Why do naval vessels suffer accidents?

I am a bit worried how the wheelhouse will light up at night with all those screens. We used to have a pitch dark bridge, at most some red light shining through from the chart room behind it.


Both canals require a local pilot…for everyone, always. For obvious reasons. I don’t know how long its been since you left the Navy (?), but as an individual riding with Pearl Harbor Pilots (A US Navy Base) to obtain my own Pilotage trips there, every vessel calling there takes a Navy Pilot. Every. Vessel. Whether they have to or not, is another (irrelevant) matter.

Secondly, I’m am uncertain of the vessels you speak of when you say…

Are you still referencing Navy ships? Or civilian? And where? New Zealand?

I think what’s contributing to the occasional confusion in this discussion, is too many commenters are assuming every reader knows where you are from and your back ground. Big mistake.

Am I new here? No. Are you? I don’t know where you are from or where you worked or are working. So take that in consideration when replying.

When making comments about one Navy force and comparing to the US Navy forces, everyone understands (or should) there are some similarities…and some dramatic differences. I will tell you in my 25 years pf piloting a variety of both US and Foreign navy ships in multiple civilian ports where I work, the foreign navy vessels have a far better protocol for maneuvering in pilotage waters.

Most all Navy ships under foreign flags have the CO docking the ship. Typically doing a great job, while working with the Pilot. US Navy ships have a junior officer doing the job who may have extensive experience ship handling or even his very first time. All the while, The CO, XO, and Pilot are all breathing down his neck, A recipe for disaster.

Australian, Canadian, French, Japanese, Mexican, and Chilean ships I’ve seen first hand have always been a relatively easy job (for me, as a pilot). US Navy ships? Generally very stressful.


One case of Marlboros was the cost to get thru expeditiously. One way. We always “loaded up” on CASES (not cartons mind you) of cigarettes and scotch, chocolate, and Levis Jeans for our voyage thru Suez.

Our Captain was a savvy guy. We never had problems or were delayed.

Good eye, Capt.

My last vessel was a seismic survey vessel . The bridge was the largest space onboard

To continue after getting a fat finger in the way. There were screens everywhere, no bridge wings and it took a bit of getting used to.

I left the navy in 1971 and my passage through the Suez Canal in 1967 and yes we had a pilot because it was compulsory.
The coastal ships I referred to were owned by the Union Steamship Company whom owned more than 60 ships that traded throughout the Pacific in the 60’s. The barque Pamir taken as a war prize in Wellington was manned by the company and traded between the west coast of the US during the war.

That bridge is better than most US Navy ships I’ve seen. The screen brightness can be an issue and I’m sometimes amazed how the bridge team leaves the dial turned up when I get to the bridge after boarding at night on some (civilian) ships. But that tells me they are looking at the screen more than out the window…as they are approaching the pilot station ?!

THAT is a scary reality.

Too many people staring into fancy screens is the problem now, and not looking out the window at reality.

But the screens can be turned way down with respect to brightness to ease the strain on your eyes and help keep night vision. In fact, most ECDIS systems have a choice to make for day and night display. Better models even have a “dusk” display. My PPU that I use has this feature and I use it the most.

One captain once told me that if he would blind the windows his younger officers probably wouldn’t even notice that.


Me at the right in my younger days on a Shell tanker with the port wing repeater.

I like bridge wings, walk out in the fresh air, looking stupidly over the wing’s side at the rushing water and leaning on the forward bulkhead. Also on this ship they are deprived of that pleasure.

As already was said before there is no midship pelorus, a thing I have never seen on a merchant ship, but I have no idea how they take bearings if there is no bridge wing gyro repeater, that can’t be. Perhaps they now use the radar or ESDIC…

We sometimes got a mate who had worked his way up via coastal shipping. They were always very good seamen, you could tell that they had lived close to the sea, very hands on. He used to take bearings with both hands cupped over the wing repeater and with thumbs and index fingers touching. He had to bring the V’s formed at the top of those fingers in line with the target, it looked very much like a praying motion. We observed it with some astonishment but when at a certain moment the captain came on the bridge and saw this he almost got a heart attack and all hell broke loose. That was the end of this coaster method…


Gyro stabilized masthead cameras are really convenient for taking bearings, so long as they work. The Electronic System of Display Information Charts, otoh, is only good for taking a bearing based on where you already think you are, in other words utterly useless.

