The strange case of the USS Fitzgerald collision

The strange case of the USS Fitzgerald collision
Damage to USS Fitzgerald from collision at sea, 17 Jun 2017. (Image: USN, Yokosuka, JA; MC1 Peter Burghart)

[UPDATE: See the first update reported from Navy officials here.  There are still important questions unanswered, but it appears that the Navy has agreed the collision occurred at 1:30 AM instead of an hour later, and has concluded that ACX Crystal‘s use of autopilot was a factor.  So some of the speculation and analysis in this post is now outdated. – J.E.]

It will help to take a deep breath here, and remember that we have no reason to doubt that we’ll know the truth about this eventually.

Looking at what we can discern about the incident so far, it’s hard to accept that it occurred merely due to something like a system failure or substandard seamanship.

But it’s important not to leap to conclusions.  Let’s just look at the information that’s out there.  A naval inquiry will produce its results in due time.

As Thomas Lifson (and three quarters of my online acquaintance) have noted, the outlines of the Fitzgerald (DDG-62) story in the media are, well, odd.  That occurred to me immediately, when I first heard that Fitzgerald had collided with a container ship just outside Tokyo Bay.  How the heck do you collide with a container ship?  They’re huge.  You can’t miss them.  You’ll see them on radar, as well as visually, in plenty of time to warn them if they’re behaving stupidly, and avoid them if they won’t stop.

They rarely, if ever, behave stupidly, of course.  I then saw the extensive damage to Fitzgerald, starboard side amidships, and said to myself, “That container ship rammed Fitzgerald, bow on.  That’s the only way to get that level of damage.”

That much was obvious before I saw the Lifson article or the other speculation and analysis out there.  Now we have learned that the seven sailors missing since the collision have been found, deceased, in damaged compartments on Fitzgerald.  We have lost precious lives from this bizarre incident.

Just what was going on with the container ship?  Who is she?  ACX Crystal is a Philippines-flagged container ship, which at the moment appears to be formally owned by a Japanese company, Dainichi-Invest, which in turn is connected through its director, Makato Ashida, to the Philippines-based company Sea Quest Ship Management, Inc, listed at most sites (erroneously, I believe) as the ship’s owner.  Ashida is a director of Panama-incorporated Leo Carriers Corporation S.A. as well as Dainichi-Invest, and Sea Quest is listed as managing both ACX Crystal and the Leo Carriers ship Ambassador Bridge.  More on all that later; the bottom line is that all threads go through Makato Ashida.

ACX Crystal operates under charter to Japan’s NYK Lines, and has called recently in Thailand and ports in Japan.  There is nothing nefarious about NYK, nor does there appear to be anything unusually peculiar about the ownership arrangement of the ship.  Owning ships is often an Olympic sport in terms of legal blinds and obfuscation; ACX Crystal’s case appears to fall somewhere mid-pack in terms of convolution and obscurity.  It might merit a bronze medal in an off-year.  Again, however, more on that below.  There are some minor oddities.

According to news reporting, ACX Crystal has a crew of 20 Philippines nationals, who are cooperating fully with Japanese authorities and will be answering a lot of questions in the coming days.  The Japanese haven’t seemed to indicate they see anything fishy about the crew or its behavior.

The “collision”

The most troubling aspect of the incident is the track of ACX Crystal just before the time the collision apparently occurred.  The time given in media reports is 2:30 AM local (Japan) time on 17 June; i.e., in the dark early hours of Saturday morning.  Notably, mariner-oriented sites are reporting that the night was clear and fog-free, which is typical on the east side of Japan.  There’s a lot of fog on the west side, especially on the Sea of Japan (or East Sea).  But June conditions are normally fog-free, with mild sea states and cloud cover at the most, in the area of the collision.

For simplicity, I will render all time references in Japan local time on a 24-hour clock, for the remainder of this post.  Hence, 2:30 AM = 0230.  Japan time is 9 hours ahead of UTC, which is the time regime seen on most maps.  1630 on 16 June, UTC, would be 0130 in Japan on 17 June.  The nominal time of the collision would thus be 1730 on 16 June, UTC.  I’ve used Japan local time for my annotations, however.

As the maps show, ACX Crystal was headed generally east-northeast until the short period bounded by 0206 and 0220 on 17 June.  (Contrary to some reporting, the container ship did have her AIS transponder on, and was transmitting regular tracking information.)  At that time, the ship made a sharp turn, and began a general heading west-southwest.  In other words, it made a U-turn, as referred to in some of the news reporting.

Strategic Sentinel tweet, for area orientation.  The closer view mapped below is the area just west of Toshima (To Island).

