A few days ago, Sean Sorrentino asked me if I had anything to say about the recently released bridge conversation from the USS Porter right before and during its collision with a tanker in the Straits of Hormuz. Of course I do have a lot to say, but I had to figure out how to say it.
Before I embark, let me first say that I was not on either ship and am not intimately familiar with the circumstances revolving around the collision – I only know what is public. Further, I mean no disrespect to anyone on either ship… unless I make it abundantly clear that I do.
For those of you who only care about my take on the tape, skip down to the first horizontal line; otherwise, read on. Alright, the first stop is to ensure everyone is speaking the same vocabulary. On the bridge of a US Navy warship, there are (generally) four people who really matter in terms of where that multi-thousand-ton object is going:
- The Helmsman: This is the guy with his hands literally on the wheel of the ship, and he controls the rudder(s) back behind the screw(s). There are a couple of different ways he can do his job, both in terms of the hardware and what he is actually doing (maintaining a course vs. maintaining a rudder angle, etc.), but this guy is the one who physically directs the ship. He is always enlisted (unless an officer is doing some training), and is generally a Boatswain’s Mate.
- The Lee Helmsman: If the Helmsman controls the steering wheel, this guy controls the gas pedal. Different ships have different ways of setting their speeds, but this guy operates the lever(s) which tell the engines how hard to push. Once again, this position is manned by a BM.
- The Conning Officer: This is the only person the Helmsman and Lee Helmsman listen to when it comes to the direction of the ship. It does not matter if God Himself were to appear on the bridge and say that the ship must go thataway or risk eternal damnation – if the Conning Officer does not give the order, the ship should not move. On a similar note, the Commanding Officer must take the ‘conn’ – which he can do whenever he likes – before the Helmsmen will listen to any direction-related order he gives. This distinction is rather important, because the bridge of a ship can become a nightmare of noise sometimes, but the two guys actually driving the ship only have to listen for one voice. This role is generally filled by a Junior Officer, and sometimes by a Non-Commissioned Officer.
- The Officer of the Deck: Also known as the OOD. This person is the direct representative of the Commanding Officer on the bridge, and he is not only responsible for the safe navigation of the ship, but also for the safety and security of the ship as a whole. He has to keep up with the tactical situation, the orders of the day, the day’s schedule, any major evolutions going on in the ship, the bridge crew, the engineering plant, and pretty much everything else going on onboard the ship. To be an OOD, you have to train (generally as a Conning Officer), complete a qualification checklist, and pass a board of the ship’s senior officers and CO, which makes sense – you are being entrusted with his boat. Interestingly, OODs technically have the conn by dint of their position, but invariably delegate it to the Conning Officer; in fact, on both ships I served on, it was a standing order that the OOD could not keep the conn. OODs are again generally JOs or NCOs.
There are, of course, a lot of other people on the bridge of a ship, especially when she is doing something unusual, dangerous, or significant, but those are the big four.
Moving on, the Straits of Hormuz suck. Go ahead and blow up the chart to the left (borrowed from here) or use this slick interactive version. At its narrowest point, the Straits are about 30 statute miles across, but thanks to the topology of the area, there are three instances where ships are restricted to two-mile wide channels – you can see them just off Ra’s al Kuh, the northern tip of Oman, and around a small cluster of islands, from right to left. In those cases, all ships are supposed to keep to their respective lanes, as prescribed by the arrows on the map; in all other cases, you are given pretty much free reign, with the understanding that you are invariably in national waters when transiting the Straits and are under an obligation to get clear of territorial claims as quickly as you can.
Aside from the geography, the Straits of Hormuz are one of the busier narrow sections of water in the world on account of all the oil trade flowing through it. Worse, you are in range of no shortage of Iranian missile batteries on the shore, and the Iranian Navy has a wonderful tendency of trying to harass US warships as they are trying to transit.
In other words, this was probably the most stressful transit I ever had the privilege of executing, and that includes the Panama Canal and the Straits of Malacca.
