Why Ships Collide

I spent 7 years in the Navy as a Surface Warfare Officer. For those unfamiliar with the term, this is specialty refers to the cadre of personnel qualified to manage all of the various operations on Navy ships, as well as to navigate and maneuver the vessels. So whenever I see an article about another ship collision, it honestly breaks my heart. US Navy ship collisions seem to be reaching an epidemic. One is too many. Two is a trend but there have now been 4 this year:

From CNN:

"The McCain collision marks the fourth incident involving a US Navy warship in the Pacific this year.

On June 17, the guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald collided with a container ship off the coast of Japan. That collision resulted in the deaths of seven US sailors.

On May 9, the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain was struck by a small fishing boat off the Korean Peninsula.

And in late January, the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam ran agroundwhile trying to anchor in Tokyo Bay."

So what's going on? 

The answer is rarely simple. There are various contributing factors that result in what is referred to as the error chain in decision making. Throughout my Navy career, I had the benefit of studying many incidents and why they occurred. That's something the organization did fairly well. I will mention a few briefly, but would mainly like to focus on the one I feel gets the least attention, and is the most important. 

First, I'd like to give a brief explanation for how ships operate - very brief. 

On a destroyer, there are around a dozen sailors "on watch" at any given time. A "watch" means a shift. The ones most relevant to this discussion are the Officer of the Deck (OOD) the Conning Officer (CONN) and Navigator (NAV). The OOD is, by definition, "the officer in charge of the ship". The Captain can't always be everywhere, so he/she delegates authority to run operations to the OOD, within certain guidelines. The CONN is the person who gives commands to other watch-standers to maneuver the ship. So the CONN "drives" the ship in essence. The Navigator on watch is usually an enlisted sailor who is responsible for advising the OOD and CONN where the ship is, whether it's on track (if going to a destination) and where the safe depth is for the ship to maneuver. The crew takes turns on these shifts, usually by standing what's referred to as a "rotating shift". Meaning that they don't have the same shift each time. More on that later. This is as in-depth as I will go to avoid making this article too long.

What you'll often hear in the news is that the Navy will determine that a collision occurred because of several factors:

  1. Poor leadership 
  2. Bad decision making
  3. Critical equipment failure

Actually, that's about it. And you know what? They're right. In many cases I've studied those can definitely be factors in the error chain. Usually, the people on watch don't have adequate situational awareness, they fail to follow some rule, make a poor decision to turn this way instead of that way...this repeats itself several times (the error chain) until disaster strikes. It's tragic. Sometimes to make it worse, there's an equipment malfunction in the middle of it all.

At best this combination results in millions of dollars in damaged equipment and a ship out of commission until those damages are fixed. At it's worse it results in loss of lives. So I don't aim to absolve those in charge, those who made bad decisions, of any responsibility. BUT, I do want to point out a rarely mentioned, and inadequately addressed problem in the Surface Navy (the part of the Navy that deals with ships, as opposed to submarines or aircraft). And that is sleep deprivation.

It's too early to tell want went wrong on the USS JOHN MCCAIN. But I'm willing to bet that the previously aforementioned factors will most certainly be cited, but sleep deprivation will likely either be glossed over or ignored all together. I hope I'm wrong. In either case, it's an issue that has gone unaddressed in the Surface Navy for a long time. 

When I stood CONN one time, I no-kidding hallucinated. I was running on very little sleep - I think around 4 hours in the last 48. It was the middle of the night. I looked out at the front of the ship and saw neon gremlins running. "What the fuck?" I thought to myself. I got scared. "Is something wrong with me?"...I didn't want to say anything to anyone. I knew that people would think I was a hack if I tried. That was the culture. EVERYONE was tired-as-hell, and if I stood up and said anything I'd just be damning another tired-as-hell person to be even more tired-as-hell. After I got out of the Navy I had conversations with other veterans who experienced the same thing. Some were just exhausted all the time, a few others actually hallucinated like me.

See rotating shift work is awful. You basically never sleep at the same time any given day. One day you might be on shift 12-6PM. That same night 10-2AM. It's meant to keep any one person from constantly having to have the night shift. So if you want to know the state of mind of these sailors, try it for a few days and see how you feel. I guarantee it won't be perky tits. On top of this, most sailors have multiple jobs.

The Navy doesn't recognize shift work as a job onto itself. The actual role I was assigned to on my first ship was "Auxiliaries Officer". I was basically in charge of the division that maintained and fixed much of the supporting equipment on the ship - the units that made drinking water, the air conditioning, even the damn ice cream machines. I also had to stand watch as CONN and work on qualifying as OOD. What I'm trying to get at is that I did rotating shift work driving the ship, sometimes even hallucinating, only to get off watch and have to be responsible for a completely separate job. 

I'd have to get in sleep in when I could...which wasn't often. I was tired all the fucking time, and so was everyone else. I soon came to realize that I completely understood how the error chains could have happened in all those case studies I read about in school - everyone is always playing with the cards stacked against them. They're exhausted...ALL THE TIME. And they're operating equipment worth billions and responsible for lives that are priceless. I realized that it wasn't that I was making better decisions than those other guys, I was lucky. For some reason, the Surface Navy hasn't recognized this.

Navy Pilots have mandatory rest periods. Around 8 hours if I recall correctly. The aviation community recognizes just how crucial sleep is to performance. Bravo. Where the hell is the rest of the Navy with this? Why don't they recognize this issue? The problem, like everything else, boils down to money.

When I came to my first ship, we had around 330 sailors assigned onboard. When I left it was around 270. Why? The Navy back then was going with a concept known as minimum manning. That's right, while the sailors were already exhausted, the Navy leadership said "there's too many of them, let's reduce the manning and have the sailors on board just do more"...what? 

So here we are. Collisions. More collisions. 

Look, I'm not in the Navy anymore, and haven't been for some time. Neither am I on the investigating committees and such. I'm sure they'll come up with findings I don't know about, and will make changes that the Navy may not publicize. But when I was in the Navy, I felt like there was a culture of exhaustion. It was something to be proud of. "I have so much to do, no time for sleep"...but that's wrong.

Everything I've read about human psychology points to the fact that sleep deprivation wreaks havoc on your body. It has all kinds of physical side effects. It also seriously affects your ability to make good decisions. That's why I say that the sailors on board are always operating with the cards stacked against them. Yes, they may make some bad decisions, yes they should be held responsible. But so should the "higher-ups" that seem to think it's ok to ask a person to deprive themselves of a basic human necessity for days on end, and then perform strenuous mental exercise. And by "higher ups" I don't mean just the Commanding Officers (CO) of ships. The COs are also in many ways playing the bad hand given to them, and actually have a lot less say in operations than most people think. The responsibility for these collisions goes all the way back to Washington DC and Millington Tennessee, where the Navy personnel command is (basically Navy HR).

Once again, I'm not absolving those involved. They will likely be found wanting in one aspect or another and punished accordingly. But that's not enough. Until the Navy recognizes sleep deprivation as a serious problem to be addressed on a global scale, such collisions will always be more likely to happen.