If we accept a collision time of 0230, this would be less than half an hour before the Fitzgerald was rammed.  The northeastern-most point of the track, right about where the turn occurred, was reached about 10 minutes before the nominal collision time, or around 0220 versus a collision time of 0230.

After inspecting the information other sources have made available, I tend to concur with those who think the collision actually occurred closer to 0300.  The most likely time appears to be between about 0250 and 0300.  Between those two times, ACX Crystal’s speed dropped dramatically, from a range of 13-14 knots to under 5 knots.  (She then lingered in the area for about an hour, before proceeding again to the east-northeast, headed for her destination in Tokyo Bay.)

AIS track of ACX Crystal surrounding reported time of 17 Jun collision. (Map via gCaptain; author annotation, incorporating data from Eric Meger via LinkedIn. See link in text)

But the entire period from just after 0200 to 0300 looks odd.  It isn’t clear why ACX Crystal made the turn between 0206 and 0220.  After making that turn, the ship apparently resumed a speed of a bit over 12 knots as she headed west-southwest.  But for a brief interval, apparently about 10 minutes, she kicked it up to nearly 15 knots.  That’s what her AIS reported just before 0300 – and then reported a drastic plunge in speed moments later.

(See the detailed and interesting account here, from which I have drawn some of the speed and course-change annotations on the maps.  The author Eric Meger’s map is especially interesting, as it shows greater and slightly different details compared to what other generic online trackers display.  The author has placed a copyright on the map, so it is not reproduced here.)

The container ship also made another U-turn in this period.  It seems to have been just before or after 0250.  In other words, if the collision occurred after 0250, this U-turn may be the one referred to in news reporting.  From her west-southwesterly heading, commenced around 0220, the second U-turn put the ship on a heading nearly due north, for the brief interval that appeared to end right about 0300.

For those who weren’t on-scene, the behavior of ACX Crystal might be interpreted in a couple of ways.  I honestly don’t think that either of those ways is as a system malfunction, or a total collapse of competent seamanship on the ship’s bridge.  It looks, based solely on the strange tracking information, like the ship was either maneuvering to avoid something, or maneuvering to hit something.

It’s frankly harder to reconstruct this tracking information as a series of maneuvers to avoid something.  But I caution you most earnestly against overinterpreting that point.  It is made without all the facts we would want to have, to form a firm judgment.

What was Fitzgerald doing?

One of the key facts we lack is where Fitzgerald was coming from, and heading.  (We don’t lack information like whether there was a full crew on watch, with both radar monitoring and visual lookouts.  On a Navy ship at sea, there always is.)

My best guess is that Fitzgerald was headed into Yokosuka.  The destroyer had been out operating with the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) Carrier Strike Group, which was east of Okinawa in the northern Philippine Sea in the last week.  Earlier, the Reagan CSG was in the waters off the Korean Peninsula (in late May), and Fitzgerald was photographed operating with the group there on 1 JuneFitzgerald’s change of command ceremony was in May; the ship was probably underway with the Reagan CSG for at least part of the CSG’s current period of operations, until tasked to return to port separately in the last few days.

If Fitzgerald was headed northeast into the approaches to Tokyo Bay, ACX Crystal had two good opportunities to ram her on the starboard side in the 0200 hour on 17 June.  The first was after the turn to the west-southwesterly heading after 0220.  The second was immediately after the turn to a northerly heading – apparently at increased speed – around 0250.

I note that if Fitzgerald was coming out of the mouth of Tokyo Bay, heading southwest, I don’t see an obvious opportunity for ACX Crystal to have rammed her on the starboard side.  That, however, assumes that Fitzgerald made no abrupt course alterations, on a putative southwesterly heading.

More on the container ship

I want to stress that it isn’t that unusual for a ship to be owned or managed in the manner laid forth here.  There are plenty of ships out there that are owned by phantom pieces of paper, as far as we can tell.  They ply the oceans for years without getting into trouble.

But there are some slightly exotic features of the picture on ACX Crystal.  As mentioned, the ship is listed as managed by Sea Quest Ship Management in the Philippines.  The company is registered with the Philippine government, at least through July 2016, according to the licensing information for the company’s president, Victoria M. Plaza.

There is no other information about Ms. Plaza.  Interestingly, however, another company was listed as operating from the same address in Bacoor City, Cavite (south of Manila), from 2001-2003. The company was Marinasia Shipping Corporation.  Its president was listed as a Ms. Lourdes C. Halog, who is a legitimate shipping professional.  She became the president and CEO of the Philippines branch of Odfjell, a well-known Norwegian shipping company, after being connected with Marinasia.