Speaking of things I have done, I have only served onboard an FFG and an LPD – a Miata and a minivan, respectively. DDGs are rather the Corvettes of the US Navy (not to be confused with actual corvettes), and their captains tend to be somewhat akin to Top Gun aviators. I am, of course, stereotyping, but these ships are the pointy end of the spear, are brimming with power (both in terms of weapons and propulsion), and will be the first to fight. It takes a certain mentality to command a vessel like that, and the Navy and its captains know that.
One final thing; the United States Coast Guard defined and maintains the International and Inland Navigational Rules, otherwise known as the “Rules of the Road”. Unsurprisingly, these are not significantly different from some of the road-based “navigational” rules, but, let me tell you, it is bloody dry reading – there are light configurations, signaling methods, transiting instructions, special rules for the Mississippi River, hierarchy of “right of way”, and on, and on, and on, and I had to memorize most of it.
Arguably the most important Rule, though, is also the simplest, and can be summed up as such: unless you absolutely, positively have no other choice whatsoever, do not turn left when other ships are around. Why? Because the default direction to turn is “right”; if two ships are headed straight for one another, the correct answer is for both to turn right. If one does that and the other turns left… well, things get bad.
Which brings us to the USS Porter and its collision.
The general gist of the situation appears to be that the USS Porter was inbound to the Persian Gulf at about midnight, and had passed through the second restricted channel and was headed on into the Gulf proper. Reports indicate that this was the Porter’s 13th Straits transit on their deployment, and the CO was initially not on the bridge during the transiting. Personally, I only did four transits of the Straits, and I cannot say as though my crew ever got comfortable with it, especially what with the Iranians dropping packages in the water in front of some of the ships in our deployment group. Did the Porter’s bridge crew, or CO, get complacent? Who knows.
While steaming along, the Porter came across a freighter showing “the international signal warning other ships to stay clear”; I kind of fault the Navy Times for not being specific about how the vessel was indicating this, because there are a variety of ways indicating a variety of problems on the ship, but I guess the finer points of it are immaterial. Ships showing warning lights have the right of way, regardless of any other applicable Rules.
So, for some reason, the Porter turned left to get clear of the disabled vessel. Remember that “most important Rule” up above? So much for that. We will likely never know why that first decision was made, since the bridge recording starts immediately afterwards, but that already put us in a bad situation. Is it possible there was a good reason for turning left? Absolutely. But I have had COs have me come to a dead crawl to avoid having to turn left.
How do we know the Porter turned left? Two reasons. First, all US warships have AIS technology onboard now, and while the data broadcast is understandably neutered, it does track the ship’s location. Second, all navigational orders are entered into the Ship’s Log, which is a legal, binding document and a track of all the orders given on the bridge. OODs actually have to sign off on the Log before turning over the watch; I have actually stood watches where the only things separating my signature from that of my predecessor and relief are the lines on the page. Those are good watches, or horrible ones, depending on how you handle boredom.
Which brings us to that fateful tape.
00:00 – 00:06: Warship bridges can be noisy places. They are not supposed to be, precisely because of the situation you can hear right now – conflicting orders and people talking over one another – but it is almost unavoidable that as the stress levels increase, people get louder and more people start chiming in. Some of the noise is unavoidable – for example, watch standers must always repeat an order back to ensure that they heard it properly, and then audibly confirm that the order has been executed – but that bridge is pretty darned loud.
00:15 – 00:22: The OOD is explaining a concept that it sometimes takes people a while to understand. Ships steer from the stern, unlike bicycles, automobiles, and pretty much every other vehicle we are familiar with. When you have a ship turn left, the first thing that happens is the stern “kicks out” to the right, and then the bow starts moving to the left; this is something you have to bear in mind during underway replenishments, docking maneuvers, and other tight quarters.
00:28 – 00:31: “’Base course’ means nothing.” This is a true statement; all orders involving a direction you want the ship to go should involve an actual number for the bearing, not an assumption that everyone is on the same page.
