Something tragic happened off the coast of Japan on June 17th. It’s not entirely clear how it happened, but seven sailors are now dead. What we do know is that a U.S. Navy destroyer collided with a much larger cargo ship. Blame has been placed on the destroyer’s crew, but there’s a lot about this that doesn’t add up.

Onboard The Cargo Ship

In a report from Reuters yesterday, Capt. Ronald Advincula, who was in command of the ACX Crystal container ship and its 20 crewmembers, said that the destroyer failed to take evasive action or respond to warning signals, and that his ship tried for 10 minutes to avoid the oncoming destroyer.

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Reuters claims to have had access to a statement given by Advincula to Dainichi Investment Corporation, the owner of the ship, that claims the ACX Crystal tried using flashing lights to warn the Fitzgerald after the destroyer “suddenly” changed to a course to cross the freighter’s path.

In response to the destroyer changing course, Advincula claims his vessel steered hard to starboard (turning right) to avoid the Fitzgerald, but was unable to avoid the collision that occurred in clear weather at approximately 1:30 a.m. local time.

The ACX Crystal

Immediately after the collision, Advincula admitted there was “confusion” on the ACX Crystal’s bridge, but said his ship did eventually turn around, and returned to the site where the Fitzgerald’s crew was fighting to keep the ship from sinking and finally reported the collision to the Japanese Coast Guard almost an hour after the two ships collided.

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But while the results of an official investigation may settle things at a later date, for now, some evidence shows the incident may not be that clear cut.

What The Data Says

Steffan Watkins is an information technology security consultant and master of open source intelligence (OSINT) gathering. His website Vessel of Interest has provided the best analysis of the collision available, and speaking to Foxtrot Alpha, he couldn’t disagree more with the initial statements of the ACX Crystal’s captain.

“If it wasn’t such a terrible situation his comments would be comical,” Watkins said. “The evidence provided by AIS clearly shows a different story. The merchant was on autopilot and very likely no one was on the bridge of the ACX Crystal at the time of the collision.”

AIS refers to the Automated Identification System that has been aboard merchant ships since the mid-1990s, originally designed to prevent collisions at sea by using a radio-based transponder to broadcast a ship’s location to other AIS-equipped ships nearby.

Watkins said that based on the AIS data he has seen, he has serious doubts about the statements made by the ACX Crystal’s captain.

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“He talked about this 10-minute window where he tried to avoid the destroyer but was unable to, because of how the destroyer was maneuvering,” Watkins said. “Well, if after the first five minutes, why didn’t the captain try something different?”

The amount and range of the information passed via onboard AIS transponders has increased in recent years. Satellites now rapidly share the information worldwide making it available to internet users on websites like Marine Traffic. In 2002, the International Maritime Organization mandated that all ships over 300 gross tons be equipped with AIS, meaning the speed, unique identification, course and position of most merchant ships was available for all to see.

The AIS for the ACX Crystal tells an interesting story—though only the Crystal’s story. U.S. Navy warships are equipped with AIS but the system is usually not turned on to ensure their movements can’t be tracked, which makes obvious sense for a military ship.

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Yet, the data compiled from AIS on the Crystal implies a situation where it is apparent that the ship was on auto-pilot with no one on the bridge to oversee the ship’s movement.

Fifteen minutes before the collision the ACX Crystal was headed almost due east but within minutes a course change occurred, turning the merchant ship to port (that’s the left for you land-dwellers) and on a path that would result in colliding with the Fitzgerald.

For nine minutes, the Crystal closed on the destroyer while its auto-pilot followed the programmed course change. In those nine minutes, using the speed AIS has provided, the Crystal covered just over three nautical miles.

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At 1:30 a.m. the impact occurred with the Crystal slamming into the superstructure of the Fitzgerald, and the freighter’s bulbous bow spearing the destroyer beneath the waterline, creating a massive hole in the ship.

Three minutes later, the Crystal swung to starboard (right) 65 degrees and slowed considerably—but didn’t stop. Within six minutes of the collision, the Crystal untangled itself from the destroyer, and – as if nothing happened – the Crystal begins to pick up speed and returns to its original course.

Thirty minutes after the incident, the Crystal finally slowed down, and its course reversed.

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This video created by Watkins shows the apparent path of the ACX Crystal. At around 17 seconds into the video the collision occurs.

Was This The Result Of Military Mistakes?

In the wake of the incident the prevalent argument has been that collisions at sea by naval ships are rare, yet since 2012 there have been at least nine collisions involving 11 different ships. Those numbers do not even account for another four groundings, including the total loss of one minesweeper.

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Each command is different, and thus each crew develops a unique personality and crew culture. This culture is very much a determining factor in most of the incidents. A lax culture will create problems that infect the crews ability to function as the job demands.

