Container ship collides with USS Fitzgerald

Over the weekend a container cargo ship sailing near Japan collided with the USS Fitzgerald causing loss of life (reportedly seven sailors die in the event). My sincere condolences to the family, relatives and friends affected. Over the weekend I read a few articles regarding this incident. For the reasons I am going to cover in this post, the news called my attention and motivated me to write this entry.

In a previous life, I was a naval officer in a foreign navy. After graduation from the five year school, I was assigned for a year to a destroyer class ship. Life in a war ship comes with lots of interesting and new experiences which help one develop and prepares you for future events. The ship I was assigned to spend some time at sea and then several months moored being refurbished. Ships tend to be refurbished a few times before they get too old and have to be decommissioned.

I recall on several occasions being on duty between 00:00 and 04:00 hours. That seems to be the slowest time during the day. Little if anything occurs during those hours. The most important thing is to be awake and alert. Talking and walking around used to do the trick for me. For obvious reasons, no single person is on duty alone. Depending on the size of the vessel, a dozen or more people are at different posts throughout the ship.

If you have been in the military, you are very familiar with drills. The navy has many different drills (e.g., combat, fire, man overboard) which are called at any time during the day. Emergency situations do not wait to occur between normal working hours (if such thing exists in the military). I recall the shipped moored at a dock in a shipyard while on duty between 08:00 to 12:00 hours. A group of workers on the dock were soldering together some items for some repair. As I was watching them, flames erupted from the connection of two cylinders of acetylene and oxygen. I understood that the risk was minimal but the potential for fire so close to the ship made me decide to sound the alarm. The crew manned their fire stations as we have done in many occasions. One of the soldering technicians approached the cylinders and was able to shut the valves off. The situation was addressed. A few minutes after the situation was addressed the captain stopped by and asked me questions. He felt that it was a valid call and went back to work. There is a log that the officer on duty must keep. The log has timed entries. A signature is required at the end of the shift. The next officer must read and understand what was entered by the previous shift. This is good practice and serves as a paper trail of what was done and why. Such information may be used to update naval procedures and protocols.

The Navy has not disclosed yet their findings. The first reports by the news services suggested how it could be possible for an agile and faster destroyer to collide with a large and slow cargo ship even if the destroyer had the right of way. The articles tended to put blame on the crew of the destroyer.

If a war vessel is patrolling I would say it is almost impossible for it to collide with another ship. Ships accelerate quickly and are quite maneuverable. They also have radios, flags, lights, flares and guns which can be used to call the attention on the distracted crew of the offending ship. So what happened?

Additional reports (not the official one from the Navy) now indicate that the Fitzgerald might have been anchored and the cargo ship made an unexpected u-turn on a shipping lane which caused it to collide with the destroyer.

As a technical person and software system architect I thought if there could be systems in place that would prevent such accident from happening. If you are sitting at the wheel of a car and see a truck heading your way, you might have enough time to start the engine and move out of the way of the truck. If you are in a ship using one or two anchors, even if steam is ready to start the engines, I just do not see it possible for the crew to move the ship on time. That is why the stations are manned differently based on the current situation and threads. Could it be possible to have a mechanism / system that would sense the thread from the cargo ship, warn the crews of both vessels take care of the anchors, steam and engines and automatically move the destroyer? I do not think so. Technology is not always the right answer. Pursuing what seems to be a dead end (unless you are into research) seems like a waste of time. How often this issue comes up and what is the cost of developing, implementing, deploying, and maintain such a system?

Sorry if this is not a typical technical entry, but system architects should always think about different requirements, costs and results of their systems. Perhaps something somewhat different would address more reasonable requirements.

If you have comments or questions regarding this or any other post in this blog, please do not hesitate and leave your thoughts in the comments section. I will respond as soon as possible.

Enjoy;

John

Follow me on Twitter:  @john_canessa

PS: To all fathers; my best wishes for Father’s Day 2017!!!

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