Why The USS Fitzgerald Is At Fault, Part 2 – Questions And Answers

Captain John Konrad, gCaptain Founder & CEO
Captain John Konrad, Founder and CEO of gCaptain

The recent editorial The USS Fitzgerald Is At Fault. This Is Why. has been read 103,667 times, shared by 9,699 people via social media and ignited a firestorm of over 500 facebook comments, forum posts, emails and phone calls to gCaptain HQ. Feedback I have received from Navy brass, journalists, pilots and Merchant Mariners working aboard commercial ships has been positive. We also received some highly negative comments from both current and former members of the U.S. Navy Surface Warfare community. This is my reply to them… specifically to Navy sailors who have stood watch on the bridge of a warship.

Why is a reply necessary?

A large portion of the negative comments we received fall into two categories. The first questioned editorial decisions we made as journalists covering the story. Decisions such as publishing the article while the memories of fallen sailors are still fresh in the minds of the community. Decisions such as the choice of title, the flow of the article and my choice to shift blame from the USS Fitzgerald to both vessels at the very end of a long read. The second group questioned my personal level of experience, as author of the article, working with the Navy.

This reply was not written to answer those questions, nor do I intend to retract or justify the choices I made as a journalist. Why? Because these articles were not written for journalists. They were written for Navy and merchant sailors and the people who lead and manage them ashore.

The fact that my lack of professional expertise in Naval Operations was mentioned by some Naval officers, in comments that also criticize my choices as a journalist is hypocritical because, as Naval Officers, they lack professional expertise as journalists. But this reply is not to defend either myself or the article.

The primary reason for this response is the same reason I wrote the original article. It is also, I believe, the primary reason gCaptain has grown from a small blog to the most widely read maritime publication in the world. And it is the reason gCaptain articles have been included in the President’s daily security briefing, are included in the syllabus of the nation’s top law schools and are discussed at conferences organized by professional maritime organizations such as The Nautical Institute and The Naval War College.

The reason is, we listen.

The article I wrote has over twenty-seven hundred words and was the result of two long days of interviews, research and writing, but we have found that, in the decade gCaptain has been online, the real value of our articles is not in the research or words we write (although our track record of accurate reporting is very important to us!), but in the millions of conversations gCaptain has sparked between maritime, offshore and naval professionals with centuries of combined experience. It is YOU, not gCaptain, who provides the bulk of information published on this site and YOU, not gCaptain, who – in discussing both problems and solutions we all face – are responsible for making maritime operations more efficient and our oceans safer.

As the article began going viral just hours after it was published – and with the help of the gCaptain team and a dedicated group of volunteers – I personally tracked and replied to the dozens of comments posted about the article on Facebook and our forum. I did so because of my eagerness to listen and learn and improve both the article itself and my abilities as a journalist and mariner.

I replied to each one of the dozens of comments, emails and phone calls I received from sailors around the world because this topic matters to both gCaptain, our readers and myself. But, due to the growing popularity of the article, I can no longer respond individually to the men and women working aboard ship. This response, in a FAQ format, is the best alternative solution we came up with.

Why so little blame on the containership?

As stated in the article I have very little doubt that the containership ACX Crystal and the Captain will be found at fault for the collision. Some evidence suggests that the majority of the fault may fall upon the civilian ship.

We have not yet enumerated the possible blame that will fall upon her for a few reasons. The first was a journalistic decision to keep the article short and to the point. It was decided to write the second article titled “The ACX Crystal is at fault. This is why.” today (that article has been delayed to write this one).

Why did we choose to write the article blaming the USS Fitzgerald first? The reason for this is simply that the US Navy operates with a lot more clarity, purpose and sense of responsibility than most containership companies. The Navy does have answers and information which they are not releasing publicly but they are proactive in their response, and with the information they have published we feel comfortable taking at face value.

Commercial ships are, for legal reasons, owned, managed, manned and insured by a series of interlocking companies that, even when these companies have good intentions, obfuscate the facts. There are also significant language barriers that exists between gCaptain and the civilian authorities involved with this case…. barriers which don’t exist between us and the Navy.

