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At 4,000 miles it is quite a distance between Los Angeles and the entrance of the Panama Canal. The tranquillity of the tropical western seaboard of the United States was likely the last place on earth where one might expect high drama but on the high or restful seas always be prepared for the unexpected.
As a Junior Ordinary Seaman (JOS) I took my trick on the ship’s wheel situated on the monkey island. This is a small platform deck atop a ship’s wheelhouse which means the helmsman’s virtual isolation.
The officer of the watch was in the chart room below and the vessel’s crew were nowhere to be seen as isolated and quite alone on the vastness of the world’s great sea I held the ship’s course. I had the vastness of the Pacific Ocean all to myself, or so I thought.
Literally out of the blue vastness of sea and sky I spotted another vessel as a speck on the horizon. There was nothing unusual in that. But there was something unusual about to happen. It became apparent that the approaching vessel was on course to cross our path. This is not good at the best of times but it is disastrous when the other vessel is an American warship.
As a 16-year-old sea novice I had little idea what action to take to avoid what looked like an impending collision? With an oath coarse enough to curl a fair maiden’s hair, I called down the voice pipe for the ship’s Second Officer. My anguished cries went unheeded; I presumed the officer of the watch to be fast asleep.
By this time, our vessel was drawing closer to the American warship. Its course was now a clear invitation to our ship to take evasive action or the Columbia Star would if it kept its course neatly hew it in two. In the case of the latter, Whitehall’s War Office would have some explaining to do to avoid an all-out war with the United States.
Wet behind the ears I lacked the experience (and brains) to alter the course that would take the MV Columbia Star around the stern of the warship. In my defence we were taught that when an officer gives a helmsman a course to steer, he steers it no ifs or buts about it.
Holding my ship’s course, I put the onus on the American Navy to take evasive action. Anyway, by now I had left it too late to alter the course. A ship will travel a mile or so before it responds to a turn of the wheel. The distance between our approaching vessels had narrowed to a point where I could see the US destroyer’s ratings scurrying about on the warship’s decks.
Steeling myself for the inevitable collision I watched my life pass before my eyes. Then, unexpectedly, the warship’s stern plunged. The boost from its powerful engines turned the American warship’s wake into a maelstrom. The bows reared and the destroyer moved quickly aside to allow the British merchantman to cleave the warship’s wake instead of its topsides.
Although merely a cadet I had been taught that the protocol of the sea is that merchant ships give way to warships. Furthermore, the practice is for the merchant ship to first dip its jack (flag) in salute to the warship. The latter does likewise and again raises their ensign at which point the merchant ship raises its ensign. As the crew of the Columbia Star was ‘otherwise engaged’ and quite unknowing of the drama one assumes that the bare flag pole of the passing merchantman was seen as a one-fingered salute.
THE LEAVING OF LIVERPOOL Michael Walsh. 55 true stories 100 pictures. A first-hand account of the British ships, seafarers, adventures and humorous misadventures (1955 – 1975). A tribute to the ships and seamen of the then-largest merchant marine in history. https://mikewalshwritingservices.wordpress.com/seafaring/
Related books: The Leaving of Liverpool, UNTOLD SAGAS OF THE SEA Volume I (The USA, The UK), UNTOLD SAGAS OF THE SEA Vol II (The USA, The UK), UNTOLD SAGAS OF THE SEA VOL. III ( The USA and The UK) UNTOLD SAGAS OF THE SEA VOL. IV ( The USA and The UK) and All I Ask is a Tall Ship by Liverpool writer Michael Walsh
Categories: Sea Stories