Keeping the blogosphere posted on the goings on of the world of submarines since late 2004... and mocking and belittling general foolishness wherever it may be found. Idaho's first and foremost submarine blog. (If you don't like something on this blog, please E-mail me; don't call me at home.)

Friday, September 09, 2005

Can A Sub Get A Fair Hearing?

As it becomes more obvious that USS Philadelphia was the "stand-on" vessel in an overtaking situation with the Turkish M/V Yaso Aysen in their recent collision, the next question becomes: who will be held legally responsible? It may not be a clear-cut as it might seem, mostly because of the unique light and radar cross-section characteristics of submarines.

The most recent example I could find where a U.S. submarine had been hit by a civilian ship where it was the surface ship's fault was back in 1925, when S-51 was sunk by City of Rome. In that case, U.S courts held that both ships were responsible: City of Rome for not reducing her speed in an unclear situation and not signalling her course change, and S-51 for having improper lights. (Another website that explores the S-51 sinking more thoroughly can be found here.)

COLREGS Inland Rules require that submarines operating on the surface display a flashing yellow (or amber) light -- the requirement is near the bottom of Rule 1. This is because subs appear much smaller than they actually are, both visually (from the positioning of their lights) and on radar, especially from dead ahead or astern. Subs can also hang a "radar reflector" on the bridge which gives a stronger radar return. However, during wartime, I wouldn't be surprised if our boats aren't doing that; additionally, I don't know exactly where the COLREGS demarcation line is for Bahrain, but the collision may very well have occurred on the "International Rules" side of the line, so operation of the Sub ID beacon wouldn't have been "required". The running lights on submarines don't really meet the requirements of the COLREGS; they always told us that submarines had an "exemption" from the rules. This case may tell whether that "exemption" is recognized by international maritime courts.


Blogger PigBoatSailor said...


Hate to try and correct you (ok, no I don't ;-) ), but, per COMDTINSTM 16672.2D (USCG Navigation Rules - warning, kinda big pdf file)
"Submarines may display, as a distinctive means of Identification, an intermittent flashing amber (yellow) beacon with a sequence of operation of one flash per second for three (3) seconds followed by a three (3) second off-period. Other special rules made by the Secretary of the Navy with respect to additional station and signal lights are found in Part 707 of Title 32, Code of Federal Regulations (32 CFR 707)."
May. Not required. Oh, and the same note applies for International and Inland rules. Oh, and Inland rules only "apply to all vessels upon the inland waters of the United States, and to vessels of the United States on the Canadian waters of the Great Lakes to the extent that there is no conflict with Canadian law." So they would have been under International rules the whole time. Not that it matters, because the sub beacon note is in the International regs as well...

9/09/2005 8:54 AM

Blogger PigBoatSailor said...

Of course, the sub can still be dinged by Rule 2:
"(a) Nothing in these Rules shall exonerate any vessel, or the owner, master or crew thereof, from the consequences of any neglect to comply with these Rules or of the neglect of any precaution which may be required by the ordinary practice of seamen, or by the special circumstances of the case.
(b) In construing and complying with these Rules due regard shall be had to all dangers of navigation and collision and to any special circumstances, including the limitations of the vessels involved, which may make a departure from these Rules necessary to avoid immediate danger.
The "ordinary practice of seamen" and "special circumstances of the case", ie. you are a sub, be extra careful, are great ways to hook a sub as being partially responsible, even if she was complying with the rules.
Add to that Rule 5:
"Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing
circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.
Which could be construed to mean - "Didn't you see this big damn ship coming at you? If not, you obviously didn't maintain a proper lookout!"
And finally, Rule 8:
"(a) Any action taken to avoid collision shall, if the circumstances of the case admit, be positive, made in ample time and with due regard to the observance of good seamanship."
Which could be twisted to mean, "Why -didn't- you take positive action in ample time?" The Philly, or any boat / ship, really, can be held at least partially accountable for a collision, even if they were run over by someone who was abviously flouting the rules.
Who's yer Navigator?

9/09/2005 9:17 AM

Blogger Chap said...

Yup, you definitely were an Eng. :-)

When the ship's lights are first installed (i.e., prior to first underway), a document is signed by the USCG to approve the exemption. It's street legal.

I used that as a qual uli before ("Show me the letter!"). I also used to ask why the lighting arc was to half-degree measurements...

Pigs is right. It's going to be extremely hard to prove zero culpability.

9/10/2005 9:35 PM


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