Since the introduction of satellite navigation systems on ships, it has taken the drama and uncertainty out of deep sea navigation. The days of using a sextant as the traditional means, to determine the ship’s position on those long sea passages, are now long gone. The modern ships of today, many with enclosed bridges, rely entirely on the latest technology in navigational equipment, to guide them safely across the world’s vast oceans.
The satisfaction however, of making a good landfall from one’s own celestial observations was always a feeling of achievement, as well as a great relief. When landfall was imminent, as officer of the watch, you would be constantly scanning the horizon with your binoculars, for the first signs of land, as well as frequently checking the radar and echo sounder. The Captain would also be making more frequent visits to the bridge. It was an anxious time for those on the bridge, until that first position was established on making landfall. It was also the moment of truth, to see how accurate the last stellar fix was, when compared to the landfall position.
In that almost forgotten era of using the sextant for sun and star “sights”, a few of the more senior Masters I had sailed with, seemed to convey the impression that they didn’t quite trust this type of navigation entirely in the hands of their junior officers. Captain George Heywood, of the Athenic, was one such a person. Certainly his distrust and intolerance of his junior deck officers was quite apparent. I joined the Athenic as 3rd officer, at London in September 1966. The ship was built in 1947 at Harland Wolff in Belfast, to originally carry 85 first class passengers and was part of Shaw Savill Line’s magnificent quartet of Gothic class vessels. She was then on the third voyage as a cargo only vessel. The conversion had taken place the previous year and much of the passenger accommodation was just blanked off with the rest allocated for the offi cers and crew.
Captain Heywood, as Athenic’s long serving Master since 1957, was none too happy because of the changes to his ship. With his taciturn manner and stern demeanour, he appeared to be a rather lonely person, without his cherished passengers for company. In Athenic’s glory days, Captain Heywood had enjoyed a reputation as a very congenial host; unfortunately we only saw odd glimpses of that side of his personality on rare occasions.
When deep sea Captain Heywood rightly expected to know the ship’s noon position, speed made good and daily run, in good time, so that he could join with his deck and engineering offi cers, for drinks prior to lunch, in what previously was the passengers’ lounge.
The 2nd officer as the navigator and I as his assistant then had to be very prompt at working out the noon position from our sextant observations. Once we had both agreed on our calculations from our “sights”, the 2nd officer would report to the Captain with the position and other relevant information. Captain Heywood would then plot the noon position on the chart and determine the adjustment to the course for set (the current) if required, before heading off to the offi cer’s lounge. Captain Heywood was more relaxed as he presided over the gathering, thinking no doubt of his long lost passengers and what it used to be like.
On one occasion when outward bound to Panama, in the vastness of the North Atlantic, the noon position was determined by the Ex-Meridian method, rather than the preferred Marc St Hilaire method, because the sun wasn’t going to be on the meridian until much later. This meant that at exactly 1200 ship’s time, we took our “sights”. The result was quite different to our dead reckoning (DR) position, with the average speed for the day’s run about 2 knots less than expected, which was of concern. However, because our positions had agreed, the 2nd officer decided that we must be right. Time was then slipping away as we pondered and argued over the situation. With an impatient Captain to contend with; the 2nd officer then decided to give him that position. I protested strongly that we had to thoroughly recheck our calculations fi rst, to ensure that the Captain was given the right information.
Captain Heywood was not at all impressed, and with good reason, besides it was by now well after midday and he was anxious to get down to the officers’ lounge. The 2nd officer and I then both copped a severe reprimand, and our abilities as navigators were called into question.
Earlier that morning on my watch, just before 0930, the gyro compass malfunctioned and started to wander. With the vessel in automatic steering it wasn’t immediately noticed, as no alarm was fitted. As per standing orders, I always made a point of comparing the gyro and magnetic compasses on the half hour. Just as I was in the process of checking the compasses, at that very moment the 4th officer rushed into the wheelhouse to see what was happening, as he had noticed from the wake when he looked aft from the boat deck that the vessel was turning. As there were no other ships in sight, he had wondered why. We then switched to hand steering by magnetic compass and returned the vessel back on course.
The gyro was then thoroughly checked out with the assistance of a supernumerary offi cer who was on transfer to a Crusader Line ship in New Zealand, managed by Shaw Savill. After some adjustments and cleaning, the gyro performed faultlessly for the remainder of the voyage.
Captain Heywood, with the 2nd officer, surprisingly in agreement, assumed from the disputed noon position that the vessel had been off course for a considerably longer period than I had advised, due to the gyro failure. I strenuously denied the allegation, as I knew by looking at the wake and noting the magnetic compass heading at that time that the ship hadn’t strayed too far from the original course. The insinuation about my watch-keeping abilities left me mortified and made me determined to prove to them otherwise.
When I relieved the 2nd officer for lunch I rechecked my “sight” calculations and discovered that I had applied one of the corrections the wrong way, so when I then plotted the corrected position on the chart, it came in to roughly where we had expected it to be. Similarly, the 2nd officer had also made the same mistake. The pressure of rushing to obtain a quick result for the “Old Man’s” benefit, had taken its toll. I quickly made some notes in the back of my sight book for future reference. Admittedly, I was just a bit ‘rusty’ with the Ex Meridian method, having been ashore for a few months studying for my First Mates Certificate in the UK, then afterwards spending a period as a relieving officer doing coastal voyages only.
The 2nd officer later admitted to me, that when he had reported to the Captain with the day’s position and was queried as to how long the vessel was off course for, he replied, to the effect that he wasn’t sure, but that the 3rd officer didn’t notice the vessel was off course, until alerted to by the 4th officer. I was dumfounded and very upset by that admission, when it was completely uncalled for. Even though the 2nd officer hadn’t intentionally meant to ‘dob in’ me to the “Old Man” as such, it certainly didn’t put me in a very good light.
Captain Heywood, no doubt typical of many Masters of that era, was most unforgiving of his deck officers, whom in his opinion, hadn’t performed to his expectations. From that day on, I was a marked man. When leaving Port Chalmers, I was in charge forward and as we were singling up in blustery conditions, the wind was increasing which I thought might delay our departure. When the order was eventually given to “let go for’ard”, there was a short delay, because the forecastle phone was completely kaput and the orders over the loud hailer from the bridge, were barely audible above the noise of the wind.
On returning to the bridge afterwards to take over the watch, I was summoned to the Captain’s cabin. Captain George was furious and gave me a right bollocking. I was accused of “endangering the ship” for allegedly not obeying the bridge commands and threatened with the most serious consequences, including having my watchkeeping certificate endorsed as unsatisfactory. I was absolutely shocked by those allegations and whatever I said in my carefully considered defence; I was unable to appease him. At that stage, my career at sea appeared to hang in the balance, fortunately though, fate was later to intervene.