The USS Fitzgerald and the ACX Crystal: What just happened?

A few days ago the Navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald and the Philippine-flagged containership ACX Crystal collided just off the coast of Japan. Since then, I've received emails from several of my colleagues asking various versions of, 'How could this happen?'. This post is an effort to shed some light on how something like this might happen.

First, and most importantly, my condolences to the families who lost loved ones serving on the USS Fitzgerald and to the crew members on both ships. This is a tragic and heartbreaking loss of life at sea. My heart is with them.

But how could this happen? It's impossible to know. And I think it's important not to speculate on what might have happened in the case of the Fitzgerald/Crystal accident. And to be clear, I'm not suggesting we place blame on either party, but rather aim to offer some basic explanations, for my non-merchant mariner friends and colleagues, for how two huge ships can collide at sea.

Let me start with a basic (land-lover) example. When we look at the scene of a car accident, we tend to make knee-jerk assumptions of fault. For example, when you see a car accident and you see one car smashed into the rear bumper of another car, you assume that the car in the back is at fault (well, in the US anyway). We assume that, because we know there are rules, or laws, that dictate what we must do to avoid smashing in to the rear end of another car -- those laws also let us know that if we DO smash in to the rear end of another car, it's gonna be our fault. Pretty much every time.

So when many merchant mariners look at the collision like the one between the USS Fitzgerald and the ACX Crystal, they will probably make similar assumptions. Because like on land, at sea there are international laws (rules of the road) that say, basically, if you're on a ship, and another ship smashes into you on your starboard (right) side, especially if it's forward of the beam, it's probably your fault (Rule 15). Pretty much every time. Even if they're the one doing the smashing.

But it's not that simple. Here's why:

Any time you are 'in extremis', or just about to crash into something while at sea, it's the responsibility of BOTH parties to do whatever it takes to avoid the disaster (Rule 17). So really, it can get kinda complicated. 

It's true that, on land and at sea, communication is key. When you're on the bridge, in command of a ship, driving it around in the ocean, communicating with other ships over the radio is standard practice. Particularly if you (or they) are changing course, and especially if you think you're going to run into them -- regardless of who has the right-of-way. You communicate with them and come to an agreement as to how you are going to avoid running into each other. That's the goal. But sometimes things can happen resulting in a breakdown in communication. Here are two common reasons: 

1. Something happens on the ship that distracts the bridge team (watch standers on the bridge) from what is going on 'outside'.

2. Miscommunication or no communication at all (between ships).

Let me expand on those...

1. Something happens on the ship that distracts the bridge team (watch standers on the bridge) from what is going on 'outside'. Possible scenarios;

  • An emergency onboard. A watch stander having a heart attack (it's happened), a fire in the engine room, loss of power or steering, etc. There are a million things that can happen to throw a bridge team off its game. They are challenges that mariners train for, prepare for, and hope to master. But the possibilities are endless and they can't train for them all. 
  • A breakdown in ship board technology. Sometimes mariners have issues with new technology onboard. And some of that new technology is directly linked to and controls the ship's steering system. It's entirely possible to be completely sucked in to looking at an ECDIS screen, for example, and not see that the ship has changed course. This can easily happen, partly because new technology doesn't always work the way it's suppose to and perhaps also because not everyone onboards new technology equally. As for the new tech/mariner relationship; some mariners love it, some hate it. Some pretend to love it and know it, but really hate it and just fake knowing how to use it so they can keep their jobs. There's a lot of pressure (and frustration) associated with some of the new technology that companies have chosen to adopt, but that's another story. The point is, sometimes technology can keep bridge watch standers from looking out the window. And when they are not also looking out the window, bad things can happen.

2. Miscommunication or no communication at all (between ships).

  • No communication at all. So we might make assumptions about what a ship is going to do based on what it's done in the past (not unlike how we sometimes predict another person's behavior). For example, if you see a ship in open water on a course headed north, you might assume that that ship will keep heading north until you have reason to think otherwise. Of course you always keep an eye on them, but that's the general assumption you might make. While listening to a report about the Fitzgerald/Crystal accident, I heard the reporter claim that Japan Vessel Traffic had stated that the containership had 'done a u-turn' 25 minutes before the collision. Course changes like that make the ships around them pay much closer attention (hopefully). A watch stander on the bridge of a nearby ship might say something like, 'Hey self, this is new and unpredictable behavior, I need to pay closer attention to this ship'. If ships are making course changes and there are other ships around, the ships making the changes should be talking to the ships around them. And if they don't, then the ships  around them should be calling the course-changing ship and asking them 'what's up?'. In real life, and for lots of logical reasons, that doesn't always happen. And sometimes that's okay. But if it doesn't happen and there's a collision, then it's definitely not okay. The point here is that people driving ships around usually use every tool at their disposal to avoid a collision. That includes getting on the horn (radio) and repeatedly shouting at other ships until they pay attention so that ultimately everyone knows what everyone else is doing. But anyone with experience sailing in international waters knows that it doesn't always work out that way. And even if you do get the other ship's attention, they may misunderstand what you're saying, which brings us to our next scenario...
  • Miscommunication. The 'what are you sinking about' example of miscommunication is a well-known one for sea-goers. At sea, it sometimes happens that the arrangements that are made and agreed upon are completely misunderstood by both parties. This is a huge challenge at sea. I think miscommunication is something we've all dealt with in our normal lives, but the consequences of miscommunication at sea can be dire, so it's important to get it right. For example in this case, it's entirely possible that the crew on both ships were prudent, had communicated and were following the rules of the road, but that a simple miscommunication caused a collision at sea. But of course we do not know. 

There are so many other things that can contribute to a collision at sea. In fact, it's often a combination of unusual events that result in accidents like this. The above examples are a few, very basic, possible explanations for what may result in such an event.

And finally, I think we do a disservice to those involved by speculating about what might have happened in the case of the Fitzgerald/Crystal collision. Of course I think it's important for us wait and see what the investigations uncover and then hope that we can learn from whatever evidence is brought to light. 

The USS Fitzgerald and ACX Crystal collision reminds us once again that working at sea is a dangerous and complicated profession.

Love and strength to all those involved and to the families who've lost loved ones. 

Comments and questions below.