Course to clear, Helmsman!

On New Year’s Day, 1965, I was serving as an Electrical Engineering Officer on board a 100 thousand-ton tanker, heading north from the Bonny River in Nigeria with a full load of crude. As it was New Year’s Day, all officers, Deck and Engineer, had been invited up onto the bridge for a relaxed session with the Captain. Coffee and sandwiches provided; a good natter was had by all. The Third Mate, on watch as normal, with a seaman on the wheel, was doing his job, which was both checking the radar, as well as ‘eyeball’ with a pair of binoculars. At approximately 11.00 a.m., he noticed a smudge or target on the radar screen, checked further with both radar and binoculars; and called out, ‘Ship approaching, reciprocal course.’

The Captain, being in a relaxed mood, as it was New Years and he had invited us all onto the bridge, detailed the Deck Cadets to set the bunting flags ready to wish the approaching ship, a general cargo freighter of about 15,000 tons deadweight; a ‘very happy New Year’; at the same time of course checking with the Third Mate that the two ships’ courses were converging but not in any danger of a collision. The ships drew nearer, and as we passed at a distance of some two ship lengths between us, the flags were flown, our siren was blown, and we radioed ‘Seasons greetings’ to the other ship, as we were indeed the only two vessels on the entire horizon.


A minute later, JUST after we had cleared the stern of the Liberian-registered cargo ship, our hydraulic steering developed a fault, an airlock hit the steering controls, and our rudder went hard-a-port. We literally swerved right across where the cargo ship’s wake had been a minute before, and would have continued to turn, possibly approaching and colliding with the cargo ship if I hadn’t cleared the airlock / problem by switching on the second steering gear motor, which removed the signal to turn hard to the left (port) and setting us back on our original course of due North. About sixty seconds later, a very annoyed captain, from the other ship of course, hailed us on the VHF radio, and asked, somewhat plaintively “Have we in some way offended you?”


Which makes me wonder if the AIS track of the container ship ACX Crystal maybe gives a clue to the deadly damage inflicted upon the destroyer USS Fitzgerald? Reading the course plot, it seems as though the ACX Crystal went or steered Hard to Starboard as she passed by the course of the USS Fitzgerald. With the momentum of Two Hundred Thousand tons of ship and cargo slicing into her sides, it says a great deal for the Arleigh-Burke destroyer’s builders that she survived. Seven dead, many injured, including the Captain!!!


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