O Captain, My Captain

By CajunJoe, a Trail Mix Contributor

When the USS Fitzgerald collided with a container ship last week killing seven sailors, I was drawn back to my own experience both serving in and working for the United States Navy. Collisions at sea involving Navy vessels are a big deal. It is assumed that a Navy ship can count on the combination of advanced electronics, maneuverability, trained watch standers, experience Captains, and standardized rules of navigation to avoid running into other ships. But it happens occasionally.

I was involved in one myself, serving on “another vessel involved.” I was on a destroyer being refueled off the coast of San Diego. Refueling at sea is a hazardous, but necessary exercise. While refueling, the Oiler sets the course and speed, and, importantly, maintains the watch to avoid other ships. In this case, the Oiler failed in this responsibility. A freighter was on a course to cross our bow, and the Oiler’s. Our destroyer, a more maneuverable ship, saw the pending danger and exercised an ’emergency breakaway’ in which we axed the lines and refueling hoses and took evasive action. The Oiler, however, was a big, lumbering ship and was unable to avoid collision with the freighter.

In 2009, there was another collision, involving the guided-missile destroyer Porter, this time with a super-tanker. In this case a voice recording of actions on the bridge was released. It depicts chaos and confusion on the bridge leading up to the collision, not characteristic of my bridge experience. You can hear it here.

While reminiscing about all of this, my mind wandered, and wondered, further, to the Fat Leonard scandal involving alleged contract fraud, which is still sweeping its wide net within the Navy ranks. The Fat Leonard scandal depicts a Navy lacking discipline and dedication to duty. It shows a large, pathogenic cancer on the Navy as an institution, that high ranking officers in highly responsible positions would engage in such venal corruption.

Are these things somehow related?

Has the Navy, as an institution, lost its way, leading to lax discipline and shoddy leadership? Seven sailors, enlisted men all, died on the Fitzgerald, and that is tragic. But were the seeds of their fate planted long ago?

The Porter and the Fitzgerald incidents were tragic accidents, although the Porter might have avoided collision with better seamanship. With the Fitzgerald, it will remain to be seen. But the evidence, including that the Fitzgerald was hit on the starboard side, indicating a departure from the usual port-to-port passing rule, will put the burden of proof on the Captain and the Officer of the Deck. In the end, I feel comfortable speculating that the Fitzgerald, as the Porter before her, was a victim of poor leadership and discipline.


73 thoughts on “O Captain, My Captain”

  1. cajunjoe, thank you for the thread and btw thank you for your service both in and for usn.

    as for the recent tragedy, something that’s had me puzzled that perhaps you and maybe former uscg sturge can answer is does a huge cargo ship not make enough noise far enough away to be avoided?  or is this one of those enigmatic zen koans to which there is no right answer?

  2. pogo, thank you too for mentioning Samantha.  she was good last night….. specially that last piece on words losing their meanings in part 3.  I linked all three parts at the end of last thread to share with the trail.

  3. Patd, noise is in fact used to provide situational awareness that another ship is around, hence fog horns.  Engine noise is generally not a factor, though.  But there are multiple uverlapping layers of navigational aids, right down to a posted watch to look out for other ships. Even at night a bridge should know what’s around them. In fairness, maneuvering in busy waters can be difficult, but your primary responsibility as OOD is to avoid collision.

  4. Pat….don’t know much about boats, I was uscg aviation…..we’d go look for the boats if they got lost…..

  5. The ships, especially cargo and container ships, are huge and take a long distance to slow down and turn.  They are not maneuverable.  Where I live you can here the big girls blasting warnings all the time at idiots in sailboats doing six knots or power boats doing fifteen knots who are cutting in front of them as they are doing twenty knots.  You get a mix of those big boats and all it takes is someone not reading the screen correctly at 0130 and you get a collision.

    The reason the Fitzgerald has below waterline damage is the container ship ACX Crystal has a big bulb at waterline which struck the destroyer.

  6. Spent years sailing in Maine, and one summer in the Chesapeake. The rapidity of approach and lack of noise from container ships was surprising. I was hyper vigilant when crossing the shipping channel on a tack. By the time you hear the drone of a large ship’s engine you had better be making evasive maneuvers because it is very close – and that’s on a sailboat.  If you’re on a powered vessel you’d probably never hear a thing from the approaching ship.

  7. thanks, guys.  guess it’s one of those “if you hear the bullet coming, it’s too late” thingies.

  8. Think you’re on to something here, Cajun. I got to know several former Navy leaders who worked with or for Webb when he was secy years ago. Altho he was always circumspect, they griped a lot about the competence and integrity of today’s crop of leaders.

