Not again! USS JOHN MACCAIN and ALNIC MC collision

Another US naval vessel collision and 10 more US navy sailor deaths. What on earth is going on that two similar naval and merchant ship collision catastrophes can have occurred so close together in time? Is the human element the primary cause once more?

Many photos, videos and news reports have already been posted. Only one helped to reveal the navigational aspects of what occurred. This was the ultra-fast posting of an Automatic Identification Units (AIS) data based YouTube. It shows the track of the tanker ALNIC MC as she steamed westwards, in ballast, towards Singapore. Nothing unusual is seen when the video begins. The tanker is seen heading towards the Singapore Strait west bound traffic scheme.

As for the USS JOHN MACCAIN, the peculiarity is that naval vessels do not usually switch on their Automatic Identification Units (AIS) units. This is despite the fact that this technology was largely invented to assist the avoidance of collisions. The time honoured reason is naval vessel security. Not unreasonable as the AIS system is not encrypted and it can be hacked by dangerous people.

Thus, for the time being, and perhaps forever insofar as the general public are concerned, the actual track of the ‘MACCAIN’ through the Singapore Strait and her ultimately fatal proximity to the ‘ALNIC’ is not known. However, an assessment can still be made as to what occurred based on the AIS and contact damage photo evidence already available.

As a starting point, the AIS video confirms that the ‘ALNIC’ navigated inside the Singapore Strait west bound traffic lane. It is reported she was bound for Singapore. As for the ‘MACCAIN’, it is known she was returning from a Freedom of Navigation patrol in the China Seas and was also in the west bound lane and heading for the US naval base in Singapore.

The scene is then set for two vessels proceeding in the same west bound direction along the same traffic lane and towards the same port. Nothing unusual about this and many thousands of vessels transit the Singapore Strait safely and without incident every month. However, something then went very wrong.

When ships are proceeding in a traffic scheme, they are obligated to follow the COLREGS. As such, all of the COLREGS manoeuvring rules applied to the ‘MACCAIN’ and the ‘ALNIC’. This included what is known as the ‘overtaking rule’ (Rule 13) which provides clearly and emphatically that, “any vessel overtaking any other shall keep out of the way of the vessel being overtaken”.

We know from the AIS video that the GPS data speed of the ‘ALNIC’ was about 9.5 knots. The re-incident speed of the ‘MACCAIN’ is not publicly known but such warships can travel at high speed if required. However, it is likely that the MACCAIN’s speed was moderate while travelling in a heavy traffic area. It may well have been less than the ‘ALNIC’s’ in order to facilitate a predetermined ETA and berthing schedule.

Please now look at the photo of the collision indentation located towards the aft end of the port side of the ‘MACCAIN’s hull. The indentation is quite rounded and uniform. Traces of the red hull paint of the colliding vessel can be observed. SeaBlog’s editor has seen this many times before. It is the indentation created by contact with a large ship’s bulbous bow and it was obviously the red painted bulbous bow of the ‘ALNIC’.

The depth of the indentation shows that the relative speeds between the two vessels were such that the ‘ALNIC’ must have been travelling somewhat faster than the ‘MACCAIN’. However, not a great deal faster or the damage to the ‘MACCAIN’ would have been much more severe. Also, the angle of blow was relatively shallow and appears to have been perhaps at angle of about 20 – 30 degrees between the two vessels.

The assessment which can be made from the collision damage is that the ‘ALNIC’ was overtaking the ‘MACCAIN’. As such, the ALNIC, as the give way vessel, was obligated to keep clear of the ‘MACCAIN’. Further, the ‘MACCAIN’, as the stand on vessel, was required to maintain her course and speed. If each vessel had done this, then the two ships may have passed very close together but there would not have been a collision. So what happened?

The AIS video of the ‘ALNIC’s’ track shows her on a steady course which, 50 seconds into the video, is suddenly altered by a massive 90º to port. It’s so sudden its startling to watch. It can only have been accomplished by the ‘ALNIC’s’ Master ordering the helm hard to port as an emergency order. The ‘ALNIC’s’ speed is also suddenly reduced from 9.5 knots down to 0.5 knots. She then comes to a full stop at the very edge of the traffic scheme separation zone, depicted as purple band in the video.

SeaBlog’s causal analysis provides a scenario in which the ‘MACCAIN’ was positioned in the west bound traffic lane ahead of and on the starboard side of the ‘ALNIC’. Further, that the ‘ALNIC’ was slowly overtaking the ‘MACCAIN’. It would then seem that the ‘MACCAIN’ altered her course to port – for as yet unknown reasons – resulting in the ‘MACCAIN’ crossing the path of the oncoming ‘ALNIC’.

The AIS evidence supports a deduction that the ‘ALNIC’s’ Master, observing what was happening, ordered emergency hard port helm. However, it would have taken an agonising 20-30 seconds for the rudder to take effect and swing the ‘ALNIC’s’ bow away from the approaching ‘MACCAIN’. Contact then took place between the ‘ALNIC’s’ bulbous bow and the port side of the ‘MACCAIN’s’ hull. The contact damage to the ‘MACCAIN’ was significant but not fatal as the ‘ALNIC’s’ bow had likely started its swing to port as shown on the AIS video.

Was the underlying cause a human element error by the OOD on the bridge of the ‘MACCAIN’ in failing to realise the close proximity of the ‘ALNIC’? Or, as now alleged by the US Navy, was it really caused by a steering gear failure? Or were the two vessels so close together that there was hydro-dynamic interaction between the ‘ALNIC’s’ bow wave and the ‘MACCAIN’s’ stern that effectively pushed the ‘MACCAIN’ across the path of the ‘ALNIC’. Time and ensuing naval and flag state investigations will tell. However, SeaBlog believes that the preponderance of blame will fall on the USS JOHN MACCAIN and the underlying and ever present danger of the human element.

You can learn more about the critical issues relating to ship bridge navigation and the human element problem at the upcoming SeaProf/BI Norwegian Business School’s Key Elements of Shipping course. KES is scheduled for 10-12 October 2017 at the Amara Hotel, Singapore. It’s supported by the MCF Training Grant and the PIC Cash Rebate as well. The course will include a visit to the Kongsberg Training Centre in Singapore and an opportunity for participants to engage in a ‘hands on’ bridge simulator demonstration. We hope to see you there.

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