USCGC “Smackinaw”, ultra electronics gone awry

Smack launch05

Let me say right off that I’m a big fan of the U.S. Coast Guard. But they do screw up sometimes. The latest was doozy. A couple of weeks ago the brand new cutter Mackinaw, soon to be the Guard’s largest Great Lakes vessel, was making a grand entrance into Grand Haven, Michigan, when all of a sudden it did a 90 and rammed the sea wall. Only the sea wall and bow were injured, but the poor vessel earned a nickname that may be hard to live down. There’s even a video, and, no surprise, the skipper got “temporarily demoted”. The cause of the accident was inexperience with the controls. As you can see above, the Smackinaw has new fangled azimuth drives instead of rudders. It also has what sounds like a super high tech command and control system, judging from the verbiage on her Web site

Ship control is provided at 5 conning stations; Master Ship Control Console (MSCC), port & starboard consoles in the PilothouseSmack bridge, the Engineering Control Center (ECC) and Aft Conning station.  The Main Ship Control Console includes the Integrated Ship’s Control System (ISCS) provided by Kongsberg.  The ISCS includes; Electronic Chart Display Information System (ECDIS), DGPS, Loran-C, Automatic Radar Plotting Aids (ARPA), ATON Information System (ATONIS)/Automated ATON Positioning System (AAPS), a dynamic positioning system, autopilot, a doppler speed log, deep and shallow depth sounders, forward scanning sonar, extensive meteorological sensors, VHF, ADF, IFF, and a voyage data recorder. All conning stations will have the same intuitive user interface, the same panel layout, and menu system.  Route plans, mariner’s notes, charts, radar video and vector presentation are shared between the systems.”

So this is one of those stories that electronics skeptics can chuckle over. And I’ll bet there’s more than chuckling happening on the original Mackinaw, which has been in service since 1944 and is nicknamed Mighty Mac.

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Ben Ellison

Ben Ellison

Panbo editor, publisher & chief bottlewasher from 4/2005 until 8/2018, and now excited to have Ben Stein as very able publisher, webmaster, and editing colleague. Panbo is going to the next level in 2019 and beyond.

6 Responses

  1. Ron Rogers says:

    Yes, but what is the real story? Was it poor training or an equipment malfunction? Doing a 90 degree right, slowly, *soundsd* like equipment.
    There was time (see video) for someone on the bridge to alter course – if they knew how to do it. A conventional twin screw vessel could have reversed the port engine and gone slow ahead with the starboard engine.
    I wonder how many twin Z-drive vessels there are. Pictures of new “bow tugs” show one Z-drive. The photo you posted suggests that it might have to be automated for safety sake – perhaps some type of interlock like twin rudders.
    If it wasn’t a hardware/software problem, the captain’s career is essentially over. The good news is that she struck with her armor plated ice-belt and barely has a dent. The Corps of Engineers, however, is upset.

  2. Ron Rogers says:

    To answer my own question, the newspaper article quotes the captain as stating that he failed to takeover the con from a junior officer until it was too late. Therefore, the headline “Ultra Electronics Gone Awry” does not square with the capatin’s admission of human failure.
    It appears that all personnel were not adequately trained on the complex manuever controls. Since the vessel was going dead slow, I don’t understand why a blast from the 500HP bowthruster wasn’t employed.

  3. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Ron, what I meant was that it seems like the electronic controls were too complicated for the guy driving to manage. Ultimately, though, mistakes are always about judgement, not technology. By the way, I don’t think the expression “dead slow” applies to electric drives like these; I think they can go down to 1 rpm if they want.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Dozens of river cruise boats on the Danube, Main and Rhine rivers use essentially the same control system without incident. The ships are expertly guided by junior officers into canal locks with only a few inches of clearance on each side. The accident smacks of improper training and supervision rather than mnechanical failure.

  5. Ed says:

    Having had a lot of experience with handling large azipod equipped ships (as a state licensed harbor pilot), I believe it is probably a case of lack of training and experience, as opposed to mechanical or technical problem.
    That is not to say it never happens (it does believe me). But this video shows me that it was a case of “operator error” which is indicated by the fact that the vessel never slowed down, until it hit the wall of course. I suspect they were all so involved with the sudden “unplanned” event of hitting the wall, that stopping the ship’s headway didn’t occur to them. In fact, it is relatively easy (and quick) to stop an azipod ship in a short distance, especially if she is moving relatively slow.
    I would further guess that any training with azipods and the ship’s officers (prior to actually handling the ship) probably took place in a computer simulator. Real hands on experience was more than likely limited to handling the vessel for the first time during sea trials and in the course of the yard delivery to the USCG.
    There is a lot to be said for “observing” others more experienced than you in real life, aboard real ships, under real conditions. There are plenty of opportunities to do this today, given the numerous azipod ships in operation all over the world (and USA).
    State pilots in the US are typically trained under these conditions for years, before being cut loose on there own. We’ll never know, but I would be curious to find out how much training these guys actually had before being asked to drive the “SMACK” down a long confined channel like that for the first time?

  6. Sandy Daugherty says:

    Is the Coast Guard investigating their own accident?

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