When Ships Collide
It was a dark, moonless night with a slight northerly breeze, enough breeze to keep the mosquitoes from swarming over the water. A small tanker, the M/V Plover, had just departed the Refpan Refinery, located in Colon, Panama, with a full load of kerosene and was about to transit the Panama Canal and proceed to the Balboa Pier area where the fuel would be pumped to large storage tanks. The captain, Juan Cortez, had made this trip countless times, and was looking forward to a few days off in Panama City after he offloaded the tanker and was relieved by the alternating captain.
After the tanker passed through the Atlantic Breakwater Entrance, a veteran Panama Canal pilot boarded the vessel and took charge. Pilots do not act as advisors when they board a vessel, they are actually in command of the vessel. The pilot maneuvered the vessel south along the Atlantic Channel towards Gatun Locks. As the tanker passed the south soft nose, the extreme end of the approach wall, a tug arrived to assist in keeping her close to the approach wall while locomotive cables were made fast aboard. Four locomotives were assigned to the vessel and each was powered by 220-volt current to run the electric motors and cable windlasses. The two center wall locomotives arrived alongside the tanker and cables were heaved aboard the vessel's port bow and stern and made fast to bitts. Bitts are vertical posts, usually paired together and set on the deck of a ship for use in securing mooring lines or cables.
The tanker passed through the jaws of the Locks, an area where the wing wall meets the side wall at an angle referred to as the knuckle. As she proceeded into the lower west chamber, additional wires from the side wall locomotives were made fast to bitts on the starboard bow and stern. All four locomotives were also under the control of the pilot who issued orders by radio to them to slack or coil in on the wires to keep the vessel centered in the Locks chamber. The radios in the locomotives were only for receiving the pilot's orders. The operators acknowledged the orders by ringing bells on their machines. Gatun Locks has two lanes of traffic and three steps to raise vessels to the height of Gatun Lake, some 85 feet above sea level.
After the tanker had been raised to the level of Gatun Lake, the miter gates were opened and she departed the lock chamber. The locomotive wires were cast off and the vessel entered the Gatun Approach Channel. The pilot explained to Captain Cortez that he was proceeding to the Explosives Anchorage and would anchor the vessel there. The pilot added that after the vessel was securely anchored he would depart, but the following morning another pilot would embark to resume the tanker's southbound transit. The pilot ordered the engine dead slow ahead and turned the vessel into the anchorage. Scanning the anchorage for the lights of vessels at anchor, the pilot chose a clear area. He ordered the engine stopped and as the vessel slowed to an almost imperceptible glide, he ordered the starboard anchor let go. The ship's crew stationed on the forecastle responded as soon as Captain Cortez relayed the pilot's order. The clatter of anchor chain links paying out through the hawsepipe, shattered the stillness of the night. The anchor bit into the lake bottom and removed what little forward motion the ship had left. The stern swung slowly to port but the pilot was satisfied that there was ample room for the ship to swing within the confines of the anchor scope without endangering any nearby anchored vessels.
A pilot launch arrived a short time later and after bidding Captain Cortez a good transit, the pilot descended the Jacob's ladder to the waiting launch. Captain Cortez leaned over the railing of the port bridge wing watching the launch fade into the darkness. With a sigh, he lit a cigarette and glanced up at the sky. The night air was clear and the stars shone with exceptional brilliance. It should be good weather tomorrow, mused the captain. He finished his smoke and flipped the butt over the side. He entered the bridge and checked the watch schedule to see who was on duty for the next shift. He told the mate on watch that he would be in his cabin and to wake him only for an emergency.
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Early the next morning, Captain Cortez awoke, rested and ready to face the day. He quickly shaved and showered, and donned the same clothes he wore yesterday. He walked through the bridge to see who was on duty and then told the watch officer he was going to the galley for breakfast. In the galley, the cook had a batch of scrambled eggs and fried bacon ready. There was also toast, jam, real butter and a variety of fruit, including bananas, oranges and pineapple. Captain Cortex eagerly filled his plate, grabbed a cup of steaming coffee and sat down at one of the tables to partake of the one meal during the usual hectic day that he could enjoy in relative peace.
