Crossing the Bar, by Captain Paul Lobo (continued)
Boarding a ship in calm seas is dangerous enough; in rough seas one misstep could be a deadly mistake.
Early one evening on November 22, 1977, I boarded the American tanker, SS Santa Clara, as a weak sun slowly sank astern of the ship. After arriving on the darkened bridge, I got my bearings, then took the conn from Captain Church, swinging the ship southeast toward the Main Ship Channel.
The wind wasn’t particularly strong, but the seas were fairly large, the aftermath of an early winter storm. The Santa Clara was drawing 33 feet, so I anticipated a cushion of about 22 feet under the keel, more than sufficient water to enter port even with the tall swells running. I still wanted to be in the deepest part of the Bar Channel, which is maintained to 55 feet.
Despite the failing light, I could see waves building up on the north side of the channel near Buoy #1, where, if the bar broke, it would there first. Two miles farther east the bar could also break near Buoy #7, so I didn’t want to be anywhere near either of those buoys. As the ship slowly picked up speed, her bow wake started flowing smoothly down the black and rust-colored hull as I looked down from the bridge as the ship slowly rolled from side to side.
There wasn’t a thing to worry about, it was going to be a routine transit. There I went not worrying again! While shooting the breeze with Captain Church, I heard an eerie sound I never heard before, or for that matter since. A sustained rumbling noise reverberated through the portside door, faint at first, then increasingly louder. I’d never heard of a wave building and making noise, but the commotion was undeniable, sounding like a freight train getting closer.
Confused, I nonchalantly strolled over to the open door as if nothing were wrong and glanced aft for myself. That’s when I saw it! A great wave with spume on top building up and overtaking the ship. I can only assume a rogue wave was following us and rising higher because the water gets much shallower near the Bar Channel! I spun around, certain the immense wave was going to swamp the ship. “Do you have a lookout forward, Cap?” “Half Ahead,” I ordered as he faced me with this quizzical look.
“Half Ahead,” The mate answered, moving the lever up to Half.
“Sure Mr. Pilot, the AB’s on the bow, what’s wrong?”
I said, “Crap, you’d better get him off there, we’re about to get pooped!”
He grabbed his radio and yelled, “Tony, get your ass off the fo’c’sle, right now!”
We watched with growing apprehension as the lookout slid down the forecastle’s hand rails like a fireman down a pole landing on the main deck near a bunch of valves and pipes. I prayed the deck equipment might somehow block the brunt of the wave that was outracing the ship. As I gazed at the boiling water overtaking us, SMASH!
Up and over the middle of the port side of the hull rose a huge wall of green and white water rising straight up into the air, as if it had punched the side of the ship. The next second the wave fell en masse onto the foredeck with a loud whoosh as if a giant had emptied an enormous bucket of soapy water onto the foredeck. The water rushed across, sweeping from port to starboard at a thirty-degree angle to the keel and completely submerging the forward part of the ship.
As the water raced, we could still see a single white light coming from the AB’s flashlight going up and down with his swaying arm. He knew what was about to happen and was hightailing it for all he was worth up the starboard side, trying to get into the lee of the main house before the deluge. It was too late. The foredeck became totally overwhelmed with frothing water as if the ship were a submarine.
When the white light disappeared, I thought, Man, what if that poor bastard goes over the side? Would he survive in the freezing Pacific and would they blame me? With that, the ship heeled sharply over to starboard, causing most of the green water to cascade over the bulwarks and through freeing ports— holes in the bulwarks—which allow water to escape over ships’ sides. Ships’ decks are also built with a slight arch in them, called camber, which allows water to flow to the ships’ sides, relieving the deck of its weight. Just when I was thinking the AB was a goner, a lonely flashlight reignited, except now the motion was more like a police car’s twirling lights as the AB ran like mad. Happily, the next wave just rolled harmlessly by and no more green water came over the bulwarks. The old man radioed, asking how the AB was. He replied that he had grabbed onto a stanchion and held on for mercy, getting soaked, but was okay. I brought in some deep ships with some terrible seas, but I was only pooped once.