USS J McCain / Alnic MC collision near Singapore


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.


They have them and use them.


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?


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?