After finishing his food and indulging in a second cup of coffee, he walked out on deck and enjoyed his first cigarette of the day. Finally he climbed up to the bridge to find out how long they would have to wait for the pilot. The watch officer told Captain Cortez that they had received a radio message that the pilot was on his way.
Stepping out onto the port bridge wing, Captain Cortez lit another cigarette and scanned the lake for the pilot launch. At last he spotted the launch and quickly entered the bridge to tell the watch officer to make sure the Jacob's ladder was ready to receive the pilot. The mate, an old hand at transiting the Canal, had already lowered the ladder and assigned an AB (able-bodied seaman) to standby and assist the pilot in boarding.
A few minutes later, the launch pulled alongside the vessel's port side and maneuvered to the Jacob's adder. The pilot tied his valise to a line that had been lowered by the AB. As the valise was heaved aboard, the pilot climbed up the ladder and in a few minutes was on the bridge greeting Captain Cortez. The pilot introduced himself as Captain William Claron. Captain Cortez was not absolutely sure, but he thought he smelled alcohol on the pilot's breath. He knew that many pilots drank, perhaps out of boredom, and there were a few that were definitely alcoholics. Drinking off the job was one thing, but drinking while on duty was potentially dangerous. Why the Panama Canal Company allowed these pilots to continue working was puzzling. Perhaps the Company reasoned that as long as their drinking was under control and they had no serious accidents they were fit for duty. Whatever the reason, Captain Cortez was uneasy and reminded himself to keep an eye on the pilot.
The pilot was ready to resume the con for the southbound transit. He ordered the anchor raised and when the crew on the bow signaled that the anchor was up, he asked for dead slow ahead on the engine. As the ship got under way, the pilot ordered 20 degrees starboard rudder to turn the vessel toward the main channel. When the vessel reached the channel, the pilot told the helmsman to steer a southerly course and to keep the vessel aligned with the range markers stationed on the hills at the end of the reach. When the range markers appeared to be one over the other, the vessel was heading properly in the channel. At night there are lighthouses that serve the same purpose.
The tanker proceeded through the various reaches in Gatun Lake, finally reaching Gamboa, the midpoint through the Canal. After passing the headquarters of Dredging Division and the combination single lane vehicular/railroad bridge over the Chagres River where it joins the Canal, the vessel entered Gaillard Cut. The Cut, located between the north end of Pedro Miguel Locks and Gatun Lake, passes through the continental divide. The Cut as with Gatun Lake channels, is not a straight course but rather a route with a series of straight sections called reaches connected by turns and bends. Because of the narrow confines of Gaillard Cut, the pilot must be constantly vigilant for oncoming ship traffic as well as slower traffic ahead. Heavy rain and fog often obscure visibility and the pilot has to rely on radar to maintain course and keep track of other marine traffic.
Captain Claron gazed out the bridge window and observed that the channel ahead was clear. The pilot realized he needed a drink. His hands were beginning to tremble and even though he had downed a couple of snorts for breakfast, the effects of the vodka were beginning to wear off. The pilot always drank vodka when he was working, figuring no one would be the wiser. Turning towards the Captain, the pilot told him he needed to use the head. The vessel had just entered the first of the reaches in the Cut and the pilot said it would take a least 10 minutes before they had to turn into the next reach. He had plenty of time to answer the call of nature. Captain Cortez pointed toward the head located at the back of the bridge and the pilot took a moment to find his bag and then moved quickly aft towards the head.
After entering the head, the pilot unzipped his bag, fumbled for the flask of vodka he had filled at home before departing for work, and drank deeply. That was better. He felt the tremble in his hands subside. He took one more swig, screwed on the cap and gently dropped the flask back in his bag. He checked his appearance in the mirror, quickly combed a few locks of misplaced hair, and then flushed the toilet.