00:33 – 00:38: OOD: “Rudder amidships.” Conn: “Rudder amidships.” Helmsman: “Rudder amidships aye. Rudder is amidships, no new course given.” In general, Conns are given a little bit of lee-way when it comes to driving ships. OODs know where the ship is supposed to be going, and that they have to get it there at a certain time, but if a Conn wants to do something along the way to practice ship-driving, and it fits into the schedule, there is no real harm. In high-risk / high-cost / high-stress situations, though, Conns are basically puppets with either the OOD’s or CO’s hand up their nether region, as this situation shows.
Helmsmen are basically always repeating stations, doing exactly what the Conn tells them to do, and providing no input into the situation. Behold: the chain of command.
00:46 – 00:55: When underway, all warships have at least three lookouts on watch all the time – port, starboard, and aft. These are junior, and I do mean junior, enlisted sailors whose sole job is to scour the horizons and provide an idiot check to the ship’s onboard radars with their Mark 1 Mod 0 Eyeballs. In this particular case, it sounds like the starboard lookout saw another freighter poking its bow out from behind the freighter the Porter was attempting to avoid. From the way the OOD was talking, he was looking at the new contact himself while informing the CO of its presence, and he saw a red running light, indicating he was seeing a port aspect on the freighter.
Why any of the surface search radars onboard the Porter did not pick up this contact is anyone’s guess.
00:55 – 01:02: The OOD provides one of the “correct” suggestions in this particular case: come right, and pass the ship port-to-port. Now, he did say “pass them down their starboard side”, but, at this point, it is fair to say that he was somewhat flustered, and “turn to starboard” turned into “pass them on their starboard”. Unfortunately, people are fallible, and miscommunications like that are not uncommon when thousands of tons of metal are floating around the ocean near one another.
From personal experience, OODs getting flustered when the CO is on the bridge is not unheard-of. You will hear the CO repeatedly asking why the OOD chose a specific course of action on the recorder, and the OOD stumbling for an answer; a lot of that has to do with the intimidation of being interrogated by the CO, but a lot of it also has to do with having to juggle two or ten other things at that moment, and not having enough attention to provide a solid answer. Understanding thought processes is important, but discussing them is sometimes best saved for times when you are not in close proximity to other ships.
01:05 – 01:15: The OOD provides another “correct” suggestion: slow down. Almost no ill can come of slowing down, so long as the ships in convoy behind you are informed of the decision. The Porter weighs in a somewhere around 9,000 tons, and when she is moving at 20 knots (20 nautical miles (a NM is 2000 yards) per hour), which she was when she entered this situation, that is a lot of momentum. DDGs luck out by having variable pitch propellers, which means they can slow down and speed up a lot faster than steam ships, but “faster” does not mean “fast”.
Speaking of letting the ships around you know of your intentions, why do we not hear the Porter going out on bridge-to-bridge radio trying to make passing arrangements with the ships around them? On the one hand, freighters very rarely actually have people on their bridges, and the Porter may have given up trying to connect with them. On the other hand, everyone on the bridge could be busy trying to keep up with the contacts and the situation and it just did not cross their minds. On the gripping hand, someone could be on B2B, but we cannot hear them on the recorder.
01:16 – 01:17: “Why did we come up to flank?” Good question, CO. Another good question is when did you come up to flank, and a third good question is why were you not aware of it? Short of a combat situation, I cannot come up with a good reason to come up to flank in the Straits, and especially not when you are busy avoiding other shipping traffic.
01:23 – 01:35: Given that the OOD requests that their speed change be passed on to the ship behind them in formation, and given that the CO indicates the information should be passed over FleetTac (the Navy’s encrypted radio network), someone is obviously on the radio. It sounds like the OOD was asking the Combat Information Center to pass the speed change, which raises another really good question: where was the CIC in all of this?
