Ships That Go Bump In the Night

It was a very small mistake. Just a few words, one sentence. So small that nobody caught that it was missing. That’s it. The entire problem explained in more words and sentences than actually caused the problem in the first place. That little mistake has put my entire house buying adventure on hold – at least – and has made life very stressful for the past four days.

Now, you can say – and rightfully so – that the professionals involved should have known better. Or you could say – and rightfully so – that I should have caught it. After all, caveat emptor is the rule, right? And there is absolutely nothing that I can say in reply except that three people missed it.


Life is full of little mistakes that have effects. Sometimes the mistakes have huge effects, seemingly out of proportion to their size. Sometimes they have no discernable effect at all, even if they should.

To be sure, there are other issues that caused the need for the sentence in the first place and had those conditions not existed, the sentence would not have been needed. But… everything works together and nothing happens in a vacuum. So now I sit and wait, hoping that the remedy works and that our house purchase goes forward.

The metaphor is, as they say, applicable across many applications.

Yesterday, the Navy held a Memorial Service for seven sailors who lost their lives in the Fitzgerald collision. These men went to their bunks after a long and hard day – sailing day always is – and expected to get a few hours rest before reveille brought the ship back awake and the mission went forward. Now they are gone. A ship is shattered and a crew is wondering why?

Worse, this all has taken place on the world stage, where every Facebook expert on the Navy and all things nautical has explained that this simply must be terrorism because there is absolutely no way, no how, not even possible, that the Fitzgerald made a mistake. None.

“You know, Dave,” the eMails and texts all start, “With all that technology and training there is no way that the Destroyer could not have seen the freighter coming. It had to be an attack that killed seven of our Sailors.”

There is nothing I love more than people who have never stood a deck watch, let alone gone to sea on a warship, telling me how safe it is.

I don’t recall the date, but it had to be my 5th Patrol.  We sailed late in the afternoon, which was a little unusual for us. In fact, the ships Supply Officer and cook had time that morning to go to Pike’s Place Market and get some special treats for dinner on sailing night. For a short time we had a pet live lobster in the Missile Control Center. Dinner was wonderful.

By the time we reached our dive point, the night was pitch black. As usual for the area there were heavy clouds, and as I recall no moon. We rigged for dive, made all the correct preparations and then then alarm sounded and down we went.

For whatever reason, I was in Machinery 2 Upper Level, near the escape hatch. The truth is I was probably fucking with the ventilation heaters for my bunk room which were always set way to high to be comfortable… to me. As the ship dove there was that odd feeling of being in an elevator that moves randomly in three dimensions. The swishing of water over the hull was always a comforting sound. It meant we were going deep, away from the surface with its dangerous surface craft.

As the ship cleared the surface, maybe thirty seconds down, a loud, obviously big ship passed directly over us. The thump-thump-thump of her screw was easily – and terrifyingly – loud. Like everybody else, I froze in place and stared at the overhead, counting the blade turns and wondering how big she was and how much draft she had. What about her suction? Was it enough to pull us up?

In an instant, she was gone. I started breathing again.

I made my way to Control, where the Diving Officer, a beloved Senior Chief, was shaking like a leaf and puffing on a cigarette. Everyone looked a bit shaken and the Captain was talking, let’s just say pointedly, to the Officer of the Deck. “We never saw her,” said the Dive.

I was baffled. What do mean you “never saw her?” We have periscopes, radar, sonar and even Mark 1 Mod 0 Eyeballs.

We never saw her.

Had we dived thirty seconds later, I wouldn’t be here writing this today.

People who have never been to sea, never stood a lookout watch or been in the Control Room or Bridge of a warship have no clue what goes on. Everything is designed and operated to protect the ship at all times. Procedures are followed because they are honed from years of lessons learned from previous mistakes and failures.

Yet with horrifying regularity, new ways of making old mistakes are found. Or, lessons aren’t learned. Or… sometimes, something small gets missed.

Shit happens.

I guarantee you that somewhere, some junior sailor was all but screaming as he or she tried to communicate what they saw coming. Somehow, it got missed. I know that for two reasons.

First, once upon a time I was that low ranked sailor trying to convince my senior that he was wrong. I (and even another 3rd Class) failed to make myself understood, and a few thousand dollars worth of equipment got spilled into the Puget Sound.

Second, most Bridge’s nowadays have tape machines running. You always hear the frustration and fear as someone is trying to get information in to to the OOD, but is not succeeding for any number of reasons. There are some things that always must be.

When everything is said and done, we will find that is most likely what happened on the Fitzgerald. Information was passed, but not processed. A small sentence of great importance was missed. And seven sailors died as a result.

As for the idea that this was an attack by the freighter, well… it wasn’t. Merchant ships are big and dumb and they – like trains – don’t really care about why you are in their way. They cannot stop and they most likely won’t try. Now that many of them are operating on Auto-Pilot anyway, there isn’t anybody to even notice you in the first place should you blunder across their path. Every Navy sailor knows to avoid them like the plague.

Something got missed. And two ships that should have passed in the night went bump instead.

My little sentence error could cost me about $1500.

The Fitzgerald’s little error cost seven lives. The idea that the freighter attacked her is an attempt to deny her crew the honor they deserve, by making it about someone else.

I learned a lesson about house buying. The Navy has learned another lesson about Command and Control and Communications. The good news is that those lessons will be learned and applied. The bad news is that new ways of making old mistakes will be found in the future.

Because going to sea in ships is dangerous.


Posted on June 28, 2017, in US Navy and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Yup. Or you can get situations like that which lead to Greeneville sinking the Ehime Maru. Or the pierside sinking of the Mare Island Mud Puppy.

    So long as fallible humans are involved, things will go pear shaped now-and-again. And automation is no savior – because fallible humans design and build the automated equipment.


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