Anchored in the future

Image Gallery

Crowsnest - Summer 2017 / July 12, 2017

By Rear-Admiral John Newton
Commander Maritime Forces Atlantic

It is hard to imagine inadvertently dropping an anchor. To prevent such an occurrence, there are drilled procedures, crisp communications, a safety briefing and frequent training. To drop the anchor, the cable party would have to be up and about their equipment, a heavy mechanical restraint tripped and a braking mechanism laboriously released. Finally, all this activity would occur under the watchful eye of an alert officer of the watch who would surely query the commotion.

In my story, the cable party had been held for hours at monotonous standby when, out of the blue, the team’s communicator was certain he heard someone order the anchor to be let go. With that his watch mates jumped into action and the anchor shot away, pulling out great lengths of chain as it accelerated toward the seabed.

Fortunately, the cable party executed the panicked countermanding order from the bridge with the same alacrity with which they had released the anchor in the first instance, leaving hundreds of feet of cable hanging vertically beneath the ship.

I took lessons from that experience and demanded of myself that I understand how a basic element of ship safety could become a liability. I learned what had already been learned: that watch teams must not be abandoned at their posts. The teams must be included in conversations and visits by supervisors. For their part, they must remain alert and fully cognizant of the ship’s progress. In the case of the incident described, an attentive cable party might have judged whether there was time to query the surprise order. A more thoughtful officer of the watch might have asked if a cable party was indeed required for hours on end where threat of grounding was not imminent.

Weeks later, while steaming up the St. Lawrence River, I noted during evening rounds of the steering gear compartment a noise not unlike water hammer in kitchen plumbing. My rudiments of engineering confirmed to me that hammering in very high pressure hydraulic lines was not normal. The engineering watch keepers agreed with me, but the issues with our steering system had been chronic, and this was but one symptom of bigger challenges that various repairs had been trying to address. My duty done, I left it to the engineers to operate the system safely.

The next day we were sailing upriver from Québec City when the captain asked me to relieve him on the bridge for a few minutes. Proceeding at 24 knots against a strong river current is a thrill to say the least, but the dangers are manifold. While at first the river was still wide, the channel was narrowing quickly. My initial action was to establish order on the bridge. A large delegation of HMCS Athabaskan survivors from the Second World War was present, guests for the day, celebrating their annual reunion. Their awe at the modern surroundings compared with their wartime Tribal-class destroyer generated excited chatter, a distraction on the bridge as the channel narrowed to 500 yards.

As I turned to look up the river, I felt the ship suddenly heel over, and the horizon began angling diagonally across the windows. I grabbed something for support and barked a query at the officer of the watch, wondering why he was changing course ahead of any planned alteration. As he stammered, befuddled by the emergency building around him, the helmsman shouted above the noise that he had not turned the helm. The ship was racing forward under maximum rudder angle toward an imminent grounding, with the 80-year-old Athabaskan survivors holding on for dear life on the steeply sloping deck. With the ship clearly in extremis, a full-speed-astern engine order and the anchor were all that stood between the veterans and what appeared in the moment to be their second warship disaster.

The bite of the astern pitch on the racing propellers could be felt almost immediately as the channel edge loomed. Alarmingly, the telltale rumble of the anchor never materi­alized. On this occasion, the cable party was attentively looking back to the bridge for a clear signal that the anchor was indeed required. Madly shouted orders communicated the urgency of the situation. With the swing of a sledgehammer and a spin of the brake handle the anchor was let go. Heavy chain surged out of the ship with a roar like none of us had ever experienced, the anchor clawing at the shoaling bottom with great effect. With only yards to spare, the nightmarish dash toward a grounding was arrested.

Subjected to literally thousands of hammering vibrations in the steering gear hydraulic lines, a card assembly controlling the rudder angle had failed. We had been given ample warning that an unusual situation had developed in the steering system, a risk we arguably failed to account for in our preparations for the river transit. Then, in accordance with classic accident causation theory, as soon as all the critical factors had lined up – stressed machinery, speed, proximity to danger, and with hundreds of guests on board – the system had failed.

This is a simple story of the drama possible in a high-powered warship. I relate it to highlight that we must be genetically wired to constantly re-evaluate our shipboard actions, organizations and standard operating procedures. Introspection must occur at the unit level, and more widely at a navy level. While the former has always been the case, the latter has not.

In my anchor story, I examined whether the organization we employed and the procedures we followed actually served the purpose of making the ship safer. We used the near-grounding to reaffirm our discipline toward bridge watch keeping, steering gear failure drills and communications. That said, we were not suitably set up as a navy in that era to examine the organization and watch keeping scriptures more thoroughly: we simply took those as immutable and corrected what we could control.

The near-grounding burned into my brain a concern that our navigation and watch keeping routines are manpower intensive, thereby contributing complexity to our procedures. A simpler elegance might possibly reduce the very risks we were trying to mitigate.

