As I watched the video of the stricken USS Fitzgerald limping to her pier, I felt nauseated. I noticed things that non-sailors might miss. Firehoses over the side, water pouring out of them, hooked to portable damage control pumps. Exhausted damage control teams on deck, heads in their hands, where normally there’s no sitting.
Most of all, the terrible list, the unnatural lean to one side that only occurs when a flooded warship is grievously wounded. I feared the reported missing sailors were drowned in the flooded compartments that surely must behind that evil list. That turned out to be the case.
My online friends expressed sadness at the casualties, but asked, “How could this happen? Someone should fry!” After all, the ship is a technological wonder manned by highly trained sailors.
It was a natural question in the face of tragedy, but my friends who had stood watches during black nights knew the answer.
An old shipmate of mine summed it up, “So could have been us.”
We had stood watches when things went wrong, and every action taken only made things worse. Luckily for us, unlike Fitzgerald, at some point each time, things started going right.
I remembered one watch aboard USS Curtis Wilbur, a ship just like Fitzgerald. Another officer was the Officer of the Deck while I was the Conning Officer, giving orders to the helmsman. We were an experienced team, but still young and twenty-something, with 8,500 tons of billion-dollar warship and the lives of hundreds of our sleeping shipmates in our hands.
We were hurrying toward the Strait of Hormuz at 22 knots, about 25 miles per hour. Behind us were large container ships on the same heading. Ahead of us to the right was a fleet of stationary fishing boats. And coming over the horizon, 10 miles ahead of us to the left, was a new contact, another large container ship.
It was after midnight. Visibility was not great, with dust, haze, and no moon. Our radars showed us all of those contacts though. The new ship was on a collision course.
Twenty-five miles per hour doesn’t sound very fast. But ships aren’t cars. They don’t change speed or direction on a dime, or in a second. With our combined speeds, three miles disappeared between us every six minutes. Every calculation, communication, and action took a minute, and 10 football fields of distance.
The international rules required the other ship to turn right. We waited a couple of minutes to see if it would. It didn’t.
We radioed the other ship. No answer. Earlier we had tried and failed with the ships behind us too. Often we wondered if merchant officers were awake.
We decided to turn right and pass closer to the fishing fleet than planned. It would open the closest point of approach with the new contact to three miles.
Our captain’s standing orders required us to notify him if we were going to pass any vessels within five miles. We had called him earlier to report we were going to pass the fishermen and the Officer of the Deck woke him up again. I ordered the turn.
Two minutes later, it looked like the contact had turned to its left, putting us back on a collision course.
“That can’t be right,” the Officer of the Deck said, “that’d put him driving right through the fishing fleet, and into us. Why doesn’t he just turn right?”
Nervous, we took a minute to confirm his turn with radar and binoculars. It was true.
The Officer of the Deck and I quickly discussed options. In an open ocean, we could stop, or turn in a circle to the right. But stopping might get us run down by the uncommunicative ships behind. Turning right was now more dangerous with the fishing fleet passing down that side.
We decided in 30 seconds, five football fields of time, to turn left, away from both the fishing fleet and the oncoming ship, and to keep us clear of the ships coming up from behind. It seemed the safest alternative, except we’re not normally supposed to turn left in situations like this. The other ship might suddenly decide to follow the rules of the road and turn right, and into us. In the time available, I didn’t think of a better move.
I ordered the turn and lifted my binoculars while the Officer of the Deck picked up the phone to call the captain.
To my horror, I saw the other ship, now closer, making a hard right turn. Fear and ice filled my gut. He had twice turned to counteract our attempts to avoid him!
“He’s turning right!” I cried.
I tried to think fast. I could keep my turn, but that would put me on a collision course with the ships behind us even if I missed the one in front. I could increase speed to outrun him. But I remembered, even in that moment, the multiple case studies I had read of fatal collisions at sea where speeding up was the wrong answer.
“All stop!” I ordered, and my ship began to oh-so-slowly lose speed. I watched the looming dark silhouette of the other ship, terrified. If he stopped his turn, it would be close. I resolved to hit the gas, and turn left hard away from him if it looked bad. It would make it a glancing blow if colliding was unavoidable.
The oncoming ship kept its turn and passed a little less than a mile, a couple of minutes’ distance, in front of us. I ordered us to our original course and speed.
Suddenly, it was impossibly quiet. The fishing fleet was behind us. No new ships were yet coming over the horizon. The other ships followed us quietly in the dark. Later, after watch, we’d think of actions that would have been better but didn’t occur to us during the action.
Operating ships at sea is hard and dangerous. Stand enough watches, and you’ll have close calls. When the Fitzgerald’s investigation comes out, I, for one, will likely be forgiving.
James Seddon retired from the Navy as a Surface Warfare Officer after 21years in active and reserve billets with multiple deployments afloat and ashore throughout Asia and the Middle East. He currently works in IT at a university and is writing a book about his tour in Afghanistan.