Shipmates' Stories

Night passage in the shipping lane

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We were flying along under close haul, and despite heading a bit more westward than would have been ideal, were making good progress on the overnight passage. We were about to across a shipping channel at a rather ambitious angle, and there were six vessels heading southwest across it. There were three of us on watch and I took the helm whilst the Captain checked the AIS.

The Captain raised the vessels one by one to request passage whilst giving me the bearings to sail on. The first couple of vessels obliged by altering their course by a couple of degrees. Then came Spirit of Auckland. Their bridge had initially responded, then reverted to radio silence, despite being raised several times. Time began to tick. The Captain took the helm back and told me to call out the CPA and TCPA to her from the chart room.

I charged into the charthouse, hoping that ‘CPA’ and ‘TCPA’ were very large, very obvious and didn’t involve any maths, as I wasn’t sure what either of them were. I actually found them on the AIS very quickly; CPA (closest point of approach) is the distance between two vessels, and TCPA (time to closest point of approach) is the time these two vessels would take to come into contact from that exact moment. I began yelling out distances and times every 10 seconds. They were both shooting down.

The Captain looked ahead, spun the wheel this way and that. The numbers continue to dwindle away. I called the readings out. The Captain screamed an imprecation into the whipping wind. The TCPA reached two minutes – whatever the CPA was, it was under a nautical mile. It was in this moment, turning from the rapidly descending numbers on the screen to the rushing night, yelling to the helm and seeing the Captain’s determined, seething gaze into the night, that I realised I was having a great time. I was feeling fine, and the adrenaline had really gotten underway when I was given that invaluable task to perform. I had a responsibility to the entire ship to keep her safe.

However, the third man on our night watch, the Bosun, had disappeared. I had realised this a couple of minutes before, but it really came home when the Captain screamed at me ‘WHERE IS DAN?’ I screamed back ‘I DON’T KNOW’ – the first time I had ever raised my voice to the Captain – then clipped into the jackline and ran off down the deck hoping to find him, which, in salopettes and the oversized trainers I had borrowed from the Bosun earlier (he had taken mercy on me and my never-drying boots), was actually more like a rushed waddle.

‘DAN? DAN, WHERE ARE YOU? COME BACK!’ I wailed. I found him on the foredeck. He had given into the temptation of watching the lights of the other vessels from the point with the clearest line of vision, which was the foredeck. Although this might sound like a tempting place to be, on a 115-foot deck no one can see where you are and there’s nothing to do there except stare into the lights and become a man overboard. I retrieved him (‘Need you back at the helm – also, you might be in trouble’), waddled aft and dived back into the charthouse and started to read the CPA and TCPA again just as the Captain started to chew out the Bosun.

Despite the fun I was having, it was with relief that I saw the numbers suddenly U-turn and go shooting back up. We had cleared the other vessels and had effectively crossed the shipping channel. Soon after this our watch was relieved. Enough excitement for one night, back to the fo’c’sle we waddled – below decks.

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