It is a big ocean. Until you’ve been far into it, it’s really hard to appreciate how big it is. Bringing a ship back from Japan to Hawaii, I once went ten days without seeing another ship, either by eye or radar. That’s a long time to be utterly alone in the world, especially if you’re moving in a straight line and at good speed. On the other hand, I think you’d be surprised at how crowded the ocean can get in certain places.
The easiest example that I can think of to illustrate this point is the Strait of Malacca, which divides the island of Sumatra from Malaysia. Not only is Singapore at the southern end — one of the great maritime ports of the world — but it is not unfair to say that all the shipping moving between Asia and Africa and the Middle East and Europe travels through this increasingly narrow, 600-mile passage, either to or from Pacific countries.
Every year, 100,000 ships go through it. It is infested with pirates and criss-crossed by thousands of fishing boats every day. If you look at it on a chart, it may seem wide, but the passable channel for big ships is only a couple of miles wide, and again, clogged with fishing boats. It’s not fun to navigate, but it is thrilling.
Tokyo Bay or “Tokyo Wan” is like that. Yes, the area off the coast of Japan where the USS Fitzgerald collision took place on June 17 is more wide open than the Wan itself, but just like the approaches to Norfolk, Boston, or Los Angeles, dozens of ships are approaching at any time, all heading for a very narrow entrance channel, all on tight schedules. Think of it as a funnel necking down to the shipping channel that goes into the port. Outside the shipping channel, which has strict rules, the mouth of the funnel is the Wild West for ships coming and going. It can be challenging during the day, but at night it can be frightening.
On any given night, ships will mill about, outside the shipping channels, waiting for dawn when they can both use their eyes to help and meet the pilots who will berth their ships in port. All those huge ships, lollygagging about, may drift or they may travel in circles or they may give themselves a box to stay in while they await the light. Personally, I used to avoid this mess by slowing my track so that I didn’t arrive at the funnel mouth until dawn. But sometimes you don’t have a choice, and you spend tense hours trying to avoid other ships, praying for the light.
Imagine you are on the bridge of your ship and you are waiting off Tokyo…or more specifically, Yokosuka, which is right down the coast, and the home of the Fitzgerald in Japan. There may be moonlight, which is a help, or the sky make be overcast, or there may be no moon, or maybe the moon rose and set earlier, or maybe it will rise and set later. Maybe it’s only a sliver of moon.
My point is, it can be utterly black at sea.
And what do you see with your eyes there off Tokyo? You see a horizon full of lights. You see a universe of lights, some on land, some from ships. Some moving, some not moving. Different colors. Many of these lights are engineered to be visible at specific ranges, and that may be a help. For example, the visibility of a ship’s masthead light is supposed to be six miles. A sidelight is three miles. But the weather and other atmospheric and physical variables may increase or decrease the visibility. In other words, if you see a ship’s masthead light suddenly appear, you may want to believe that, “Oh, that dude is six miles away for me.” But, maybe not. You will need to worry about all of these lights until you figure each one out. What are they doing? Where are they going? Are they closing in on me? Should I worry about them? Which ones and how soon? The composition of these lights is constantly changing as ships come and go. As fishermen appear and disappear. As lights on shore go on and off through the night. In other words, it’s a complex puzzle for even the most experienced mariner.
You decode the puzzle by using your radar and your charts to associate these lights with ships or objects on the beach. Just as your eye is not perfect, though, neither is a radar. Different radars have different characteristics, and they are each better or worse at different ranges and in different situations. Some are good in rain, some don’t even remotely help in a heavy rain. Every sailor can think of a time that they came across a ship or boat, which in seeming denial of the laws of physics remained undetected by radar, only to be seen and avoided at the last minute. Ideally, you use several types of radars in concert, as well as a system called automatic identification system, which tracks a discrete identifier on most ships.
It is an experienced mariner who is able to sort things effectively.
Who do you think was figuring this all out on the night of the Fitzgerald collision? Was it an experienced mariner? I don’t know.
Here’s how it works at sea in a ship, in general: the captain is on call 24/7. He sleeps in a cabin only a few feet away from the pilot house, where all of this figuring is going on. He stays up late, and he rises early. He often doesn’t even want to sleep, because if anything goes wrong, he’s inevitably and historically going to be identified as the responsible party and relieved of command. In a congested seaway, he will often sleep, if it can be called that, in his chair on the bridge. Perhaps he will have his best team on watch in those most dangerous situations.