Close calls on the water

I consider myself highly qualified to write on maritime survival simply because I’m still alive. True, there is a God who looks after fools and madmen, but the sea is a strict enforcer of the law of averages. So in considering some of my maritime close calls, I realize there could be a valuable lesson in each.
While I was working on the OSV Magcobar Mercury in the early 70s, I was standing a couple of feet apart from the other deckhand, C.J. Celestin (C.J., if you read this, shoot me an email!), making fast a hawser from the deck of an offshore platform to the starboard stern cleat. The hawser was secured to the platform with a shackle in a truck tire. When the seas and the captain’s bad handling put a hellish strain on the tire, the wheelbarrow-sized shackle tore free and shot straight between us. It hit the bitt and flew up into the night sky before falling on deck with a heavy thud. C.J. quit when we got to Intracoastal City, La., and since then I’ve stayed away from lines under tension.
One afternoon in the late 70s, I was bobbing along the coast of Honduras in my little sailboat, studying the shore with my binoculars, when I opened my eyes and it was dark. My head hurt like hell and had a huge lump on it. The boat had gybed — the wind had caught the mainsail on the wrong side — and the boom had cracked me on the back of the skull. I’d been lying unconscious in the cockpit all afternoon. After that, I stayed out of the way of the boom.
A few years later, I was port captain for a ship loading scrap at Bayou Steel in LaPlace, La. The crew had swung the ship’s crane out of the way of the shore crane, but had left the hook dangling. I was inspecting some equipment on the dock and when I bent over for a closer look, something brushed the back of my head. I looked up and saw the “headache ball” on the crane hook swinging past, silent and deadly. The ship had taken a roll when a load of steel came onboard, and sent the 100-lb. ball swinging at me. I had to hit the deck to avoid the backswing. But if I’d truly absorbed the lesson of that earlier head-tap off the coast of Honduras, I’d have known to keep a sharp eye on any loose, swinging, or movable object in my vicinity. I certainly do now.
I once bought a ship in Seattle in the winter of 1992. The chief engineer and I were trying to get the machinery running when, for some reason, I mistakenly closed the seawater intake valve on a large pump. Then, after a long time doing I don’t remember what, I reopened it. When the icy water of Lake Washington hit that pump — now red-hot from running dry — it exploded. Luckily, there was a boiler between the pump and the valve manifold. Otherwise the pieces of pump casing that ended up embedded in the boiler would’ve ended up inside of me.
So the lessons here are simple. Learn from your mistakes, if you survive them, and the mistakes of others. Look for root causes and wider applications of lessons learned. Keep your head on a swivel when you’re around movable objects. And, unless you’re an engineer, don’t touch the machinery.

About the author

Capt. Max Hardberger

Max Hardberger is a maritime attorney, flight instructor, writer, and maritime repo man. He has been a correspondent for WorkBoat since 1995. His memoir, Seized: A Sea Captain’s Adventures Battling Scoundrels and Pirates While Recovering Stolen Ships in the World’s Most Troubled Waters, was published by Broadway Books in 2010. He’s appeared on FOX, The Learning Channel, National Public Radio and the BBC, and has been the subject of articles in Fairplay Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Men’s Journal, Esquire (UK), and the London Sunday Guardian.

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