  9. might behoove us to listen to the experts on psychos


    A commentary published in a North Korean state newspaper Thursday calls President Trump a “psychopath” — and suggests he would launch a preemptive strike on North Korea to distract from domestic political problems

  10. A belated solstice to the trail…nice post, joe.  A destroyer was never meant to be hit by a container ship just like the titanic should have been able to withstand an iceberg hit.   Huge equipment, tons of metal…accidents will continue to happen in crowded shipping lanes where commerce and military share the waterways.  Too many humans and today the newest numbers on the ever growing pile of humans.

    Sustainability for the future?  How are we to feed this hungry mass without jobs?  Lab meat is moving forward.

    The way we eat and the way the food is delivered may change dramatically.  Extinctions, pollution and massive crop failure may shape our future plates.

  11. CJ, the surmise expressed in Military Times over the past months is that the Admirals involved in the purchasing scandals will lose their broad stripe and be reduced to the rank that they last honorably served–generally captain. I think seaman apprentice would be about right. There’s also talk,on the Fitzgerald ‘problem’ that our Navy may claim innocence under a postwar treaty that allows us to navigate however we damn well please. We should ask the  next-of-kin of the Fitzgerald Seven if that’s the right thing to do.

    I took really good care of my people and their families. But when it came to procedural matters and following the rules, I was ‘that prick with ears’.

  12. Flatus, That was the right way.  Re the flag officers– some naval prison time is in order.

  13. CJ, thanks for introducing (to me at least) the Fat Leonard scandal. Spent a chunk of time reading about it. Disgusting, fascinating and darkly funny. Can’t believe it hasn’t gotten more attention.

  14. raw story: WATCH: ‘Blood on the floor’ as Capitol police drag Trumpcare protesters from outside McConnell’s office

    Capitol police officers dragged away protesters from outside the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

    Demonstrators gathered outside his Senate office to protest the health care reform bill crafted in secrecy by McConnell and his aides, but Capitol police broke up the protest.

    Video and photos shared on social media showed protesters, some in wheelchairs or wearing medical devices, being dragged away from McConnell’s office, where they had planned to stage a “die-in” protest as a draft of the bill was finally circulated among lawmakers.

    “The government wants to kill me,” one woman said, as police led her away.

    Officers dropped one protester who relies on a wheelchair, according to witnesses.

    Witnesses reported seeing blood on the floor outside McConnell’s office as police physically removed the protesters, but it’s not clear whether anyone was injured.

  15. Protesters crowd McConnell’s office over GOP health bill; at least 1 man carried away

    A handful of videos and GIF animations have been posted on social media showing protesters outside the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, angry over the release of the GOP’s health care bill.

    One video tweeted by ABC’s Mariam Khan shows men and women crowding the hallway outside McConnell’s office chanting. Another tweet from NBC’s Steve Kopack shows a man being carried away by security.

  16. Feel sorry for BID,

    The TX state government is wiping out virtually all healthcare services and now the new Senate rules if passed will make whatever is there outrageously expensive for the poor, sick, and elderly.


  17. I always appreciated the “pricks with ears” ……you always knew how to act, and what to expect…….

  18. Following a few pricks here and there along the way gave me valuable insight when it came time for being one as a bandleader for any random bunch of moo-Jicians on the road…….lol

  19. I was new in town so I went to the local musician’s Union hall and asked if they had any openings.  He asked me what I play and I told him piano, so he tells me there’s no openings for piano, without even looking up from his papers.  So I tell him I can also play guitar and he looks up and says, “You kidding me? There’s 8000 guitar players in this town, all looking for work,” and goes back to his papers.  I tell him that i can also pull off the fiddle or the banjo but he just says they don’t get much call for those guys.

    So I says, ” Well, I’ll be a son-of-a-bitch.”

    He perks right up and says, “Well, why in hell didn’t you say so? We can always use Bandleaders.”

  20. So LSOS was lying when he suggested there might be recordings of the Comey discussions – or was he?  Waiting for the leaks.

  21. One thing I’ve always kind of taken for granted was that our armed services overall were competent and top-notch……with a few Major Burnses along the way but in the main more Col. Potters than Burns….civilian use of them being at times questionable, but completely able and up to the task at hand at a moment’s notice etc….

    having that become iffy would be quite startling.

  22. The fact that our common disaster has a military like ours at his disposal is also quite startling….it’s like the roman military being at the disposal of one of those really asinine emperors who managed to seize power thru circumstance and luck of the draw…..I remember the story about Gaius Caligula having the army gather seashells on the beach and can pretty much imagine what was roiling thru the minds of several General officers……..

