Monday, February 9, 2009

That Sinking Feeling

USS Port Royal, CG-71 ran aground off Honolulu.

Son of a bitch.

As a Sailor and a qualified Surface Warfare Officer, that’s about all I can say, Son of a Bitch.

Unless the investigation finds that the sea bottom recently shifted in a manner undetectable to Port Royal, or that the most recent Navy issued charts are in error, the Captain’s career is over, along with the Navigator and the Navigation Team and quite possibly the rest of the bridge officers on watch depending on the particulars of the accident. Whatever happened, unless the situation is extraordinary – the CO is screwed. Command of a US Navy vessel is not like any other responsibility in the world – always and ultimately the Captain is responsible. Period and no exceptions.

Short of a collision at sea - or banging the admiral’s under-aged daughter - there are few things less survivable, career wise, than running a ship aground.

USS Port Royal is a billion dollar, latest generation Aegis Guided Missile Cruiser, one of the most powerful and most highly advanced warships in the world. In ancient Greek mythology Aegis was the shield of Zeus and Athena, and Aegis cruisers are very aptly named indeed. Vessels of Port Royal’s class were designed to protect carrier battle groups against overwhelmingly massive Soviet attacks – and the capability of Aegis cruisers struck abject fear into the Red Banner Fleet. Port Royal’s weapon systems can knock down dozens of incoming ship killer missiles, entire flights of enemy aircraft, or lay waste to a continent. She’s fast, and maneuvers like a corvette and there is damned little that can match her in open combat.

And her navigation system is second to none – if operating correctly she can pinpoint her position to within inches anywhere in the world.

As an experienced Navy officer, a number of things about this accident catch my eye right away – including the fact that she was at sea for the first time in four months following scheduled refit and dry dock. Skills get rusty over a period of time like that. Sea trials are exhausting. And the yards don’t always get the refit and install correct, including calibration of the navigation systems. I can, but won’t, speculate on what went wrong, the investigation will determine that in short order I suspect.

She hit damned hard though, and grounded so solidly that it took half a dozen heavy tugs to pull her off the shoal – after three days of effort, including lightening her weight by roughly 600 tons.

She’s damaged, there’s no way she grounded like that and didn’t take damage, even if her hull is intact. There are sensors and intakes and exterior equipment, none of which were designed to slam into the bottom at speed. She’ll be towed back to dry dock for sure – and there is nothing more painful and humiliating for a navy crew than to be towed into port.

And her Skipper will be headed for the beach, permanently I suspect.

Which is a stinking tragedy, because I happen to know Captain Carroll, not personally, but by reputation. A number of officers who served under him are personal friends of mine, and they hold him in the highest respect. He’s a highly trained, highly educated, and a highly experienced officer, one of the Navy’s finest.

It would be a damned shame to lose a Commanding Officer of such caliber, but that type of accountability comes with command at sea. There is no escaping it. The Captain is always responsible. Always. This is a terrible and cold reality - but it is also one of the Navy’s greatest strengths. We place great stock and great respect in personal responsibility, and while we may regret it in situations like this one, none of us, including Captain Carroll, would want it changed.

In situations like this, I often think our country would be a better place if we held our civilian leaders to such standards.

But that, of course, is merely wishful thinking.

I sincerely hope that the investigation shows a failure in the navigation system, or an uncharted shift in the sea bottom, or anything that would absolve the Captain and crew of USS Port Royal.

But again, I suspect, that is also merely wishful thinking.


  1. RUMINT says they were conducting a small boat transfer off the harbor entrance. In order to get the shipyard riders and an unnamed RADM off the ship.

    Yep. I never liked those kind of maneuvers... tough enough doing nav during that first, post-SRA sea trial. Even harder when you have to unload the riders without going in to the pier. Small boat ops are always distracting whenever they happen - but during S & A entering PHBR??!! I'm not sure about the risk management decisions there.

    Too bad about this command & watch standing team but you are right. They are accountable.


  2. "In situations like this, I often think our country would be a better place if we held our civilian leaders to such standards."

    Amen. Truly sucks, especially when you have no opportunity to have changed the circumstances, but that's why they pay you the bigger bucks and let you drive the ship. Hopefully they'll find something wasn't calibrated correctly and gave them a false report. Although, they still broke a nice ship.

  3. SA, yeah there's always a risk in dropping the RHIB that close to a high traffic harbor. I'd love to see the plot and see exactly where they were in relation to the channel.

