Doug Bingham forwarded this true story:

INCOMING VESSEL ON A CRASH COURSE

By Rick Bennett

 

A lightship sailor fears two things at sea and on station; a storm that would engulf the small ship, and a collision. This is a first hand account.

Nantucket Lightship 612

May 1984

On most any night while on station, there were two men assigned to the watch. The Engineering watch stander and the Bridge watch stander. The duty of the engineer on watch was to take hourly readings on the ship's generator, monitor the radio beacon signal and record the various gauge readings of the refrigeration plant that contained all food and dairy products for the trip to "the shoals." He would also make rounds fore and aft of all compartments to verify fire and flooding safety. One of the most important tasks would be to stay in contact with the bridge watch stander, for the safety of himself and the crew.

The bridge watch stander would send the local weather conditions hourly for mariners, and maintain an active radio and radar watch. The radar was the most important part of this watch. The radar had rings that could be turned on, to mark distances from the center part of the ship to twenty-five miles or more. If a vessel was spotted on the radar, it was usually seen from twenty to twenty five nautical miles away. The watch stander would watch this vessel, and plot its course and speed through the water. The idea was to be sure that any vessel on this screen was not steering on a crash course to our ship. To do this, the watch stander used a grease pencil and drew the vessel's course on the radar screen as well as the time that it was plotted. It was in this manner that an "early warning system" was formed for our safety. These two people ensured the safety of all persons onboard.

One night during May 1984 at 0200 I was awakened along with the rest of the crew to a page over the public address system. "INCOMING SHIP TEN MILES OUT ON A CRASH COURSE, GET DRESSED AND ASSUME YOUR ASSIGNMENTS." Seconds later, the engineering watch stander followed up with an appearance in the berthing area, shouting as he looked around "LETS GO PEOPLE, THIS IS NOT A DRILL." As any Lightship sailor knows, everyone has pre-determined assignments for all emergencies such as fire, flooding, and this one, COLLISION!

I got out of bed and was dressed in ten seconds it would seem. By now the lights in the berthing area were on and everyone was getting dressed and heading off to their assignments. My assignment was to parallel generators to allow use of the anchor windlass, and to ready the windlass for use in hauling the anchor. I knew no one would attempt to raise the anchor until I reported to the bridge so I ran forward and readied the windlass first to save time. From here, I ran to B1 engine room, started the second generator and got it online. I called the bridge, and reported that the generators and the windlass were ready to weigh anchor. Captain Lewis answered and stated "He's almost on the center ring, there's not enough time. Get your men out of the engine room and on deck now!" I ran to B2 engine room where a two-man crew had just brought all four main engines online, ready for use. Unfortunately these engines are useless when the anchor is still down. I shouted down from the catwalk "LEAVE THEM, EVERYBODY OUT AND TOPSIDE RIGHT NOW!" Out and up through the wardroom we went to the main deck. I reported to Captain Lewis that the engine room crew was all topside. "Aye," he replied, "see what you can do to make the life boats free from the deck." This was done in a matter of seconds. Funny, now that I look back on this, when we drilled for this very situation it seemed to take forever to get it done, and now it is done in a few seconds.

At this point, we have been on deck for a little more than a minute when everything seemed to become more apparent as to the severity of our situation. For your benefit, here are the facts of the situation at this moment.

First, it's the month of May. May is a foggy month, and true to form its like pea soup. So thick you can not see the bow light from the stern. That's one hundred and twenty eight feet away.

Second, we have a large vessel coming at us in this fog, and no one knows where it is at because it has gone off the radar into the center ring. This center ring is an area that nothing can be seen in. Also, because we are on the anchor, we are constantly moving. This means that this ship may have been on our starboard side, but could possibly be coming at us from any side now as we swing in a circle on the anchor.

The entire crew has come on deck, except the few working on the bridge. The Captain has radioed our situation to Coast Guard Group, Woods Hole, and Group Woods Hole scrambled helicopters from Air Station Cape Cod enroute to our position, which is fifty-six miles from the nearest land. The water temperature would have been in the mid-fifty's to lower sixty's, and if you have ever been in water at that temperature you know it to be ice cold.

The anchor is still down and we do not have the ability to move out of the way of this as yet unseen vessel. Our radio beacon signal has been turned off in the hopes that doing so would alert the oncoming ship to check its course on automatic pilot. For the most part, we are sitting ducks in the ocean waiting to get hit.

As we watch and listen for an oncoming ship, I walk all around the deck and remove all life rings and strobe lights from the holders and place them on the deck. This will ensure that some of them will float free in the water if we get hit and the ship goes down. This will place life rings in the water, and activate the strobe lights so we can find them. Captain Lewis uses the public address system to advise the crew that if we go into the water, look for the strobe lights and make your way to them for pickup.

So we watch, listen, and wait. Whatever is to happen will take place in the next few minutes. It is hard to describe the feeling you experience when you are faced with this type of situation, especially since you know what has happened to other lightships in this situation. We wait some more, everyone looking out into the fog hoping that whatever is coming at us will somehow miss hitting us.

Nothing happens! No noise! No ship in sight! For that matter, no ship ever appears on the radar again. If this ship had discovered that it was about to be in a collision and turned away it would have appeared on the radar as it came out of the center ring. This never happened. There was nothing there; the only noise heard was the noise we were making. Five minutes pass and still nothing. Whatever it was should have been here by now. Another five minutes and still nothing.

Group Woods Hole is in constant radio contact with us, and our only report is nothing heard, visually seen, or on radar.

It is now ten minutes past "zero hour" and still nothing is seen or heard. Captain Lewis states over the public address system, "STAND DOWN, ALL HANDS TO THE MESS DECK WITH THE EXCEPTION OF THE WATCH." He informs Group Woods Hole that we are standing down, thanks them for the support, and the helicopters are cancelled. All hands go below and await the Captain.

When he arrives, he states " Nice job men. You were ready, and luckily we were not tested. However, we still do not know what was out there! Tomorrow will be holiday routine, post your watches and enjoy the day." We secured all the equipment we used for this situation, and went back to bed.

The following morning about 0800 we heard sonar pings. It became clear to us that we had been the target of a "bombing run" by a submarine out on trials. No wonder we never heard or saw anything, it went UNDER US.

So ended yet another day of a Lightship sailor, tomorrow will bring something new to deal with. We of course, will be ready.

 

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