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.