    On the other hand, I can't count the number of times I had Boat Officer in exactly the same circumstance, and frankly I'd rather ferry in the RADM than a bring out a boatload of 3rd year academy cadets on summer cruise. Smug little bastards, I always made sure they arrived in the davit properly christened. ;)

    If I had to hazard a guess, I'd bet that the nav team lost track of position, and especially set and drift, while they were maneuvering for a lee - weather reports that it was pretty choppy. From the reports of how they grounded, I'd guess the skipper put them cross the wind and chop in order to make a lee for the boat - with that many folks, RADM and contractors, they couldn't drop in the davit, they'd have to load from the ladder on the fantail. You know what kind of sail area a cruiser has, and how long it takes to get an admiral and a gaggle of contractors down the jacob's ladder. And with it being the RADM, I'd guess the skipper was on the fantail. I'd bet they got pushed athwart-wise onto the shoal before the OOD even realized they were in danger.

    Ah, hell, look at that, I'm speculating. Damn it.

  4. When I heard about this my first thought was "Fuck, the officers are SCREWED".

    Poor bastards. Sounds like they got it moved with the tugs, which is good.

  5. First, that's awful.

    Second, Jim, as far as I can tell, you were speaking Latin in your comment to Serving Patriot.

    Ships. Thems big things what floats on the water, right?

  6. Uhh. The captain was down there helping people get from the little boat to the big boat. Instead of up there on the bridge watching the blinky lights. ;)

    Or: I have no idea what you're talking about, so here's a picture of a bunny with a pancake on its head.

  7. If the CO was on the fantail,
    The XO, OOD, and Navigator are toast.

    The real question is my mind is:
    Why didn't they drop the hook?

    fmr LT USN (SWO)

  8. SM,

    The CO is probably screwed either way, if he was on the bridge he's screwed, if he wasn't it was still his responsibility to ensure that the bridge team was fully trained to handle the situation.

    As to the hook, my guess (and it's just a guess) would be that they grounded lengthwise. The reports say that she was fully aground, damage forward and aft, to both the sonar dome and the screws and rudders. If she was conducting boat ops, she could have only been making a couple of knots, right? Barely enough to keep way on. So she couldn't have driven aground the entire length of the keel. The only way I can see that happening is if she was pushed beamward, i.e. sideways, by the wind and current onto the shoal all at once. I doubt they knew they were shoaling until they rolled up on the bottom - probably no time to drop the hook when it would have mattered, and by nature of the operation they wouldn't have been at S&A, BMC and the deck crew would have been on the boat deck manning the davit - so dropping the hook would taken a while. From the sound of it, they miscalculated set and drift when they dropped speed to deploy the RHIB.

    Of course, all of this is assuming that the newspaper reports are even remotely accurate.

  9. Jim
    That is a possibility.

    If they did not have Nav detail stationed, ... much uglier for the now relieved of duties CO.

    But very unlikely that the charts were inaccurate enough to absolve this crew.

    Let's see what lessons will be learned from this.

  10. paper said this morning the CO has been "relieved of duty".

    Don't ships rely on a harbormaster to tell them where the shallow spots are? I remember an aircraft carrier running aground in SF bay a few years ago because the harbormaster pointed them the wrong way - though of course the CO is always responsible no matter what.

  11. My first thought was "oops!" and the second was "uh-oh".

    I do have to agree with Michelle, though -- you guys are basically speaking the equivalent of Swahili (I can't use Latin, because I was a Classics major).

  12. Mark, you're thinking of a harbor pilot. Pilots normal embark a ship only during the transit into or out of the actual harbor itself. They usually disembark prior to the sea buoy when outbound and usually somewhere well into the harbor on the inbound leg.

    And while the pilot is responsible for navigation inside the channel and the harbor, the Captain is still ultimately responsible for the safe navigation of the vessel, as you noted. A CO can, and does, override the pilot upon occasion. It's fairly rare, but I've seen it happen several times.

    And that approach to Alameda in SF harbor is a huge pain, it's like a pinball machine in there. If I remember right that incident was one of the few groundings that the CO survived because the pilot (who is supposed to be the realtime expert on the harbor, and in this case was a very experienced master pilot) was the guy who screwed up.

    As I implied in the post, and S.M. said, it's just damned hard to even imagine how the CO isn't responsible under Navy regulation and tradition at this point. However, the investigation may exonerate him. He would have been relieved no matter what at this point however, that's part of the process.


    For the non-sea faring types. Sorry about the technical terms.

    It's hard to avoid using them though, because it's almost impossible for land lubbers to understand how many things must have gone wrong for a Navy ship to go aground. There are layers and layers of procedure and tradition and responsibility that are in place specifically to prevent accidents like this. For this to happen, either there was a major equipment failure (loss of power or steerage), an uncharted major shift in shoals outside one of the most heavily trafficked harbors in the world, or a failure of command. Odds are it's the later, by a significant margin.

