US Navy Memo: Back-To-Basics OR Outdated-And-Ridiculous?

Storm at sea
Storm at sea photo by Anatoly Menzhiliy / Shutterstock

By Captain John Konrad (gCaptain) After reading the U.S. Naval orders for Back-to-Basics reforms and the USS Fitzgerald and USS McCain investigation reports along with expert analysis by naval experts I’ve known for years and trust implicitly… my mind is blank.

The errors made aboard those Navy ships were so fundamental, so basic as to be unbelievable to a professional mariner. But this is not the first time I’ve been at a loss for words.

Many years ago in the Bay of Bengal, during the height of monsoon season, I was Chief Mate aboard a rusting ship built in the mid-seventies. A ship that some naval architect decided to cut a giant hole in the center of and mount a towering oil derrick above. It was late at night and none of the 150+ crew had slept in days except for the Captain who was soundly snoring in his stateroom. A mile away was a Tidewater workboat older and rustier than us. That boat had badly needed supplies and material on her deck. My Captain had given me one order “I don’t care about the 10 meter swell or the howling wind get those boxes off that workboat before I wake up”.

I had not even started to figure out how the hell I was going to do that when the radio operator paged me with the message “Mr. Ambani is on the phone.” The call was short. Mr. Amabni, the man who was paying our exorbitant day rate,  simply wanted to tell us his vast resources were at our disposal for the task of getting those boxes off the workboat.

Then I made a few calls myself, to some people who know a lot about weather and dynamically positioning a drillship… and came up with a plan to position our ship to provide a relatively calm lee for the workboat to come alongside.

We put the plan into action and then I went up to the bridge and called the workboat Captain on the VHF. “Any questions Capt?” I asked after sharing my plan.

“Just one.” He replied in a calm voice. “Do you prefer Lucky Charms or Fruit Loops?”

“Umm…. why?” I asked

“Because you’re an idiot, your plan is going to kill someone and I can only think of one reason why you are on that big ship while I’m on this small one… because some cereal box is giving away free Master Unlimited licenses!”

I had quit nicotine for five years but that night I walked over to the Captain’s secret stash lit up a smoke and watched the lightning dance upon the waves until the sun rose and the pack was empty.

The next day, many people told me I would be fired but an odd thing happened. At the end of the hitch, we were all invited to a grand hotel in Mumbai and sat down together to discuss the “incident”. The workboat captain, my captain, the drilling manager, a weather expert and a host of others. Even Mr. Ambani made a brief appearance.

I don’t know what specific problems the meeting solved but I do know that until that point everything was going wrong for us. After that meeting, we started finding so much oil aboard that old ship that Mr. Ambani himself became the richest man in all of India.

The situation hadn’t changed much, only our understanding of each other.

Today, it’s been 10 years since I’ve smoked but I feel like lighting up again because I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to prevent the next naval collision at sea. I only know that something is very wrong and Kellogs has no U.S. Navy command pins hidden in boxes of cereal.

When Naval Leadership continues to fail miserably, when most comments I received from professional mariners are oversimplified tripe (e.g. “they need to just look out the window” or “Read the COLREGS!!”) and my favorite source of naval insight and military reason suggests the solution lies in cheese (cheese theory that’s old, outdated and has been proven rotten!)… what more is there to say.

But my job with gCaptain is to say something. My job is to suggest a solution or, at least, a solid first step… so… here goes: when was the last time you’ve seen a Naval Officer at a Nautical Institute meeting? How about we start there? Maybe if a few Naval Admirals start attending Nautical Institute meetings they will realize how outdated and ridiculous their memos sound to us ship masters.