YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Trees snapped, mud slid, a roof blew away, a porta-potty tipped over — and just minutes before it was supposed to start, the Navy Ball was postponed. If that weren’t enough, Saturday’s typhoon sent the USS Vincennes out of its berth and into the USS Coronado, damaging both ships.

A Pacific Fleet team of investigators was on its way to Yokosuka to determine why the Vincennes was blown from its berth and into what had for months served as the Seventh Fleet flagship, moored two berths over. But everyone already agrees that it started with the winds from Typhoon Ma-on.

Winds gusting to 91 miles per hour and sustained winds of up to 72 miles per hour snapped the lines tying the ship to the pier.

“I was shocked when I saw us pulling away, and we were free, floating,” a Vincennes sailor said. “There really was nothing we could do.”

Cmdr. Mark J. Englebert, the Vincennes captain, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Yokosuka base weather forecasters had predicted that the storm would not bring sustained winds of 58 miles per hour or more — the standard for when naval bases are recommended to go into “Tropical Cyclone Condition of Readiness 1.” Instead, the base was on “storm watch.”

“Storm watch” means that although destructive winds are not forecast to occur, there is still a possibility of danger because of the storm’s nearness and the possibility its course could alter, said Lt. Allon Turek, assistant operations officer at the base Naval Pacific Meterology and Oceanography Center.

But for two periods of about 10 minutes each, Turek said, Saturday’s storm did bring sustained destructive winds, starting at about 5:15 p.m.

About half an hour later, about 5:45 p.m. or so, according to base spokesman Mike Chase, Yokosuka went into Tropical Cyclone Condition Emergency 1 and the base gates were shut.

But the Vincennes already had broken loose, at about 5 p.m., according to a news release. There was some concern it might hit the USS Chancellorsville, berthed next to it — which some sailors said the Vincennes crew actively tried to prevent. They cut the remaining lines, dropped their anchor and started the ship’s engine.

None of it worked. The anchor dragged, the engine was started too late to propel the ship to safety and, a sailor said, they were pointed in the wrong direction to steer it anyway.

The hit punched several holes above the waterline on the starboard side of the Vincennes. The damage to the Coronado was “minor,” according to naval officials.

Both ships remained “mission capable,” according to Lt. Cmdr Mark Boyd, a Seventh Fleet spokesman.

“I think we came out with the best possible outcome,” a sailor said. “We could have run aground. That would have been worse.”

Naval public affairs officers would not comment on the incident.

Saturday was the second time in as many months that a tropical storm pushed a ship berthed at Yokosuka somewhere it was not supposed to be. In September, the USNS Yukon, an oiler, was grounded on soft mud about 400 yards from its anchored position during wind gusts of 51 mph from Typhoon Songda.

At the base weather center, Lt. Turek said the “storm watch” warning should have been sufficient for people to take precautions. “The potential for destructive winds is there,” he said.

Yokota Air Base was in a higher level of alert because the Air Force, which must protect planes, has different readiness standards from the Navy, which focuses on keeping its ships safe. Wind gusts of more than 58 mph will send Air Force bases into the highest state of readiness, which the Navy doesn’t enter until expecting sustained winds of more than 58 mph.

Turek acknowledged that the center’s forecast — sustained winds of 46 mph and gusts of 69 mph — was a little bit off.

“We wish we could forecast to 100 percent. If we could, we’d be the golden child of the scientific community,” he said. “We issue a storm watch for ones that we feel there’s a possibility for this to go awry. In this case, that’s exactly what happened. It did alter its track and give us winds that were in excess of what we forecast.”

By Tuesday afternoon, most of the debris and damage the storm caused had been cleared away. “As we speak, the only cleanup operation that is ongoing is beautification — crews picking up leaves and small branches,” said Yokosuka spokesman Chase.

Chase said no monetary damage estimate was available yet.

But, he said, Saturday’s storm caused more damage than any since 1996’s Typhoon Violet, which brought wind gusts of more than 115 mph.

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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