Collision in the Singapore Strait: Tips for Safe U.S. Navy Vessel Steering

While operating large transportation vessels like the USS John S McCain, the following are crucial: sufficient training, adequate bridge operating procedures, and operational oversight.

Two massive ships collided in August of 2017, and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is just now confirming the cause of the crash. An August 2019 NTSB news release relates the accident and the safety lessens gleamed from it.

Two years ago, the USS John S McCain and tanker Alnic MC crossed deadly paths in the Middle Channel Passage of the Singapore Strait Traffic Separation Scheme. Ten sailors lost their lives and forty-eight more were injured, and to make matters worse, the property damage totaled to a hefty $1.2 million. Since the Singapore Strait Traffic Separation Scheme is one of the world’s busiest waterways, it’s surprising a collision like this does not happen more often. However, the NTSB confirmed that the case of this ship collision was not only disastrous but also preventable.

The collision likely was caused by a lack of effective operational oversight – specifically related to steering – that resulted in both insufficient training and inadequate bridge operating procedures. The crash was also a result of the crew’s inability to follow the loss of steering emergency procedures, the lack of communication between the U.S. Navy destroyer and nearby vessel traffic, and even the fact that the system was being operated in backup manual control, which removed a safeguard against steering control transfers.

The ship’s crew lost control of the vessel and was unable to follow emergency procedures to secure control, but the collision was further caused by the crew’s untimely change of critical control systems that resulted in an unbalanced thrust.

After this fatal collision and a conclusion of causes, the NTSB issued some key safety recommendations to the US Navy Seeking:

  • Issuance of permanent guidance directing destroyers equipped with computer-assisted steering modes, except during an emergency.
  • Issuance of guidance to crews emphasizing the importance of appropriate use of high frequency radio for safe navigation.
  • Revision of written instructions for bridge watchstanders on destroyers equipped with the Integrated Bridge and Navigation System to include procedures for shifting steering, throttle ganging and unganging, and thrust control.
  • Instituting Seafarer’s Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping Code rest standards for all crewmembers onboard naval vessels.

With the implication of these safety recommendations, the NTSB hopes to prevent another fatal and costly collision like this one. Marine Accident Report 19/01 is available at https://go.usa.gov/xyujj.

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