A perfect example of the latter at work nearly cost the U.S. Navy a submarine in 2009. USS Hartford was coming to periscope depth in the Strait of Hormuz, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf in the Middle East, when it collided with a Navy amphibious ship.

The accident report collected a total of 30 tactical errors made by crew in the hour prior to collision.

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In one of the world’s most congested waterways the commanding officer was not in the control room, and the ship’s navigator was in the wardroom listening to his iPod. Fifteen sailors were injured and the submarine was repaired at a cost of over $100 million.

Most collisions occur in small number of situations, including heavily traveled shipping lanes through restricted waters or choke points such as the Strait of Hormuz. J.F. Kelly, a retired Navy captain who commanded three ships during his career, wrote in The San Diego Union-Tribune that he was firm in his belief that the majority of the fault of the collision rested with the failure of the destroyer’s crew who was on watch that night:

The damage to the starboard side of the destroyer and the bow of the container ship suggests a crossing situation. The international rules for the prevention of collisions at sea specify that the vessel to starboard (the container ship) is the stand-on vessel and the other ship (the destroyer) is the give-way vessel and is required to stay out of the way of the stand-on vessel.

The give-way ship’s actions are to be timely and deliberate so as to not introduce any doubt as to its intentions. The stand-on vessel is required to maintain course and speed until the risk of collision is deemed no longer to exist or until it becomes apparent that the actions of the give-way vessel alone are not sufficient to avoid a collision, in which case, it is required to take action by turning, slowing or stopping.

But slowing or stopping is difficult and in some cases, virtually impossible for a large merchant ship. By contrast, destroyers are very maneuverable.

Judging from the images of the damage, it’s easy to conclude that the destroyer failed to give way and should be held at fault. But it is premature to jump to any conclusions until the investigation is completed. There may well be fault on both sides.”

Mistakes do happen, and these mistakes ultimately cost people their lives; but is this situation one of mistakes, neglect or complacency with the rules of operating in familiar shipping lanes? That’s the troubling aspect of this incident.

Onboard The Destroyer

The Fitzgerald is one of the most advanced warships in the world. For detecting surface contacts, it is equipped with the SPS-67 radar, which – depending on the size of the ship – can track surface contacts as far as 40 miles away. Additionally, the destroyer was equipped with a commercial surface search radar that provided another source of contact information.

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There also should have been at least three lookouts manning the phones: port, starboard and on the stern of the Fitzgerald, who would report any and all contacts to the bridge and tracking parties, identifying any changes in position or apparent changes in course.

One early report from the Jiji Press also quoted the captain of the ACX Crystal as saying that “we were sailing in the same direction as the U.S. destroyer was and then collided.” This makes more sense than his most recent statement claiming they tried to avoid the Fitzgerald for 10 minutes.

Most likely, the Crystal was traveling faster than the destroyer and headed in the same direction. By being on a perpendicular angle to the destroyer the Crystal would have provided a constant bearing to Fitzgerald with decreasing range. Not a good situation, especially in a crowded shipping lane with plenty of contacts to keep watch over. It is very possible that the contact number assigned to ACX Crystal had been at the same bearing for some time and deemed not a threat while the range was steadily decreasing.

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The ship’s crew could very well have been focused on other maneuvering contacts who may have appeared to present a more significant threat to the ship and missed the closing of the Crystal until it was too late.

That would explain why the captain was not on the bridge at the time of impact and still in his cabin. According to the United States Naval Institute the captain of the Fitzgerald was “squeezed out the hull and was outside the skin of the ship” and had to brought back “inside” the destroyer.

Naval ships track all contacts around them and provide what they call a CPA—closest point of approach. A CPA calculates the path of a ship and other vessels and determines how far apart the two ships will be at their closet points. Each command is different in determining a minimum CPA before the captain wants to be notified and it appears this rule was not followed by the Fitzgerald’s watch standers. It does not even appear the collision alarm was sounded before the two ships came together.

Sailors assigned to the Fitzgerald are back to standing watches as the ship remains in port at Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan. The destroyer is scheduled to enter a dry dock early in July to determine the severity of its damage. Repairs will be completed stateside but the time in dry dock is to determine if the Fitzgerald can safely sail across the Pacific under its own power, or if it will need to be given a ride back to the U.S. like the USS Cole was after it was attacked in Yemen.

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Human error will most certainly be the cause of the collision. Both sides will be at fault and careers and jobs lost. Yet the pain for the families of those killed will never be placated by anything any of the investigations will determine. Their loss is permanent.

Gary Wetzel is an experienced military and aviation writer who has authored two books examining the combat operations of the A-10 Warthog in Afghanistan. He also served over six years in the U.S Navy as sonar technician aboard USS Philadelphia and USS Dallas.