Others have asked why I did not bring up other problems frequently found in investigation reports of civilian ship collisions. Problems such as undermanning, inattentive lookouts, sleep deprivation, tightwad owners, VHF caused accidents, bridge resource management failure, etc. The reason we did not bring up those topics specifically is because they are problems well know to our readers who have read dozens of articles about each one of these topics on gCaptain.  

An article equally critical of Merchant Ships in general, and the ACX Crystal specifically, is forthcoming but will take more time for us to publish.

Why did you not mention the names of the fallen sailors?

The fallen sailors were at the top of my mind throughout writing the article but were not mentioned, nor was the Captain’s name and personal details mentioned, because I did not believe they belong is an article which was critical of the ship and organization they died protecting.

Why do you condone reliance on VHF radio communication?

This question mostly came from professional mariners.

The answer is I do not condone reliance on VHF communications to avoid a collision. I also do not believe, as some captains do, that the VHF should be avoided. The VHF radio is simply one tool we have for avoiding collisions, a tool which both cause and you alleviate confusion.

The reason I mentioned it specifically here is that navy ships often have a slightly smaller radar target, transmit no AIS data and can be more difficult to see due to less deck illumination. More importantly, they sometimes move erratically. A short VHF conversation can with a warship can help you positively identify the ship and her intentions.

Note: My original article was wrong about the title of the Naval equivalent to the OICNW. That officer is the Officer OF The Deck (OOD) not OOW. I was also wrong about VHF calls being routed through the Combat Information Center. I have up dated the original article to correct both mistakes.

Does Captain Konrad Have Enough Naval Experience To Write This Article?

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As mentioned in the article my experience is limited. Not mentioned, is the fact I have never been on the bridge of a navy ship while underway. This, however, is true of most journalists. The most respected publications in the world do not expect their reporters to have an extensive background in the topics they write about. Journalists are expected to conduct interviews to get the facts straight and that was done here.

Journalists are not expected to read and respond to each comment and update the original article to remove mistakes but gCaptain took this extra step with this article because I care about getting the facts straight.

gCaptain welcomes officers and crew from Naval vessels from around the world, and has done so since our inception, but the Navy is not our core audience. Our core audience are civilians working on ships and oil rigs, I wrote this article from the perspective of a ship captain, for ship captains, not for naval officers specifically. Therefore it does come with some degree of bias.

Are Captain Konrad’s Opinions Shared By Other Ship Captains?

There were three distinct groups of responses. Naval Officers and sailors who have worked only on navy ships overwhelmingly came to the defense of the US Navy’s ability to communicate and avoid collisions with commercial vessels. Most of the officers with experience in both (e.g. Maritime Academy graduates with naval commissions) pointed out my lack of experience aboard Navy ships but acknowledged the overall premise of the article (i.e. that both vessels are at fault).

Read the comments! The over 100 Facebook and forum comments from 100% civilian mariners, however, most agreed that they have a low degree of confidence predicting the response and/or communicating with US Navy warships in busy shipping lanes.

My personal belief is the US Navy either needs to review their watch-standing practices in congested waterways or  make improvements in their Public Relations with civilian mariners of all nationalities.

If correct, why is gCaptain the only publication with these opinions

We are not the only publication. There are several editorials (some written by former Naval Officers) in other media outlets assigning some degree of blame to the USS Fitzgerald. The U.S. Naval Institute has provided excellent coverage of the incident including articles from naval commanders calling on the US Navy to adopt the technology and practices used aboard civilian ships.

Why are there so many negative comments?

We have written similar articles after every major collision in the past ten years and there are always negative comments. The difference this time is the negative comments mostly state that we are publishing too soon and being too critical of the USS Fitzgerald.

Typically the negative comments are just the opposite, gCaptain gets criticized for being one of the last publications to publish our views on the subject (as we where this time) and for going too easy on the ships and Captains that where at fault.

