The Gouge Cover Photo v2

Just ask

On a dark night in the busiest commercial traffic sea lanes in the world, our warship faced a 100,000 ton obstacle. We got around it by using the simplest solution.

Singapore Strait 1

Singapore Strait, November 2015 onboard USS Anchorage (LPD 23). It was 2:00 AM on a pitch black night, and I was on the bridge with our Bridge Team of seven officers and Sailors. The mission was to navigate our 800 foot/25,000 ton warship safely through the chaos of the Strait of Malacca and Singapore Strait, a 500 mile long funnel-shaped choke point between Indonesia and Malaysia. On average, 1000 ships transit these straits every day.

Having just exited the Strait of Malacca 25 miles west of Singapore, we headed eastbound cautiously into the densest and narrowest part of the transit. While many of the mariners here follow the international rules for ship conduct, some do not and at times it can be like Mad Max Beyond Waterdome with Aunty Entity showing up as an unlit, wicked small boat.

We were cruising at 20 knots (23 mph) but were forced to slow to ten behind a commercial tanker lumbering in the center of the traffic lane about ten miles west of Singapore. With the surface traffic steadily increasing and shallow water in close proximity, getting around this vessel was going to be tricky. Ever get stuck behind a tractor trailer at night on a busy one lane road? Same thing. You have two options: 1) stay behind the truck and add 90 min to your trip or 2) hold your breath and make a play to pass the truck, which can be sporty.

The Bridge Team opted for #2 and presented to me their plan to pass on the tanker’s right side. Overtaking a vessel at night in international waters can be done without ship-to-ship radio coordination if a “safe” distance is maintained. While there was room to get through, it would be challenging, and not knowing the ship’s intention was a problem. Was the tanker going to turn left into Singapore or come right to Batam Island, Indonesia? We assumed left, but if we were wrong and a 100,000-ton vessel turned into us as we passed, that would be classified as NOT GOOD.

The safe option was to stay slow and follow the tanker, but I didn’t want to extend our time in this high threat sector. Speed is life and would get us to less complicated waters sooner.

We were caught in analysis paralysis and each mile of indecisiveness brought us closer to Singapore where there would be even more complexity due to anchored ships and crossing traffic. We were wasting usable sea space and losing decision space rapidly. We were feeling the deep stress of hesitation.

My 16 ounce “drool cup” was overflowing when a stray neuron from my reptilian brain forced this simple question out of my mouth: “Have we talked to that ship yet and asked what they intend to do yet?” The reply: “No sir, we have not.” All ships at sea monitor a common frequency, called Channel 16, to allow for ship-to-ship coordination, so I said “Contact the tanker Captain on 16 and just ask him where they are headed.”

Two minutes later, we confirmed their destination and completed a low stress passage on their right side. Crisis avoided. That ended up being way too easy.

Goods. For 20 hours, we safely navigated USS Anchorage through a complex surface ship problem and professionally managed the surface picture. With a sizable obstacle in our way, we found our best solution by asking a simple question. Mission accomplished.

Others. Why were we in such a rush to get around this ship? The timeline we were on was our own, so we were unnecessarily pressurizing ourselves to meet a schedule that we created. And why consider doing it without using the radio? I believe our ego kept us off the radio because we wanted to “hack it” without any additional assistance, which is just dumb and caused us to lose sight of the mission. In our debrief, we agreed that our “we got this” attitude precluded us from finding the safest solution sooner. Lesson learned.

Just ask the question. In removing obstacles during high stress events, turn assumptions into facts by having the courage to ask simple, logical questions.

Focus on the mission, not your ego. Don’t let your ego cause your mission to run aground or have a fatal collision. Step back, eat your ego, remind yourself of what the team is trying to accomplish.

(And for fans of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) Find the whistle. Mad Max did his research before entering Thunderdome and used the shrill whistle (it’s actually a bos’n pipe) to confuse and defeat Master Blaster, proving that simple solutions can exist even after nuclear armageddon.