Wednesday 19 June 1985: "We sailed from the Rajang river on the morning tide, taking departure at 0606. Fine calm weather..."
So began my personal journal entry on that sultry June day back in 1985 as the 550 foot, 11,000 gross ton tramp steamer, S.S. Jubilee (not the actual name of the ship), began its passage northward from north Borneo bound for Japan. We had spent several days at anchor between the mangrove covered banks of the Rajang river loading a few hundred tons of palletized wooden dowels from cargo lighters. Previous to that we had loaded baled rubber in Sumatra and Singapore -- all homebound cargo. The cargo was distributed throughout the ship in the lower holds and tween decks of every hatch, and stowed skin to skin. We were ballasted to make up for lack of cargo weight, so both our trim and stability were in good shape as we headed seaward.
Only weeks before, we had been loaded to our marks with vehicles, heavy equipment, machinery parts, some grain, and other mixed cargo, including some 20 foot containers lashed on deck and in the upper tweens. Huge crane counter-weights and other large equipment components had been secured on deck, and on the hatches fore and aft, lashed to deck padeyes with large lashing chains and wire rope. All of that outbound cargo had already been discharged in various ports, and the decks were now clear, except for pallets of dunnage and lashing chains secured near each hatch. Little did we realize how fortuitous it would prove for us in the near future to be rid of that lucrative outbound cargo. Little did we suspect at the time, as we emerged from the placid brown waters of the sweltering Rajang river, onto the almost equally placid blue waters of the South China Sea, that within 72 hours we would be engaged in a life and death struggle for survival in one of that season's most powerful Typhoons.
We became aware of tropical depression number five of the season shortly after departure. It seemed of little concern initially, being some 1,300 or 1,400 miles away in the West Pacific. However, it was clear it would bear watching, as it was quickly upgraded to a tropical storm and then a typhoon within hours of the first advisory. Given the name Hal, its probable path would converge with our intended track at some point in the not too distant future.
I was the third officer on that tried and true old steamer, a break-bulk vessel with heavy lift capacity, built some twenty years before. Although a junior officer, I'd had enough experience with typhoons to be very wary of them indeed, and was a bit disturbed at the captain's apparent lack of concern at the possibility of a close encounter with Hal. Nine years before, I had found myself three hundred miles east of Luzon in the West Pacific, smack in the middle of a typhoon named Olga. At that time, I had been alone on my own 35 foot sailboat, enroute from Singapore to Guam. Though Olga had not been a powerful storm by typhoon standards, the experience of doing battle with her had been sufficient to leave an indelible impression on this writer. And Olga had gone on to claim the lives of over two hundred people on Luzon, and win lasting recognition in The World Almanac's list of natural disasters. At the time, I remember reflecting on how I hoped I'd never have to experience such conditions on a large vessel. It may seem strange to the uninitiated that anybody could possibly feel more secure in a small boat than aboard a ship of impressive dimensions. But in the midst of the storm I wouldn't have traded my peapod for an ocean liner. I was able to "ride" the mountainous seas in relative comfort while a large vessel, with its great length and weight, must necessarily fight them with proportionately greater and more dangerous stresses to its hull structure. Still, the experience had left me never wanting another close encounter with a typhoon in any sized vessel. Then, a few weeks later, I had arrived in Guam close in the wake of super-typhoon Pamela, and witnessed the devastation she had wrought. My boat, as able as it had proven in Olga, probably wouldn't have survived Pamela. I can assure you, I had gained a very healthy respect for tropical storms and typhoons, and I wasn't eager to see us press our luck with Hal.
As we made our way up the Palawan Passage, I remember commenting to the deck cadet, "If I were the captain, I believe I'd slow down and see what Hal is going to do, and be ready to turn tail and run south." We received advisories and forecasts from the Joint Typhoon Warning Center, (JTWC) in Guam, about every six hours. We tracked and plotted Hal's progress from the time we departed Borneo until it disappeared into the Chinese mainland on the 25th of June. How then, in this age of highly sophisticated weather observation and forecasting technology, and a literal army of weather experts feeding us information, could a vessel and storm converge as if irresistibly drawn to one another by magnets? Disaster was narrowly averted in our contact with this devastating storm at sea, but just barely. How did it happen that we passed through Hal's very heart in spite of all the information available to us?
