February 18, 2009


Navigating can be a bit like making love, sometimes. One often does not know what the hell is going on, which just adds to the fun. Usually.

I swear on all that I hold dear that these events are true. As for the embellishments and dramatic poetic licence, well, as Ken Kesey and the Talmud say, some things are true even if they never happened.

Middle of the night on the M.V. Hysteria, at outer anchorage at South Asian port, pilot boarding time 8 hours away, engines on half an hour’s notice.

0200, Voice on VHF: M.V. Hysteria, this is the pilot boat. Pick up anchor.

2nd Officer: “Pilot boat, Hysteria. Is the pilot boarding now instead of at 1000 as scheduled?”
“Hysteria, Pilot Boat: Yes, yes. Call Captain immediately and proceed full speed for pilot”.
2nd Officer: “Pilot boat, Hysteria. Waking up everybody, getting engines ready and picking up anchor”.

(Usual chaos on board. Crew going from 0 to 100 in 3.8 seconds.)

0208: “Pilot boat, Hysteria, Captain speaking. What time do you want me at the pilot station 5 miles away?”
“Captain, pilot waiting for you. You must go Full Ahead now!”
“Pilot boat, there is the small matter of six shackles down in the water...”
“Captain, you must hurry or you will miss the tide”
“Pilot boat, better the tide than the anchor. I am picking up anchor ASAP and will proceed at maximum safe speed to the pilot station.”

Chief Engineer, who has come up sleepily to the bridge: “Cap, please remind the pilot that this is not a Ferrari”. Cap keeps quiet, because the Chief is a burly man.

0215:”Hysteria, this is the pilot boat. Full Ahead!”
Captain: “Pilot boat, Hysteria. Picking up anchor. Will call you back after anchor is aweigh”.
“Ahh, Captain, maybe we have to berth you at the next tide.”

0237: “Pilot boat, Hysteria. Anchor is aweigh and proceeding to pilot station at full speed. ETA 25 minutes. My course now is 070”.
“Hysteria, this is the pilot boat. Two three five.”
“Pilot, this is Hysteria. What???”
“Captain, Turn around and steer 235. Your pilot is coming from another outbound ship now at a position three miles astern of you”.
“Pilot boat, Hysteria. Am now turning around to starboard and reducing speed. Will keep clear of anchored ships (six of which are bearing between 225 and 265 a mile away) and pick up pilot”.

(Another voice on VHF): “Hysteria, this is your pilot on outbound ship”.
“Yes, pilot, Hysteria”
“Stop Engines!”
Captain: “What??”
“Stop Engines!!!”
0239: “Pilot, Captain from Hysteria. There is a five knot current here and I am less than a mile from ships at anchor, have just started turning around on full helm as advised and you want me to stop with the current on my beam in the middle of my turn?”

“Yes, Captain. Stop Engines. Pilot will board you in fifteen minutes.”

(Silence from the Hysteria, which is brought around stemming the tide until the pilot boat approaches a good forty five minutes later and then turned again to make a lee for the boat. Pilot boards. Colourful Master Pilot Exchange of information. )

Location, the North Sea, in the Traffic Separation Scheme off Texel, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. “Hysteria” overtaking a small coastal vessel on her port quarter slowly, about six cables off. Master shaving on the bridge, Chief Officer on watch.

Chief Officer raps and throws open bridge toilet door. “Sir, please come quickly”
Small coastal vessel is now four cables off, has altered course and is heading straight for the Hysteria.
Her name is M.V. Cuckoo, the Chief Officer informs the Captain.

Captain goes to VHF wiping the lather off his face. Rattles off instructions to Chief Officer en route: Sound five short rapid blasts. What are all these other ships closeby doing? Tell engine room we may be reducing speed suddenly. What course are you steering? (this, to the helmsman). I have taken over watch now, 0528. How far is she now?

Picks up VHF handset. Cuckoo, Cuckoo, this is Hysteria. (Voice drowned by first flatulent blast of foghorn)

Chief Officer: (second F Blast) You have taken over, aye. Four (third FB) ships crossing, 045 (fourth FB), calling ER (last FB, thank the Lord). Three cables.

Captain: (to helmsman after quick look around) Zero five five. Cuckoo, Cuckoo, this is Hysteria. Please go back to your original course and maintain your course and speed!

