The recommissioning of many of our “mothball” ships has made it obvious that many shore jobs will be vacated and a greater proportion of officers utilized at sea. But those who have been at sea since the last war and were exposed to the demobilization will welcome back their ex-shipmates who may have stopped by the wardroom during an overhaul period or Navy Day to spin yarns about the rigors of shore duty or the advantages of civilian life. It might be timely to point out that since 1945 most of our ships have been safe from the exercise of poor judgment, a backing bell given too late, or failure to make an ally of the wind. The Reserve Fleets have kept them untouched—and indeed undamaged—by human hands. But now that Boston, Charleston, Bremerton, and other yards may be turning their responsibilities over to you, it would be well to think about how not to make any of the more obvious mistakes. The story about the college boy who bought a sailboat and a book on sailing and was next seen on the bottom of the former reading the latter is out of place, but does provoke thought.
Shiphandling is one of the oldest, most absorbing, and the most changeless as well as the most varying of the arts which mariners practice. A harbor which appears friendly and inviting one day can be dangerous and difficult the next. The quantity “X” which can transform a harbor from one extreme into the other is composed more of the wind than of any other element. In some places, notably the Aleutians, what might be an easy berth to make one minute may be close to impossible in another half hour. In some harbors where there is a definite prevailing wind during a season or all year ’round, its very sameness may cause embarrassment. It is very easy to fall into a careless habit of always expecting the same wind conditions only to find that your ally has departed.
One of the more able British Seamen, the late Admiral Christopher Cradock, commented in his Whispers From the Fleet, that it might serve him right if, after his book was published, he made a hideous mess of joining the fleet with his next ship. As far as is known, Cradock never made a spectacle of himself. His thought, though, does give rise to the idea that the only one who can write with impunity on seamanship or shiphandling is an officer long from the sea whose mistakes have been forgotten by his contemporaries and are unknown to his juniors. Any of us who are still in the business and venture a few ideas assure ourselves of a wildly rooting cheering section the next time we snuggle up to a dock or a sistership with a snapping of pilings or the rending noise of one stanchion giving way after another. It may be because ships belong to the female of the species, but there is no one who is an expert on them and their ways.
Several excellent books have chapters devoted to shiphandling. Among them are Knight, Frost, and Cradock. Of these, the last named is the only one who makes it appear as enjoyable and engaging as it really is. Knight and Frost may convey the impression that it is difficult and dull.
The wind cannot be ignored and usually cannot be fought with either grace or success. As time is measured, it really was not long ago that it was used as the sole means of taking a ship from one port to another. Later steam was introduced aboard ship as an auxiliary to sail. The wind does not realize that your ship no longer has sails and will blow anyway. When there is a wind, see how it will act on your ship, and then try to make it assist you in carrying out your intent. By using the wind to advantage you will be able to maneuver more easily, quickly, and safely. If you ignore the wind, you may have to use a fair amount of power overcoming it before the ship moves as you want it to—if it ever does.
At the Naval Academy midshipmen learn that a ship backs into the wind. So it does! It is wise, though, to be suspicious and also to have an open mind. The effect of the wind varies with the loading condition of the ship. If she is heavily laden and her stern starts toward the wind, she may commence swinging so rapidly that you will find yourself swung through 90° or 120° before you stop.
Frequently a strong wind setting the ship on the dock gives rise to apprehension over getting underway. If you are blessed with a twin screw ship you may be able to ease your stern away from the dock by twisting with the engines aided by on-dock rudder. If the stern does not work up to windward, run number one line through the bullnose and lead it well aft. This, coupled with a stronger bell ahead than you are using astern and an on-dock rudder may do the trick. Some schools of thought in the merchant service recommend a slow ahead bell on both engines. Along with on-dock rudder and a spring line, this will tend to give the stern a help away from the dock. The type of ship itself will naturally help determine which of your bag of tricks you will want to use. A beamy AK, AP or “amphib” will tend to roll around on its bow much more easily than a slender destroyer type. On the other hand, an auxiliary hull would not have as much power attached to her screws. After the ship makes an angle of 20 or 30 degrees with the dock, shift your rudder and back right on out immediately. The wind will not let you sit there. If you back clear with two thirds of full astern the wind will bring your stern up into the wind and away from the dock. If you back boldly into the wind the off-dock rudder will probably not throw the stem into the dock because the stern is already traveling upwind fast enough to prevent it. Should you be doubtful on that score, and want to keep the rudder amidships for the first five or ten seconds, do so, but then use upwind rudder. After you have once cleared the dock your movements will be guided by the size of the harbor and where you want to go. But if you want to take departure in the direction opposite from your original heading, remember that you have about five or more knots sternway and you can twist very handily by going ahead two thirds or standard on both engines and again shifting the rudder. The more conventional way to change the ship’s heading quickly is to go ahead on only the screw opposite to the direction in which you wish to turn and possibly back the other screw as necessary to check any headway.
