Britannia waives the rules


By Sandy Shore

WHEN on June 17 the USS Fitzgerald collided with a Philippines cargo ship near Japan I had a strong sense of déjà vu. As a Junior Ordinary Seaman (JOS) I found myself in total control of the MV Columbia Star.

West of California the vastness of the Pacific Ocean was like molten glass. I say molten because the heat that sleepy afternoon was unrelentingly torrid. Picture me, a 16-year old in shorts and Jungle Wellies (flip-flops) manning the freighter’s helm.

Despite the size of such freighters their crews are small, experienced but prone to sleepiness given such conditions. Alone atop the wheelhouse I might as well have been the only crew member on the enigmatic Mary Celeste.

Somewhere mid-watch I was startled by the sight of an American destroyer whose passage would put our two ships on a collision course.

Protocol is for the merchant ship to give way to the warship of any nation. The merchant ship must also salute the military ship by dipping its national flag. The warship then acknowledges the salutation by dipping its ensign; World War III doesn’t commence.

Simple but most 16-year old seamen are simple. Bellowing into the voice pipe I was unable to rouse the officer of the watch who was fast asleep in the chartroom. If any of the crew were about that afternoon there was no sign of them.

Unable to be in two places at once I couldn’t dip the ship’s flag either but I had other worries on my mind. Displaying a certain coercive belligerency the American warship’s officers appeared to want to check out our ship.

Faithful unto death I lacked the sense, experience and chutzpah to deviate from the course set for me by the ship’s 2nd Officer. That U.S warship was going to get out of my way or it was going straight to Davy Jones locker in fore and aft pieces. Furthermore, flag-dipping civilities were not going to be exchanged between our two navies. I was going to bag a bundle a U-Boat had missed.

MV Columbia Star docking in Los Angeles

Between you and me this wet behind the ears teenager was now in a blue funk. Closing on the warship I was about to make my peace with my Maker when the grey leviathan’s stern descended like a submarine under attack and the threatened destroyer’s bows visibly reared up. With hindsight I guessed less than a kilometre separated the two ships as minutes later the British registered Columbia Star cleaved the destroyer’s wake.

My greatest regret is that I couldn’t be a fly on the wall of that U.S destroyer’s wheelhouse. All I can do is offer my salty American colleagues an explanation, an apology, and an appeal for forgiveness and understanding.