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Volume 4, Number 2
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Chesapeake Passage

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Ships in the Night

As Van Metre bends the Taiko rightwards into the second leg of the York Spit Channel, he takes his turn in small 10-degree chunks, a trick to keep the big ship from swinging out of control. A pilot carries the layout of the channels embedded in his brain from thousands of trips, but on each trip he has to find his feel for his new ship fairly quickly. Van Metre starts with a 10-degree starboard rudder, then fairly quickly calls Midships, returning the rudder to a straight ahead angle. He calls this "checking the swing."

Standing out on the bridge wing, I can see the turning, but I can't feel it. The Taiko is so massive, it creates its own gravity field. It becomes a still point in a turning world. Everything ahead of us is shifting: the lines of red and green buoys, the ship lights on the horizon, they are all drifting leftwards past our distant bow light. The planet is revolving around us.

Some of those lights I see are a ship heading towards us. Inside the wheelhouse, Van Metre has been tracking it on radar, but out on the bridge wing, working without technology, the oncoming approach is hard to read: simply a triangle of lights standing way off the starboard bow, one red and two white lights that seem to blur together. They give no hint of the speed or size of the ship.

Ship lights on the Bay at night are never easy to read, even for experienced seamen, but reading them right is the first step to pulling off a safe ship-to-ship passing. The worst ship collision of the last half century began with Coast Guard officers misreading the lights of an oncoming ship.

On an October night in 1978, the Coast Guard officer in command of the cutter Cuyahoga peered through his binoculars at distant lights and decided he was looking at the lights of a small fishing vessel. His 125-foot cutter was steaming north up the Bay with plans to turn left into the Potomac River for an overnight anchorage. On board were 29 crew members, many of them officers in training. He walked into the chartroom, checked the radar contact and decided the fishing vessel was already headed into the Potomac River.

The lights were not a "small fishing vessel" but a 571-foot cargo ship, and it was not headed into the Potomac River. The Santa Cruz II, an Argentine coal ship, was steaming straight south past the Potomac. On board was a Maryland Bay pilot who read the lights of the northbound Cuyahoga accurately and prepared to steam past it on a basic port-to-port passing, much like two cars on a highway.

With the ships closing fast, however, and with no ship-to-ship warning, the Coast Guard officer ordered a series of left turns, curving his small cutter directly in the path of the larger cargo ship. The Bay pilot aboard the Santa Cruz made all the right moves according to the nautical rules of the road: he sounded a whistle blast signaling he was holding course as the "privileged vessel." Then he sounded another blast, followed by five short danger blasts, then five more.

The Cuyahoga commander ordered stop engines and full astern, slowing his cutter directly in front of the oncoming cargo ship. On the flying bridge a young seaman saw a terrifying sight: the lights of the "fishing vessel" became a cargo ship on a collision course.

The Santa Cruz plowed into the Cuyahoga just aft of its wheelhouse, bulldozing the cutter backwards at 13 knots for more than 30 seconds. Below decks the impact caused fractured skulls and broken necks and frantic scrambling to escape a sinking ship. The Cuyahoga sank stern first within two minutes, taking eleven crew members to their deaths.

Major investigations followed, then congressional hearings, a court martial and changes in Coast Guard training. The episode highlighted how easily human error can override high-tech navigational aids and unleash disaster, even death on the water, especially in the close quarters of a ship-to-ship passing.

It was the worst ship collision on the Bay over the last half century. On a Friday night training run, the chief officer aboard the Cuyahoga, a small Coast Guard cutter, misread the running lights of an oncoming ship. Off the mouth of the Potomac he turned into the path of the Santa Cruz II, a 571-foot-long Argentine coal carrier. The crash slammed the Cuyahoga backwards, sending it to the bottom in two minutes. "It felt like an earthquake," one survivor told the Washington Post. "The ship just fell out from under our feet," said another. Eleven crew members died.

US Coast Guard cutter Cuyahoga in 1974
Wreck of the US Coast Guard cutter Cuyahoga in 1978

From the bridge wing of the Taiko, I see what the crew of the Cuyahoga saw: ship lights headed down in this direction, one of them a red portside running light. But inside the wheelhouse Van Metre knows the track of the ship from the radar screen, and from his laptop GPS he also knows the name of the oncoming ship, its size, speed and cargo. Behind those approach-ing lights is the Tasmania, 708 feet long, drawing 35.5 feet, five feet deeper than us. The laptop screen also shows the name of the other pilot: Jim Mead, a veteran who joined the Associa-tion of Mary-land Pilots one year before Van Metre did.

The radio crackles and Van Metre responds. "Stand by, Jim. Good Evening. One whistle, port to port, sounds good." A short conversation, two old friends passing in the night, but it's a key communication. Each pilot is letting the other know well ahead of time what he's planning to do with his ship. It's a conversation the commander of the Cuyahoga never tried.

When ships pass in a dredged channel, however, Van Metre has more underwater physics to think about. He moves the Taiko away from the centerline, creating more separation for the Tasmania and its deeper draft. As the hull of the Taiko slides along the side wall of the underwater cut, its stern is sucked even closer to the bank of the channel.

