We now know why the Navy chose its words so carefully after announcing it had relieved Joseph Nosse as commander of the Bangor-based Trident ballistic-missile submarine USS Kentucky in October. A "loss of confidence" in the Navy skipper sounds a lot less scarier than admitting his submerged nuclear vessel was involved in a near-collision with a cargo ship in waters off Port Angeles.
The report is "riddled" with episodes of faulty coordination like these, said one former submarine commander who reviewed the report. "When you look at this, you say, 'If the guy on the merchant hadn't been playing heads-up ball, he could've slammed into this guy carrying a boatload of nuclear weapons.' "
The 560-foot Kentucky and Totem Ocean's 839-foot MV Midnight Sun were roughly 900 yards apart when the cargo ship made its call. Nosse had ordered a change of course that put the two vessels on a collision course and an officer did not, as required, check through the periscope to make sure the surface was clear.
That was one of a series of accumulating errors, says the Navy report. The Kentucky's crew, inbound to Bangor for a personnel change, wrongly thought the Midnight Sun was on an outbound course, and even though the navigation supervisor recognized that error, he "didn't raise the issue," the Times says.
Nosse had ordered the course change because he was concerned about a nearby fishing trawler. But he didn't say in which direction the Kentucky should turn, and then became caught up in making arrangements for the upcoming personnel transfer.
When the merchant captain called, the Kentucky's executive officer rushed to the scope and saw a massive cargo ship crossing in front of the sub, and told the officer of the deck to turn back to their last course.
The Kentucky's bow swung clear of the merchant ship, the Times says. But the stern was in danger of creeping over and striking another vessel. Nosse ordered more rudder "to check the ship's swing," according to a report he submitted six days later.
Fortunately, the sight of the periscope had caused the captain of the Midnight Sun to already swing left, averting a collision.
Nosse was relieved of command a week later, becoming the 20th Navy CO fired this year - three of them from the Puget Sound region.
Last month, Cmdr. Jay Wylie, former skipper of the Everett-based destroyer USS Momsen, pleaded guilty to charges of rape and sexual assault of an enlisted woman and a female officer, receiving a 42-month sentence and service dismissal.
In June, Bangor Cmdr. Michael Varney of the nuclear attack submarine USS Connecticut was relieved of his position for mishandling classified information. Thirty-nine classified files (35 of them marked secret) were found on a computer hard drive at his Gig Harbor home.