There are times when the boss needs to know. Extraordinary people know when they should call the boss.
At sea as a Navy officer I stood watches which included the safe navigation (piloting) of the ship. As a new ensign in the Navy, I served on an aircraft carrier and never expected to see the bridge of the ship. Yet the night of the first day at sea, I was on the bridge and began training for the position when I would be the responsible for the ship’s safe navigation. One year during this period of my time in the Navy that I spent more time on the bridge of the ship than I spent on land.
One night at sea in the Pacific Ocean, I witnessed one of those close passages when the person who was in charge of the ship’s safety in terms of course and navigation could not bring himself to call the ship’s captain despite the danger that developed.
There are shipping lanes in the world’s oceans where the flow of shipping traffic is non-stop, and the destinations put vessels on courses that seem to flow with an order almost like the order of an Interstate freeway system.
The part of the ocean where this incident took place was one where ships might go days without passing another ship, and the courses passing ships might be taking were infinite.
I was still in a more junior role during this watch. I am not sure what the consequences were for me if a collision developed. However, I assuredly did not want to be on a ship in a collision at sea under any circumstances.
It was the middle of the night. Except for the people on watch, everyone in the ship was probably asleep. The captain was asleep.
A ship appeared on the horizon miles away and a few degrees to the left of our course. The ship was close but not quite straight ahead of us. This ship appeared to be on a course that would put it coming just to the left side of our ship.
We could determine quite a bit about the other ship’s course from the lights on the ship. The mast lights were visible. The red light on the left side of the ship (port side) was visible. The green light was visible but seemed to come and go from our view.
When you can see both the red light on the port side and the green light on the starboard side of a vessel you are looking to the center of a vessel that is pointed at you.
One way to determine if a vessel is going to collide with your vessel is to determine if the other ship is getting closer and is bearing down on the same part of you vessel: the vessel has a steady bearing and declining range or, to use standard nautical reference, SBDR.
As the minutes passed away, this vessel was coming closer and appeared to be holding to a bearing that seemed consistent. If the bearing changed, the variations were so small as to be difficult to determine.
How to open the passing distances between two vessels can sometimes be a little tricky to determine. If a ship appears to be bearing down within a couple of degrees to a ship’s port side as this one did, then coming starboard a few degrees or perhaps adding a few turns on the screws might open a passing distance our left side.
However, if our bearing readings had been off, and we just had not been able to determine that this vessel’s course was in fact taking her across our bow, coming starboard or increasing speed would have put us into a collision course.
“Rules of the Road”: So that the ships’ pilots can take appropriate action in close passing situations, the international laws call for the ship on the right to maintain course and speed. This requirement enables the pilot of the other vessel to take appropriate actions to avoid colliding with the ship that is crossing the bow of the pilot’s ship.
If the readings that we were taking on the other vessel were accurate, the Rules of the Road for ocean passing placed us with the burden to continue on course and speed as the ship with clearance for safe passing.
The Unknowns: Ocean currents and wind changes can alter a ship’s course over the ground even though the nautical heading or rather the direction that you are steering by the compass has not changed. You may still be steering north but the ocean may have pushed you to the right or left over the surface of the earth. What appeared to be happening is that the ship ahead of us was maintaining course and speed, but may have in the high seas been getting pushed back and forth from port to starboard.
The navigational plan called for us to stay on the same course and speed for several more hours. To alter course would represent a change in the overall navigational plan and involved some other complications that affected the ship’s mission.
The officer of the watch had several decisions to make. The simplest decision was to wake the captain, summarize the situation, and allow the captain to make the decision as to how to maneuver a close passage that appeared to be closer as time passed.
This officer opted not to call the captain. I do not believe that he ever concluded that we would not collide with the other vessel. Perhaps he had made that conclusion. From my point of view, without one of the two ships altering course, whether or not the two ships collided was a matter of fortune.
