"A" is for "AB"
It’s sort of astonishing that Tess Kincaid came up with the above prompt, which looks like it could well be titled “drowning,” at the same time that news of a spectacular shipwreck was filling the air waves and the newsprint.
I guess everyone is aware of the freak accident of the Costa Concordia during a Mediterranean cruise. The prompt this week hit me hard. You see, years ago I was involved in a shipwreck, and the reason I’ll never forget it is that I was the one who caused it.
To tell you about it, let me take you back to the days when I was just a kid, a humble able-bodied seaman, or AB.
I should also make a couple of points. One, a sailor who is steering a ship, the helmsman, no matter how able-bodied he may be, does not, can not, make even the sliver of an independent decision.
He’s there to steer the thing. He has been given the number of a course, which means he turns the steering wheel a little from time to time so the needle on the compass is constantly on that course heading.
That’s all he does. Turning the ship, even in an emergency, is not for him; that decision is to be made by the officer of the watch. That’s not just the ancient custom of the sea; it is the law.
I remember once I was at the wheel and I could see a small collection of fishing boats, five or six of them, up ahead in the distance just off our starboard bow. They were clustered together; maybe they were all going after the same fish. I believed that if we continued as we were heading we were going to plow into them. The second officer was out on the wing of the bridge; perhaps he hadn’t noticed this.
I could easily have twirled the wheel and swung our ship over to port and avoided the boats. But of course the law was the law; I had the right to call an officer’s attention to the situation but I couldn’t do anything about it.
So I shouted out to him about the collection of boats up ahead off our starboard bow. “I’m aware of it,” he replied.
He’s aware of it, I thought. But maybe he's too dumb to do anything about it.
Turned out, though, that he was smarter than I thought. He knew that the current, and the wind, were drifting from starboard to port. So he knew that by the time our ship got to that area, the little collection of fishing boats would have drifted across our bow and have wound up to the side, well out of harm’s way. So maybe the law made some sense.
Now. Quick segue to a different story.
Having had the sea-going experience, I wanted to try sailing on the Great Lakes.
The vessels on these bodies of water, many of ‘em, are known as “ore boats,” mainly because they carry ore – you see how logical things are in that part of the country?
As you may know, to a true seaman, there’s an important difference between the word “ship” and the word “boat.” It pains him to hear a ship called a boat. Generally, and very loosely speaking, a ship is something big and a boat is something that could be carried on a ship.
But still, they call those Great Lakers, though they may be as large as any ships, “ore boats.”
What can you do?
Anyway, to get to my shipwreck. It is quite tricky to steer one of these huge vessels among the rivers that lead to the Lakes, and to bring them “alongside” to tie up at all kinds of local docks and piers.
I was at the wheel one day while the captain was on the bridge with me. As far as I could see, everything was the same as with a ship at sea. But it wasn’t, as I was to find out.
I had been given a course to steer, but I suddenly noticed that the skipper had left the bridge. At sea, this would be a no-no; there has to be an officer on the bridge when under way. Again, the law.
So I was alone on the bridge and I had the feeling that everything was going downhill: the ship, or boat, or whatever it was, was heading right toward a dock.
I knew the law. I could do nothing but shout, in a kind of piteous cry, for the captain, or somebody, to get the hell up on the bridge or we were going to smash into that dock.
Which we did.
A large quantity of shouts and curses arose from all parts of our vessel. The skipper (finally) rushed up and asked me if I was crazy.
It turned out that things were much more relaxed on the Lakes. A helmsman could maneuver the ship if there was no officer around, and avoid trouble all by hisself.
My shipwreck wasn’t as big a deal, thankfully, as the wreck of the Costa Concordia, but I had destroyed quite a section of a dock, and it was decided that perhaps it would be better if I left the Great Lakes and got back to being an AB on seagoing boats – er, ships.
1 year ago