The ‘Rogue Wave’ Syndrome at NOAA

Following is the verbatim text of a message issued by the Director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, Rear Adm. Evelyn Fields, on Aug. 14, 2002.

From: “Director OMAO”

Organization: NOAA

To: OMAO HQ all Personnel

Yesterday afternoon, August 13, while running hydro lines off Point Elrington in Prince William Sound, AK, NOAA Ship RAINIER's survey launch RA3 was hit by a train of rogue waves which capsized the launch. Aboard the launch were Ensign Jennifer L. Johnson, Able-bodied Seaman (AB) Eric S. Koss and Survey Technician (ST) David E. Fishman. I am deeply saddened to report that AB Koss did not survive this most unfortunate accident.

AB Koss came to work for NOAA September 1, 2001, as an Ordinary Seaman. He was temporarily promoted to AB June 2, 2002. Eric loved his work as a launch coxswain aboard RAINIER and planned to return to school to major in oceanography. RA3 was running survey lines in 4-foot swells when it was hit by three unexpectedly large waves, resulting in the capsizing. All three individuals escaped the launch, but Eric did not make it ashore. Neither Coast Guard rescue swimmers nor Eric's shipmates were able to get to him due to dangerous surf conditions. His body was finally recovered by RAINIER personnel last night. Eric was a dedicated employee who loved his work, was liked and admired by all who knew him.

He is survived by his parents and siblings of Woodinville, WA.

ENS Johnson and ST Fishman were flown by Coast Guard helicopter to Seward, AK, where they were treated and released from the hospital. They are back aboard ship this morning.

Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to Eric's family, friends, and shipmate    

Rear Admiral Evelyn Fields

Let's put this message in context. First, some history of this little-known uniformed service:

President Thomas Jefferson established the “Survey of the Coast” on Feb. 10, 1807, by signing legislation to “cause a survey to be taken of coasts of the United States.” Using officers detailed from the Navy for the seagoing portion of charting and from the Army Topographical Bureau, the “Survey” conducted its early activities under the U.S. Department of the Treasury where it shared vessels with the Revenue Cutter Service, forerunner of the Coast Guard. In 1836, the service was renamed the “U.S. Coast Survey,” and it produced its first nautical chart in 1839. 1853 saw the first issue of “Tide Prediction Tables.”

In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant signed legislation establishing a one-man, U.S. Fish Commission which became the Bureau of Fisheries in 1903, and eventually the National Marine Fisheries Service.

In 1891, the Weather Bureau was transferred from the Army Signal Corps to the Department of Agriculture, and in 1940 to the Department of Commerce.

The U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Commissioned Officer Corps was formed in 1917. It consisted of engineers and survey specialists.

All these elements except the National Marine Fisheries Service were combined into the Environmental Science Services Administration in 1965 by President Nixon, and then they were all reorganized into the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 1970, along with many other diverse environmental elements of the government.

The NOAA Corps evolved from the original U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Commissioned Officer Corps, so that today this small corps of uniformed commissioned officers forms the seventh uniformed service of the United States.It consists of approximately 275 officers, ranking from ensign to rear admiral.

It is useful to put this small group of officers into a wider perspective. While I was stationed in Seattle, Washington, several years ago, a U.S. Navy task force entered Puget Sound. A Navy rear admiral was in charge of the task force, which consisted of an aircraft carrier, several smaller ships of the line, a couple of submarines, several support ships and nearly 10,000 personnel. The commanding officer of the carrier was a Navy captain with over 5,000 shipboard personnel under his command.

Compare this to the entire 275 or so officers in the NOAA Corps, which includes two admirals, a handful of captains, a much larger group of commanders, even more lieutenant commanders – well, you get the picture. The NOAA Corps is a dramatically top-heavy organization. To its credit, the NOAA Corps has improved somewhat in the last decade: it used to sport five admirals instead of its present two. Nevertheless, its ratio of top brass to snugs is completely upside down.

Unlike the other uniformed services, NOAA has no “enlisted” personnel. Officers function much like the commissioned officers of the other services, but their shipboard personnel – the “troops” – consist of unionized wage-marine employees. At sea, corps officers function much like members of the Merchant Marine service, except that they also have distinct scientific duties, as technicians for junior officers, and as supervisors for more senior officers.

Their training, from a traditional “military” perspective is nearly non-existent. For example, Ensign Jennifer L. Johnson, who commanded the survey launch RA3 in the incident related at the beginning of this article, was essentially without any meaningful small boat experience at all. Normally, one would expect such an inexperienced officer to receive training under the guidance of a more experienced officer, but apparently this is not how the NOAA Corps conducts business.

Several years earlier off the coast of Southern California, NOAA was operating a 52-foot fiberglass Navy patrol boat it had acquired and adapted for its own use in the Channel Island Marine Sanctuary. This boat also capsized and sank, as a result – according to NOAA Marine Operations – of a train of rogue waves.

Fortunately, this incident resulted in no serious injury or loss of life. On August 13, unfortunately, things did not go very well, especially for Able-bodied Seaman Koss. It turns out that Koss was not really a qualified AB. He had just recently joined the NOAA ship Rainier and had been temporarily promoted to AB. He had never operated a launch in heavy surf, and was completely unqualified to handle RA3 in the existing conditions.

So what we had was a survey technician [RGW1]  (basically a “techie” without any particular launch operating knowledge), an inexperienced coxswain without the ability to handle any kind of unusual water conditions, under the command of a completely untried, green female ensign.

In my book this is a recipe for disaster.

You don't need a “train of rogue waves” to get into trouble in a four-foot swell. All you need is to turn your launch sideways to the swell. Physics will take care of the rest.

The officer's primary job was to command – to make the necessary judgment decisions for safety first, and job accomplishment second. Why was RA3 in the surf under those conditions? Why didn't Ens. Johnson order her launch back into open water? Why didn't the operations officer [RGW2]  aboard Rainier order the boat back when he (or she) saw that the launch skipper had not taken the correct action? What was the commanding officer of the Rainier doing, and why did he not override his operations officer and launch skipper?

AB Koss died because these officers lacked the ability to make quick judgments under adverse operational conditions. Of course, since a “train of rogue waves” was really at fault, these guys are clear. They lost a man, but it wasn't their fault.

Rogue waves – once … maybe; twice … ?

It makes me wonder if the United States really needs a 275-member commissioned officer corps with more chiefs than indians.

Seaman Koss did not deserve to die. His leaders and the organization they so zealously protect should be held accountable.