Perils at sea

Warships are floating platforms loaded with fuel, ammunition, missiles, rockets, torpedoes, making them a virtual tinder box.

The recent incident of a collision between a United States warship, USS Fitzgerald, an Arleigh Burke destroyer, and a container vessel off Yokosuka, Japan, in the dead of the night when most of its crew were asleep, indicates the perils of life at sea. 

While the merchant ship got away lightly, the US destroyer suffered extensive damage to her starboard side with seven dead and three injured. However, the US crew swung into action promptly and initiated damage control measures that saved the ship from sinking at sea.
Investigations will determine who was at fault and there will be punitive measures including possible removal of the captain and master of the respective ships from command which may affect their sailing career.

Earlier in June 2017, there was a collision between a Panama flagged merchant ship and a fishing trawler off Kochi in which three fishermen lost their lives. Similarly, in January 2017, a tanker and an LNG vessel collided off Chennai which resulted in an extensive oil spill. Collision, running aground, fire and flooding are life threatening emergencies which every seafarer dreads.

Clearly, a career at sea, either in the fighting navy or merchant marine, is not for the faint-hearted. Seafaring, in fact, is not really a career, but a way of life. It is not the routine 9 to 5 desk job, but a 24 x 7 field job where an officer is required to make split second decisions which can make the difference between life and death.

It entails separation from one’s family, long hours of work and fatigue, battling the elements at sea as the ship pitches and rolls in rough seas and strong winds.

The USS Fitzgerald incident demonstrates that even an advanced navy like the US Navy (USN) is not immune to accidents. In fact, the archives highlight the number of USN mishaps at sea with a large number of warship captains being relieved of command.

Similarly, the Indian Navy too has suffered its share of bad luck at sea over the last five years which led to the resignation of a chief of naval staff.

Despite the existence of the ‘International Regulations for Prevention of collision at sea’ and state-of-the-art technology, human and technical errors continue to occur time and again. So much so, ships still collide and many will continue to do so in future. This happens in every facet of life and is not peculiar to the maritime domain. 

Some common factors which lead to collisions are lack of adherence to Standard Operating Procedures, bad decision making, poor lookout, weak training, unfamiliarity with equipment, fatigue, inexperience, sub-optimal use of radar, unsatisfactory repair and maintenance of equipment etc. Therefore, it is clear that despite the availability of the most modern technology, ultimately it is the man behind the machine and equipment that matters.


Warships are expensive floating platforms crammed with weapons, equipment and machinery. Moreover, they are loaded with fuel, ammunition, missiles, rockets, torpedoes etc, making it a virtual tinder box.


The compartments are small with lack of access and ‘habitability’ of living spaces is not always the best. The massive expenditure involved in ship construction means there are fewer warships to take on ever increasing number of tasks.


Warships invariably maintain a high 24x7 operational tempo. Along with submarines and aircraft, they are constantly put to sea for exercises, operational deployments, multilateral exercises, disaster relief, weapon firings, VIP visits etc.


They often proceed in tight formation at very close distances and constantly manoeuvre with changes in ‘headings’ or direction and speed; and even a momentary lapse or error of judgement can have serious repercussions. During replenishment at sea for fuel and rations, for instance, warships can often get closer than 100 feet which heightens the risk of collision.
Also warships often operate close to the coast and approaches to harbours where fishing and merchant ship traffic abound, in a bid to simulate war time scenarios, which increases the risk of a collision. This will only aggravate in the future with a growing emphasis on the ‘blue economy’ or sustainable ocean economy.


Heavier vessels
Unlike warships, merchant ships are larger and heavier vessels which displace several lakh tonnes. Consequently, merchant vessels respond poorly to rudder or engine orders due to their size and shape.

While most merchant mariners are professional sailors, merchant ships are often lightly manned or have a small number of crew to optimise on costs. As a result, an `officer of the watch’ may often be stressed due to immense traffic and the lookout may not be alert due to fatigue.

In addition, thousands of fishing trawlers operate at sea and often, do not display lights at night and may not ‘paint’ on radars until it is too late due to their size and material of the hull. 


In inclement weather like heavy rains, the problem is accentuated due to the effects of atmospheric conditions. With fishing gear streamed out, the fishing vessels are constrained in their ability to manoeuvre.


Therefore, captains and masters of ships and other craft have a duty to use all the resources at their command to keep their ships and crew safe. The sea can be very unforgiving and cruel to those who do not follow the tenets of good seamanship and do not respect the elements of nature.


Such are the hazards of seafaring. No wonder people in several maritime nations have a time-honoured tradition of drinking a toast to those who serve at sea on important occasions.


(The writer, a former Indian Navy officer, has commanded three frontline ships during his seagoing career)

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