"Uh, What Happened Here? (Fitzgerald Collision)"
by Karl Denninger
"As you've probably heard one of our destroyers suffered an impact with a freighter near Japan. From where the impact occurred it at first-blush appears that the commander of our destroyer is in serious trouble. For those unfamiliar with nautical rules of the road if you get hit on the starboard side you probably are at fault because you're the "give way" vessel and the other is stand-on. That is, the other vessel is supposed to maintain course and speed, you are supposed to alter course to remain clear.
Further, there are two other considerations - first, that if you're in doubt as to whether the risk of collision exists you're required to assume it does, and second, you're required to maintain an adequate lookout (using whatever you have, including people, radar, etc) so as to be able to assess the safety of proceeding on your current course and speed and, if you can't, you must reduce speed to bare steerageway until you can (e.g. in heavy precip that renders radar and lookouts useless, etc.) Then there's the "catch-all" which is that you are required to do anything in your power to avoid a collision if you determine that you're at imminent risk, even if it means breaking the rules!
The upshot of the way the navigation rules are written is that if there's a collision it is almost never the case that either master is absolved. The only real way you avoid some responsibility is if you're properly anchored (and dayshaped/lit) or tied to a pier. If you're legally underway (moving or not) you're going to get some percentage of the fault, in short. But then this showed up and calls into question exactly where the split of fault lies.
Boy that looks suspicious. First, the freighter doubled back at speed and then altered course again just before the impact. Remember, this happened in clear weather, at night. There is no reason to believe visibility was impaired or anything of the sort. The first violent, unsolicited maneuver (doubling back) looks suspicious standing alone given that the vessel's intended path was northeast if it was proceeding as-planned. The second course adjustment southward just before the impact looks even worse.
I remind you that boats do not have brakes and although a destroyer is very maneuverable "on balance" compared against, say, a container ship, you're not stopping one all that quickly. Nor would the master of said vessel (whoever was on watch at the time; the commander was presumably sleeping) have had any reason to expect a violent maneuver by the stand-on vessel approaching it and which, on its present course and speed immediately prior, would pass well clear without incident.
If this was an intentional act then everything changes. No, the master of the Fitzgerald is still not faultless, but there's a hell of a difference between negligent navigation and failure to avoid the consequences of an intentional act by another vessel. Was it? I suspect the investigation will get to the bottom of this. Modern ships all have automated transponder equipment on them that provides course and speed ("AIS") and thus it's available to anyone who cares to look what that commercial vessel did.
The question now becomes why. Why was the first near-180 degree turn made and then why was course altered again southward just prior to the impact, given that the second alteration, had it not been made, would have almost-certainly led to safe passage. Further, do the timelines square with this or do they suggest something else? In short was the collision the result of negligence or an intentional act?”