The Straights of Gibraltar and Into the Mediterranean

It was 2 o’clock in the morning and the sound-powered telephone next to my bunk – a truly obnoxious machine – started jangling like a demented alarm clock. Sound asleep after coming off watch at midnight, I was in no mood to be polite but didn’t get a chance to let the caller know what I thought of him. Probably a good thing since it was my Captain. “Gadget!” he yelled “you should have been up here an hour ago. Get your butt to the bridge!”

I got dressed in my watch khakis and staggered to the bridge in a state of confusion since I didn’t remember being told to stay after my watch. We had departed Casablanca, Morocco the day before and were heading into the Mediterranean. I paused just inside the chart-room door while my eyes adjusted to the dark-red lighting. Entering the bridge itself, the Captain immediately called me over to the chart table, where a coastal chart of the Straits of Gibraltar was laid out. Pointing to a series of plotted points, he said “Gadget, this is where we are. We’re currently using these three coastal navigation lights – come with me to the wing (of the bridge) and I’ll point them out to you.” Which he proceeded to do in rapid succession, apparently ignoring the fact that I wasn’t at all sure which of the hundreds of twinkling lights along the coast he was referring to. Taking me back to the chart, he explained what he wanted. “Gadget, I want a pinwheel sighting every three minutes. I want you to write down the time of the sighting, and the angles of observation for each of the three lights. Then I want you to plot the observations. Don’t think you’re going to fudge your plots and give me a pinwheel because I’ll check.” Finally waking up to what was going on, I asked how long he wanted me to do this. “Until we’re through the Straits, of course,” he replied. “We’re going through on your navigation, so don’t screw it up.”

In plain English, here’s what was being asked. Before the days of satellite navigation and computer-driven radar systems, navigating in close proximity to the shore employed a technique called coastal navigation – an entirely manual process. With the use of charts for each stretch of coastline, a series of “aids to navigation” lights (lighthouses, lighted buoys, etc) are chosen by the navigator for transiting that area. If one takes a compass bearing on one light and draws a line from that light along that bearing, then you can be sure you’re located somewhere along that line. If you simultaneously take a bearing on a second light, then you can be reasonably sure you’re located at the intersection of the two lines. To be really sure of where you are, a bearing on a third light is taken at the same time as the other two and plotted. If the three lines intersect, then you have a ‘pinwheel’ and you know exactly where you are. If they don’t intersect exactly, the three lines will form a small triangle, and you can assume you’re somewhere inside the triangle – a bit sloppy, but acceptable if the triangle is small enough. It was common practice to simply “move” the third line so that it intersected the other two, making it look like a perfect plot. The following diagram, with lights A, B, and C, shows a pinwheel (although we didn’t draw the ship on the chart!)

It sounds easy until you’re trying to do it. First, you have to identify the lights. Printed on the chart, next to the light, is an abbreviated code that tells you how to identify it. Usually, its a specific series of long and short flashes repeated on a stated interval. Finding a light can really be difficult until you get used to it.

I spent the next four hours running out to the wing of the bridge every three minutes, taking sightings, writing them in my notebook, and plotting them on the chart. My Captain really did navigate through the Straits based on my plots, although he was so experienced at that passage he probably could have done it without any charts at all. He periodically would take my notebook and verify that my pinwheels weren’t fudged, shaking his head at the few open triangles I did have.

The next morning at breakfast, he handed me the rolled-up chart of the passage and asked me if the Academy still required, as part of our on-board training curriculum, a coastal navigation project consisting of four hours of sightings and plots. He knew full well they did, and I realized that in a single passage, he had given me the opportunity to complete this onerous task, including all the written documentation of the sightings. Personally, I would have picked a timeframe other than 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., but I’m still proud to say I have navigated the Straits of Gibraltar. Coastline A B C

After passing through the Straits, we headed to the first of several stops on the Mediterranean’s northern coast, including Split, Yugoslavia, Pireaus (the port city of Athens), and Istanbul. How the world has changed! At that time, Yugoslavia’s people told us they were proud of their leadership (Tito) and his ability to stand up to the Russian bear on their border. But he was just a band-aid on the underlying strife that resulted in ethnic cleansing and the country’s dissolution. The Greeks – the cradle of democracy – were under the brutal rule of a military dictatorship. Our radio operator was Greek, and we visited his family in Athens. In the privacy of their own home, they were afraid to speak ill of the government – a shock to a 19-year old American fresh from witnessing Vietnam war protests and civil rights marches.

After Istanbul, we headed to the Island of Cyprus. On the first morning there, I was heading out to the cargo deck to begin my cargo watch – supervising the unloading of cargo in whatever section the Chief Mate assigned to me. In the passageway, my Captain saw me and asked “Gadget, why are you dressed in your work clothes?” When I told him, he said “No, you’re coming with me and the passengers on a tour of the Island I’ve arranged.” It was a wonderful tour of a fascinating place. Although we had a tour guide, the Captain spent the entire time with me, explaining in great detail the meaning of the historic sights we toured. I vividly remember a cemetery with tombs that dated from before Christ. This prompted a discussion with my Captain that permanently changed my view of such things. He asked where I would want to be buried. Like most youngsters, I hadn’t thought about it much but replied that burial didn’t appeal to me, and I’d prefer to be cremated. He began to explain how one of the key marks of civilization is how people handle their dead. He didn’t favor cremation, because it didn’t allow for the continuity of society symbolized by the permanent monuments to the previous generations. I have recalled that conversation often, each time with new understanding.

The day after leaving Cyprus, we were entering the port of Beirut (before the civil war). This was a huge port, protected by miles of sea-breaks. There were at least 100 ships at anchor waiting for their turn at the dock (I was told that a well-placed bribe got us in ahead of them). As always in entering port, my Captain had me on the bridge to observe. This time he put me on the wheel. He pointed to a grain silo about 2 miles away across the harbor, through the thicket of anchored ships. “See that silo, Gadget? Well, that’s right next to our dock. The pilot will take over when we get there. Until then, you’re in command. Try not to hit anything on the way.” He and the pilot then exited the bridge and stood out of sight on the bridge wing. I know they were watching carefully, but you can’t imagine the thrill of being alone on the bridge of a 500-foot ship with 12,500 shaft horsepower, all under your control. There is no video game to compete with it. I was immensely grateful for the hours of steering practice my Captain forced me to endure crossing the Atlantic!


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One Comment

  1. Great stories. We’ve hit many of those Mediterranean ports on our Heavy Lift Freighter trip around the world or on a Mediterranean cruise with our progeny. Both more recently in a world that continues to change rapidly. We never had a personal tour guide and navigation instructor like this, had to rely on observation, surmising and later questioning, a much less effective learning approach.
    This is a great feature on the Houston Maritime emails.

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