Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Hard Lessons from Unforgiving Seas

By Julius J. Lacano
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) returns to Fleet Activities (FLEACT) Yokosuka on June 17, 2017, following a collision with a merchant vessel while operating southwest of Yokosuka, Japan. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Peter Burghart/Released)
The recent tragedy associated with the loss of Sailors on USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) brings to the attention of the outside world what those in the military have long known: that their profession is a dangerous one that requires eternal vigilance. Though we do not know at this time the reasons behind the collision, it nevertheless relays the fact that the seas are an unforgiving place, even in times of relative calm. As the following stories demonstrate, the routine and mundane can cause complacency to set in, a complacency that, if unchecked, could lead to disaster.

Seen from the collier Urduliz, the aircraft carrier Eisenhower (CVN 69) collides with the Spanish vessel after drifting more than 200 yards off course near the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel on the morning of August 29, 1988.  (Armada Espanola)
On August 29th, 1988, USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) and her accompanying battle group were returning home to Naval Station Norfolk from a routine and safe six-month deployment. The mood was festive as family and friends waited on the pier. Visitors and members of the news media watched the transit from the carrier’s bridge. The “Ike,” as she is affectionately known, passed over the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel and made a course change to meet the tugs that would welcome her back home with the traditional water salute. Since the ship was ahead of schedule, she slowed to 3 knots, from the usual 5, in order to gain some time. The bridge watch team noted the congestion of the port and the ships at anchorage near the channel and continued on. At this moment, things began to go wrong. The distance between the carrier and a Spanish ship at anchor began steadily decreasing. It was noted in the log and was called out by the bridge team, but no one acknowledged and no one reacted; there was a complete loss of situational awareness by the bridge watch team. The carrier continued on its track and only when it was too late attempted to avoid a collision. By then, though, two million dollars’ worth of damage had been done to the ship. 

Although time and the elements have damaged the original glass photographic negative of these wrecked destroyers at Honda Point, California, taken shortly after they went ashore in a fog during the night of 8 September 1923, the severity of the disaster is still clear. USS Delphy (DD 261) is in the foreground, capsized and broken in two. In the middle, also capsized, is USS Young (DD 312). USS Woodbury (DD 309) is faintly visible in the upper right. At left, behind the rocks, is the stern of USS Chauncey (DD 296). (Courtesy of Chief Information Security Specialist Joseph L. Aguillard, USNR, 1979. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph)
Sixty-five years earlier, a similar lack of situational awareness led to the largest peacetime disaster in American naval history: the Honda Point disaster. On the night of September 8, 1923, the 14 ships of Destroyer Squadron Eleven (DESRON 11) were making a high speed transit from San Francisco to San Diego, with an overnight stop in Santa Barbara. The area around Honda Point (Point Pedernales), off the coast of present day Vandenberg Air Force Base and just north of the Santa Barbara Channel, was well known for its rough seas and strong currents, leading to its nickname, “The Devil’s Jaw.” On this fateful night, multiple errors led nine ships into the rocks, which cost the lives of 23 sailors and the loss of seven ships. But what do these two incidents have in common? The answer is a cascade of individually inconsequential failures that, when compounded, created a disastrous scenario.

The first factor that was shared in both instances was speed. While the ships of DESRON 11 were sailing at close to 20 knots, Eisenhower was steaming at around three. Though these speeds may seem vastly different, they both create a situation where maneuvering ability and reaction time are compromised. The high speed of the destroyers shortened the reaction time for the bridge watch team. Likewise, the slow speed of the carrier created a situation just as dangerous. At 3 knots, the carrier was in a situation of “bare steerage way,” which meant that there was only a minimal amount of water flowing over the ship’s rudders to allow the ship to change course. This situation makes it much harder for a ship to maneuver in general, and take evasive action in particular.

The second and third factors that these two situations both shared included the prevailing wind and the current sea state and the failure to account for both of them. The rough seas and strong winds that the ships of DESRON 11 encountered off the California coast hampered their speed through the water. The calculated speed for the destroyers was 21 knots, and this speed was maintained in all calculations needed to navigate the ship. The ship’s actual speed through the water, due to the heavy seas, was around 19 knots. This difference meant that the ships’ plotted location and actual location differed by over three miles. The carrier, on the other hand, had a similar problem combined with the same error. While the ship’s speed was known, as well as wind and currents, the latter were completely ignored when navigating the ship. Due to only going 3 knots, the wind and currents canceled out the water flowing over the rudders and drove the ship out of the channel by 200 yards, right into Zulu anchorage, where the Spanish collier Urduliz lay at anchor.

The fourth similarity these events shared was something ingrained in military personnel: a reluctance to question orders. In both cases, junior personnel noticed the situation unfolding but felt that their opinion would not be welcomed by those in command who had more experience than they did. The higher-ups, though, gave orders based not only on experience, but also on pride. The navigator of DESRON 11 ignored the radio-direction-finding signals coming from stations along the coast because he mistrusted the new technology and was looking for any reason to prove it wrong. According to the official inquiry into the incident, Eisenhower’s commanding officer viewed taking on a harbor pilot, which is not mandatory for military vessels, as a sign of weakness and for those with substandard seamanship skills.

Changing any one of the factors leading to these preventable events could have altered the course of history. The eternal vigilance demanded of Sailors on watch the world over not only requires a sharp eye in the present. It also requires looking back at these and other events to find clues in the hopes of preventing the next maritime disaster.

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