Meanwhile, Captain Cortez was wondering about the behavior of the pilot. He decided to find out and positioned himself near the head to observe pilot when he exited. A long 10 minutes passed and Captain Cortez smoked a cigarette and was about to light another when the pilot opened the hatch. The pilot walked slowly with an effected stride toward the front of the bridge. Captain Cortez noticed the pilot's strange walk and wrinkled his nose when he caught a strong whiff of vodka. Captain Cortez could identify just about every kind of alcoholic drink by its smell after years of having to deal with crew members who drank while on duty. But this was different. This was the pilot who had control of his ship. Damn, he thought, the pilot just had a couple of shots of vodka while he was in the head.
Captain Cortez vowed to keep a very close watch of the pilot. If need be he would countermand any of the pilot's orders which jeopardized his ship. He knew that any action he took which interferred with the pilot's control could get him into serious trouble. Under the circumstances, Captain Cortez was willing to take that risk.
The tanker was approaching the end of the reach and the pilot instructed the helmsman to turn the rudder 10 degrees to starboard and then steady up on the range markers. The helmsman obeyed the order but as he attempted to steady the vessel on the range markers, he could not see them. They were obscured by thick fog.
Fog was often present in Gaillard Cut in the early morning hours. Over the years, experiments were conducted along the Gaillard Cut to test a number of different means of dispersing and suppressing fog. Among the techniques tested were helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft seeding of fogs with various fog-dispersal agents, ground-based seeding with various agents, and fog suppression by spreading monomolecular films on the canal surface. In one unsuccessful experiment, huge fans were erected along the Cut to blow away the fog. However, several techniques proved promising enough to warrant further investigation and development. Most promising was the suppression of fog by monomolecular films and also airborne seeding with glycerine and ground-based seeding with charged bubbles.
Captain Cortez was unaware of all these fog dispersion experiments but he did notice the thick fog that seemed to be increasing in density. He hurried to the radar to see if there was any southbound traffic in the reach. With alarm, he noticed that another vessel had just entered the reach. He mentioned this to the pilot. The pilot waved his hand, indicating not to worry and told the helmsman to move the vessel closer to the bank to give the approaching ship plenty of room to pass. The pilot also switched on his portable radio and contacted the pilot of the southbound vessel to inform him of his presence and intention. He learned that the southbound was a large container vessel, classified as a PanaMax vessel.
A PanaMax vessel has the maximum dimensions that will fit through the locks. The size is determined by the dimensions of the lock chambers each measuring 110 feet wide by 1050 feet long. In reality the usuable length of each lock chamber is 1000 feet. The PanaMax designation is a significant factor in the design of cargo ships with many ships being built to exactly the maximum allowable size.
The maximum dimensions for a ship transiting the canal are:
Length: 965 feet
Beam (width): 106 feet
Draft: 39.5 feet in tropical fresh water (salinity and temperature of water affect its density and hence how deeply a vessel will sit in the water)
A PanaMax cargo ship typically has a displacement of around 65,000 tons.
The pilot's thinking was a little fuzzy at this point, but he knew that he had to give the PanaMax ship plenty of room to pass or risk a collision. Because of the fog, it was difficult to see the west bank but fortunately the bank lights had been switched on. The pilot turned to Captain Cortez and asked him to tell the helmsman to ease the tanker over a bit closer to the bank. The helmsman, taking the initiative, turned the rudder 10 degrees to starboard but as he was about to steady up the vessel, the pilot yelled at him, that he had turned too sharply. The pilot pushed the helmsman aside and attempted to steady the vessel.
A phenomenon termed bank suction took effect. Bank suction refers to the tendency of a ship's stern to swing towards the near bank and the bow to swing sharply away from the bank. The effect, caused by Bernoulli's principle, is similar to the lift on an airplane wing. The asymmetric flow of water around the tanker induced by the nearness of the west bank, caused a pressure difference between the port and starboard sides. As a result, a lateral force acted on the ship directing the stern toward the nearby bank. At the same time a yawing moment pushed the bow towards the center of the waterway.
As the tanker's bow swung sharply to port across the channel the PanaMax vessel loomed from the thick fog. The pilot, captain and helmsman stared in disbelief as the tanker headed directly into the path of the PanaMax. Despite the pilot's frantic efforts to correct the vessel's heading the tanker continued on her collision course. Captain Cortez had the sense to sound five blasts, the danger signal, on the ship's whistle. The captain also ordered the engine full astern.
