Sea Stories

Spanish Skipper Who Saved an Armada

Never forgotten was the drama as the Palm Line freighter Enugu Palm after finally answering the wheel skimmed by a metre or two a row of ocean-going freighters moored at the port’s quays. A second’s delay on the part of Captain Inés would have led to one of the worst shipping disasters in African history.

Had it not been for the quick thinking of the skipper several freighters moored at the Ivory’s Coast Port of Abidjan would have been devastated.

Palm Line, a British-owned shipping company, plied 5,000 miles West Africa’s seaboard. In the early 1960s, the company’s commodore was Spanish Captain Inés, whose hands-on character was legendary. He never suffered fools so I got on perfectly well with him.

Palm Line vessels were specially designed to negotiate the sand bars of the African creeks that otherwise excluded entry to liners that might otherwise bring trade to communities located to the Dark continent’s interior.

The Port of Abidjan on the Ivory Coast, however, is a modern port. Having picked up the pilot at the port’s approaches, Captain Inés, in accordance with the protocol, surrendered control of the Enugu Palm to the pilot. The local pilot’s knowledge of the port is essential for safe mooring.

On this occasion, it soon became self-evident that all was not quite right. The recently boarded pilot was blind drunk and quite incapable of riding a bicycle let alone a fast-moving ocean liner in the narrow confines of a port.

The Enugu Palm did successfully negotiate the port’s Vridi Canal without colliding with its palm thronged banks. As an 18-year-old Ordinary Seaman standing at the ship’s wheel I was best placed to see the unfolding drama as the pilot inexplicably instructed the engine room to full ahead. After all, we were now approaching a lengthy quay along which several freighters were moored.

Riveted, I watched the expression of growing alarm on the face of Captain Inés. Racing at full speed, about 18 kilometres per hour, the Enugu Palm’s bow was clearly destined to cleave the nearest moored freighter in two. I must have been the only British sailor ever to witness a port pilot being roughly cursed and physically shouldered aside as a ship’s captain resumed control of his doomed laden ship.

Rushing to the telegraph, bells clanged alarmingly as Captain Inés swung the lever to Full Astern. Simultaneously, he ordered me to swing the wheel hard to port. The rest was down to fate. Unlike a car, a ship can travel a long way before it responds to a change of command.

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