Why do naval vessels suffer accidents?

It seems that I grew up in a different navy. One where the Navigating Officer was a specialist and he and the commanding officer were the only two on the conning platform. He conducted the entire pilotage using his notebook, utilising transits , wheel over bearings and limits.
The OOW fixed the ship and the blind pilotage team of two Radar Plot ratings and an officer followed the plan generated by the navigating officer in the ops room. Command followed a step by step progression, my own experience command of small craft as a midshipman, a patrol craft as a sub lieutenant and so on.

Or to put another way…
Of you needed heart sugury, would you go to a G P or a specialist heart surgeon?

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Traffic avoidance at sea is the equivalent of surgery? I think that far overestimates the skills and abilities involved. On the merchant side nobody specializes in watch-standing. Who would do all the other necessary tasks?

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I would definitely say that a merchant mate is much, much closer to a specialist in watch standing than our naval officers are, just comparing what they do day to day, week to week, year to year.

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Any system will “break” if it’s pushed hard enough. Cut training, cut crew, cut maintenance, cut rest while increasing the tempo greatly increases the risk of an incident.

What merchant mariners are saying here is that a total overhaul of the system will result in a system that will have higher breaking point. That may be true but would the cost be higher then just fixing the immediate issues? Would decreasing tempo and increasing training and maintenance be more effective than a total overhaul?

Nobody here knows because we don’t have a full picture of all the moving parts but in general people should be reluctant to overhaul a system that has evolved over a long period of time without a good understanding of that system.

Otherwise a fix in one place might break something somewhere else.

I am comparing the specialist knowledge required for not hitting other ships in busy waters to other ship board duties which require no specialised knowledge…

Using expenced mariners in the wheelhouse could be a waste of resources.

Consider the C/M. A decent chief mate can do just about anything required anywhere on a ship. As a result he has a very high work load.

On a three week open ocean transit how much sense does it make to have the C/M spend eight hours a day in the wheelhouse? Why not instead have the C/M daywork and hire a cheap 3/M straight out of school to stand the watch and in the process learn how a ship is operated?

The counter-argument is that the green third mate lacks the experience to cope with traffic. In that case when the ship encounters traffic the C/M can go to the bridge and assist and train the new mate.

Then the argument is that that adding an experienced bridge watch-stander to the bridge team will cause a breakdown in bridge communications resulting in confusion. In my experience that is not the case.

I’ve heard it said before that the majority of accidents broken down by the hour they occurred landed on the 04x08 watch, due to experienced CM’s either being complacent or doing their ballast/cargo plans instead of monitoring the world around them.

The truth to that? I can’t say as I have never (thankfully, knock on wood) been in an accident before, but that has been tossed around often.

In the incidents that I have read there is a preponderance of accidents in the 04-08 watch. There are many demands on the Chief Officers time now such as ballast exchanges being just one of them.
In my time at sea manning has been reduced from a day working mate, gone before I got there, and the departure of the radio officer and chief steward. The extra tasks that these people did never went away and as master much of my time chained to a desk typing with fingers that were ill designed for stroking a keyboard. An entry to India consumed about half a ream of paper.
On a transpacific voyage of 7000 miles I always did a night watch for each of the mates east and west and it gave me the opportunity to have a good look around. As a second mate on a tanker I did 7 and a half months unbroken 12 to 04 watches every night with 12 to 06 in port just to relieve the tedium and I have never forgotten it.
Just before I leave deep sea and returned to the oil patch I was pleased to see at least one classification society was developing software to automate the production of port papers but I never got to experience it.
Over the years I saw the introduction of ballast restrictions and the records required, hours worked documentation and ensuring that this matched overtime sheets, statistical information for bean counters ashore and planned maintenance programs many poorly designed which all impacted on the mate.
The reduction in manning resulted in more tasks being redistributed down the line with the second mate doing the catering records etc.
All in all we seem to have done pretty well with at least someone looking out the window and doing a bit of navigation occasionally.


Y’all correct me here if I’m wrong…

Lets talk about their LCS program. Yea, its a disaster, we all know.

But one thing that stood out (to me at least) was the infamous “reduced manning” on the bridge. The smaller, multi-mission platforms, required a non-traditional bridge manning scheme. So they included modern hi-tech bridge electronics (ho-hum, so typically found aboard nearly all civilian ships today) and the consequence of this modification was just a handful of people on the bridge.

The Navy was immensely proud (at the time) to announce this and interviews I read of crew assigned to the ships all raved about the new system.

Whatever happened to this concept being implemented further within the fleet? It seems the upper tier of Naval Leadership in the Pentagon is so hamstrung by their own traditions and beliefs, they are actually doing more bad than good. Congressional and political involvement does not help.

I have always advocated that the USCG should require 4 mates on a deep sea ship and many other coast wise vessels.

  1. It addresses directly and reduces the fatigue issue always onboard. C/M deals with cargo only. Other mates can stand watches in a routine that allows adequate rest.

  2. The watch standing mates can be any licensed individual. It is not uncommon on most MM&P ships (that I frequently pilot) that many/most of the mates on watch are career 2/M’s or licensed C/M’s sailing as a 3/M or 2/M. The “position” does not define the experience of the individual involved. The company can pay whatever it wants, three 3/M watch-standing rates or 3 2/M watch standing positions. They can put any conditions on the contractual employment of these officers.

