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The day I nearly cut a fishing boat in 2

Bruce Tuten - Strait of Messina - CC BY 2.0

I will today recount a story that has a lot to do with the creation of North90. It was a beautiful evening in September, and I was a young officer of the deck (OOD) aboard a French light frigate (1,100 tons - in Navy parlance that’s light). We had just left the port of Messina (Sicily) and were headed south east. Shortly after we’d left berth, the CO left the bridge and I took the watch. The night was falling rapidly and as dinner had been delayed by the departing manoeuvres, everyone quickly left to go and eat, and I found myself alone at the bridge with the usual bridge crew of 3 people.

As was normal after harbour manoeuvres, I had instructions to sail at 23 knots (That’s around 43 km/h) to clean up the engines for at least 2 hours (Our diesel engines had a tendency to soot when manoeuvring at low speed).

It was really an eerie dusk. The sea was a mirror, there was no moon so the night was dark as ink, and the radar gave almost no signal besides the coasts of Italy. For some reason however (probably linked to dinner), my watch crew was incomplete: the two watchers posted on the roof of the bridge in charge of optical surveillance were missing, as was the radar crew, who was supposed to man the CIC (Combat information centre). I had them called, but they did not come immediately.

And then the situation started to blur.

One of the sailors who was with me at the bridge, and had the good taste of looking outside, pointed out to me that there were light dots on the horizon, and he wasn’t quite sure what to make of them. I peeped at the radar scope and checked that there wasn’t anything on the water: nothing. If there had been a ship of any sort ahead of us, a little orange blip would have been visible on the scope. It could not be the lights of the coast, because we were headed in open sea. For precaution, I gave a slight rudder order to go to the left of the lights while we were watching them with binoculars. But these unexplained lights were giving me the creeps, and I started to sweat.

After a couple more minutes, I heard the same sailor report to me with some urgency in his voice that these were small fishing boats, very weakly lit (Some almost not visible at all), and we were dashing right at them. I hurried back to the radar, and realised with horror that the screen gain (The screen intensity) had been left to the minimum. This meant that any detected object would simply not appear on the scope. Adjusting it back to its right level, I clearly saw a dozen small fishing vessels out casting nets or lines in the Sicily strait. Some had lights, but some had none. And they were very close!

By then it was too late. I was already on them, and at the speed we were going, the situation could not be helped anymore… All I could do was watch in disbelief as we sailed like a meteor past one of these, missing it by a bare 5 meters on our starboard side. I had not been in control of the situation, and I’d been enormously lucky.

Just so you can see this, dear Mary and Jack, our ship had the usual pointy profile of a warship, and at the bow, the hull presented a blade edge not wider than 30 cm. In the case of a frontal collision with one of these boats, the kinetic energy of the shock would have equated to that of five 50-tons semi-trailer trucks, hitting a 30cm large plate at 100km/h. Catastrophic does not start to describe it…

Shortly afterwards my other teams gained their post, we were on the right route, the radar was giving me the right information and it ended being a normal watch. After handover, still shaking from this event, I made my way to the CO’s cabin and told him the whole story. His reaction left me speechless: “When it gets hairy, you should not hesitate to reduce the speed”. That’s all he said before biding me good night.

Therein dear Mary and Jack lies the lesson. Of course, I could have lowered the speed. This was not a particularly difficult thing to do. But I had felt beholden to the instruction given by the CO to clean the engines at 23 knots, and not considered lowering speed to be a possible option. So the CO’s feedback was not about the speed. It was about the hesitation. He immediately picked up on the fact that I hesitated to take the appropriate decision in the situation.

I was a very capable officer. I’d studied navigation and collision avoidance manoeuvres and passed theoretical and practical tests with very good marks, and yet, now that I was alone and doingit for real, I did not fully take charge.

Taking charge means that you will follow your instructions, and that if the situation requires it, you will do what is right, regardless of them. It means your judgement needs to be educated, and you need to use all means and resources at your disposal to do what’s right. In this case I was instructed to run a certain course at a certain speed. But of course, not at the cost of a collision, because that’s not right.

When starting North90, I thought back to that event, and reflected that there had been a leadership lesson for me to learn about taking charge, that surely did not necessitate almost killing innocent italian fishermen... I learnt it well, but could I have learnt it at less risk?

That's what North90 is there to solve.

 Keep well,


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