As luck would have it, on my
first watch I was tasked with driving the billion-dollar
sub out of England’s narrow, crowded Portsmouth
harbor. Desperate to brush up on what seafaring skills I
had managed to pick up in spite of myself, the evening
before we left port, I took the Navigator out to a local
pub and picked his mind on nautical ‘Rules of the Road’.
"Ok Mike, there are only a
few basic rules you have to understand, everything else
is a variation on a theme. First, when approaching
another ship head on, always pass it Port to Port." Said the Navigator.
"Port to Port." I repeated. "Got that . . . Um . .
. um . . . is Port on the right or left side of the
The Navigator stared at me in
disbelief. "You don’t know what side of a ship is
"Well yes ... I think. It’s it on my
right as I walk aft, and on my left as I walk forward,
right?" I asked meekly.
Reaching for his drink, the
Navigator took a deep breath. This was going to be
harder then he first thought. "Ok, lets try this
again. The conning tower has two lights on it.
‘Yes." I answered
proudly. Having overseen their re-wiring while in the
shipyard on my other sub, I grabbed a piece of paper.
"Do you want me to draw out their wiring
"No! Just tell me which
color is the Port light?" Asked the Navigator.
"Damn" I thought to
myself, I never noticed that little detail. Thinking
that this might be a trick question, I gave my answer
considerable thought. "It all depends, if we’re
tied up on the left-hand side of the ship, its green, if
we’re tied up on the right-hand side, its red," I
finally answered proudly.
Scratching his head in
disbelief, the Navigator began to ask how I had ever
managed to get qualified, but caught himself. Knowing I
had an uncanny ability to logically follow patterns, he
tried another tact.
"Do you like wine?" He
"Sure" I replied.
The Navigator motioned to the
bartender, and a few minutes later, we were sharing a
bottle of Port.
"Here an easy way for you
to remember the colors of the lights." He said.
"Port wine is red, as is the Port light. Which
means the Starboard light is green . . . " and so it went as the Navigator slowly, and
methodically walked me through rules of passing another
ship headed in the opposite direction
Once the Navigator felt
confidant I had this aspect of ‘ship driving’ down,
he turned his attention to explaining the rules
governing ships crossing paths.
"OK, lets say you’re
driving in a car up to an intersection, and another car
is approaching from the right. If it’s drawing left,
which of you will get through the intersection first?"
"The one without the stop
sign of course!" I answered incredulously.
"God what a stupid question," I thought.
"No! No! If they are on
your right, and pointed in your direction, and moving
from right to left, that mean they will pass in front of
you. But if they are moving from left to right, you’ll
pass in front of them! Get it!" He said, barely
able to control the awe in his voice.
Up until then I had never
noticed the blood vessels in the Navigator’s neck, but
for some reason, at that instant, they seemed to be
throbbing. As I struggled to understand the logic in his
statement, I found myself yearning for the simplicity of
the mathematical equations behind a nuclear chain
"Ok, so if the other guy is
on my right, and ‘drawing’ to my right, I can pass
him right?" I asked.
"It depends," the
Navigator said, "if he’s pointed toward you, his
Port side will be facing you, and you have to yield to
"Why?" I asked
"Because his red light is
facing you! Remember Port wine is red! So the red light
is on the Port! And the red light means stop!
The Navigator starred deeply
into his empty glass, and ordered another bottle of
I meanwhile, calculated how many days I had left in the
Surprisingly, by the end of the
evening, I was actually begun to get a handle on the ‘rules
of the road’ thing, the prime word here being ‘beginning’.
" . . . well it you turn
right," replied the Navigator, to my answer to the
last scenario he had given me, "you’ll miss the tanker,
but you'll ground the sub. . . but . . . on the bright
side, you will not kill anyone . . . I think we should
call it quits while your ahead . . .." We downed
the last of our drinks and headed back to the sub just
as the first rays of the sun broke over the horizon.
Throughout the day, our
departure time continued to be delayed for one reason or
another, which suited me fine, as it gave me more time
to prepare. But as morning became afternoon, and
afternoon evening, my relief soon turned to fear. By the
time we finally did get the word to shove off, the sun
was setting, and with it, any hopes that I might escape
I nimbly maneuvered the sub out
into the channel and joined a long line of ships
following the well-marked channel toward the open sea.