As for not looking out the window, I recently saw a scholarly-ish article (I forget where) that in all seriousness argued that the use of red light to preserve night vision is no longer relevant, since navigation happens on a screen these days. Of course, there’s a point where you legitimately stop looking out the window, ie zero visibility conditions, but I find the way things are going a bit frightening, especially when navigating in congested waters with no AIS transmitter. Never mind looking out of the window, a lot of bridge crews seem to not watch the radar, either… But I digress.

One important difference between navy and merchant vessels that hasn’t really been pointed out is the vastly different operating envelope. Navy vessels are required to operate at high speed in tight quarters with neither radar nor GPS. In order to do so effectively in a combat environment, they must train those procedures extensively in peacetime, and IMHO it stands to reason that they would suffer an elevated accident rate. Hence my assertion that any meaningful accident statistic needs to be weighted to reflect this fact.


I’ve been part of a military bridge navigation team. I think another point that is being missed is that to an outsider communication between the team members must just sound like noise.

However if you are part of the team not only can the appropriate voice be picked out but there is a rhythm to the communication. For example a recommendation from navigation to change speed or course change can be expected to be followed by an order to the throttles/EOT or helm.

In the end it boils down to a single person conning the ship.

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I watched a clip from the bridge of some big CGC – off New England IIRC – a while back. Can’t find it now. It was bedlam, with somebody bellowing CAPTAIN ON THE BRIDGE and CAPTAIN OFF THE BRIDGE at the top of his lungs what seemed like about every thirty seconds.

I would hope that isn’t normal. I know that my brother (USN) ran as much as possible a silent bridge.

Two merchant vessels I have sailed in have had a centreline compass in addition to bridge wing repeaters. They were excellent for collision avoidance and the centreline repeater was fitted with a monocular azimuth sight. The ARPA radars were still in the future for merchant shipping and we had a display that was made by Phillips if my memory serves me right. It could be switched to true motion or relative motion and displayed the track made by the contact. We used to call it the tadpole bowl. Considering that at 24 to 27 knots we were proceeding at twice the speed of surrounding traffic apart from hovercraft it made manoeuvring in heavy traffic a breeze.
I am a fan of bridge wings and I like to stand directly behind a bridge window instead of being separated by a console or a display.
Centreline gyro repeaters used to be common on Japanese vessels.

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Every ship I’ve ever been on had a centerline gyro repeater. It is where you con from.

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I’ve never been Navy, but from what I’ve been told, every job responsibility on a Navy vessel is associated with a single rate. In the Army Watercraft world, there are Deckies and there are Engineers. Engineers are responsible for everything mechanical on the vessel. That’s why we are trained on Electrical, Air Conditioning & Refrigeration, Welding, First Aid (with CPR & AED), Bilge & Ballast, Water Purification Systems, Waste Systems, Fuel Purification, Firefighting, Fast Rescue Boats, etc. in addition to the vessel’s basic operating machinery. On the LCU 2000 series, the crew is between 16-18 people. The Navy could never run our LCUs, as there isn’t enough berthing for the number of crew the Navy would require. Engineers do it all.

When a combatant vessel is NOT engaged in military exercises and is simply transiting from one place to another by itself, it is NOT required to operate at high speed, and NOT expected to operate without a GPS and Radar, which BTW, is news to me. (Perhaps this is a non-US ‘requirement’??)

This is a relevant point as this was the situation with the McCain, Fitzgerald, Port Royal, Guardian, and Helge Ingstad accidents.

Let’s all agree a combat situation (either real or an exercise) is a night and day comparison to routine vessel transit. I’m not talking (ever) about naval ships and their operational behavior outside a routine transit which likely involves the interaction with other large civilian vessels within a specific VTS area, or even just an open seaway with heavy traffic.

I understand (and to a certain extent agree) there is much training involved and this has to be conducted during peacetime. But during situations such as we’ve seen in multiple recent accidents, there needs to be a clear protocol and an ability for one individual to simply say “Stop”, instantly state he has the conn, and using his/her extensive experience, take action to avoid an accident. THIS event should take place well before extremis. Practice and training is one thing. Making stupid decisions in a confused bridge environment while not having full situational awareness is a recipe for disaster.

