where it is, but why not display a high intensity all-round flashing blue light at night to show off. When the ENEMY attacks, USN can switch it off.

USN could also use pink or yellow flashing lights to inform us where it is.

Well besides the fact that they are not law enforcement unless they have some coasties on board and are actively conducting law enforcement operations, why tell them to do yet another thing wrong?

Luckily there are not many USN ships around but they have an extremly high probability to be rammed by merchant ships not seeing them, it seems. Of course the USN ships are lightly built with minimum scantlings and are ripped apart in collision contact with normal ships and drowning sailors trapped in 50+ berthings (cabins) below waterline. To save lives I just suggest that USN could fit and activate a an all-round flashing blue light when they approach other ships to tell them to stay away regardless of any rules.

I’m sorry. I guess I mistook your sarcasm for stupidity.

How about we just encourage them to know and follow the rules of the road like most other vessels and help them figure out how not to have collisions?

That would be a good start.

That’s reserved for police vessels, which the Navy isn’t.

Turning on the AIS in congested waters would be a good start.