For decades merchant vessels have used an automatic piloting system for efficient steering and to reduce manpower requirements. This auto-pilot system has the name of Iron Mike. On the high seas, merchant vessels are reputed to put their ships on Iron Mike during night steaming in the enormous open ocean and everyone goes to bed. In other words, the ship’s wheel is locked and no one watches the ship’s navigation. The practice probably happens less often than the subject is discussed, but it is a subject of discussion on the bridge of a United States Ship during the nights of lonely and quiet bridge watches.
Finally the ship was within a few hundred yards of our ship and too close for any type of maneuver. We officers and men on the bridge watched as the ship passed the angle deck of our carrier. We lost all view of the ship except perhaps for the top of the mast.
The lookout on the back of our ship must have been less than 100 yards of the ship as it passed. If the passing vessel was cutting any kind of angle inward toward our ship, the two ships may have passed within a few feet of each other. Without direct communication with another vessel on the high seas, safe passage at that distance is a deadly percentage game.
That lookout at the back of our ship had not been aware of the passing vessel until it was upon us. He was quite frantic when he made his report to the bridge that there was another vessel close aboard.
I do not remember the year this happened. I do not remember the names of the other people.
Going forward in time, this harrowing experience taught me that there were times when you just call the boss. The way I look at situations like this one, whether I am at sea or in business, sometimes it is wise just to call in another person.
I had one of the situations a year later. Again it was the middle of the night. The captain was asleep. The navigational plan was laid out to attempt to escape a typhoon.
My orders for the watch were to change course at a precise time to avoid an island that the navigator described as a rock.
The ocean was so high from the typhoon that our ship took green water (solid sea water) over the catapult area. There were ships everywhere. The typhoon had pushed all the sea traffic into a narrow passage. As carefully as I could I studied the lights and positions of the ships around my ship for an hour before the scheduled time of the course change. The captain had gone to bed and was aware that the sea of full of other ships and had the knowledge that these ships were not a great threat because all the vessels were on the same southerly course and not crossing each other.
At the scheduled time, I gave the order to come about to our new course. As our the bow of our vessel began to come around, our shipped heeled heavily and rolled back and forth from level to several degrees to port. The change in course and the rise and fall of the ocean put our ship into lingering post-side rolls so deep and so long that at one point that I wondered if we had the ballast to return to center in the storm.
As we came around, all the other vessels must have gone into a scramble to alter course to avoid the enormous ship that had come about in their shipping lane. Suddenly my understanding of what was happening was not clear. It was hard for me to draw an accurate perspective on the other vessels. This was night time. It was stormy. I was making decision on courses of other ships based on the view I had of their navigational lights. As our ship was in the midst of changing course and some of the other ships began changing course, the view I had been using became lost.
I punched into the communication system to wake the captain. He was on the bridge in probably less than a minute. As I continued to study the situation I observed that the other vessels were coming to the same course that our ship had taken. Apparently the commanding officers of these mostly merchant vessels recognized our vessel as one that could be trusted to take a safe passage. We had become their guide ship. Now the mental picture that I had taken before I began the course change was taking shape in the new alignment of the ships. By now the captain had reached a point that he was comfortable to know that I called him out to the bridge. He saw the confusion created from all the other ships shifting their course in response to the shift I had made in our ship. He understood my view that the situation was evolving to look much the way it had before I started to change course. He went back to bed.
In the first situation the events were so harrowing in part because the captain deserved to know that another vessel was bearing down on his ship so closely yet he never was given the chance to ensure the safety of his ship and crew. Even though matters turned out well, the captain had developed the competence and earned the respect to make those calls.
In the second situation matters resolved so quickly that the captain’s skills were not required for us to navigate safely to our new course, but the confusion of the ship’s transition was sufficient that I owed it to the captain to let him make a call on the situation.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, the right thing to do may be to continue with your job as planned. Your boss may need to be able to put his or her attention elsewhere. However, sometimes the most extraordinary thing to do is to know when to call the boss.