Lazy guttural voice on VHF: Hysteria, zis is Cuckoo. I am altering course towards you since I am bound for Port Chaos.

Cuckoo, this is the Hysteria. The alteration for the TSS for Port Chaos is eight miles away. Right now, I cannot go more to starboard since there are other ships very close by. Please go back to port and maintain your course and speed until I overtake you and am well clear!

Angry guttural voice: “Hysteria, this is Cuckoo. Why should I alter course? You are overtaking, YOU keep clear of me. I cannot change my destination just because you are overtaking me.”

After a fair amount of zigging and zagging, collision with the Cuckoo is avoided. Post this close shave, Master hands over watch, and goes and completes another close shave in the loo in three minutes. Returns for a post rattled coffee. Takes over and alters course to cross a traffic lane to head for the Hysteria’s destination, a small Belgian port.

More zigging and zagging between other ships and fishing boats.

VHF crackles. Sexy female voice.

Sexy Female voice: “Hysteria, this is Raising Heartbeat Coast Guard”.
Captain: “Sexy female voice, this is...” (pause) “Correction, Raising Heartbeat Coast Guard, this is Hysteria”
SFV:”Hysteria, are you crossing the traffic lane?”
“Yes, ma’am, I am, as reported to VTS five minutes ago.”

SFV: “Roger, Hysteria. Be advised that you are in contravention of Rule 10 of the Collision Regulations which require ships crossing traffic lanes to do so as nearly as practicable at right angles to the general direction of traffic flow”.

“Raising Heartbeat Coast Guard, this is Hysteria. I am well aware of that rule, and have altered course momentarily to keep clear of a fishing vessel on my bow. At the moment, I am seventy eight degrees to the general direction of traffic flow instead of ninety. Will be altering again in three minutes to comply fully with Rule 10. Meanwhile, am complying with Rule1, which states that a ship shall not collide with anybody or anything”.

Undaunted SFV: “Hysteria. I cannot see any fishing boat. Be advised that you are in contravention of Rule 10 of the Collision Regulations which require ships crossing traffic lanes to do so as nearly as practicable at right angles to the general direction of traffic flow”.

Raising Heartbeat, Hysteria. The fishing boat is like God. Just because you cannot see it does not mean that it doesn’t exist.

My favourite? Brand new Third Mate, with Certificate of Incompetency hanging in cabin for ink to dry. Hysteria exiting TSS off Horsburgh, Singapore Straits, approx time 2100. Master hanging around bridge, although the averred Third Mate has the Conn. Third Mate chain smoking Marlboros, dropping ash everywhere.

Master idly sees VLCC in ballast crossing from port to starboard some miles away. Third Mate is cool, displaying a Zen like calm not unusual to many seafarers when they do not know what they are doing.

Hulk gets closer. Bearing does not appear to be changing. A bright, cloudless, moonlit, star studded night and the faraway loom from Singapore almost convert night into day, so the bulk of superstructure of the VLCC, along with her navigation lights, are all very clearly visible.
Master checks ARPA, VLCC is 4 miles off, will pass ahead of the Hysteria but by less than a half a mile when right ahead. Subsequent CPA is 2 cables. Third Mate remains in Zen calm mode. He must be really good.

Master knows he will have to take over. Fortunately, he also knows that the Hysteria is just clearing the TSS, has huge sea room and there is no other problematic traffic for miles.

Therefore, he asks the Third Mate, pointing to the VLCC which, by now, is close enough so that her navigation lights, her superstructure lights as well as the entire hulk of her silhouette can be seen clear as a wall. In fact, the considerable distance between her forward and after masthead lights is clearly evident, and is perhaps ten degrees apart in bearing at this close range.

So, the Master says, Third, what are you planning to do about this one?

Third Mate, still unconcerned, explains patiently to the Master: “Cap, these lights are two fishing boats. That one (pointing to the forward mastlight of the behemoth) is one boat, and that one (now pointing to the VLCC’s accommodation, aft masthead light and starboard sidelight all bunched one atop another) is another boat.”

Getting more confident by the minute, the Third Mate goes on, “I altering course to port soon. I going between the two sets of lights. Right in the middle.”