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post #20 of Old 03-22-2012
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Re: Submarine versus freighter

20 knots at 20 yards off your beam with nothing but the scope up...and looking at you? Fascinating. Were they lucky, or did they do that on purpose, showing off their incredible shiphandling skills?

I have been monitoring this thread for a few days without commenting, but feel obliged to comment today.

If fascinates me that folks will mill about an incident like this, an incident they have minimal information about, and draw conclusions that have little basis in fact. Others relate stories that are preposterous. Some describe routine and normal events as if they are incredibly unnerving, simply because the experience was abnormal to them.

The events surrounding Kentucky's close encounter in the SofJdeF are unclear, notwithstanding the story published in Navy Times. We don't know exactly what happened or why, but we do know that the practices that are in place for preventing collisions in the strait worked. What is likely is that Kentucky's navigation, piloting, and contact coordination team lost the picture, and rather than controlling the situation, were obliged to use the assistance of the Seattle Traffic or Tofino Traffic to alert them to a hazard. Unacceptable for a navy ship or submarine.

The article doesn't state that the CO was relieved because of this incident. He was relieved, but any relief would occur after a complete review of the incident, to include all factors that may have contributed such as training and proficiency of the crew, watchstanding practices, standing orders, actions of all leaders on watch and in the watch organization (on and off watch). There may have been other factors that weighed on the decision to relieve him, and the total weight of those factors would drive the decision.

US submarine officers and crew (and the officers and crews of our allies) are remarkable young men. The demands on them, personally and professionally, couldn't be met by the vast majority of folks. The duty requires a facility for math and science in order to learn complex engineering and war fighting concepts. The physical demands are significant with continual drills and practice in every area required to operate, fight, and stay safe. They take their responsibilities very seriously, and work longer hours than most of you can imagine for months at a time, increasing their knowledge, skills, and efficiency in order to minimize risk and optimize operational effectiveness. Though some people may not think submarine operations are important, most of these men do, and they do it because they think it is important, and that is important that it is done right.

Operations are planned in great detail. Operational areas are well coordinated within the US Navy and between our navy and our allies. Submerged operations are necessarily hazardous, but operations at the boundary between deep and surfaced, and moving into and out of that boundary involve even greater hazards because surface obstacles are included. The primary sensor while at periscope depth is the periscope, and it takes a lot of training to use it effectively. (Imagine that you had to sail your ship with one eye closed and the other looking through a paper towel tube.) Submarine commanders know this, and every man on each ship that is prudently operated knows it as well. Submarines operate submerged only when and where they are authorized to operate submerged.

I spent 34 years in the US Navy in submarine operations...15 on permanent assignment to various submarines and as an trainer, evaluator and inspector on at least 50 others. I have served with the submarine officers and men of 13 allied navies. With few exceptions, these people are the best of the best. Thousands of operational decisions are made every day...tens of thousands every week...hundreds of thousands every year. Most are great decisions. Most people never consider that large numbers of US submariners are at sea every day doing their duties with great result and minimal risk to themselves or others. However, very infrequently (but too often, of course) a key decision maker makes a bad decision that results in tragedy (Nisho Maru and Ehime Maru incidents). A bit more frequently, bad decisions are made that don't result in tragedy, but do result in a loss of confidence in submariners' abilities (this incident with Kentucky is one). What you can count on, though, is that this incident and all the attendant lessons have been broadly disseminated to every person who is serving or will soon serve on submarines to make sure that the experience of one ship can serve every ship to avoid similar events.

And the last thing these young men need is someone telling fairy tales about submarines cowboy-ing around fishing boats operating without regard for their own safety or the fishermen and their equipment, and stretching the tales to include operational parameters for the submarine that exceed the engineered capabilities of any submarine in the world.
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