An airline pilot once told me that his job was 95% boredom and 5% sheer terror. A Deep Sea Pilot’s job is much the same. A Deep Sea Pilot assists vessels in navigating the busy waters of the English Channel, Dover Straits and beyond and as such is sometimes involved in events beyond his control.
We had sailed from Leningrad (St Petersburg as it is now called) for a straight run down the Gulf of Finland through the Baltic Sea to the Kiel Canal from where this American cargo ship would eventually arrive in New Orleans.
Some three hours later, after a large alteration of course we felt the ship shudder. The Captain raced to the bridge from where he had been entertaining the company’s vice president, thinking that we had hit something. I thought it was only a large wave that had hit the bow. There was nothing else to be seen.
Then the helmsman drawled laconically, “Hey, Cap! She ain’t steering worth a damn!” With about 30,000 tons doing 19 knots (about 25 mph) this was not a good thing to happen!
The wheel was hard over to starboard but the ship was swinging violently to port. After trying various manoeuvres, we realised that although everything within the ship was working as it should, the rudder was missing. In the meantime the ship had drifted perilously close to a reef that projected from a nearby island so the anchor was dropped.
In the morning we tried using the wind to blow us clear of the reef and get a little more clearance from the shallow water, but found that we were reversing directly toward a small shallow shoal. Anchor down again, right in the centre of the main channel leading from Leningrad.
Then, a large heavily armed torpedo boat, under the red flag of the USSR, made fast to our stern and a man with a megaphone shouted something in Russian. We hoped he was offering a tow into safer waters, but he sped away to leave us to our fate once we told him how many people were on board. We discovered later that the torpedo boat was actually the Coastguard!
In the meantime, the harbour tugs from the port had been dispatched to tow us to a safe anchorage, but when we saw them looming over the horizon we saw that one was towing the other. This gave us great confidence as can be imagined, until we learned that the tug being towed was a very old coal burning steamship and was just saving fuel!
We were towed back to the anchorage and there the vessel waited until a salvage tug was sent from Rostock in East Germany. As Deep Sea pilot, there was to be nothing for me to do when the vessel was under tow so the Vice President and I went ashore on the coal burning tug, aptly named ‘Leningrad.’ The emergency Visa we were issued, under ’Reason for visit’ stated: ‘To finish the job!’
by Terry Took © 2011
Terry Took was born in Yorkshire but has lived in Tynemouth for 49 years. He spent 45 years in the Merchant Navy which included 27 years as North Sea Pilot. He then spent five years as a lecturer at the Marine Department of South Tyneside College.
He is now an Elder Brother in Trinity House and Marine Director.
If you have any comments or would like to contact Terry then please e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.