  23. My hunch: Senate GOP intends health bill to fail, maintain cred with conservatives for trying, blame Dems, avoid hurting constituents. Marvelously Machiavellian!

  24. He also reminds me of the saying, “tight as Dick’s hatband,” about Richard Cromwell inheriting the crown……
    Old boy’s got it……what’s he gonna do with it?

  25. Craig

    I’ve thought that the Leader had that Ace up his sleeve for quite a while.  He doesn’t want the noise of destroying the ACA going into 2018.

    I bet this crowd could put our heads together and come up with a healthcare plan that would actually work while making the majority of people happy.  We could even do it without using the Medicare For All knee jerk noise.


  26. really annoys me that that lightweight blowhard is the titular head of our armed services…….

  27. it’s those chicken hawk iraq warmongers all over again, except with morons……..

  28. Republican leaders once again lying to their base they’re repealing Obamacare. They know it shouldn’t be done and it won’t.

  29. “With all of the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information, I have no idea whether there are ‘tapes’ or recordings of my conversations with James Comey,” Trump said Thursday in a pair of statements on Twitter, “but I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings.”

    however, those pesky russkys who transcribed his oval ofc mtg with them might have a tape….

  30. maybe comey was wired…….

    seems odd that a call to the fbi would not be……recorded.

  31. craig, they still could finesse it by introducing a bill loudly proclaiming they’ve repealed aca and replaced it as amended, by changing the name to ahca and tweaking here and there enough to pickup moderates.  

    hard to underestimate a bunch who can deny global warming, who insist they have a mandate while losing popular vote and who faced with polls otherwise insist the people want the rich to get tax cuts at the expense of healthcare.

  32. patd

    A new law bill would require 60 votes for passage.  The current iteration is a “finance” bill referencing current legislation which only requires 51 votes to pass.

    Weasels at work.


  33. Jamie, those weasels can weasel that imagined repeal/replace language in their “finance” bill and chew gum at the same time.

  34. wapo reports on scotus:

    The government may not strip someone’s citizenship for lying during the naturalization process without proving the falsehood is relevant, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

    The court unanimously rejected the government’s view that simply proving that someone lied during the process was enough. Justice Elena Kagan said that would give the government too much power.

    “The government opens the door to a world of disquieting consequences,” Kagan wrote, adding that it would “give prosecutors nearly limitless leverage — and afford newly naturalized Americans precious little security.”

  35. Sturg, all the calls are recorded I bet (yours, mine, theirs…) it’s the little private meetings, with and without candles and dessert, that weren’t – supposedly, conveniently since we can all likely guess who was lying, and my money is on “It Wasn’t Comey”.

    Poobah, intentional failure of AHCA?  That would be so unlike McConnell wouldn’t it? (Although the ass is one cunning SOB).

  36. tell you what…..if those hacker goomers can foment a civil war or revolution in the USA there will BE some worldwide dancing in the streets.

  37. I saw this meme on the facebook…..top picture was a bunch of fairly vacuous looking left leaning protestors…..the caption read, “We want Civil War!……The Left

    The bottom picture was of a bunch of well armed militia goobers out in the woods. The caption was, “Oh, really?”

    you know……like they think the civil war is going to be between a bunch of goobers with rifles, and a bunch of un-armed liberals. The conceit is astounding.

  38. if those militia goobers were to invade and pacify Detroit, you think they’d make it past 5 pm?

  39. Here’s Macchiavellian : The repubs could come up 2 votes short in the Senate. If the bill is a wretched as the first two renditions, then two Dem Senators say that they wish to change their vote. That puts the fate of the wretched bill into the hands of the vice usurper, super ripofflican mike pence. If he votes for it, he ruins his national ambitions forever. If he votes no, then trump can’t blame the Dems.
    If mcconnell does not allow the re-vote, then the loss is on his shoulders.
    Either way, the pugs lose.

  40. I’m reminded of the time the French took Moscow and Cutusov says, “Hand me another vodka….”

  41. Had an appointment with the eye doc late this morning. I hate those appts–the waits–three sets of drops, etc. At least the doc and his staff seem competent and caring. And my glaucoma has me and them to contend with; formidable.

  42. Remember how all the republicans were soiling their drawers over the impeachment of Bill Clinton?
    This is going to be better.

  43. Napoleon got out of Russia dressed as an old woman in a dog sled……ahhh, the indignities we must endure to be cock-of-the-walk…….

