By Mike Hixenbaugh
The guided-missile destroyer Porter had just cut across the path of an approaching supertanker, a risky nighttime maneuver in one of the world’s busiest shipping channels, when a sailor standing watch spotted an ominous red glow.
It was the port light of a second massive oil tanker – apparently obscured by the first merchant ship and somehow undetected or unnoticed by sailors monitoring the Porter’s advanced radar system.
“Sir, I have another merchant here on the starboard bow,” the officer of the deck said, sounding shaken.
It was about 12:50 a.m. Aug. 12. The two ships were on a collision course outside the Strait of Hormuz.
In the harrowing moments that followed, captured in a newly released audio recording, the Norfolk-based Porter would again attempt – and this time fail – to dart past a 160,000-ton merchant vessel.
The audio from the Porter’s pilothouse, along with the ship’s logs from that night, provide a rare glimpse into the tense and confusing moments before impact.
The recording and logs, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and first reported by the Navy Times, also reveal some of the decisionmaking that put the ship in danger.
The Porter, five months into its deployment, had just cleared the strategic chokepoint leading to the Persian Gulf when it approached the first of two tankers heading in the opposite direction.
The massive merchant vessel – nearly the size and twice the weight of an aircraft carrier – was showing two red port lights, the international sign warning other ships to stay clear.
The standard move at that point, according to a retired Navy captain who reviewed the recording and logs with a Virginian-Pilot reporter, would have been to turn right, to starboard, to pass behind the ship.
Instead, the Porter turned left, to port, to pass ahead of the vessel. It crossed so close to the tanker’s approaching bow, one officer suggested turning hard right while passing the ship – a rarely used maneuver intended to swing the Porter’s stern out of the way of potential impact.
That’s when the Porter’s officer of the deck – the sailor in charge of directing all of the ship’s movements – became aware of the second tanker moving through the night.
In the recording, the officer, whose name was redacted from the log, suggests playing it safe and turning right to pass behind the second vessel.
The ship’s captain, Cmdr. Martin Arriola, who had returned to the bridge minutes earlier, dismisses the officer’s direction.
“Why don’t we just go straight this way?” Arriola says in the recording, suggesting instead that the Porter stay the course and once again pass in front of an approaching ship.
“I have, uh …” the officer begins, hesitates, then accepts the skipper’s direction. “Aye sir.”
Seconds later, he speaks up: “Sir, I would like to slow down.”
Arriola agrees, and the officer gives the order to slow from 20 knots down to 5 knots.
Precious seconds pass.
The hulking Japanese oil tanker Otowasan, lumbering at 14 knots, comes into clearer view. The officer of the deck looks out through windows on the bridge, located high above the main deck, and seems to grow concerned.
“Sir, I have a port aspect on this guy,” the officer says, with urgency. “He’s crossing us, we need to act quickly, sir.”
The officer suggests turning hard left, and the skipper agrees.
“Hard left rudder!” Arriola bellows, then orders five short horn blasts, signaling danger. Seconds later, he orders the engines to full speed in an effort to clear the tanker’s path.
“All engines ahead flank!” Arriola shouts. “Let’s go, get me up there, flank!”
Five more horn blasts. The captain again shouts, “Left full rudder!”
Sailors can be heard shouting as the warship absorbs the blow, rolling 27 degrees before stabilizing. Water lines burst, showering and frying electrical systems.
Fires break out and alarms sound.
On the bridge, Arriola checks to ensure nobody is hurt. Then reality sets in.
The officer of the deck mutters a bit of profanity.
“We’ve been hit, port side,” he says, mistakenly stating that the impact came from the left.
Miraculously, no one was seriously injured on either ship.
The force of the tanker cut a gaping hole in the Porter’s starboard side and shook the 270 crew members on board.
Rattled from their sleep, they worked through the night to battle small fires and repair broken water lines, the logs show.
The dock landing ship Gunston Hall, which had been trailing the Porter, pulled alongside to take photos and assist in the recovery. SEALs from the ship were sent into the water to assess the damage, all of which occurred above the water line.
The Porter, with many of its systems disabled, steamed under its own power to a pier in the United Arab Emirates. After weeks of emergency repairs costing $2 million, the ship returned to Norfolk, where it awaits another $50 million in repairs at a private shipyard.
Even with the audio and logs, questions about who was at fault and what circumstances led to the dicey situation remain largely unanswered. Why, for example, wasn’t the second tanker spotted sooner, either by watchstanders or radar? The Navy has declined to release or discuss a pair of investigations into the incident.
A lawsuit by the owner of the supertanker Otowasan remains a possibility.
Three weeks after the crash, Arriola was removed as the ship’s skipper because of a “loss of confidence in (his) ability to command,” the Navy said.
He remains temporarily assigned to Naval Surface Force Atlantic in Norfolk.
Mike Hixenbaugh, 757-446-2949, firstname.lastname@example.org