The tragic aspect of a ship accident, in particular a collision, is that it happens in slow motion. There is plenty of time to think about what went wrong, but not enough time to remedy the situation. The pilot, the captain and the helmsman all watched as the inevitable unfolded. They braced themselves for the impending collision and at last it happened. The tanker's bow struck the PanaMax vessel in the vicinity of her port shoulder. The impact immediately burst the forepeak tank of the tanker. The tank held the ship's water fresh water supply and the water spurted forcibly from the ruptured tank and doused the crew on the bow. The impact of the collision, forced the PanaMax ship to starboard and she struck the east bank, tearing an underwater hole in her plating. The PanaMax began taking water in her forward hold. The tanker's bow was crushed and kerosene began pouring from a ruptured forward compartment.
Both pilots reported the incident to Marine Traffic Control and tugs were dispatched to the scene. Captain Cortez proceeded to the bow to check on his crew for injuries and also to ascertain the extent of the damage. The pilot remained on the bridge and finally retreated to the head to finish off his flask of vodka.
A port captain soon arrived on a launch to examine the scene and talk with the pilots and masters of the two vessels. By this time, the tugs had maneuvered both vessels alongside the east bank to allow clearance for other ship traffic. Although the PanaMax vessel had been taking on water, her crew was able to apply a temporary patch where her hull had been holed and pumps were engaged to dewater the hold.
Captain Cortez got his crew working to stem the flow of kerosene from the ruptured forward hold. Several hundred gallons of kerosene had flowed freely through the ruptured tank but the flow stopped after the level of the remaining kerosene had fallen below the rupture. By this time, the Panama Canal Commission had dispatched an oil containment vessel to the scene. Booms were set around the kerosene spill to prevent it from dispersing throughout the Canal. The containment vessel began pumping the kerosene into holding tanks.
When the port captain boarded the tanker, he talked with both the pilot and the captain separately. He wanted to know what had happened. The pilot told his version of the circumstances surrounding the incident. The version of Captain Cortez was quite different and he did not hesitate to tell the port captain that the pilot had been drinking. Upon hearing this, the port captain asked the pilot for his bag. Surprised and alarmed by the request, the pilot nevertheless had no choice but to hand it over. A quick search of the bag's contents revealed the now empty flask. The port captain confiscated the flask but said nothing.
Another pilot was sent out to the tanker and she completed her transit without further incident. The PanaMax also completed her transit. The masters of both ships were told that the Board of Local Inspectors, the official body responsible for investigating marine accidents in the Canal, was convening the next day to determine the cause of the collision, and more importantly, to determine fault and liability. The pilots, masters and any crew members who were witnesses to the incident were ordered to attend the investigation.
The investigation lasted two days because of the numerous witnesses. It took another month before the findings of the Board were released. The principal fault was found with the pilot of the tanker for having failed to maintain control of his vessel during a meeting situation with the PanaMax vessel. Nothing was said of the pilot being intoxicated. The cause of the accident was found to be the bank suction which developed when the tanker was maneuvered too close to the east bank, which resulted in the tanker veering to port into the path of the oncoming PanaMax vessel. Lawyers for the Panama Canal Commission and the two vessels later hashed out the settlement for the damages incurred.
All in all, the collision could have been worse. There were no injuries and although both vessels suffered damage, they were essentially seaworthy. The PanaMax would be able to continue her transit and head for her destination port on the east coast of the United States. At the vessel's scheduled next dry docking, the damaged plates would be repaired. The Refpan Refinery, which owned the M/V Plover, would effect repairs to the damaged bow and ruptured tank in one of the local dry docks.
About a week later, Captain Cortez was having a few drinks with friends at a favorite bar in Panama City. One of his friends said he heard that Captain William Claron had been suspended from piloting duties and had enrolled in a rehab program run by the Commission. Captain Cortez pondered the news for a moment. Perhaps Captain Claron would straighten out his life and return one day to his former status as a veteran pilot. He tossed back a shot of vodka followed by a beer chaser to toast the idea.