Tech and humans: It takes two to tango

I used to be scared when I went to sea. But it was a healthy fear that was good for me, and got me this far. Then along came the kind of technology that exuded certainty, almost saying, “I’ll handle this part. I’m always correct. But you handle your part; you’re the human in this equation, so don’t drop your vigilance. It takes two to tango.”

The technology (radar) was correct on the bridges of the liners Stockholm and Andrea Doria on July 25, 1956. At 10:45 p.m., the Stockholm showed up on the Andrea Doria’s radar screens, at a distance of about 17 nautical miles. Soon after, the Italian ship showed up on the Stockholm’s radar, about 12 miles away. What happened next has been subject to dispute, but it’s likely that the crews of both ships misread their radar sets.

In the case of the Stockholm’s officer Carstens, every decision he made on the bridge – from 20 minutes before the collision to the collision time – suggests that he thought that the Andrea Doria was much farther away, with plenty of time to alter course to starboard and pass on the conventional “one whistle” port-to-port side. He was wrong.

Back in those days, the radar rings were not illuminated, and the range of the scale was done manually by moving a switch. Experts believe that Carstens thought that he was on a different range (15-mile), when, in reality, he was on another range (five-mile).

Capt. Calami of the Andrea Doria then exacerbated a dangerous situation by making a turn to port for an unconventional starboard-to-starboard passing, which, he wrongly thought, the other ship was attempting. About two miles away from each other, the ship’s lights came into view.

Officer Carstens, commanding the bridge of the Stockholm, then made a conventional turn to starboard. Less than a mile away, Capt. Calami realized he was on a collision course with the Stockholm and turned hard to the left, hoping to race past the bow of the Swedish ship. Both ships were too large and moving too fast to make a quick turn. At 11:10 p.m., the Stockholm’s sharply-angled bow, reinforced for breaking ice, smashed 30 feet into the starboard side of the Andrea Doria.

For a moment, the smaller ship, the Stockholm, was lodged there like a cork in a bottle, but then the opposite momentum of the two ships pulled them apart. The Stockholm’s smashed bow screeched down the side of the Andrea Doria, showering sparks into the air. Five crewmen of the Stockholm were killed in the collision. On the Andrea Doria, the carnage was much worse. The bow of the Swedish ship crashed through passenger cabins, and 46 passengers and crew were killed. The radar was right, and at least one human was wrong.

On a smaller scale, I recently read of two boaters who left in the fog at opposite ends of one course, each headed to the other’s specific destination buoy. They happened to have the identical GPS chart technology on each boat, and happened to have programmed in the same routes (but in opposite directions). Thus, they were on the same course line over an open stretch of sea.

Off they went, nearly oblivious to any dangers on their course. But somewhere along the way – you guessed it – they collided with each other, dead-on, stem-to-stem. The technology got it right again. Exactly right. It was the humans who’d dropped their guard.

I learned my own lesson when, years ago, my wife and I were in pea-soup fog in our little, radar-less Cape Dory 25, coming out of a small cove off Two Bush Channel in Maine. I was not so much worried about boats, but about ledges, in the area, and, hence, was moving very slowly. I had my Freon horn by my side, though, in case a boat suddenly appeared. And that’s what happened.

I could just make out the hull: It was a Concordia Yawl, steaming at about six knots. The sole man on deck was intently staring into the radar hood under the boat’s dodger. We were no more than 50 feet away, on a collision course. I picked up the freon horn and let him have it, draining that aerosol can of chlorofluorocarbons into the gauzy, narrowing gap between us. I don’t know what the man was thinking, but I suspect it might have been either “Oh, yeah, that’s right: Radar doesn’t work at real close range,” or “Maybe I should try using my own eyes once and a while.”

Dave Roper’s new novel, “Rounding the Bend: The Life and Times of Big Red,”was released in mid-June and is available from and Barnes and Noble.

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