The near miss
Early one morning, I climbed to the bridge of the ship to take my watch. Half asleep from being woken a few minutes before, and if the truth was admitted, from too much to drink the night before I looked around. It was a glorious night, one of those that people dream about when crossing the North Sea. The stars twinkled brightly in a cloudless sky and the sea was dead calm. Even though I was not mentally sharp, something alerted to my sleep deadened brain to danger. It is as though some sixth sense was working even though there was nothing to indicate that anything was wrong. My head twisted as I tried to make out what was out of place, my eyes checking all the instruments I could see and my ears straining to sense any difference in the peculiar sounds which emanate from a ship. Everything appeared in order. Then my eyes rested the second mate in the gloom of the bridge. He was standing rigid at the front of the wheelhouse, staring out at the sea ahead of the ship. Some lights were visible close to the starboard bow, and my brain suddenly registered that they were from another ship.
I reacted instantly and automatically, my long years of training and experience taking over. Suddenly I was wide awake, the adrenaline causing any lingering sleep to vanish. Rushing to the front of the bridge, I grabbed a lever and changed the steering gear from automatic into manual. I yelled at the second mate to take over the wheel. He came out of his trance at the sound of my voice and rushed to the stand by the wheel.
" Hard a port!" I yelled even louder as I came to terms with the true situation. The Charles Winter was only a few yards from another coaster and in a few minutes we were going to smash into it's stern. " Are we overtaking or not? " I yelled never taking my eyes of the rusty grey hull getting ever closer.
" Overtaking, " the second mate replied in a voice which quivered with fear.
As the bow of the Charles Winter swung away from the other ship, I yelled for the wheel to be put midships and raced out onto the bridge wing to watch our stern come round. The aft ends of the two ships were now closing each other very fast and I yelled for the wheel to be put hard to starboard, towards the other vessel. The two ships were now running parallel and water was being thrown into the air as it was squeezed between us. Looking over to the other ship, I caught a glimpse of a white face looking out of their wheel house but had no time to wave. Once the two ships were running exactly parallel, I yelled for the second mate to steer a steady course hoping all the time, the two sterns would not be pulled together. As the bow of the Charles Winter edged passed the other ship, I waited holding my breath.
There was nothing I could do other than pray the two ships would stay apart long enough for me to take the next action. The second mate was fighting the wheel, trying to hold the Charles Winter steady while casting fearful glances out of the wheelhouse at the other ship.
When I judged the time was right, I yelled for the second mate to steer to starboard, despite his look of horror, across the bows of the other ship. I ignored his look and concentrated on what I was trying to do. As our bow turned towards the other ship, I wondered whether I had judged things right.
Actually, thinking back there was nothing else I could have done because the sterns were starting to close. Our stern started to move away from the stern of the other ship and our speed was carrying us round his bow. It seemed to go on for ever and I must have stood holding my breath for what was an impossible time, watching the bow of the other ship slowly pass down our side and then slip away very close astern.
" Put her back on course," I ordered my voiced drained of all feeling. I sank down against the front of the bridge wing, my hand gripping the rail tightly in an effort to stop the shaking of my arms. My legs were like jelly and I honestly thought I was going to collapse onto the deck. Never in my whole life had I been so scared, never had I used up so much nervous energy in so short a time. I felt as though I had stood and faced death, only to be reprieved. That is not so strange because there was every chance of the Charles Winter exploding if we had hit the other ship. Still shaking almost uncontrollably, I managed to pull myself upright and somehow walked into the wheelhouse.
The sight of the second mate standing there, his face chalky white and his hand pushing nervously back a lock of his hair from his eyes snapped my control. All the bitterness I had been feeling towards my life irrationally focused on the young man in front of me and I exploded.
" You bloody idiot! " I shouted even though he was right next to me. I was so beside myself with rage, I could not stop myself. " What the hell were you trying to do? You could have lost us both our certificates not to mention our lives. Standing there like that staring out to sea and waiting for something to happen is the worst thing you could have done. Do you call yourself qualified!? I would make sure you never set foot on a ship again if I had the power. What the hell were the examiners thinking of when they gave you a ticket? If I was you, I'd get out of my sight now and make sure you keep out of my way for the rest of the trip."
I turned suddenly at the sound of a quiet voice behind me. " There is no need for you to manhandle my second mate. " The Captain was standing in the entrance to the bridge frowning. It was then I realised I was holding the second mate by the coat collar and shaking him from side to side. Sheepishly I let go and pushed him away.
" Go down to your cabin now and I will be down shortly, " the captain said to the second mate who left the bridge as fast as his legs could carry him.