As it closes on the oncoming ship, the Taiko displaces tons of water outward, pushing a hefty bow wave towards the oncoming ship. The same physics is working on the Tasmania along the other side of the channel. The solution: In a tight channel passing, both pilots actually curve back towards the center, aiming their bows back towards the other ship, slanting away from the side wall and letting the collision of bow waves straighten their ships out.

That's tricky enough to make any captain nervous, and the approach of the Tasmania brings Captain Pedersen to the bridge wing as another lookout. As it closes on us, the Tasmania remains to the eye only three small lights ghosting down the nighttime Bay. The lights, I realize, are hanging high above the water, the first sign this is a large ship. Tasmania finally takes shape as a container ship, its deck loaded with trailers ready to go on trucks. The ship, all 708 feet of it, slides by so quietly all we can hear is the hissing of its bow water. That's the last ship out of Baltimore this night, Van Metre tells us.

It's suddenly a lonely Bay out here in the middle of the night with only three large ships moving through: the Taiko, the Tasmania behind us, and the Patriot ahead of us. When Van Metre began as an apprentice and Pedersen began as a deckhand, Baltimore was drawing many more ships to the Chesapeake — ships that were smaller, but more "shiplike." "Thirty years ago," says Van Metre, "you'd have maybe eight ships to carry this amount of cargo."

Many of the behemoths now nosing up the Bay barely resemble ships. A typical car carrier is a floating box. There's a traditional flaring bow but it's followed by a long, blank-sided box that stretches three to four city blocks back and towers 15 stories high. A container ship carries truck trailers stacked high behind the bow, obliterating the sweep of its lines. A Ro/Ro carries a cargo ramp for a stern.

Mostly gone are the "break-bulk" carriers with a classic merchant ship profile: the high, sharp bow sweeping down to a cargo deck topped with derricks and booms, then further back a high-standing superstructure with wheelhouse on top and bridge wings to each side. You see this profile on posters and billboards advertising Balti-more as a port city, you seldom see it on the Bay.

Out of the Deeps

At the end of the York Spit channel, Van Metre glides the Taiko into a deepwater tract called the Virginian Sea Trench. Here in these wide sudden deeps along the Delmarva Peninsula, a pilot's work gets easier — no worries about shoals for awhile. Van Metre is steering across the crash site of another collision, one more catastrophic by far than the sinking of the Cuyahoga.

Thirty-five million years ago, a giant meteor came blazing through the solar system headed for earth. The era was the late Eocene, a warmer epoch when the Atlantic Ocean reached inland almost to the Appalachians, covering the Bay and all the sites like Norfolk and Baltimore that would later become the cities of the Coastal Plain. If Van Metre were working these earlier waters, he'd have no shoals to worry about until west of Richmond. If he'd looked skyward to check the stars, he'd have glimpsed a terrifying sight: a light in the night that became a meteor. And that light would have been the last thing he ever saw.

The meteor shot through the earth's atmosphere at six times the speed of a bullet and smashed into the ocean. A blast wave immediately incinerated all life forms within six hundred miles and sent tsunamis roaring across the Coastal Plain towards the Piedmont Plateau. The impact blasted a crater 50 miles across and a mile deep, centered on what is now Cape Charles City, and then nearly filled it up again as fragments of rock fell back into the hole.

That crater and its rim, buried beneath 35 million years of earth, shaped the southern Bay we're sailing through — according to researcher C. Wylie Poag, of the U.S. Geological Survey, and a number of other geologists. There is evidence, they say, that rivers like the James, the York and the Susquehanna once ran separately to the sea — and might still do so today without meteorite intervention. Norfolk might be a port on James Bay, Yorktown on York Bay and Baltimore, perhaps-, on Susquehanna Bay.

But the meteorite left a crater that would gather together these three rivers into one basin. Over millions of years, the crater's center kept sinking faster than the rim, creating a downhill path, drawing together the York, the James and the Susque-hanna rivers. As ice ages came and left, the York and the James eventually merged with the mightier Susquehanna and ran as one river to the sea. These deeps above the old crater now give Van Metre some easy piloting on his long passage through the newest Chesapeake.

Meteorites and ice ages could come again — and the best piloting can do nothing to prevent them. Within five million miles of earth, there are ninety-nine asteroids larger than half-a-mile in diameter-, according to a survey by the National Aeronautic and Space Administration, and any one of them could rearrange the Chesapeake Bay again and wipe out life — including city life — along the Mid-Atlantic.

On the bridge wing of the Taiko, I look up at the stars again. Lights in the sky, like lights on the Bay, are hard to read. What's a shooting star? What's an oncoming disaster?

The crater left by a meteorite collision 35 million years ago probably caused the York and James Rivers to alter course (2 left arrows) and eventually link up with the Susquehanna to form the southern basin of today's Chesapeake Bay. (Circle shows crater and rim.) After each of the last three ice ages, the main channel of the Chesapeake moved west and the Bay moved south (3 right arrows). Adapted from a figure by C. Wylie Poag.
diagran showing location of crater left by a meteorite

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