Tankers are fast

Guest perspective/Randy Randall

Oil tankers are fast. Much faster than you probably think. The behemoth ships that seem to take forever to cross the horizon when you’re offshore are actually moving right along. They’re like an optical illusion – so big and imposing, so long and so wide – that it’s hard to wrap your head around the possibility of something that massive going fast.

But they do. One of these dinosaurs can hit 16 knots. That’s about 20 mph. Some container ships are even faster, capable of speeds approaching 28 knots. That’s over 32 mph, 4 mph faster than Usain Bolt runs the 100-meter dash. So watch out. Steer clear. Plot a course wide of any path the tanker may be on, and don’t even think of trying to enforce the rules of the road. That would be a big mistake. From their position up on the bridge, often many stories high, the folks driving these ships aren’t necessarily looking for you and your little boat. Even if they can see you, they can’t stop and they aren’t going to alter course. They operate in a different league than you and me. So keep clear and give ’em a wide berth.

How do I know this? Well, there’s nothing like experience, as they say. Many years ago I was in Newport, R.I., compliments of the United States Navy. Actually, Navy duty in Newport was pretty good. After I returned from Vietnam, my detailer at the Pentagon found me a nice, calm, quiet duty station with COMCRUSDESLANT. Don’t ask. The unwieldy acronym refers to the cruisers and destroyers that used to call Newport home.

So there I was, a lowly Navy petty officer in Newport, R.I., one of the sailing capitals of the world. Of course I caught the sailing bug and had to have a boat. For me, that turned out to be an elderly Beetle Cat that was both affordable and easy to work on. I moored the little wooden boat right there at the wharf beside Uncle Sam’s battle-gray warships.

When we knocked off work for the day, I skipped down to the destroyer pier, bailed the boat dry, hoisted the sail and took off for an afternoon sailing on Narragansett Bay. Besides the plastic bailing jug, I had a Boy Scout compass for navigation and a life jacket. It wasn’t much, but I was young. And I was home safely from the war. Right then, life in Newport seemed pretty good.

In the afternoon there was usually a smart sailing breeze, and it was fun to beam reach across the bay, come about and sail back. I taught myself how to sail and manage the Beetle Cat. On a good day, with the right tide, we sailed under the Newport Bridge or across the bay to Jamestown.

But then there was this one particular afternoon. The boat had a bone in her teeth and skittered across the bay like a young racehorse. Everything was perfect. The wind was strong and steady, the sail set just right, the tiller nudged me in the stomach and I heard the waves chuckling under the hull. Perfect. I was ambitious, and pointed the bow for the Naval Air Station at Quonset Point. Way down the bay, just passing under the Newport Bridge, was a ship. I couldn’t tell what size it was, but it looked big. I kept one eye on it as the vessel steamed up the bay. I knew it was a tanker bound for Providence, but it was so far off I had no concerns. I held my course. The catboat was sailing better than it ever had before. My furtive glances informed me that I still had plenty of sea room; that we’d pass in front of the ship long before it reached us.

Of course, I was wrong. Almost dead wrong. Before I knew it, the massive ship was towering over me. It was coming on incredibly fast now, and I was directly in its path.

I didn’t abandon ship. Maybe a year in a war zone teaches you not to panic? Anyhow, fear wasn’t a factor. By now I could hear the rumble of the engines. I saw the waves being shoved aside as the ship shouldered its way through the water. In a minute or two I’d be run down, but the wind was still blowing strong and steady. I eased the main sheet and fell off a bit. The boat surged ahead. I leaned to leeward, tipping the boat slightly. I held my course, coaxing all the speed I could out of the old gal.

We cleared the tanker – barely. The rolling bow wave gave my little boat a solid shove as the mammoth vessel plowed past. We increased our distance even more. I was worried about the giant propellers, and the wash they’d send out as the ship’s stern cleared us. But, by then, we had 50 yards or so between us. I admired the colossal ship as is churned its way past and continued up the bay. I made a mental note: Oil tankers are fast.

The little catboat and I lived to sail again. We had many fun afternoons sailing in and around Newport. I still remember her sail number: 333. A lucky number, perhaps?

When we moved home to Maine I sold the boat, but I’ve never forgotten the experience. Who would?

So take my advice. Stay out of shipping lanes. And, if you do happen to cross bows with a super tanker, remember they’re faster than you might think. I was fortunate that day. The breeze held strong and steady, the sail pulled like a small ox, and the little Beetle Cat stood up to the stiff breeze and sailed me out of harm’s way.

Frequent contributor, correspondent and friend Randy Randall is co-owner of Marston’s Marina in Saco, Maine, and a dreamer and waterman of the first order.

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