  44. Nap……Talleyrand, we’ll just have to eat one of the dogs.
    Tally……Touch those dogs and I’ll kill you myself.

  45. Mr Sturgeone,

    If this Detroit Apocalypse begins at 12:01AM on December 21, the goobers won’t make it to dawn. On the other hand, it will use up a lot of the gangsters’ and goobers’ ammo. That’d be good for Chicago and Indianapolis.

  46. I always wondered where Talleyrand got this ability to mush a dogsled………where was he from, anyway?

  47. If they invade Detroit……all i can say is they better leave Cliff Bells club alone.That’s all i got to say about that.

  48. Does the modern Navy lack discipline?  And, is it the reason for an accident at sea?  In my mind to the latter, there is little or no cause and effect here for the Fitzgerald accident.  The sea is an unkind mistress.  There have been accidents at sea since the times of Homer in Greek tragedy.  Today, there is more sea traffic than ever; thus, the chances for an accident have increased even with more sophisticated technology.

    The first part of the question about lack of discipline is more pressing for me.  I served in the Navy from 1957-1961 with three full years at sea.  Once a sailor always a sailor, so I follow Navy news a bit closer than most.  The Navy has changed quite a bit in the sixty years since I joined up.  Uniform changes, tradition changes, technology changes, and, of course, with no hint of sexism, women serving aboard ship, which is a good thing.  All of these changes has brought about a “softening” of group expectations and more expectations on the individual sailor. Boot camp, where group expectations are nurtured, has been reduced from 14 weeks to ten.

    Leadership changes from the top down with changing roles have created a new Navy.  Talk to any sailor prior to Admiral Zumwalt’s zgrams and you can see some of the changes.  Talk to any sailor who crossed the equator in the old Navy and they will tell you today’s crossing is a joke.  Camouflage in blue tones as the work uniform is crazy.  Who are they hiding from?  Dungarees for me (see the photo).  A chicken hawk president who wears his Captain’s cap and watch jacket with six deferments is an insult to the Navy and all branches of the military.  Trump doesn’t even know where his ships and submarines are located world-wide (see my post on Lost at Sea).

    When I reported aboard the USS Essex (CVA 9) in December 1957 I was shown my bunk in a chain rack four high that I had to practically step on a sailor or two in lower bunks to go to bed.  Today, each sailor has an individual rack with a tv and dvr.  Mail was mostly a once a week event or more often if you were in port.  Today, the internet and FB is ubiquitous on board just about every ship.

    One last vent, and I’ll quit.  After four years in the Navy and three years at sea with brushes with cold war Soviets and landings in Lebanon and protecting Taiwan when live shells were being exchanged, I had one medal to show on my uniform.  My nephew, who has been in the Navy for five years, has two and a half rows of ribbons, including one for being on duty the body of Osama bin Laden was brought aboard the Vinson for a sea burial.  Little league where every player gets a trophy for playing, and another one for sliding into second base (this last one I made up).

    O Captain, My Captain, where has the Navy gone?

  49. CJ.  Provocative post today.  Thx.  Here’s a photo of refueling at sea. Fun and games.  My job was to establish communications between the ships by telephone.  First line from one ship to the other, so I had to wait until the refueling was complete to get back my equipment.  Only saw one breakaway.  Not pretty and the sea was too rough to maintain contact without hitting each other.  Tried again the next day.  Didn’t want to run out of fuel or food.

  50. One more refueling at sea on the Essex in 1958.  Don’t know the exact date.  It could have been taken any number of time as we left Mayport, FL, in December 1957 and didn’t return until November 1958.  It was an  eleven month cruise that took us to the Med, where we participated in the Lebanon Landings, through the Suez on the way to Formosa (Taiwan today) where we were on station as the Chinese shelled the small islands off the Chinese coast.  Then down through the Indian Ocean to South Africa over to the Atlantic and Rio before returning to Mayport.  Join the Navy and See the World.  True!

  51. Obama on Senate bill: It’s ‘not a health care bill’ – CNN




    “It’s a massive transfer of wealth from middle-class and poor families to the richest people in America,” he wrote.

    “It hands enormous tax cuts to the rich and to the drug and insurance industries, paid for by cutting health care for everybody else.

    Those with private insurance will experience higher premiums and higher deductibles, with lower tax credits to help working families cover the costs, even as their plans might no longer cover pregnancy, mental health care, or expensive prescriptions.”



    Not that Obamacare has worked here. You know, if he hadn’t let the financial weasels in the insurance industry have so much input, maybe it would’ve been more durable.

    We need single payer.

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