When big ships collide

There was a pre-dawn collision on June 17 involving a large container ship ACX Crystal and a US navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald. The cargo ship, being much larger, suffered little damage but seven US sailors were killed and the destroyer was heavily damaged. Preliminary reports suggest that the destroyer was at fault.

What has caused surprise is how a state-of-the-art destroyer that boasts that it is “one of the most modern and technologically advanced warships afloat, capable of using its powerful sensors to look up into space, if necessary, and reach up to hit targets there with its battery of missiles” could have been blindsided by a lumbering cargo ship.

The article suggests that distractions in crowded shipping lanes may have played a role in preventing the destroyer’s crew from seeing the danger quickly enough. Ships are not nimble and anticipation is important to avoid disasters of this type.

It’s possible that no one was on the bridge of the Crystal — even huge container ships are comparatively lightly crewed, compared with Navy ships, and unlike warships, often use an autopilot. In the wide open Pacific, mariners sometimes let “Iron Mike” take the helm. After a series of accidents, the U.S. Coast Guard warned mariners last year about the dangers involved with relying too heavily on autopilot.

The Fitzgerald’s bridge almost certainly was crewed, by sailors and officers on the overnight “midwatch”, and those are the watchstanders who may have made the critical decisions about what to do or not do before the collision.

Were they managing a whole screen full of contacts and too distracted to notice the one bearing down on them? Or was it a quiet night with so little to do that the crew became bored and complacent?

Some unconfirmed news reports suggest that the cargo ship may have been on autopilot.

The officials appeared to confirm outside analyses of the Crystal’s AIS track. AIS records show that she experienced a sudden deviation and loss of speed – indicative of collision – followed by an immediate return to her prior course and speed. Multiple experts suggest that the swift resumption of her planned voyage indicates autopilot control without human oversight.

Charterer NYK said earlier this week that the Crystal did not report the collision for nearly one hour after it occurred. Multiple outlets reported Friday that the accident took out almost all of the Fitzgerald’s communications gear, contributing to a delay in reporting the incident to SAR authorities.

While I was not surprised at the possibility that large ships could be on autopilot, I was surprised that there could be no one at the helm in case something comes up. While commercial airplanes also fly a lot on autopilot mode, I believe that at least two people are required to be in the cockpit at any given time. Surely something similar should be the case for ships too? Also, surely these ships must have something like the collision warning systems in cars where an alarm goes off if it gets close enough to another vehicle that a collision seems likely?

I must admit that I am totally ignorant of maritime affairs but I found these things highly puzzling.


  1. Holms says

    It is a requirement of the US navy that all ships have someone at the helm at all times. This rule brought to you by the letter M, for the Australian ship HMAS Melbourne. 74 American personnel died when a USN destroyer turned improperly across Melbourne’s course, prompting the training film I Relieve You, Sir.

  2. jrkrideau says

    Ah yes, I remember a fellow student saying they tried to keep a long way away from HMAS Melbourne and posted extra lookouts whenever they were in company.

    From the “very” little I know about the big bulk carriers, I would not be surprised if she was on auto pilot but I’d assume at least one or two people on her bridge, though how alert might be a different matter.

  3. says

    When I first heard about it, all I could think was that someone on the destroyer really screwed up. An Arleigh Burke class aegis missile boat is fast and (relatively) nimble and ought to be able to literally run rings around a container ship.

    Ships run on auto-pilot all the time; especially when they’re out where there’s nothing to hit.

    Pictures of the container ship show that it’s not particularly badly damaged, which the Fitzgerald appears to have been folded downward slightly. I guess in today’s navies, ships expect to get blown in half with a missile, or nothing at all -- I would have expected a military ship to be tougher, but I guess getting hit by a ship 4 times your size, with what amounts to a ram below the water-line -- no way that’s good.

    I believe the initial investigation by the navy is faulting the Fitzgerald.

  4. Johnny Vector says

    As for commercial airliners, most planes now require only a two-person crew, so whenever one has to leave for any reason there is only one person in the cockpit. That one time when it was over an hour since de-icing and we were still waiting in line to take off, I was very happy to see the captain leave the cockpit and peer out the side windows at the wings before we proceeded to the runway.

  5. Mano Singham says

    I believe that when there is a two-person crew, if one of them has to leave the flight deck for any reason such as to go to the toilet, they are supposed to be replaced by one of the flight attendants, so that in the event of the pilot at the controls collapsing, someone can quickly call back the other pilot.

  6. says

    Charterer NYK said earlier this week that the Crystal did not report the collision for nearly one hour after it occurred.

    How do you ram a destroyer and not notice? It’s one thing to miss the oncoming ship, it’s another to not even realize that you’ve hit anything. Are these ships actually so big that you can’t feel the bump?

  7. hyphenman says

    @LykeX No. 6

    How do you ram a destroyer and not notice?

    Think of the collision this way. You’re driving a semi-tractor rig in the dark and you brush against a Volkswagen beetle. You probably don’t feel the contact.

  8. hyphenman says

    Having served in the 7th fleet on board the USS Bainbridge (CGN25) during the ’70s, I’m extremely confused by this collision.

    Collisions do happen, but this one mystifies me.

  9. says

    You’re driving a semi-tractor rig in the dark and you brush against a Volkswagen beetle. You probably don’t feel the contact.

    Yup. And you probably spend a while wondering “what was that?” during which time your rig has passed several exits.

    Collisions do happen, but this one mystifies me.

    Ditto. I’m sure they’ll figure out what happened, eventually. It’s too important/big/expensive for them not to. “Remember the Maine!” and all that. (Hm, now I should do a book report on Hyman Rickover’s analysis of that…)

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