    We have procedures for an engineering failure, and procedures to prevent an engineering failure, a ship like this has massively, multiply redundant systems (remember this is warship, designed to fight even if severely damaged) - though the odds of suffering a major engineering casualty are much higher immediately after refit. However we have procedures for dealing with casualties should they happen - and no engineering failure was reported in the press (doesn't mean it didn't happen, but it's unlikely at this point).

    A shift in seafloor is also unlikely, it happens certainly. Especially around harbors. Hurricanes and changing currents can push up sandy shoals. But major ports like Pearl have a harbor sounding team that does nothing but constantly monitor such conditions and issue chart updates almost daily. Those updates are one of the Navigator's primary responsibilities. Additionally, when operating in shallow water, there are specific procedures and cautions you use because the bottom can shift.

    No, most likely this is a failure of command. Too many things going on, crew and officers out of practice, poor operational risk management, lack of attention to detail - and ultimately a loss of situational awareness (which is the root cause of 99% of all accidents at sea).

    However, again the Captain may be exonerated. It's unlikely, but it could happen depending on circumstance. Most likely he'll retire. Most likely the Navigator (probably a Lieutenant) is done, they won't throw him/her out, but the Letter of Reprimand in his/her service record will effectively end that officer's career. If the Exec was on the bridge, the Exec is also done. He'll never screen for command.


    Nav: Navigation, Navigator, Navigation Team, Nav Detail, or all of the above as a function - depending on context. The Nav Detail is set during close maneuvering, this is a full up team both in the pilothouse and CIC, double checking each other and working in realtime from a variety of sensors. Their primary job is to prevent exactly this kind of thing. However, the paper doesn't report whether the nav detail was set, which is what S.M. was getting at. If it wasn't then there was just the normal underway bridge watch with one or two members of the nav team on watch, and the navigator was probably not on the bridge (the Navigator is still responsible for the nav team members of the bridge watch though, and will be held accountable).

    Set and Drift: the effects of wind and current on the ship. Wind and currents have can have huge effects on a ship, especially a big blocky one like an Aegis cruiser. For example, wind exerts pressure against the side of the ship, tons of force even if the wind is only blowing a couple of knots. In this case the wind was pushing waves, chop, so it was very likely blowing at least ten to fifteen knots - that would have equated to tens of tons against the side of the ship. The ship was mostly like abeam to the wind, i.e. crosswise, presenting maximum sail area. This creates a protected are on one side, a lee, so you can safely lower and board the RHIB (rigid hull, inflatable boat - basically a fiberglass v-hull with an inflated rubber donut called a sponson around the top). That boat is lowered from a cradle and crane, called a davit. The davit hoist can only lift so much safely, so normally you lower the boat with its 4 man crew and then the boat swings around to the aft fantail, the rear of the ship at the point closest to the water, and comes alongside. A line, called the sea painter, is attached from the bow of the boat to the side of the ship and the ship basically tows the boat alongside. Then a ladder, the Jacob's Ladder - a rope ladder with wooden rungs, is lowered to the boat and personnel climb down the ladder and jump into the boat. A good and highly experienced crew can make a tactical transfer without the sea painter in seconds, but you really need to know what you're doing. And you'd never do that with contractors or a RADM (Rear Admiral, a one star). And this takes time, Admirals always want to shoot the shit with the skipper before they climb over the side, contractors would have equipment and are usually out of shape and overweight. One at a time on the ladder. Take too long and the wind pushes you a long, long way sideways. With a boat alongside, the ship is only making a few knots, barely enough to keep water moving over the rudders (called maintaining steerage). She might have been drifting sideways faster than she was moving forward.

    Dropping the hook - letting go the anchor. Last ditch emergency measure to stop the ship and keep from grounding. You do this if you lose steerage or propulsion in the channel, or when headed at the rocks, or etc. In this case they had a boat alongside, they were making way (moving forward though the water), dropping the hook would have most likely caused the anchor to slam into the hull below the waterline, or more likely the sonar dome. That's a very bad thing. Also, you don't just push a button and drop the anchor, it's an involved process. The anchors weigh tons, and so does the chain they are attached to. It's a major undertaking - and it requires a team, called the anchor detail, part of the Sea and Anchor detail which is usually only set when entering and leaving port. S&A is a huge pain, one of the reasons a ship would to do a personnel transfer via RHIB vice coming into to port is that it's a hell of a lot easier, safer, more cost effective, and you don't have to set S&A.

    Hope that clears things up, at least a little. Also hope you land lubbers have a better appreciation of the shear complexity of doing even the simple things onboard a warship.

  13. OMG. My old roomie had a brother that served on the USS Port Royal when it was commissioned, I think she got to go to the ceremony in Norfolk (I think). Somewhere I some of the official Naval swag she brought back from the trip.