In addition to blowing the ship, the wind may blow the senses of the skipper so that he is deceived. The wind evidently enjoys giving the captain false impressions of how close or far away he may effectively be from his berth. The direction of the wind seems to have an effect on how he is deceived. If there is an on-dock wind, he is closer than he appears to be, and if the wind is setting him off the dock, he is farther away.
If the wind is setting you on the dock it is only necessary to take what you believe to be a prudent angle of approach to make your berth, arrive twenty-five yards or better from it, and let the wind do the rest. If the wind was particularly strong I used to make a practice of deciding what I considered a good approach angle and then taking half again as much.
If the Port Director orders the ship to berth where there is an off-dock wind, the skipper has more to consider. To begin with, the wind which the ship will encounter during its approach to the dock will probably not be consistent. Secondly, there is less time in which to rectify any errors he may have made in judging distance or wind strength. With an on-dock wind the ship will usually encounter uniform wind conditions during the approach and at the dock. After all, the dock will be on the lee side of the harbor, and any buildings near the dock will have no effect in blanking off the wind. On the other hand, if you are making a landing on the windward side of the harbor, the closer you come to the dock area, the more likely you are to be affected by unexpected absences and strengths of wind caused by buildings or cargo shelters. Then, on the final stages of the approach, the dock itself will greatly nullify the effect of the wind on your hull.
The fact that there are many operating bases and many wind conditions helps account for the challenge which is always present whenever a ship is berthed or gotten under way for sea. It is therefore difficult to discuss a given place or given wind condition without having the accusation made that, “It may work there, but not on the banks of the Limpopo river where DesDiv 69 operated.” The principles will apply, even on the green, greasy, banks of the Limpopo. Consider the Lamar Point docks in Lomilomi Harbor as shown on the sketch. If a ship is directed to come alongside with a wind from the north, the effectiveness of the wind will vary at different stages of the approach. When the ship is passing the smallcraft facility, she will be greatly sheltered from the wind by buildings and trees. When the vessel crosses the mouth of O’Ware Basin she will receive the full effect of the wind. But when she passes the finger piers the wind will be slightly cut off both by the piers and the smallcraft themselves. Again, the wind has a straight shot at the ship from Brust Basin. If the ship reaches Lamar Point itself close aboard the dock, wind effect will cease on the forward part of the ship. The cargo shed is higher than a normal superstructure and will protect even though it is at least fifty feet away from the face of the dock. If the ship is some distance away from the dock, the shed will not blanket the wind effectively and will not be so great an ally. Had the Port Director assigned a berth by the Officer’s Club, there would have been no blanketing effect from the finger piers or Lamar Point and the skipper would not have had to contend with a varying wind.
Considering separately the problem that arises when the wind is from ahead or astern in coming alongside is dwelling unnecessarily on a case which seldom arises. There are thirty-two points in the compass and even more degrees. Consequently it rarely happens that the wind is from dead ahead or dead astern. If the ship is headed nearly into the wind be careful that a slight change of course or veering of the wind does not catch you unawares. Its shifting from one bow to the other might be embarrassing. Should the wind be from astern it will add to your approach speed and consequently nicer judgment and more backing power might be in order at the dock. If the wind is really strong and it looks as though things might happen too fast alongside the dock, it would be prudent to come about and make the approach from the other direction.
The wind will also make a ship unmanageable at a higher speed than that at which it would lose steerage way on a calm day. If the wind is from the beam, and the ship has bare way on, the bow may start falling off away from the wind. If that happens, it is almost useless to try to bring the bow around by backing the windward engine. If that has any effect at all, it may only cause the ship to make leeway more quickly with possibly serious results should sea-room be limited. The best way to stop the motion of the bow when it once begins to fall off is to go ahead on the lee or on both engines and use the rudder to bring the bow around.
Finally, no matter how weird the movements of another ship look from your office window overlooking the harbor, or how strange they may look from your bridge, don’t think that the unfortunate skipper has taken leave of his senses. There may be a reason why he does not take what appears to you the obvious move.
The channel at Eniwetok is narrow and marked by a wrecked tanker to starboard and a beached cargo ship to port as you enter. During the bomb experiments several years ago an old and very tired LST approached the channel, and with some hesitation, entered. The ship in question had been slated for the boneyard each month for the past year and a half. Consequently it was long on engine hours, long on time at sea, short on maintenance, and short on personnel. As it started to wheeze up the channel a very snappy looking DE with a skipper to match waited its impatient turn to enter. The LST stopped, and the DE skipper started to swear softly. When he looked again there was no change in the situation. The rust-bucket was still blocking his way. Finally he got on the light and sent a BT, “What are your intentions?” Almost immediately the reply came back, “I’m damned if I know.” In mid-channel, unknown to the DE skipper, the LST’s port engine had died, and its rudder jammed at 20° right.