  3. The E/R should do the same. Given the length of time for maneuvering in pilotage waters and …more so now…the time to switch over fuel on approach/departure of ECA zones, etc. I keep hearing from Captains that the engineers are always pushing their fatigue hour limits. Have 3 watch standing assists and 1 C/E.

The fact that our industry has NOT done this is an indication that regulators have caved in to political and economic pressure from shipping lobby. Why else would they NOT advocate for the obvious?? They have their own reports, studies, and ample supplies of them all, to justify this move.

Ironically, most all foreign cruise ships have this arrangement. No shortage in supply of deck and engine officers onboard your modern cruise ship. In fact, most cruise ships even have licensed officers doing day work as safety officers or environmental officers, who do NOT stand watches, but have plenty of work to do. They rotate around (on some companies) to keep their experience up as watch standers. They also supplement watch standing officers when needed.

Chief and three assistants is pretty standard in the US fleet, but most of the fatigue load is on the first assistant (second engineer) who is running the engine room day to day at sea, maneuvering, and supervising maintenance in port. Going back to watches would kill maintenance productivity on a motor ship anyway, plenty of nights with no UMS alarms after full days of maintenance.

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You are right and many engineers would prefer to be in watch keeping and with a non-watch keeping second engineer ( 1st Engineer in US),
The maintenance still gets done. The long standbys in Puget Sound, Barbara Channel, Panama Canal Transit together with changing over fuel, reducing to manoeuvring for transiting through areas where there are marine mammals can mean that the senior engine room personnel have already been on duty well before embarking the pilot and before necessary maintenance and bunkering begin.
Some shore leave is vital where young officers can serve for a year on a deep sea ship. Where the chief officer is watch on stop on, in port, and the two mates are six on six off, together with the remoteness of many terminals, it can be that the first time they step ashore, other than to read the drafts, is when they finish their contract.

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I agree, yet again with Pilot16… Too Damn many people on the bridge, plus endless input from CIC. Put a trained and free standing group of ship handlers, CW’s in charge of ship handling and navigation. No other duties, or reports, or endless calls as to why the water is not flowing in the lower aft head, or why the word isn’t passed for movie call etc, etc…
Three or four persons in a “wheel house” responsible to the Capt. Sane, ,Quiet.


There you go.

It is NOT only about reducing the manning.

It will entail an entirely top down change in what the Navy (and USCG) do in terms of manpower and structure. Why do we rotate military personnel out of their jobs into something new every 2 or 3 years??

That paradigm must be changed.

Yes, ships bridge will need to be redesigned with modern equipment easily found on civilian vessels that allow for reduced tasks for the fewer people on the bridge.

New training for people focused on specific career paths must be implemented along with rotational duty at sea and ashore. Make fewer people better at specific jobs and excel at their skills. Allow for a smooth transition on a more frequent basis to reduce fatigue, instead of endless deployments at sea for an entire crew.

NONE of this is rocket science. It’s what civilian mariners, foreign and US, do everywhere else all over the world. It’s worth attempting. It’s even what USNS ships do, MSC ships do. Why can’t combatants even consider a shift in an effort to be safer, more efficient, less fatigued, and have better officers that have advanced skills?

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Yes, my bad. (I’m terrible at math!)

I “meant” A non watch-standing C/E, a non-watch-standing 1st A/E, and three watchstanding A/E’s…maybe licensed 2nd’s (?)

The point being, let watchstanders stand a watch routine and work O/T as needed or at their discretion. This way the 1st and C/E can rotate in to do long periods of maneuvering or fueling or switch over, etc. Similar to the deck, the senior most experienced officers can step in to do anything or the abnormal stuff.

Clearly, real “un-manned” E/R ships will have a different arrangement…maybe…but depends on their run and actual performance over a period of time.

I worked on a ship that was technically cleared to operate as a unmanned E/R. But with all the problems and alarms they had constantly, the C/E declared one day they were never going to keep operating that way…as long as he was onboard. The Captain and (the owners) had no issue with that.

The simple answer to this, is that, naval vessels have moving parts, they are moving, they are around other vessels, and humans are involved.

It was a long time ago but on the Coast Guard 378’s and polar breakers I was on the normal sea watch was just the OOD, Quartermaster ( navigation), and 4 sailors who rotated between lookouts, messenger and helmsmen. In general there were only 3 - 4 of us on the bridge. The crowd came for special ops, GQ, in - out of port, Helo ops, the like.

In general most of the senior officers I sailed with in the Coast Guard were good seaman.

I also sailed on tankers - and in general mates are more experienced and more proficient navigation watch standers than the junior officers that are the OOD’s on military ships. The navy/Coast Guard try to make up for that with more restrictive standing orders, more calls to the Captain, and more senior people to the bridge when operations call for it.

Know there has been a rash lately, and maybe there is a real issue now. But Merchants and military ships all hit stuff sometimes. Not sure of any long term data that says one more than the other.

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The entire premise here is a complicated task can’t be broken down into parts which require communication between individuals.

But that is how a ship with two tugs, a mooring crew fore and aft with pilot and captain moor a ship. Mooring operations is probably most complicated operation we do. How many people involved? Three crews, three captains, pilot etc. It doesn’t break down in to a mass of confusion.


Just a comment about my experiences. In the late 70’s a long time ago I did some time for on a DD out of Charleston. A couple of the Lieutenants were flight school washouts. They were in the navy long enough to get promoted to lieutenant but didn’t actually have that much time aboard ship. Not that these guys weren’t smart or unqualified but I questioned the mentality that if you couldn’t cut it other places you could always be a SWO.

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