Large boats, small boats and ships from Japan and the United States operate in Sasebo Harbor, where rules of the road and experience keep things moving.

Large boats, small boats and ships from Japan and the United States operate in Sasebo Harbor, where rules of the road and experience keep things moving. (Juliana Gittler / S&S)

SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — Dozens of commercial and military vessels work in the waters of Sasebo harbor. Japanese fishermen and ferries crisscross security patrol boats and the various craft that move people, supplies and munitions out to Navy ships.

It is, as the military expression goes, a lot of moving parts at what is — with roughly 30 miles of coastline — one of the largest harbors used by the Navy, said Warrant Officer Virgil E. Jones, the base’s port operations officer.

The usually smooth operations were interrupted last week when the harbor saw its first collision in as long as anyone can recall.

A patrol boat collided with a large “landing craft motorized,” an 88,000-pound transport vessel, around 9 p.m. July 24. The landing craft was training drivers at the time. Two sailors on the patrol boat were injured in the collision, which damaged the small fiberglass patrol boat but barely scratched the larger, steel landing craft.

News of the collision came as a surprise to officials, especially Jones.

“I was very surprised, because of the level of training they get,” he said.

The accident is under investigation, so Jones could not comment on the case or cause. But immediately after the incident, Port Operations began a safety stand-down to review all the rules and procedures, he said. Once the case is closed, it likely will lead to new or improved methods for training, he said.

Those working in the harbor do so with years of experience and follow very specific rules, Jones said.

“There’s a lot of traffic out there,” he said. “That’s why you have the rules of the road. It’s just like driving your car.”

Japanese ferries, commercial vessels and fishermen cross the waters, as do ships from the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force.

Add to that U.S. Navy-owned security patrol boats and amphibious assault crafts such as landing craft units and landing craft air cushions.

Port Operations itself has more than a dozen vessels in addition to barges and other craft. Some are operated by experienced master labor contractors — Japanese workers employed by Japan but working for the Navy. Others are piloted by U.S. sailors, including the vessel involved in the collision.

They all operate in an orchestrated but fairly independent fashion.

Port Operations doesn’t have overarching port traffic control, where someone at a radar screen directs the moving parts like an air traffic controller does. The office’s mission is supporting and coordinating big ship movements and helping ships get what they need, whether it’s fuel or people or supplies or even a painting barge.

So small boats — military and commercial — are on their own.

“The craft themselves have devices to see what’s out there, like radar,” Jones said.

But experience plays one of the largest roles. Boat operators know the basic rules, such as passing each other on portside and following speed limits. At night, operators can tell the direction of a boat by how its lights line up. They can also read buoys and other navigational water markers, Jones said.

Whatever the outcome of the collision investigation, Jones said he expects more training will be likely to refresh operators and others on the boats.

The incident certainly frayed some nerves, but Jones said he is confident the harbor will return to its accident-free norm.

“It’s serious to us because it happened,” he said. “But it’s not serious enough that it’s going to generate [investigators] flying in to see what happened.”

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