Everything went smoothly at first, for all I had to do
was keep a safe distance from the ship in front of me,
and turn where they had turned. But once clear of the
channel, everyone went there own way. It was as chaotic
a scene as one sees during a super "blue light
special" at K-Mart. And, as if to add insult to
injury, twilight came to an end and the horizon went
coal black, with the exception of hundreds of red and
green lights going in every direction imaginable.
To help keep track of ships one
encounters while at sea, a letter number designation is
give to them. If sighted visually, they are given a
number like ‘Victor 23'. ‘Victor’ of course stands
for ‘V’ for visual. If first noticed by radar, they
are called ‘Romeo’. And ‘Sierra,’ if first
spotted by sonar.
"Bridge to Conn: We have a
new radar contact bearing 230, drawing right, range 5
miles. Designate this contact Romeo 14." Cracked
"Conn, Bridge aye." I
replied. My mind raced. "Lets see, I’m headed due
south . . . that means my course is 180 . . . if Romeo
14 is at 230 . . . that would be over there . . ."
pointing my arm off to my right, "and if he’s
drawing right, that means… what?"
Remembering what the Navigator
had told me, I grabbed the binoculars and peered into
the dankness and quickly made out a green light low on
the horizon, in the direction of Romeo 14.
I spotted a green light, which
meant that Romeo 14's bow was pointed away from me and I
was going to pass behind him. I let out a sigh of
I had no sooner reported the
presence of Romeo 14 to the captain, and my conclusion
that no course change was necessary, when the MC once
again broke silence.
"Bridge to Conn, we have
multiple radar contacts. Romeo 15 bearing 260 . . .
Romeo 16 bearing 118 . . . Romeo 23 bearing 345 . . . We
also have two new sonar contacts: Sierra 23 bearing 085,
distance 1 mile, believe this to also be Romeo 19 . .
." And on it went for five minutes." My luck
had run out. We had driven straight into the heart of
the local fishing fleet and where surrounded with
fishing boats of all shapes and sizes.
Reports of new contacts came in
fast and furious. Had I had access to a supercomputer, I
might have had a chance to keep up, but my mind had gone
blank after Romeo 15. Had I more experience, I could
have tried to ‘fly’ by the seat of my pants. But I
was clueless as to what to do. Of course, given that I
was in the worst of predicaments, what a better time for
the captain to call and ask how everything was going.
"Mr. Hillman, way haven’t
you reported Romeo 16 to me yet?" Asked the Captain.
"Ah . . . Captain, I’m
still trying to figure out where he’s going." I
"Well what about Romeo
21?!" Crackled his voice of the MC.
"Romeo who?" I relied.
"Romeo 21, he’s off your
Port bow." Replied the voice, slowly rising in
By now I was so flustered, I had
to lean over the side of the conning tower to find out
what color light was on the Port side. As I did so, I
noticed the lookouts tightening the belts on their life
preservers. "Um, Captain, I think he’s drawing to
the right." I replied.
"You think!?" Shouted
the captain, whose voice clearly could be heard echoing
from the bridge two decks below. "You think!? . . .
What direction is Romeo 24 drawing?! . . ."
And so it went for five minutes.
The captain asked questions on Romeo this or Victor
that, and I answered all with "I think . . .,"
All but the last.
"Mr. Hillman!!! Where is
"Captain," I replied,
"I haven’t a clue..."
Unbeknownst to me, the exchange
between the captain and me was taking place over the sub’s
general announcing system, much to the amusement of
everyone on board. And everyone knew what was coming
next. The Captain ascended the conning tower, and after
letting me know in no uncertain terms what he thought of
my seafaring skills, disqualified me as an Officer of
the Deck, and banished me to the engine compartment for
the rest of our trip back to the states.
After leaving the navy, I
pursued my passion for riding horses and had pretty much
forgotten the incident until one day, while walking a
show jumping course, my coach, in explaining how to jump
a line of fences, said: "As you approach the first fence, continue
to turn until the centers of the all fences line up, as if
you were lining up a ship using range markers in a channel."
Suddenly, everything the
Navigator had tried to teach me that night, made sense.
As I entered the warm-up area, overflowing with horses
going in every direction imaginable, I found myself back
in the conning tower in the middle of that fishing
fleet, albeit this time, I could see where each vessel
was going and what course I had to steer to maneuver
It was an epiphany! Too bad it
had come twenty years too late. Then again, I’m glad
it did. For I far prefer the feel of a horse beneath me,
the warmth of the sun on my face, and the fresh smell of a grassy field to the smell of stale air inside
a cold steel sub, hundreds of feet below stormy seas.