    He was the guy that ran up under a helicopter when it landed on deck and hooked it to the deck before the chopper quit moving. Usually with the deck moving wildly about.

    We thought he was nuts. Then he took shipboard fireman training and confirmed his lack of sanity. He's made a career out of it and is still stationed in Hawaii, happily teaching fellow sailors how to be firemen on the sea.

    And I'll be this incident just killed him, the Port Royal was his home for many years.

    Here's to ya Ray!


  14. Sorry 'bout the duplicate post, the browser froze just as I hit send. Jim, feel free to remove the first of the two.

  15. Heh, so I got it in reverse. People were moving from the big boat to the little boat. ;)

    *shutting up now*

  16. No problem, Wendy, done.

    And the RAST guys, well, they're a special breed of crazy. For those of you who aren't familiar with this subject, RAST is a special cable system used to assist certain helicopters in landing and takeoff from a RAST equipped cruisers, destroyers, and frigates. Basically, it's a trolley, fixed in a track on the landing deck, with a cable and winch assembly. The helo comes into hover over the pitching deck, a seaman (Wendy's friend, i.e. the expendable guy) runs out under the hovering bird (pictures this in high wind, pitching seas, moving ship, and the helo which is not actually hovering, it only looks that way - the helo is really flying along at the same speed as the ship. And the ship is moving up and down in the waves, sometimes as much as twenty or thirty feet, and rolling from side to side, and the winds are shifting...getting the picture? No, you're really, really not), then the RAST guy reaches up with a long pole and the cable and hooks the belly of the bird. Then the bird goes to full power, attempting to lift against the cable, then they winch it down on the deck. There is literally tons of tension on that cable, if it snaps somebody is very likely going to die. The idea is that if any of about a thousand things go wrong, you blown the cable and the bird bounces straight up into the air and away. Then you try again, or you go try to fish what's left of the flight crew out of the drink. If you really want to have fun, do it at night, with the lights off and wearing night vision googles.

    Then there's chocking and chaining, once the bird is on the deck, either via RAST or normal landing, a crew has to secure the bird. Remember it's on wheels, it weighs tons, it's very top heavy, the ship is moving. A helo can easily roll right over the side - and has, many times. This is the arguably the most dangerous point of the landing or take off, when the blades are still spinning, but not enough to provide lift, and the bird is not secured. If the ship rolls and the bird tips, the spinning blades will chop the chain crew to pieces, then strike the deck and tear the aircraft apart. If the bird rolls it can crush the guys under it.

    Flight ops is one of the most dangerous things we do. Most of us would rather be in combat than doing it - and on deployment and during workups you might doing five, six, tens times a day. Flight deck guys get extra pay, just because it's so dangerous.

    MWT, according to the paper, big ship to little boat. But the boat could also have been bringing people out to the ship as well. We do PAX transfer via small boat all the time.

  17. Well, we suspected Raymond was a special kinda crazy long before he joined the Navy...I think his poor sister freaked the first time he told us what his actual duties were on the ship!

    Great non-technical description, too. Ours came with sound effects and crew-mate harassment in the background during a port-call phone session in the wee hours of the morning. Somehow he was always stationed on the opposite side of the world and I learned to accept the collect charges, call the roomie, make small talk until she woke up enough to pick up the phone and I went back to sleep.

    Memories...got to call her tonight and see how Ray's doing now.


  18. Jim, I always expected the complexity, and having the "ground" under your feet moving around in lots of directions at the same time makes things worse. (This from someone who gets seasick on a lake, mind you.) I was just amused at my complete lack of understanding. However, given the industry in which I work, it is a bit of the pot calling the kettle black, eh? And thanks for explaining things in English.

  19. Jim,

    Methinks your speculations are pretty good ones. IIRC, there was a nasty cross current that ran across the entrance channel at Pearl. One that caused you to keep up some speed and crab all the way into harbor (or at least past the mouth).

    I can't believe the ship would do something like that in the entrance reach, but probably right outside the start of it tho'. The current there would no doubt be big trouble, especially if trying to make a lee to ease a pax transfer!

    If it was so choppy offshore, why do the transfer off shore at all?? Again, some poor risk management considerations there; and given the first underway, new skipper (his first underway?) and flag/contractors aboard, someone needed the COs back on risk assessment (ahem, Mr. Admiral!!!). No doubt the Safety Center report will be declassed and published for all to understand, and heed, the failures.



Comments on this blog are moderated. Each will be reviewed before being allowed to post. This may take a while. I don't allow personal attacks, trolling, or obnoxious stupidity. If you post anonymously and hide behind an IP blocker, I'm a lot more likely to consider you a troll. Be sure to read the commenting rules before you start typing. Really.