This is one of my all time favorite quotes. I'm a quote oriented individual....I feel like quotes have gotten me through some rough times....and this quote has gotten me through the past few days. When I was in High School I had a good friend who asked me why I always told other people embarrassing stories about myself. The honest to goodness truth is that I have no idea....but I do it all the time. He thought it was the strangest thing ever - he had a point - if I didn't tell people then no one would know. It seems like I'm consistently airing my dirty laundry (sometimes literally)!
I'm about to air some dirty laundry. This little vignette is mostly for my maritime-y friends....no offense non-maritime-y friends....it's just that you probably won't grasp how big of a deal this was...and most importantly you won't grasp how utterly humiliating it was. I'm airing this dirty laundry for several reasons: a) I really need to get it off my chest and b) I really learned from this one....hopefully someone else can learn through me and save themselves some trouble.
I was on the bridge standing my 12-4 watch. It was the middle of the night and I had TONS of traffic. I was about to pass between the islands of Sicily and Malta. It was a major choke point. I had a lot of cross traffic enroute to Sicily as well as a lot of reciprocal traffic. I had literally been pacing between Radars, gyro repeaters, windows and ECDIS with a pair of binoculars in my hand.
My Captain's Standing Orders state that any course change larger than 7 degrees requires phoning him with our intentions. For example, 'Captain I have a vessel crossing starboard to port - I need to alter course 10 degrees for a 1 mile CPA'. Then he'll decide whether to let us do it or to come up and watch us do it. (For my non-maritime-y friends...this is really weird...normally you just call when you are unsure what to do.) What this means is that you need to be planning WAY ahead! Because you are making a smaller course change you need to make it early. When you are trying to maintain CPAs with numerous vessels and are limited to 7 degrees it makes it even more challenging. The standing orders also require us to maintain a 1 mile CPA with a 2 mile BCR.
I had a vessel crossing and I had a 1 mile CPA and BCR. I would have had to make a larger course change....in addition to the fact that it was a special circumstance due to the sheer volume of shipping traffic. It was also a special circumstance because there was a submerged buoy on the starboard side of my trackline.
I called the Master and he immediately came up to the bridge. I debriefed the situation with him - showed him the contacts on the radars as well as the ECDIS. I also told him we did not have a visual on the target yet. We decided that we would maintain course and speed and if necessary make a larger course change when the vessel was closer - which would keep us closer to our trackline.
I had a lookout on the bridge wing and I also had a helmsman. I asked the helmsman to stand by the helm and I put both steering pumps online to assist with a a larger course change.
I told the Captain that I was going to step into the chart room to put a fix down - at this point the Captain had been on the bridge for about 10 minutes.
When I stepped out from behind the curtain I noticed a vessel about 2 points to starboard and he was REALLY, REALLY close. I said, 'who is that guy?!' I ran out onto the bridge wing and took a bearing on him (this vessel does not have a centerline repeater - majorly annoying). I came back in and tried to match him up to the radar - and couldn't. I said, 'Captain, that guy isn't on the radar and he's really close.' I still had the Conn so I said, 'Hand Steering!' At this point the Master jumped out of his chair and said: 'I HAVE THE CONN! HARD RIGHT!'
Long story short....we got within about 100 feet of a commercial fishing vessel.....100 feet dead ahead. Talk about a sickening feeling. There was a whole fleet of them - and NONE OF THEM were on the radars! I'm also pretty sure they were asleep on the bridge....no one in their right mind heads straight for a loaded tanker....even if they do have the right of way.
Obviously, I've given this A LOT of thought in the last few days. The bottom line is this: NO EXCUSES.
That being said - here are the circumstances that I feel contributed to this close encounter.
1) Our radars are consistently left in Auto Tune. They are absurdly difficult to manually tune. It is really important to keep an eye on how they are tuning themselves because I consistently find the Anti-Sea Clutter up higher than the Gain. This is obviously a no-no. I've been paying much closer attention to the tuning settings and now turn up the gain when necessary and I also place the radar in manual tuning and will adjust the Sea Clutter on my own.
2) I had not been shifting enough between radar scales. I was on 12 and 24 because I was trying to plan so far ahead. I am now going down to the 6 mile scale every time I step in front of the radar on the 12 mile scale.
3) This goes hand in hand with the radar scaling - however; I was planning too far ahead - I'm no longer doing this. I was fixated on not calling the Captain unnecessarily in the middle of the night and was focusing too much of my attention on making small course changes. I'm just going to call the Captain more frequently if necessary - they are his standing orders and if he feels I'm calling too often than I'm sure he'll either modify the standing orders or take me to task. Either way, my obligation is simply to stand my most prudent watch - I am no longer going to make an effort to not call in the middle of the night. I also feel that the classic school of thought is that a large, noticeable course change is the preferred method - it's also my personal belief based on my experience...what I'm most comfortable with and is the method I'm going to follow.
4) There is no centerline repeater. Which means that I need to pay more attention to whether vessels are opening or closing - especially since I don't have a quick method for double checking. In this particular case I think that I had seen the fishing vessels lights and had taken a bearing on them but, I had matched them up incorrectly on the radar. I assumed that they were larger commercial vessels I had on the radar. If I had taken more frequent bearings I would have noticed that their bearings no longer matched and would have realized something was amiss.
That is it for now....I have lots of other things to say but will save it.
Oh, I have one more thing to say. I've never gone hard right at full ahead sea speed before - it was pretty bad ass. There was a lot of rumbling and heeling over as well as an amazing amount of alarms.
The good news is this: I LEARNED A LESSON AND I HAD AN ADVENTURE! It's actually a pretty good sea story....I left out the expletives but as I'm sure you can imagine their was a lot of yelling and cursing on the bridge. The other bit of good news is that we didn't hit the little bastard. :)