The “lessons learned” (or correctly speaking, NOT learned) by many people in authority of NOT having an AIS transponder on in an area of heavy vessel traffic even after your friends have suffered a catastrophic blow because of this practice…and doing the same thing, tells me that the training onboard Navy ships (both US and foreign) has some huge gaps. Still today.

Please don’t initiate the “AIS is not meant for collision avoidance” mantra. We all get that. But proper use of ALL bridge equipment to gather information about other vessels around you is a requirement of all seafaring navigation officers. An AIS signal identifying you as a generic “naval vessel” also protects you, in spite of being taught that you are ‘revealing ourselves’ at a time when you are trying to be in a stealth mode. Why is THAT relevant in coastwise or Pilotage waters or within a VTS zone?

It didn’t serve several naval vessels very well recently, yes? In fact it contributed to death and destruction. Was that a good decision? I think not.

The navigation team can train using all visual and radar navigation while the conning officer still has access to other methods. When I was in the CG we sometimes did zero visibility nav exercises. It involved one minute fixes using only radar. It was done in good weather and the conning officer and captain contiuned to monitor the vessels position visually.


I think somebody (ex-navy or retired) started the “urban myth” that civilian ships do not have a centerline gyro repeater.

They do. Almost always. the few that don’t are very small ships (usually) where their console is up against the forward bulkhead, making it impractical to position a repeater there.

Here’s the (rather unusual) quartermaster position on a very large cruise ship. Note the repeater in the background at the wood counter.

Another one on a containership that is here in Honolulu today. Right in front of the Pilot with a bearing circle still on it.

Most merchant ships have this basic navigational tool on them all the time. It is more the rule than the exception if they do not.

Finally this:

This was taken while I was at the MITAGS simulator in Seattle, WA recently. A repeater in the middle of the main simulator. So it is there for individuals to use even during training.

You can’t rely on GPS in a combat environment, because it’s relatively straightforward to spoof the signal and childishly easy to jam it in a large area. You can’t really use radar, either, because it reveals your position to anyone lurking in the shadows, and that’s a good way to lose the first strike.

Of course, you only need to follow these protocols when training, but there’s a solid rationale for every ship movement to be taken as a training opportunity: These things are expensive to run, and their effectiveness is largely limited by how well you can afford to train the crews.

Equally obviously, you should have someone at the back of the bridge watching the works with access to AIS, Radar, GPS position, etc. How well this is ingrained in Navy culture, I don’t know. I do know that when the Swedish Navy trains high speed small craft operators in zero visibility inshore work (a task which is orders of magnitude trickier), they have someone sitting outside with a cup of coffee while the victim sits staring at the radar behind blinded windows. I have adopted this method for my own course work, as have the NSSR (Norwegian SAR association).

The thing is, even if best oversight practices are being observed, you’d still expect an elevated accident rate. Merchant mariners following well established collision avoidance procedure still mess it up from time to time, after all. The more you add to the “simple” task of not hitting each other, such as seeing how far you can push your fresh faced cadet, the more things can go wrong.

As for not transmitting AIS in congested waters while not engaged in OPS, I can see little excuse for that…

My original comment on the centreline pelorus was that it was absent from the new ships for NZ and, being a warship, that was unusual. Note I didn’t specify a ‘gyro repeat’ but a pelorus from which the OOW takes bearings constantly and not just ahead through the front window but as near as possible all round.

It was simply to note that no naval ship I’d ever served in lacked such a pelorus, not that merchant ships don’t have them.

The only one that would suit normal Australian naval routines would be the photo in the simulator … which I note is not fitted with an azimuth circle so I suspect is not regularly used for taking bearings. But it sits higher (closer to eye height) than the others and is thus more conducive to regular use.

Merchant bridges seem to me to be commonly wide and flat fronted so the forward looking peloruses in the other photos are great for ahead bearings (but require low bending for regular use) but not for the beam or aft of the beam. I presume there are others for those directions but suspect people are less inclined to trek to the far bridge wing to do that.