Why do civilian mariners ask us to be harsh while Naval officers want us to ease up? I can’t speak for the Navy but here are the views of one civilian mariner which ring true: “Controversial articles lead to better discussions within the community which lead to a more rigorous investigation which I can study it and hopefully not make the same mistakes.” Said one civilian mariner concluding, “I think professional mariners feel the same.”

Why didn’t you say anything positive about the Navy?

Read the article more carefully. My critical comments were restricted to two people, the Captain and Officer Of The Deck. I also included many positive comments including the Navy’s ability in combat, the enlisted Navy Operations Specialists, NCO’s and the command/communication system aboard ship.

Isn’t this irrelevant? The Navy Does Not Move Goods, We Defend The Nation During War.

This question hits the nerve of every patriot sailer in the US Merchant Marine.

My answer is yes, but so do we!

“U.S. Flag commercial ships constitute hundreds of mobile U.S. bases which can be utilized by our government in many ways for furtherance of our national interests.”-Admiral Zumwalt, From the book Fourth Arm Of Defense by Salvatore R. Mercogliano

This question also gets to the crux of my personal inexperience with Naval Operations.

Here are some questions I posted to civilian mariners on the forum: How many of you know how to navigate your ship in a convoy? How many know how to maneuver to avoid a mine or submarine? How many know how to communicate with the submarine protecting you from Torpedo during war? How many know how to use a maneuvering board to track contacts? How many know how to use encrypted radio equipment or otherwise communicate with a naval vessel securely?

Total positive responses: ZERO

Personally, I don’t know the answers to any of these questions…. and not because I haven’t tried to learn (I’ve sent many requests to the Navy to join their PR tours on active navy ships) but because the US Navy has made zero attempt to teach US Merchant Marine captains these skills. And the few worthwhile programs that do exists have been left to slowly atrophy (e.g. Mariner Outreach System (MOS)) or simply canceled (e.g. navy ops classes offered by the, now defunct, GMATS).

Naval destroyers have never been, and never will be, the first American ships to be attacked during times of war… that distinction has always been, and will always be held by the US merchant fleet.

The Navy flew me literally half way around the world last year to advise them on why gCaptain gets some on scene information before Naval Intelligence does. And the reason is that merchant mariners and offshore workers are the eyes and ears of the ocean and gCaptain simply gives them a platform to share that information. If the navy wants civilian mariners to send them the information before posting it to gCaptain, then they must start by acknowledging the fact that the US Navy does not have the market cornered on the subject of naval war, combat and national defense because THE US MERCHANT MARINE also plays a vital role in both.

It is no secret that many civilian mariners hold some animosity for our Navy counterparts. Several petitions have been started within our ranks to shut down MARAD and Kings Point. Personally, I disagree. I would like congress and the US Navy to increase support and funding of both and return them to the core mission for which they were established…. to supply and protect this island nation called America during times of war.

(Congress and the US Navy can start down this road by giving the US Merchant Mariner’s WWII combat veterans full benefits and status they deserve!)

As stated above, the number one critical comment on my article about the USS Fitzgerald was that I have no clue how the Navy operates. Ok well, those commenters may be right but having 4 years as a navy midshipman, having worked aboard a ready reserve ship, having obtained a Master’s ticket issued by the US Military (yes, the USCG is military), having patriotically registered with MOS to serve my country during times of war and having spent my career eagerly looking for opportunities for naval education and training…. who is at fault for the assumption that I (along with most civilian captains) still have “no clue how the navy operates”?

Why would the US Navy take advice from Civilian Mariners?

The U.S. Navy already does take advice on preventing collisions at sea in the form of Harbor Pilots. When a navy ship enters a harbor they typically board a pilot to maneuver the warship through dangerous or congested waters, such as harbors or river mouths. The pilot is typically a former ship captain and a highly experienced shiphandler who have detailed knowledge of the particular waterway is a navigational expert for the port of call and an expert in preventing collisions at sea.

The US Navy’s Military sealift Command (MSC)  employees over seven thousand civilian mariners aboard over 100 U.S. government-owned vessel that supply and support Navy’s warfighters and war fighting platforms around the world.

