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The Dangers of Relying too Heavily on Helm Electronics


Bad Intentions?

amphibious assault boat

Earlier this year, two U.S. Navy Riverine Command Boats and ten Navy sailors were commandeered in Iranian territorial waters by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The crews “misnavigated,” said the Navy. But is there another, darker reason why the two boats were so embarrassingly off course? Capt. Bill Pike investigates

In early 2003, shortly after the start of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I spent a week or so covering the U.S. Coast Guard’s involvement in the so-called “Second Iraq War.” While the majority of my time in Iraq was focused on interdiction efforts on the Shatt al-Arab River and elsewhere (the Coast Guard at the time had been tasked with preventing Saddam Hussein from escaping the country via water), as well as on the protection of coastal oil platforms threatened by RIB-driving suicide bombers, I had the occasion to visit a number of U.S. Navy vessels which afforded transportation on and around the Persian Gulf.

I noticed two things during these visits. First, the wheelhouses of all the Navy vessels I spent time aboard tended to be very professionally and amply manned—in fact, it sometimes seemed as if the young navigators I observed were competing with each other, at least in terms of trying to produce the best, brightest, and safest navigational solutions possible. And second, the avoidance of Iranian territorial waters seemed to be a total, never-to-be-disregarded priority. “We’ve already got one war going on,” a ship’s captain noted one evening, “We don’t need two.”

Both impressions came to mind a few months ago, when two 49-foot, jet-powered, aluminum Riverine Command Boats (RCBs) reportedly deviated from a planned route between Kuwait and Bahrain and got themselves commandeered in Iranian territorial waters not far from the Iranian naval base on the Persian Gulf’s Farsi Island. How, I wondered, could such a thing happen? In broad daylight? With fully operational GPS plotters presumably on board? As well as radar? And the kind of sailors I remembered from 2003 in charge?

Official explanations, which began surfacing shortly after the crews were released, first cited “mechanical issues” as a factor—the implication being that one boat had had to wait for the other while repairs were being effected, a situation that allowed both vessels to drift into trouble unintentionally. Then came word that the crews of the boats had “misnavigated,” somehow failing to exercise all or some aspects of the navigator’s craft while en route to a refueling rendezvous with the Coast Guard cutter Monomoy. Neither explanation seemed realistic to me, given the number of sailors involved, the unlikelihood of two, separate vessels being simultaneously “misnavigated,” and the arguable presence of seriously sophisticated navigation technology (and seriously sophisticated navigational expertise) on each bridge.

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This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.