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Crossing the Bar

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Crossing the Bar, by Captain Paul Lobo (continued)

A powerful tug boat

A powerful tug boat—much like a bow thruster—is a useful tool, but if it should fail you better know how to dock without it.

Because loaded tankers take so long to turn, I assumed I needed to start my turn. I was more concerned about Angel Island ahead than Harding Rock, and I shouldn’t have been. Being in fog can be disorientating, but with a good radar it’s usually a routine operation. Without it made me feel as helpless as I’ve ever felt on a ship.

Because the radars were useless, binoculars were glued to my eyes, which were straining to find HR in the mist. When I finally eyed a buoy, I couldn’t see what color it was, so I frantically asked the captain to radio the bow to find out what color it was. The lookout hadn’t bothered reporting the buoy. What he thought his job was I don’t know, but he certainly didn’t do it.

I was 650 feet (more than two football fields) farther away from the buoy than he was, so he should have seen it long before I did. In any case, it was too late. When I heard the lookout’s voice, a chill went through my entire body like I never felt before. Momentarily, it paralyzed me. I’ll never forget that sick feeling to my dying day, and thinking of it still brings back that same terror I experienced then. The lookout, who obviously wasn’t very fluent in English, never said the color. Instead, he said, “Si, dere iz a buoy.”

Just then, I saw HR’s quick-flashing red signal warning me to keep it to starboard. Then I knew the ship and my career were doomed because HR should have been on the starboard side; instead, it was fine on the port bow, meaning I was heading for one of the sharpest, hardest rocks in the bay. I was hoping it was Buoy #1 across the channel from HR, where there was deep water, but my eyes confirmed what my mind didn’t want to believe. This lookout screw-up was ironic because prior to the Valdez hitting Bligh Reef, the Valdez’s lookout kept telling the Third Mate that Bligh Reef Buoy was on the wrong side of their bow.

In my case, the bow lookout didn’t see or report it to the bridge. I think my heart stopped as I hopelessly asked for Full Astern, thinking we were about to run over a solid granite rock pointy like a pyramid. I knew Full Astern wouldn’t stop the ship, but I had to do something, so like a condemned man, I lit another cigarette. I wasn’t too sure I could extricate myself from this jam, as I had from a few others I had gotten myself into. Not only was the buoy on the wrong side, but we were swinging toward two other granite rocks. Luckily, it takes a long time for a steam plant to reverse the propeller shaft, so nothing happened for a few minutes. At the speed we were traveling, reversing the propeller wouldn’t have had any effect. It would have just spun helplessly in the water, called cavitation.

Desperate to act, I asked the captain to let go both his anchors. I hadn’t attended Port Revel Shiphandling School yet, so I didn’t know that dropping an anchor going more than five knots was useless. With all the ship’s momentum and the anchor’s weight, no anchors, no matter how big, would ever stop a ship, especially a loaded one. They would just go over the side and be lost. To my utter consternation, he calmly told me no one was on the bow. We weren’t going to anchor, we were already two miles inside the Gate in fog, and no one was manning the anchors except for the useless lookout!

Then I noticed several men frantically racing 600 feet up towards the bow. Seeing them hopelessly sprinting didn’t help my stomach, which was already in a knot. If I hadn’t been so occupied, I might very well have vomited because I was literally afraid for the ship and my career. I didn’t think so at the time, but I was actually blessed that the anchors weren’t ready because in all likelihood they would have been lost over the side for no reason and we would have plowed over Harding Rock anyway. It was just dumb-ass luck they weren’t manned and that the engines never went astern. I lost another of my pilot lives right then. When I realized that slowing the ship wasn’t working and the anchors weren’t ready, I went to Plan “B,” deciding to pass as close to Harding Rock Buoy as I could. I knew I didn’t have enough sea room to get it on my starboard side or make a U-turn in front of it, but I wanted to get as close to it as possible, so I ordered hard left rudder.

Then I asked for Full Ahead to get maximum rudder effect. The captain, who was as confused as I was, ordered Full Ahead, then stared at me without getting out of his chair. I’m not sure if I showed it, but my hands were shaking as I tried to maintain my composure. Losing my cool wasn’t going to help anything, but I’m sure I had at least three cigarettes going by then.

I raced out to the end of the port wing by myself. As I looked down, the big buoy passed down the black hull, almost chipping the paint off. I’d have gladly settled for snagging HR’s anchor chain. That would have been bad, but not as horrible as running over Harding Rock, which would have split the ship open like a ripe watermelon. In all likelihood, oil would have filled The Bay up to about one foot with smelly Alaskan crude oil.

This is what San Francisco had on board. Not only that, but The Bay Area was years away from having oil recovery equipment on standby. I turned toward the doorway and hollered as loud as I could into the fog-shrouded wheelhouse, “Hard Right, Hard Right!” Now that I was almost clear of the buoy, I was afraid the ship might keep swinging in the current toward Angel Island less than seven shiplengths to the north. It seemed to take an eternity to start swinging back around as I waited alone on the wing for a shudder from the impact, but to my everlasting relief nothing happened.

Looking aft again, I watched Harding Rock Buoy slowly recede into the fog, just as it had appeared what seemed like ages ago. The captain never came out on the wing, he just sat inside the wheelhouse. Maybe he didn’t want to see the end of his career out there with me. NOAA’s chart of the central Bay indicates Harding Rock is directly adjacent to the buoy. I thanked the Lord, it was farther away for some reason! I’m not sure what I would have done if the ship had been holed.

Years later, my wife and I joked if I made a special call that she was to meet me where we got married in Mexico with all our money. I never made that call. When I knew we were finally clear and safe, I shouted into the bridge for Slow Ahead, calmly walked back inside, and steadied the ship on 090. I knew I had some time before we would hit anything on that course, so I tried to get my heart to stop racing. I also needed to extinguish some of those damn cigarettes I managed to light. Today some ships forbid smoking, which just makes smoking pilots edgier.

Once everything calmed down, the ship exited the fog bank and I could see the entire Bay to the east. Just as she had entered it, the ship left the fog bank, quickly and silently. The ship hadn’t traveled very far, but those were the most petrifying, longest five miles of my career.

Later on, the old man, who was probably twenty years older than I, made some snide remark about how I should have known better and not gotten his ship into such a predicament, which I agreed. In my defense, I reminded him that his lookout didn’t speak English, and wasn’t a lookout to begin with. I also told him he didn’t have an officer on the bow, which in pilot waters is a must, especially when you already know you are going to use the anchors.

Many times I re-ran what happened in my head, and because God had spared my career, I developed better ways to pilot, even if a ship had poorly performing radars. That dreadful day gave me nightmares for quite some time. It still makes me anxious writing about it, but, to paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” I was stronger after that and I never put a tanker in danger ever again, which was a good result.

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