2017 was a bad year for the US surface Navy. Two deadly collisions between warships and commercial vessels killed 17 sailors. Like many I thought ‘How can this happen?’ given how well equipped, particularly with respect to navigation equipment, these ships are. Turns out, complacency played a large part in both of these tragedies. There were other contributing factors, including miscommunication, lack of adherence to standard procedures, training deficiencies, etc, but complacency is an insidious phenomenon that affects us all and so is the one I’d like to focus on.
If you think as a recreational boater that you don’t have anything to learn from these incidents, I would respectfully suggest that you are mistaken. Complacency can kill you, or others, in a center console fishing boat just as sure as it can kill you on a capital warship. The essence of these lessons apply to you, me, and anyone else who ventures out on the water.
In October 2017, the US Navy released a public memorandum to tell what happened. It is the most forthcoming, brutally honest document I’ve ever seen the U.S. military release. Not only is it painfully and heart rendingly detailed, it has also been carefully ‘de-jargonized’ so that anyone who takes the time to read it can fully understand what transpired. Part of me thinks this extraordinary document is indicative of how badly Navy leadership was shaken by these events, and that part of the lessons learned included, perhaps cathartically in this instance, opening the curtain wide, leaving no dark corner unlit. I applaud the Navy for releasing it, and hope they can make the changes, both big and small, that over time will make a real difference in preventing incidents like these.
Especially tragic is that the impact points in both collisions were adjacent to crew berthing spaces. Here, off duty sailors slept, blindly placing their trust in their shipmates on watch to keep them safe.
From the memo:
“As the last group of Sailors to escape through the port side watertight scuttle arrived at the bottom of the ladder, the water was up to their necks.”
“One of the Sailors trapped in Berthing 3 had been asleep at the time of the collision and was awoken by it. When he opened his eyes, he understood that he was pinned in his rack, with one of his shoulders stuck between his rack and the rack above. He felt both air and water moving around him. He could hear shouting and began shouting himself…”
Here is the memo in its entirety. I highly suggest you take the time to read it.
Fitzgerald and McCain collisions
Why I suggest so strongly that you read the memo is a result of my background. One of the most valuable training experiences I had while flying helicopters on USMC active duty was reading through ‘mishap’, or accident reports. These reports are always produced, in various forms, following the death of a servicemember in the line of duty. Reading them was infinitely more valuable than hearing somebody say for the hundredth time during a lecture ‘complacency kills’. The reports were extremely detailed and a result of many weeks, days and hours of investigation and event ‘reconstruction’. They were also at times very painful to read. The chronology was always unflinching, first by days leading up to the mishap, then by hours and minutes, and then as the end neared, second by second. I will say this was an unnerving and painful way to learn how a friend was about to die. I vividly remember on more than one occasion sitting in the ready room reading these, palms sweating. The real learning point was driven home: reading this, line by line, is how you rip complacency out of your head.
And perhaps more to the point, reading this stuff, as painful as it may be, is an effective way to combat complacency in all its forms and in all it’s places. Not just on the water, but in everyday life. It makes you think about just how fragile human life is. It makes you think about the things you do every day, and how seemingly routine decisions, when clouded by the veil of complacency, can have tragic results. The ‘mundane’ things we take for granted… Driving a car… Walking down the stairs… Crossing the street. Try it yourself. Read the report. You just might look a little closer both ways before walking across the street, or look a little more carefully left and right when the light turns green, or double check there is no one swimming off your stern before you start your engine. Complacency does kill, but it can also be recognized and combatted.