Tuesday, 28 September 2010

For those in peril on the sea.

Lifeboat Day in Coverack.Image via WikipediaYou would think that the vast open sea could handle all the ships of the world and would be safer than a busy motorway, but the consequences of a collision at sea can have more serious results than a fender bender ashore, and in certain channels shipping gets quite congested at times.

In the busy shipping lanes of the world great care is taken by the coastguard and the captains of the ships to avoid any such event, but they do happen, normally in rough weather or fog, hence the need for our valuable rescue services like the lifeboat, coastguard and air sea rescue helicopter units.

In the quiet waters off the west coast of Scotland, the few ships that pass by are made up of coasters, ferries, the odd oil tanker heading up to Greenock, and on the very odd occasion a cruise liner will visit the beautiful area in and around the Firth of Clyde.

Gone are the days of John Browns shipyard turning out ships and them seen doing their trials along the measured mile where the great Queens, Mary, Elizabeth and Elizabeth 11 graced the waters of the Firth before heading off to travel the world providing luxury cruises to all who sailed in them.

There are still some navy ships being built at another shipyard on the Clyde, and they still do trials out there, also the Royal Navy does exercises in the suitable deep waters around Arran at times adding to the traffic, with some submarines to be had too, so all in all, as at anytime and anywhere at sea strict vigilance is required at all times.

Sadly even though we have many modern navigational aids the human element is still the most reliable but also the one that makes the most errors, and is the cause of most collisions or tragedies at sea.

Taking your eye off the ball even for a second, as on the roads, can mean life or death as you have to be wary off all around you,like weather conditions that can change at the drop of a hat, or shipping appearing from the horizon that has to be noted and its course, speed and direction observed as it could interfere with your plans before you realize it, especially if you are towing fishing nets astern of you which makes manoeuvrability almost impossible, so you have to anticipate the hours and minutes ahead not just the seconds that are needed on the roads.

On more than one occasion I was unfortunate enough to be at the mercy of the human element in command of a ship, or small coaster as was in these cases, but none the less scary than a tanker when it is bearing down on you on a collision course, us unable to take evasive action while fishing and able to see the man in command having a conversation with his shipmate unaware they were heading straight for us and contact only seconds away.
Shipping is supposed to give fishing boats a wide berth and every fishing boat has signals to show it is working and cannot manoeuvre, a rule of the sea, just as you still give way to a boat under sail.

Having sailed on fishing boats from forty foot up to over seventy, I always thought the boat was big, in comparison to what, I am not sure, but when you are aboard it seems that way, so you think that you are clearly visible to any passing traffic who should be keeping a look out, "WATCH" being the operative word as it is called a watch when its your turn at the wheel when steaming or towing whatever the case.

Obviously the man on watch in this case had never looked at his radar never mind looked out of the wheelhouse window as he was completely oblivious to us. It was the seconds before impact that you realize how small your boat really is, and it is also amazing how quickly your brain works when you are put in such a predicament.
My first thought was to jump on the anchor dangling from the bow of the coaster, it looked easy at the time, but with hindsight, foolish, everything seemed to go in slow motion the nearer the coaster came to impact us and it gave me time to run forward to the winch and release the brakes, letting our gear run out and giving us enough forward thrust to slip under the bow and into the wash of sea it was pushing in front of it.
As soon as the man on watch noticed our mast he took evasive action by turning the wheel hard to port and scrapped past our quarter with inches to spare, avoiding the collision that would have halved our boat in two.
Without even an acknowledgement he sailed on and over the horizon without a care in the world leaving us to recover our nerves, haul the gear back to where it should be and continue fishing, although it took a strong cup of tea and about ten cigarettes before my nerves settled.

That was the closest call I had, one other being an idiot in a small but larger coaster heading straight for us, aware of what he was doing, his way of giving us a fright, which worked, but I would like to have seen his face when the Board of Trade officials boarded them when they docked as we reported the incident, and it would have been taken very seriously, punishment also dished out to idiots and law breakers at sea, just as on land.

There were a few other times when we had to take evasive action with arrogant captains not wanting to stray from their course to avoid small fishing boats that would seem only an irritation to them but had we not anticipated their actions the consequences would have been severe, not only to the crew on the fishing boat who would have landed in the water, maybe even drowned, but for the irresponsible captain who would have lost his rank, which would have been more than irritating to both parties.

All my near misses happened in clear weather, but some of my colleagues were not so lucky, some lost their lives, which I would rather not go into, but will tell you of one particular boat with close friends of mine aboard who were run down and sank one foggy day.

It was a small coaster, the same one that gave me my closest call, obviously a lesson never learned, although fog is one of the worst things you can experience at sea even with all the modern equipment like radar.

My friends had been fishing at the west side of The Alisa Craig, a notorious place in fog where the island disappears and the haunting sound of the foghorn can be heard for miles around.
They had their gear aboard and were steaming between tows so both skippers were to blame, but nonetheless both skippers got a shock when the coaster appeared out of the fog ramming the "RANDOM HARVEST" amidships sending her to the bottom in minutes.

One of my friends was in the wheelhouse with the skipper and told me, "He appeared out of nowhere, never showing up on the radar nor his foghorn heard."
Strange, but fog does have a weird effect at sea and strange unexplainable things like that do happen.
Another friend of mine who was in the hold packing fish at the time, felt the impact and when he scrambled up the ladders to get to the deck, the boat was going down as fast as he was trying to get up.
Thankfully, after a short swim, all were rescued by the crew of the coaster, "THE SUNLIGHT" of all names, but I often wondered what would have happened to me had I been on the Random Harvest as I could not swim all the years I was at sea only learning some years later.

Storms were not the only factors to create danger at sea, fog and the human element were another two, the human element being the one that should never be in the equation but is most likely to be the worst offender when it comes to collisions.
Accidental the collision might be, but negligence is most likely to be at the root of it, and as on the roads, that split second can mean life or death even though there is a vast expanse of ocean.

Is the quotation used when a ship or boat is launched, and every sailor I know have needed God's blessing at sea at one time or other, be it through storms or stress, rough and ready we might be, we have all turned to him at some point, some luckier than others, some living to tell the tale, some not.

I have great respect for the sea, and after all the years spent on it, knowing what it can throw at you, I have every respect for all the men and women who still go down to the sea in ships, but more so for those of the rescue services who put their lives at risk to save us should we flounder in any way.

Although there is a vast expanse of ocean, with many open spaces, it still provides much more danger than any of our congested roads ever will.

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