Why do naval vessels suffer accidents?

This article written shortly after the Helge Ingstad accident raise the question:

Thanks for the link. The answer to your question - Why do naval vessels suffer accidents? - seems to be that naval vessels do not follow the international rules of shipping. And the reason seems to be the sailors on the war ships. They are too many occupied with too many things to destroy the enemy, so they forget how to navigate. They just sail around ignoring merchant shipping.


The short answer?

Far too many people on the bridge.

More does not equate to safer.


I agree. Too many people, doing too many different jobs. Communication breakdown.

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There was only a couple of occasions when I served in the Navy that we employed a pilot on the bridge. During a passage through the Suez Canal shortly before the 6 day war and the canal was closed the pilot sat in the Commanding Officers chair and proceeded to devour his afternoon tea and cucumber sandwiches. Those with some wit and intelligence retired to the bridge wing and escaped the worst of the explosion that followed. The manning of the bridge was more than that found on a merchant vessel when I served on. The navigation officer was at least a senior lieutenant or lieutenant commander who had completed a year long specialist study of theory of all forms of navigation followed by the pass or fail of 3 weeks of practical navigation of a mixture of pilotage and berthing of a ship under all conditions in demanding situations . The commander sat in his chair and was continually appraised of the vessels position, and future manoeuvres.
He normally assumed the conn just before the berth.
Others on the bridge were the OOW responsible for fixing the vessel. Junior officer keeping the bell book and yeoman of signals answering bridge to bridge communications by radio or by light and the rating tasked with making announcements over the tannoy.
The CIC were tasked with traffic reports and followed the passage plan by radar and other means to monitor the ships movements.
The wheelhouse was remote from the bridge.

they are there to sink vessels, they do that pretty well, whats the problem?

According to Hutchins a person cannot understand how the navy nav team works without observing it. Of course that’s not to say that observing equals understanding. Understand this is Hutchins specialty.

This is from Hutchins Learning to Navigate

Systems of socially distributed cognition such as the navigation team seem to me to be excellent units of cognitive analysis in their own right, and uderstanding their operation is largely a matter of observation rather than inference.

I was part of a navigation team years ago, it works very smoothly in operation. Similar in way to the way a merchant bridge can break down the conn, the helm and EOT into separate tasks by using a formal, standard, communication protocol.

Studying cognition in its natural habitat
I have spent my entire academic career trying to understand human cognition in social, cultural and material context. I was originally trained as a cognitive anthropologist. I believe that cultural practices are a key component of human cognition.

My early work concerned the relationships among language, culture, and thought. In 1975 and 1976, I conducted ethnographic research in the Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea. My focus was on reasoning in public litigation. ( Culture and Inference , Harvard University Press, 1980).

As a postdoc, I constructed a model of traditional Micronesian navigation based mostly on published accounts of the navigators’ practices.

Later, while employed by the US Navy, I used insights derived from first-hand ethnographic studies to build computer-based training systems for steam propulsion systems and for radar navigation. I then moved my observations to the navigation bridge and used that material to write my first attempt at a coherent statement of the principles of distributed cognition. ( Cognition in the Wild , MIT Press, 1995).

Since 1989 my primary research sites have been in the world of commercial aviation.

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To me it’s really just the fact that their system sets up the watch officer for failure. Overworked, fatigued, undertrained watch Officer running the ship at night with a bunch of junior officers and ratings up there that likely know even less than the watch officer does. When you spend all your time training to do paperwork, drills, HR stuff, shore duty assignments, engineering, weaponry, and umpteen other things besides navigating the ship, that’s what you end up with.

Also what’s up with this ingrained Navy culture thing where it’s part of the blooding process to work poor SWO’s to death with little or no sleep for days? It’s neither cool or manly or tough to fatigue the people driving the ship to the point they crash it and kill the crew…just seems like systemic hazing.


They’re suppose to sink the enemy’s ships.

Not their own.

That. Is. The. Problem.

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Navy too full of tradition
Their Grandads WWII stories of acceptable losses
They are just keeping up tradition, lol

In the public sector there is no incentive for competence,skill, or efficiency. Generally speaking, should a public sector employee “screw up” they just get transferred to a different dept, or in this case a different ship with no other repercussions.

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All too often with a promotion to justify the transfer.

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I can’t tell if your citations of Hutchens are in earnest or satire.

Having had a nearly 50 year career at sea starting at Annapolis and the navy and ending as a pilot in Houston for 30 years, I’ll go with Pilot 16’s observation - despite how traditional Micronesians do it.

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The U.S. Navy is very interested in reducing ship manning, it’s a huge expense. How would you go about doing it? Are you suggesting changing the Navy completely? Or just the manning?

For example in Hutches case the case the entire plotting team is made almost entirety redundant with a local pilot but the Navy is aware of that option and instead chooses the plotting team.

The problem as I see it is the pilot has local knowledge of the area that where he or she is employed and a method of operating and interfacing with a ships bridge team has been developed around this.
A warship has to train to enter waters where there is no pilot and the commanding officer has to be competent in manoeuvring his vessel In confined waters. This is a perishable skill and requires constant practise.

The U.S. Navy wants to reduce manning and it wants to reduce accidents. If it’s true that the increased manning is causing the accidents than reducing manning would be big win-win.

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Because of ignorance & just a little arrogance. . .

I’m reminded of a my mid watch, some 10 years ago??? Middle of the Indian Ocean, haven’t seen a ship in days [daze]. It’s just after midnight and a ship shows up on radar, dead ahead on a reciprocal course, at 20miles. Shortly after its appearance, they call us, and ask, “What are your intentions?”. I reply, “My intentions are to have another cup of coffee.” They press on, asking again. I reply the same. A third request, this time with another, deeper voice, and requesting a 5nm CPA. I reply with, "I’m gonna have another cup of coffee, but if you want a 5nm cpa, put your rudder over to starboard. . .

Some 30 minutes later, at 10 miles, they call again. CPA is now 2+NM, port-to-port passing. They are asking for 5NM. It’s a GDamned Sub-Tender ferchrissakes!! My response now is: "I’m going to maintain course and speed in accordance with the rules. If you want 5NM, alter your course to starboard and keep clear. OUT!!

My summation: Great war-fighters & lousy ship handlers!

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I’m saying, for one thing, with over two hundred crew on board it should be a simple management matter to ensure that a core group of 3-5 persons shows up on the bridge having had ample opportunity to rest before watch.

I’m saying that 15-17 persons on the bridge coming into port is confusing and not an improvement over 3-5 well trained people.

I’m saying I understand that the ship needs to be manned for combat, but a system that takes a hit to the bridge and has 15 casualties is less combat ready than a system that takes 5-7 casualties in the same situation.

I’m saying that a system that trains single navigators to turn by eye is better than a system that trains multiple personnel to plot a series of courses around a bend.

Ask yourself if a baseball team would be better with a fielder, thrower, phone talker, lookout, log keeper and petty officer in charge at each position (the navy way). It sounds like a silly analogy, but when you’ve been on the bridge of a navy ship - not so much.


sound like they need to redesign the ships and have a combat bridge and one where the the guys that know the colregs sit and have control but can be swapped over when needed.

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Turning by eye is not always possible. Like say a channel through a defensive mine field.
On large warships the British Royal Navy used to have 4 watch keepers on watch at sea for 3 months and with split dog watches you got a night in your bunk every fourth night. In port 2 did day about. After 3 months a new team took over after a handover.