Are Ships The Careless Giants Of The Sea?

Bay Of Bengal India Fishing Boats
Fishing Boats awaiting first voyage in the Bay Of Bengal India. Image Via NOAA

By Captain Grant Livingstone

It was late summer 36 years ago on a beautiful calm evening in the Bay of Bengal off the southern coast of India.  We had just departed Tuticorin bound east then south for Cochin.  Tuticorin being an ancient port city dating back to the 6th century AD known for its pearl diving and rich fishing grounds.  I was a brand new Jr Thrid Officer onboard the S.S. President Adams.   

I was on watch as we sailed into the Bay of Bengal before turning south for Cochin.  It was a calm dark foggy night with little vibration or noise from the ship.  All was clear within one hundred miles and the captain had gone below.   

Just before the 2400 watch change the fog lifted and to my shock I found the ship in the midst of a sea of tiny yellow lights.  Upon closer inspection it turned out to be dug-out canoes with single occupants carefully standing motionless holding small oil lamps aloft hoping to be seen.   We had improbably steamed through a fleet of small boats over 50 miles offshore.   As I scanned the now visible horizon I saw a multitude of beautiful small flickering yellow lights.  The way was clear dead ahead as we had already passed through the fleet.  Then the fog descended once again and the fleet disappeared from sight as though it were never there.   

The second mate walked onto the bridge and saw nothing.  We informed the captain and were told to continue.  There was nothing to indicate that we had steamed over any of the small fishing boats except the law of probability.  We discussed that night for the rest of the voyage.  It was not that we did not care, quite the contrary.  There was no VHF contact with shore.  Turning and steaming back into the fleet in dense fog to check was obviously repeating a grave risk.   What we experienced was the plight of small boats at sea for as long as small boats have ventured beyond the sight of coasts.  

What I learned that night is that professional mariners care deeply about the plight of all those at sea.  Too often the public narrative is the opposite,  much of it fictional myth that ‘killer ships’ and tugs with tows are mindlessly cutting their way through fishing boats, sail boats and small craft without the slightest remorse:

“It was a towering wall of steel bursting out of a squall at full speed, bearing down on their ketch Siren. In a few dramatic moments, Siren was shattered by the indifferent juggernaut. Struggling for his life, Peter Hardin felt the hand of his wife being torn from his grip as the huge white letters on the supertanker’s stern-Leviathan–steamed away.”  ‘The Shipkiller’ Justin Scott 

There have been tragic accidents between ships and small boats.  But rarely is it due to criminal negligence.  On the ships and tugs I have sailed on in the last three decades I have never known a professional mariner that did not show great concern about small boats.   But it would do no harm to remember how my ship appeared through the eyes of the fishermen and fleet we unknowingly steamed through 36 years ago.  And I am incredulous at how often a ship that departed the other side of the world weeks earlier could meet a local small boat that just left its berth and is now crossing said ship’s bow at exactly the most dangerous point.  Las Vegas would not give odds on that yet it we see it often.  

As a pilot I find serious concern on the bridge about potential collisions with small boats in piloting waters.  I see professional mariners that will go to great lengths to avoid small boats.  Are professional mariners unintentionally violating COLREGS in that process?   In the next article I will open that provocative discussion.