Today, we are experiencing a confluence of events that is permitting us to examine all aspects of our shipboard organizations and the procedures we follow. The executive plan laid out by our commanders and the shipbuilding strategy are not unrelated. Indeed, they present a golden opportunity to adopt increasingly powerful technologies, and to critically re-evaluate the fundamentals of crewing. Our Experimental Ship, or X-Ship, program has been identified to lead the evaluation of the efficacy and efficiency of our many shipboard routines.

Innovation in X-Ship draws on the talents of our two Sea Training teams, now combined into a single command, Canadian Sea Training Group, under the aegis of Commander Maritime Forces Atlantic. A single Naval Force Readiness director, also under Commander Maritime Forces Atlantic, has over­hauled each naval order relating to collective training, and every combat readiness requirement right down to the detail of personnel requirements, drill procedures, and periodicity.

Navigation techniques are being completely reassessed, with a keen eye turned to the lessons learned over two decades of success with digital charts and modern track-following software. Most recently, bridge manning has been dramatically reduced as technology has proven to be a trustworthy substitute for human operators. The Enhanced Naval Boarding Party has been introduced, and the requirements of a standard team amended so that crew members are not double-tasked with boarding training and employment duties in addition to their primary job aboard ship.

Machinery control-room watch keeping has been reduced, and the duties of a single rounds person clearly articulated as we adapt to the Integrated Platform Management System delivered with the Halifax Class Modernization. Better data-logging and more numerous CCTV cameras now watch over the machinery. Personnel liberated from watch keeping are being marshalled to undertake increased levels of planned and corrective maintenance so that any risks developing in the machinery are intercepted before failure.

There are other areas to be examined, including the crew requirements of cable parties, replenishment-at-sea teams, and boat launch-and-recovery teams. Boat operations have come under critical review in time to better support increased naval operations in the north. Combat drills and operations room manning may very well change, subject to the performance of modernized sensors and command management systems.

The potential for increased optimization of our crewing structures and shipboard routines is occurring against a backdrop of other changes. We anticipate new levels of in-service support contracts to be delivered with new classes of ships. We can expect increased levels of machinery automation, alarm condition sensing, and more effective damage control systems. We have already learned that onboard training simulation is highly effective, and a standard adjunct to modern operating systems. We stand witness to improved shipboard communication technologies that fundamentally change how we direct emergency teams to face fire and flood.

Concurrently, teams are re-examining the task expectations of trades managed by the Royal Canadian Navy. With technology, there is a narrowing of the differences in the training and onboard employment of various combat operator and engineering trades. The Harry DeWolf-class Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships will be our first foray into a high-voltage power plant, necessitating a review of the training and shipboard manning by marine technicians that will serve in these ships. There will be increased automation controlling the power plant and associated hotel machinery systems, improvements readily apparent in modern warship classes on the international market. Reliability factors, the number of personnel required, and their organization and routines will change accordingly.

Throughout all this, our proficiency will continue to be tested regularly, first by ourselves exercising as teams to scripted serials, then by external validators. Our corporate memory of what we formerly achieved will challenge the new arrangements to confirm that capability and effectiveness have not been lost unless accounted for by other measures. The tools needed to assess that a sailor is being sent to sea with the requisite certifications, qualifications and experiential coefficient are being built and trialed. Leadership at all levels will have visibility to the readiness of ships, aggregating technical, personnel, and collective training variables into a readiness assessment. If we find that we have weakened our readiness rather than strengthened it, we will re-evaluate the changes set in motion.

Change is neither easy nor pleasant. It takes leadership courage, good followership and ownership by our most experienced personnel. The naval occupation analyses now under way are a case in point, wherein our most experienced chief petty officers are leading the change. The machinery control-room watch keeping review gained energy and constructive input by senior chiefs serving in Canadian Sea Training Group. Revision to training was concurrently executed by engineers in the Naval Training System. This navy-wide focus bodes well for the pursuit of well-reasoned and beneficial changes.

It is an immutable fact that residual risks will exist. Risk is a constant in the difficult and dangerous work at sea, and it is the commander’s business to decide whether to accept or refuse residual risk. Risk that manifests itself as an accident or near miss will continue to demand our full attention. Risk can also be measured in morale, attrition and career paths that have become too difficult. These will all need our close attention, along with mitigating strategies inherent in our commander’s motto of, “People First, Mission Always.” That said, while there is risk inherent in change, risk itself cannot be held out as a reason not to proceed with a full and comprehensive assessment of where our system can be made better.

Much has already been set in motion under the clear lines of authority facilitated by functional leadership authorities. Improved governance, X-Ship and the experience of our most senior non-commissioned members are all ensuring that we are digging deeper into institutional considerations and not simply skimming the surface. The gravity of fleet recapitalization can be felt, and the good news story of the Halifax Class Modernization is an unexpected bridge to walk across as we examine the feasibility of new structures and procedures.

I am inspired by the veritable army of personnel participating in this effort, an observation that confirms to me that we are not at all anchored in the past.


An excerpt from the article that appeared in the Maritime Engineering Journal.