Over two thousand merchant marine officers, most working aboard civilian ships, serve as US Navy Reserve officers as part of the Strategic Sealift Officer Program (SSOP). According to SSOP literature Merchant Marine Officers have been working with, advising and supporting the U.S. Navy in one form or another since the birth of our nation.

Why Is There Animosity Between US Navy and Civilian Mariners?

As mentioned thousands of civilian mariners work for Military Sealift Command and, while many have gripes typical of any workplace, the majority have a positive attitude towards and respect for the Navy officers they work closely with. The Navy officers I’ve talked with share this view.

There is, however, some degree of animosity between civilian mariners and US Naval officers. In truth I rarely hear Naval officers say anything negative about civilian marines… mostly they don’t talk about them at all. And it is this general lack of understanding or knowledge or wish to learn how civilian ships operate that rub some civilian mariners the wrong way.

But the majority of animosity arises from the fact that both Navy ships and civilian ships have high risk and stressful jobs operating in the same congested waters but rarely communicate beyond a few passing remarks over the VHF. Whenever two groups of people work together on a daily basis but do not socialize, share story’s or otherwise get to know each other as people, some level of hostility will arise.

Both civilian and Naval ship officers are highly skilled professionals that live in highly insulated social environments and – until they have the opportunity to learn more about each other, ask questions, share stories and socialize – there will continue to be some level of animosity between the two groups.

Does Captain Konrad hate the US Navy?

Absolutely not! I believe the Navy does an admirable job in defending the nation and, as stated in the article, I believe the combat ability of a US Navy Destroyer is second to none.

I believe the officers and crew of a Destroyer are highly trained, highly effective and deserve a very high level of respect. My criticism come not from a lack of respect but from the knowledge that even the best run organizations have things they need to improve… and, for the US Navy, avoiding collisions with civilian ships in congested waters certainly needs improvement.

How do I respond to this article?

You can respond to my first Editorial The USS Fitzgerald Is At Fault. This Is Why via Facebook or via the article’s gCaptain Forum post.

Final Thoughts – A Personal Story

My passion for maritime safety comes from my father, John “Jack” Adam Konrad IV, who was an airmen in Vietnam decorated with two Bronze Stars. Just before I was born he left the Air Force and was working alongside veteran medics and corpsman with the Fire Department Of New York to bring the lessons learned in the battlefields of Vietnam to the streets of New York. From these efforts the FDNY’s first Ambulance Corpsman (now Emergency Medical Technicians) were trained to treat injuries on scene. Thousands of servicemen were lost in the early years of Vietnam while these ideas where being developed… and those live have saved countless more since.

After training some of the first classes of Ambulance Corpsman, my father applied to be the medic aboard Rescue 3, the Bronx’s heavy rescue unit. Unlike most other unit transfers, appointment to Rescue 3 required an extensive interview with the unit’s officers. My father, a lifelong naval history buff, passed that interview when he learned of a family connection between an officer and a family named Sullivan. They talked for hours about Naval history and dad was offered the job.

My father was a big tough fireman and I can count the number of tears I’ve seen him shed on my fingers. One of those tears was when he told my brother and I the story of the Sullivan family and, years later, I could not stop crying after visiting his grave at Arlington National Cemetery. That day I found solace while looking for the markers of the Sullivan brothers because, as much pain as I was in that day, I knew that brave military families like the Sullivans have survived far worse tragedy.

Today a sister ship of the USS Fitzgerald bears the name of a family who knows something I hope never to experience, a family that knows what it truly means to loose part of your family to the sea. That ship is the USS The Sullivans (DDG68).

This editorial has hit a nerve among Navy sailors who grieve for lost brethren. And while I do not know what seven families are experiencing right now, I did learn what it felt like to be among a community suffering from tragedy when my father’s FDNY family lost 8 brothers on 9/11. And any criticism I have published comes with the memory of that pain but also the passionate desire that we push each other to question why these lives where lost and work together to communicate our failures and prevent future loss of life at sea. A passion I learned from my father. 

You can also respond to this article (Part 2) directly via Facebook or the gCaptain Forum.