If the bridge drives the ship, the CIC processes all of the information that comes into the ship. All of the radars, radios, and so forth pass through CIC first on their way to the bridge, and the CIC is responsible for keeping an eye on the overall tactical picture. Additionally, they maintain parallel navigational and track plots to serve as a backup for the bridge and to further idiot-check everyone. Finally, the bridge and CIC should be constantly communicating back and forth regarding contacts and such, just so everyone is on the same page. As far as we can tell from the recording alone (which, in fairness, does not even show us half of the picture), not a lot of that happened. Now, having spent a lot of time as a CIC Watch Officer, I can tell you that we often felt like mushrooms – kept in the dark and fed gos-se – but in that case, you get on the horn with the bridge and ask what on God’s Green Earth is going on up there. Or you get up out of your chair and find out yourself.
01:35 – 01:37: “Passing 230 to the left.” So, we are in a bad situation because we turned left, we have a ship on our starboard side, and we are still coming left. I do not know about you, but this seems like something we should tend to… soonish.
01:38 – 01:46: But, instead, let us discuss how coming to flank was a bad idea. Yes, it was a bad idea. No, the OOD / Conn / whomever made the decision should not have made it without consulting with their CO. Hell, on both of my old ships, if I rang up flank without checking with the CO first, regardless of where he was, I would be receiving a phone call in very short order asking just what the hell was going on.
But maybe we should discuss that at another time?
01:47 – 01:53: The OOD realizes they are in a bad situation and slowing down is not making it any better.
01:54 – 02:00: The OOD recommends turning left, the CO concurs, and orders are given for first left full rudder (generally ~35 degrees) and then hard left rudder (generally ~38 degrees). I am of two minds about this command. On the one hand, turning left is bad, for all the reasons we discussed previously. On the other hand, if your situation looks less like a “T” and more like a backwards “7” when it comes to your course being the vertical line and the other ship’s course being the horizontal line, I can see how turning left could work. You would end up pointing the “wrong” direction when it comes to transiting the straits, but that beats… well, what happens in a few seconds.
Unfortunately, at five knots, there is generally insufficient wash over the rudder to make any significant course changes. Surface ships’ rudders are behind their screws, and if the ship is at all-stop, you can put your rudder in any direction you want and it will not matter. Conversely, if you put over a hard rudder at flank, you are liable to break something. A lot of things, really. On both ships I served on, five knots was just enough to get the bow turning, but certainly not at anything approximating a quick speed.
As an aside, we generally avoided using “hard” rudder commands on both my ships, as the rudder is probably going to bounce off the stops installed to keep it from bouncing off the hull itself, and those are expensive and time-consuming to replace.
02:04 – 02:06: The CO requests “five short” – five short blasts on a ship’s horn is the universal “danger” signal. If you are underway and you hear that, you immediately look around and try to figure out what is going on and if you are involved.
02:20 – 02:30: The OOD asks the CO if he wants the ship to continue coming to port, but the CO orders “steady as she goes”, which is shorthand for “whatever heading you are on right now, come back to it and stay there.” The helmsman announces that they are coming back to 170, which is not a reciprocal course for the heading they were just on. This will become important in a moment.
02:44 – 02:50: I can only assume that the CO is now realizing that he took a bad situation and made it worse, and literally attempts to dive out of it by ringing up flank speed. At this point, it is safe to say that the Porter has successfully dropped to five knots – that order was given a minute-and-a-half ago, and before a 100 degree turn; both time and the simple act of turning will have successfully slowed the ship down. Going from 5 to 35 knots on a DDG is a relatively quick process – they will even “rooster-tail” if the conditions are right – but that term “relatively” is important; we are still talking on the order of minutes.
“Let’s go, get me up there to flank,” are the words of someone woefully… unaware… of his platforms capacities and limitations. DDGs are awesome ships, there is no doubt, but physics are a bitch and will not be denied simply because you realized you put yourself in a sticky wicket.
03:04: Someone orders five short blasts again.
03:09 – 03:11: In what can only be an attempt to mitigate the damage/impact, the CO orders left full rudder.
03:35: After checking the status of folks on the bridge, “all engines stop” is ordered.
