ships that pass in the night

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Quoin Islands

It was a night like any other. Our ship was making her silent passage, bow gently cleaving the waters, propellor leaving a broad wake as she passed.

We were on a voyage outbound from the Persian Gulf, thirty nautical miles south of the Straits of Hormuz, in the Gulf of Oman. The ship was carrying a cargo of 300 thousand metric tonnes of crude oil.

It was about half past eight. Capt. Murphy was in his cabin, gazing out at the fo’c’sle through the porthole. The transit through the Persian Gulf had taken 26 hours after sailing out of Ras Tanura. He was exhausted.

The third mate, Alex, was on bridge-watch. This was a routine passage for the ship but the captain had decided to keep a casual watch from his cabin, based purely on gut instinct, as he later told us.

He suddenly sat bolt upright. The Didamar light house on Quoin Island that we had passed a little while before on our starboard side was now on our portside! Experienced navigator that he was, he sized up the situation in a trice. He rushed upstairs to the bridge (wheelhouse), took over from Alex, and asked him to go to his cabin. The phone rang in our cabin for my husband, the chief mate, to join him on the bridge along with the bo’sun. The bo’sun took the wheel and Capt. Murphy snapped out helm orders. The chief mate kept watch for traffic and the vessel’s position on the radar screen. With my toddler son beside me, I watched tensely from the porthole in our cabin as the ship was slowly steered back on course.

This is what had happened. Alex had had a psychotic breakdown, something that had apparently never happened before, as per his medical records. He had turned the ship around, heading back towards the Persian Gulf. And he was in the wrong lane, which would be like driving on the wrong side of the road if it were a street on land! The vessel’s passage plan had been totally abandoned by his addled mind.

Had there been a collision, or if she had run aground on one of the islands, imagine what an ecological disaster that would be. 300 thousand tonnes of thick, viscous crude oil gushing out into the Gulf of Oman! Images of the Exxon Valdez running aground four years before in Prince William Sound, Alaska, were fresh in every seaman’s mind. Mine too, as I had been on another tanker when that happened.

It was only Capt. Murphy’s quick response that averted a major calamity that night. And the good fortune of not having another ship sailing towards us on a collision course during those moments. The other ship would have been fully loaded too, like any ship sailing out of the Persian Gulf. Our ship was moving at 14 knots. It’s incredibly hard to apply brakes on a ship moving at that speed due to momentum. If the ship’s engine had been put in a ‘stop’ position, she would have moved 2500 metres more before coming to a standstill!

There is a poem called ‘The Lights’ by J.J.Bell in an anthology I own. It had never meant anything to me before. That night I vaguely remembered it was about the ‘emerald’ and ‘ruby’ lights that tell you which way a ship is going. It ended with a prayer for ships passing in the night.

I have often wondered what jogged Capt. Murphy’s gut instinct that evening. Did Alex seem spaced out when he last spoke with him? Did he notice something out of kilter? Or was it just sixth sense?

When I greeted Alex in the alleyway the next morning he looked blankly at me. It was an expression I had seen countless times on the faces of patients in the middle of a psychotic breakdown. So, it was entirely possible that he would have displayed prodromal symptoms  – some oddities in behaviour – the previous day, that might have drawn the attention of anyone interacting with him. But then again, he was from an Eastern European country and nobody knew his language, or him either.

What happened to Alex eventually?

Well, there is a book called the Captain’s Medical Guide that captains consult to treat minor ailments. Common medicines are available on board too. For medical problems beyond the captain’s ken he can talk to a doctor via radio. If a surgical emergency is suspected, for example appendicitis, the ship can be diverted to the nearest port, or a helicopter can land on the ship to take the patient to a hospital.

In Alex’s case, he was given a standard dose of antipsychotic medicine on a daily basis. He was confined to his cabin so he wouldn’t hurt himself, as the medicine was extremely sedating. The captain checked on him twice a day and a steward took his meals up for him. The door to his room was left ajar and a member of the deck crew sat just outside his door to ensure his safety.

He signed off the ship when we reached port after a fortnight. Some of us went to see him off at the gangway. He happened to open his carry-on baggage to put something in. His entire salary in stacks of 100-dollar bills was in there, shoved in carelessly. He looked around vacantly, waving indifferently when we said goodbye. Did he make it home safely with his passport, money, and other valuables intact? I don’t know.

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