(Screen cap by author)

An odd feature of Sea Quest (and Marinasia), however, is the extremely unassuming residential location of its headquarters in Bacoor City.

(Screen caps by author)

Some ship owners are fictitious entities traceable only through electronic registries in, say, Kazakhstan, or the Marshall Islands.  In this case, a ship management company is reportedly operating out of a residential home in a middle-class Philippine suburb.

Sea Quest is reported to manage five container shipsACX Crystal is one; another, mentioned earlier, is the Ambassador Bridge.  In 2014, Ambassador Bridge was recorded as being managed by Sea Quest on behalf of Leo Carriers Corporation S.A., incorporated in Panama.  Leo Carriers has been around since 1985, and doesn’t appear to be a fly-by-night organization.  It is, however, connected through its director to Dainichi-Invest (formed in 1962, and also legit), reportedly the current formal owner of ACX Crystal.

Notably, Dainichi-Invest also bought two more of the ships managed by Sea Quest – the Sun Road and the Sun Round – in 2005.

As the screen cap of Mr. Makato Ashida’s directorial connections shows, he is also a director of Sinbanali Shipping Inc, another Philippines-based company, and listed as the bareboat owner of ACX Crystal (see the ClassNK registry link, above).

(Screen cap by author)

Mr. Ashida is thus the gentleman associated with ACX Crystal, being linked to the ship’s bareboat owner, her current formal owner, and her management company.  Two of Ashida’s three main connections are through companies with incorporation documents in Panama.  There is nothing I can find on Ashida himself.  (It’s possible, I note, that Makato Ashida is the name of an entity rather than an individual person.  I haven’t been able to make that case so far, but Ashida is the surname of a former principal with Dainichi-Invest.  Makato Ashida may thus also, of course, be a member of the same family.)

As flaky as all this may sound to the uninitiated, it’s pretty common in the shipping world.  It’s hard to make a case out of this that the ownership of ACX Crystal is a red flag for nefarious dealings.  One could, meanwhile, make the case that the ship remained in the area, in a seamanlike manner, for about an hour after the collision on Saturday morning, seemingly to render assistance.  Again, Japanese authorities say the crew has been fully cooperative after arriving in port.

USS Fitzgerald’s operational role

One further point for discussion is Fitzgerald’s role as a specially capable ballistic missile defense (BMD) ship in the Western Pacific.  Thomas Lifson alluded to it briefly in his summary.  Fitzgerald is one of seven U.S. ships in WESTPAC that are capable of defending against the emerging intermediate-range ballistic missile threat from North Korea.

The Navy named those ships back in April:  the cruiser USS Shiloh (CG-67), and the destroyers USS Fitzgerald, USS Stethem (DDG-63), USS Barry (DDG-52), USS Benfold (DDG-65), USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG-54), and USS John S. McCain (DDG-56).

Of those ships, Shiloh famously lost track of a sailor this past week, prompting a 50-hour at-sea search east of Okinawa – and then found the sailor hiding in an engineering space.

With Shiloh and the Reagan CSG in this area were Barry and McCain.  Those three ships remain fully capable.

USS Curtis Wilbur was photographed in Yokosuka, pierside, by a tweep who posted the evidence from 16 June.  Curtis Wilbur has been in a maintenance period since October, but is probably due to resume operational status soon.  Stethem returned to Yokosuka from a WESTPAC deployment, including operations in the South China Sea, on 28 May, and was also seen at the pier when Curtis Wilbur was.  Stethem may have a period of restricted availability for operations ahead; she is probably due some pierside maintenance.

USS Benfold, meanwhile, is shifting her homeport from San Diego to Yokosuka this summer.  Benfold loaded ammo in San Diego in May, but her current status is not reflected in any media reporting.  If she’s not on the way to Japan, she should be shortly.

Out of the seven Pacific Fleet ships with the BMD capability for the emerging North Korea threat, therefore, three are operational and have been underway in the last week in-theater.  Two are in Yokosuka in probably limited availability, although they could deploy within (best guess) 4-10 days, if necessary.  One could still be as far away as San Diego.  The other has been put out of commission through being rammed by a container ship.

Coda: Here at Liberty Unyielding, our hearts are with the families who lost their sailors this past week, so close to Fathers’s Day.  May their spirits find rest and comfort as we mourn our fallen shipmates.

The Navy Hymn:

Eternal Father, strong to save,

Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,

Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep

Its own appointed limits keep;

Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,

For those in peril on the sea!

 

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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