03:48 – 03:53: The OOD makes a report to the TAO (Tactical Action Officer, the guy in charge of CIC) that the ship has been hit on the port side, and that they are setting general quarters. The ship was actually impacted on the starboard side, but, at this point, it is quite safe to say the OOD is more than a little flustered.
And that is about that.
So what went wrong? Where do you want me to start?
Why did the Porter initially turn left? I sincerely hope there was a compelling reason behind that decision, because the root-cause analysis basically points to that as the pebble that started this avalanche.
Why was the bridge so damned loud? I have been on some busy bridges and some loud bridges, but in either cases, all of the COs I served under, even the most laid-back amongst them, would have outright demanded silence on the bridge, especially given how chaotic the situation was getting. On two separate occasions that we could hear, bad information was passed, and I feel certain the distraction of the background noise factored in.
Why did the CO think now a stressful, complicated, contact-filled transit of one of the most dangerous (militarily speaking) straits in the world was the correct time to take the time to psychoanalyze his subordinates’ decisions and thought processes?
Why did the CO not relieve the OOD, if not take the Conn himself? He would be well within his rights and abilities as a CO to do so.
How the hell was the bridge crew supposed to keep track of who was in charge? Unfortunately, speaking from experience, this is a systemic problem on warships; when the CO is up on the bridge, as the OOD, it is almost impossible to determine who is in charge of the ship. By all standards of rank- and position-based authority, the CO is always in charge, but by the same token, the OOD is in charge of the safe navigation and operation of the ship. You can see how well the conflicting positional authorities worked out in this case with the CO and OOD shouting out conflicting and confusing orders, with the Conn just trying to go with it.
Why did none of the surface search radars pick up the Otowasan? DDGs sport AEGIS Combat Systems, which include SPY-1 Phased Array Radars (those big octagonal plates on the sides of the ship’s superstructure), which are supposed to be THE premier radar in the world, and no one thought to pick out that contact? And why did the lookouts only see it after it passed the disabled ship?
For that matter, where was the CIC during this entire incident? They are supposed to serve as a check and balance for the bridge, and, as far as we know/can tell, were largely silent.
Why did no one question the CO’s / OOD’s decisions to ignore the Rules of the Road? I can answer it in regards to the CO – people are terrified of them. COs might as well be God Himself when a ship is underway, and questioning a CO, even when you are right, sometimes especially when you are right, can lead to disastrous consequences down the road. Unfortunately, the Navy honestly has engendered a “the CO is always right” mentality amongst the crew, and any observation of any chink in that façade is viewed very poorly.
And Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was happening on the bridge after 01:54? If you are in that crappy of a situation, and no one is right on your ass (which should have been handled by CIC), then throw it into full reverse and back your way out of it if you have to. But turning left into a contact that is passing you on the left when you can already see the left side of their ship? When did that even begin to make sense?
As the saying goes, no true disaster is the work of one man, and this one involved the efforts of the CO, OOD, CICWO, TAO, and potentially a few other people to boot. And, yes, for those curious, the CO of the Porter was fired and officially reprimanded, though he appears to still be active duty according to his LinkedIn profile.
And please understand that I am not trying to disparage those on the bridge or CIC, or their service, or anything like that. But the fact is, something went wrong – a lot of somethings went wrong – and if we do not take the time to figure out what those were and why they went wrong, then there is no positive value of this incident at all. But if we can learn from the incident, and try to ensure things like it do not happen again in the future, maybe some good can come out of it.
If anyone has any issues with what I have said here, feel free to sound off. If anyone has any further information than what I was able to dig up and present here, feel free to sound off. If you have first-hand knowledge of the collision and feel like sharing it like was done here, I will happily publish here sanitized of any identifying information to keep it from being traced back to you. And if you have any questions about anything, please sound off – ship-driving is complicated and not for pansies, and I probably omitted a lot of smaller (and potentially larger) details simply because I did not think to think of them.
(Image of the damage to the Porter is a U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jonathan Sunderman/Released.)