The USS John S. McCain limped into Changi Naval Base in Singapore today after a collision with a merchant vessel near the Straits of Malacca. It’s the second collision involving a naval warship in as many months, and although the two incidents appear similar, a few things set the crash of the McCain apart.
Monday morning’s collision occurred in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes when the guided missile destroyer collided with Alnic MC. Pictures show the McCain with a heavily dented hull, but the vessel reached port under its own power. Still, the ship saw flooding of machinery, communications and—as was the case with June’s accident involving the USS Fitzgerald—crew sleeping quarters. Ten sailors remain missing, and five others were injured.
“Initial reports indicate John S. McCain sustained damage to her port side aft,” the Navy said in a statement.
The fact the McCain took a blow to its port, or left, side suggests the McCain had the right of way. “You’re supposed to give way to vessels on the starboard side,” says Tom Dyer, a maritime consultant and Navy veteran. The Fitzgerald took a blow to its starboard side in a collision with a container ship off the coast of Japan on June 17.
Maritime rules dictate that the vessel with right of way maintain course and speed, even when a collision looks possible. That’s to avoid two vessels trying to course-correct, and potentially making things worse. If the McCain did have priority, it may not have attempted to take evasive maneuvers until the likelihood of a crash was extremely high. That will be the first thing that investigators look into.
The Alnic MC is a 600-foot oil and chemical tanker with a gross tonnage of 30,000. The largest tankers reach 1,100 feet in length, but even smaller ones turn and stop slowly due to the mass of their cargo.
In another difference with the Fitzgerald incident, this collision occurred in one of the world’s most congested waterways. “It’s like rush hour in Los Angeles, but with ships not cars,” Dyer says of the Straits of Malacca. “It’s a choke point, with all the ships going around Southeast Asia going through there.”
To prevent collisions, ships are supposed to use an automatic identification system to broadcast their locations to other vessels. Navy ships can turn this off for operational reasons, so investigators also will look into why a collision warning didn’t alert the two ships in time.
The John S. McCain is named for Senator John McCain’s father and grandfather. The senator tweeted last night that he was keeping the sailors in his thoughts and prayers.
As the investigation into the collision proceeds, and the inquiry into the Fitzgerald accident continues, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson, has ordered a fleet wide review of Naval seamanship and training in the Pacific.