The Navy Can Learn from Coast Guard Lessons

By Lieutenant Nicholas Monacelli, U.S. Coast Guard

The Catalysts for Coast Guard Change     

On Pearl Harbor Day 1968, the 133-foot Coast Guard Cutter White Alder , a buoy tender, collided with the 455-foot SS Helena on the Mississippi River.The small cutter quickly sank, entombing 17 of her 20 crewmembers. The Marine Board of Investigation was unable to pinpoint the exact cause of the accident because of the deaths of all navigation personnel on board the cutter, including the commanding officer who was conning the ship. Still, the Board noted navigation discrepancies on the part of the White Alder, including an unexplained failure to monitor proper radio channels and make meeting arrangements. The Board concluded that the “most probable of several hypotheses appears to be that the commanding officer did not realize that collision was imminent until a few seconds before the casualty.” As the first  in what would turn out to be a series of tragedies, the conclusion that “strict compliance with the Rules of the Road would have prevented the casualty” was a shadow of what was to come and of the Coast Guard’s ultimate response.

Ten years later, on 20 October 1978 the training cutter Cuyahoga collided with the M/V Santa Cruz II in the Chesapeake Bay. Eleven of the 29-member crew perished when the cutter “heeled to port and sank in two minutes.” The Marine Board of Investigation found that improper navigation by the cutter’s commanding officer caused the collision. Navigation failures included a lack of radar plot, and a “gross misinterpretation of the navigation lights.” The sinking also highlighted issues in the way bridge crews were manned, failure to adhere to navigation rules regarding radios, and unfamiliarity with navigation lights and sounds.

The investigation uncovered more definitive causal factors than in the White Alder case, and it was able to provide better recommendations. Focusing on an apparent lack of knowledge, the Board recommended a system of demonstrating and recording professional knowledge of navigation rules, and a reconsideration of standard crew manning for training cutters. The Cuyahoga incident shone a light on the need for a rigorous understanding and constant re-evaluation of navigation principles and rules. Complacency and familiarity could not be tolerated.

The 1980 sinking of CGC Blackthorn was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. The Blackthorn , a 180-foot buoy tender, collided nearly head-on with the SS Capricorn while transiting in Tampa Bay. Twenty-three of the 50-person crew perished when the cutter rolled to port and capsized. The Marine Board of Investigation found similar faults with navigation as in the cases of White Alder and Cuyahoga . Specifically, the conning officer, an inexperienced ensign, was unfamiliar with the navigation rules and Coast Guard regulations regarding passing arrangements and displayed poor piloting skills in general. The commanding officer, present on the bridge during the collision, also was found to be negligent in his understanding of navigation rules and practice of basic navigation skills. If the White Alder was the distant siren of approaching danger, the Blackthorn incident was a blaring horn demanding changes to how the Coast Guard trained and certified its shiphandlers.

The Corrective Actions

Before the ink dried on the Marine Investigation Board report, Coast Guard Commandant Admiral John Hayes took action. While holding individuals accountable was important, the real impetus was to address concerns with the way the Coast Guard navigated its vessels. Three particular outcomes are noteworthy.

First, the Commandant immediately commissioned a standardized navigation rules test to mirror a commercial licensing exam. This exam was first administered eight months after the Blackthorn collision. To this day, prospective deck watch officers, executive officers, and commanding officers are required to take the examination. It is not easy to pass, requiring a minimum score of 90 percent, and the policy is repromulgated annually to reiterate its importance. The exam ensures proficient baseline knowledge of the Nautical Rules of the Road, to prevent the apparent issues which caused all three tragedies.

The second noteworthy change was the promulgation of the Coast Guard Navigation Standards, a direct response to the navigatational deficiencies on board  the White Alder , Cuyahoga , and Blackthorn . This fleet-wide regulation, although tailorable at the unit level, standardized and codified the expectations for professional shiphandlers and mariners in the Coast Guard. Frequently updated, the most recent version in 2016 references the Blackthorn and Cuyahoga accidents, stating that, “the significance of these events compelled our Service to make needed improvements to cutter policy, doctrine, training, and standardization.” In providing a baseline understanding, the manual ensures that all deck watch officers and coxswains responsible for navigating a vessel, from the smallest boat to the largest  icebreaker, all speak the same navigation language and are held to the same high standard.

The third important remedial measure was the mandate for underway familiarization rides for commanding officers on board the same class of cutter  which they are about to be assigned. Familiarization rides seek to stave off complacency and reliance on stale knowledge by reacquainting commanding officers with the current state of the art of navigating any class of cutter.

These three remedial measures could represent the cornerstone of the Navy’s strategy in responding to the tragedies of the Porter , Fitzgerald , and John S. McCain .

The Navy’s Call to Action

While collisions in the Navy are rare relative to the amount of steaming performed, it is equally important to note that Coast Guard cutters operate in piloting waters on a daily basis. Specifically, two of the three tragedies listed above involved buoy tenders, whose mission involves placing markers on hazards to navigation where other ships dare not go. Coast Guard cutters steam in areas of heavy commercial traffic as a point of normal operations.

The Navy knows it has a hard road ahead, but the Comprehensive Review of Recent Surface Force Incidents highlights areas where it can improve. While implementing training for basic navigation and bridge resource management (BRM), impacting the surface force culture will take more work. The surface force is already taking substantial strides forward, as Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden noted in his January  Proceedings article . I implore those implementing the changes to reach out to their Coast Guard counterparts. The Coast Guard has used AIS, standardized standing orders, near-miss reporting, and BRM for years in the way the Navy now intends. In addition to the technical implementation, the Navy can review the way the Coast Guard shifted its culture to focus on safety in navigation. Coast Guard operators religiously employ BRM tactics, a product of mandatory team coordination training. All commanding officers supplement the Coast Guard Navigation Standards with their own standing orders. The Coast Guard is a champion of AIS, employing it both as an operator and through its aids-to-navigation mission. Finally, the Coast Guard standard report-of-accident system encourages non-attributional reporting for near-misses, which are used to train and employ lessons learned throughout the fleet. The Coast Guard realized that, no matter the mission, it will not get accomplished if we do not arrive as planned. The old saying, “you must go out, but you don’t have to come back” is no longer part of Coast Guard culture, even as a joke.


The Navy does not have to forge its own path as it faces problems the Coast Guard dealt with decades ago. Coast Guard policies are written from the loss of our 51 shipmates. The Navy could adopt those same policies and practices to honor the 17 sailors of the Fitzgerald and McCain.

Lieutenant Monacelli currently serves as the Deputy Chief, Command Services Branch, at the Legal Service Command in Alameda.




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