Two Navy Careers Almost Ended in San Diego This Week

In San Diego Bay on Tuesday, the Guided Missile Destroyer(DDG-92) Momsen and Land Dock Ship(LSD-49) Harpers Ferry nearly collided while maneuvering in the harbor. One coming in and the other going out. The Navy is investigating the incident which will have repercussions for one and possibly both skippers of the ships.   The incident occurred sometime in the morning Pacific Standard Time.

The people at San Diego Webcam posted a long video of the incident that shows the narrow channel as large warships transit in and out of the harbor.  Both ships have “Side Boys” on the railings.  This is a common practice and form of salute as ships enter and leave port.

The Momsen is entering the channel as the Harper’s Ferry is departing.  Both ships are carrying Navy harbor pilots by the presence of tugs near both ships.  Both ships appear to have been a bit to close to the center of the channel when they realized that they were on a collision course.

Generally, both ships would pass each other on the left or port side under the rules of navigation.  This didn’t end up happening.  The Momson contacted the larger vessel by radio to say they were turning to port to avoid them.  The Harper’s Ferry responded to say that they were making a turn to port as well to avoid a collision.

The Harper’s Ferry had some trouble centering her rudder before she departed from the channel to the right entirely. The Channel in San Diego is deep enough to keep her from running aground which would have been a major screw-up.  The Momsen is a Destroyer and very maneuverable and she can be seen reversing her rudder to starboard and perhaps adding some speed to stay in the channel, though well to the left of it.

Has they collided or swapped paint in a side swipe of each other, both ships would have been put out of action for some time and careers would be ended for several people on the bridges of both ships.

Here is gets complicated.  Both ships had navy harbor pilots aboard who assist the captain in navigating the ship in congested or dangerous waters. These pilots are enlisted men above E-6 in pay grade and come from the Quartermaster and Boatswains’ mate ratings.  Contrary to popular belief they are not in charge of the ship when they are on the bridge.  At all times, the captain of the vessel retains both command and responsibility for the safe navigation of the ship.

In this situation, the navy will be looking at the decision-making process and orders that led to these two vessels having to make a non-standard starboard passing of each other in the channel and the Harpers Ferry leaving the channel. The advice of the pilots to the respective captains will certainly be examined as well.  This event is what the navy will call a “near miss incident” rather than a “mishap,” which involves damage to the ship and/or injuries to the crew.  The purpose of the investigation will be try and prevent it from happening in the future. Neither ship in the video appears to be maneuvering in an unsafe manner, they were both just trying to use the center of the channel at the same time and had to turn to give each other room to get by.

Both captains will be making written reports on the incident to give to investigators.

It is fortunate that one of the ships was a destroyer which is very fast and very maneuverable. An Arleigh Burke-class Destroyer can crank her rudders over to 35 degrees and make a 360-degree turn in 500 yards.  That is pretty impressive for a vessel just over 500 ft long and weighing nearly 8,500 tons. The Harpers ferry by contrast is twice the weight, 100ft longer, and slower in a turn.  Had they both been ships this large and slow on the turns, it might have been much worse.

The San Diego webcam video can be seen here.