The answer, simply stated, was two-fold. First, our young, but very able, captain apparently had not yet learned proper respect for tropical storms. Secondly, and most ironically, we perhaps had too much information. That is, too much information in the form of forecasts that the captain took for near gospel, but Hal totally disregarded. The simple fact is, one has to be almost as wary of tropical storm forecasts as of the storms themselves. Watch what the storm is actually doing, and draw two mental scenarios - what the storm will "probably" do, based on past patterns and its own unfolding history, and what it could do. First and foremost, it should be kept in mind that tropical storms are only "somewhat" predicable, even to sophisticated computer system models such as the one used by the JTWC in Guam. Typhoons have been known, albeit infrequently, to perform such stunts as stalling, backing up, doing little round-turns, and making quick forays, hooks or jags, to one side or another. (Olga had performed one of the latter - threatening to "revisit" me, as if she figured I hadn't had enough of her buffeting.)
I would venture that had we received only Hal's successive positions, without the forecasts, we would not have had such a close call. The captain would have been forced to greatly enlarge the potential danger area in his mind. As it was, under pressure to make his ETA at the next port, the captain put far too much faith in the accuracy of the JTWC forecasts. Wishful thinking, to accommodate an ETA, influenced his judgement in favor JTWC forecasts over all other possibilities. Had he not had those forecasts to "guide" him, I believe the captain would have exercised more prudent judgment. Of course, "luck of the draw" often dictate events. Sometimes you win out, and sometimes you don't.
I can recount another instance, on a westbound container ship in the North Atlantic, where a captain did what I considered exactly the wrong thing. In this case, in deciding to cut ahead of a northbound hurricane. (Or rather allowing the hurricane to pass astern of us.) He altered our westerly heading north-northwestward to give the approaching storm a wider berth. I was certain we were asking for trouble, but the captain was confident and retired for the night. We were braced for a storm, but the hurricane literally passed like the proverbial ship in the night, ahead of us! We experienced not so much as a breeze from it. There was absolutely no sign that a hurricane had passed. No swell, no squalls, no clouds, and no wind. This was hurricane Emily, in September of 1987. Emily was a very compact and fast moving system, attaining the unheard of forward speed of 55 knots! (Ref: Mariners Weather Log, Vol. 32, No. 1, Winter, 1988) She had passed directly over Burmuda at 40 knots, and had passed well ahead of us during the night at probably about that same speed. Meanwhile, the captain slept soundly, imagining us crossing comfortably ahead of her! By shear chance, he had won out.
I had become skeptical of the Hal forecasts early on. Not because I had any lack of respect for the people at JTWC, but simply because I didn't consider them infallible. And in any case, I felt that the entire quadrant north and west of the storm, (and extending some distance southward) was a danger area we should avoid. Also, I noticed that Hal never quite conformed to the forecast tracks. He appeared to have his own ideas as to which course to follow. I watched the storm's track as we received and plotted its positions, and progressively discounting the validity of the forecasts. The captain, however, chose to believe that each subsequent forecast would likely be borne out by events. That didn't turn out to be the case. The forecasts misled us from start to finish. Initially, they suggested that Hal would bear off on a more northerly course and recurve sharply to the north, and we, holding to our track, would fall in at a safe distance behind it as we approached the Luzon Strait, slowing down, if necessary. Later, it appeared we could cross ahead of it before it reached the strait.
However Hal persisted in pursuing a more or less west-northwesterly course directly for the north tip of Luzon, contrary to JTWC predictions. On the 21st the forecast was changed to a more westerly direction of movement, which was more in keeping with what the storm had actually been doing. In view of this information, the captain calculated that if the storm continued it's track and speed, we could easily cross in front of it before it reached the strait. When Hal got to the strait, the captain figured, we would be well north of its track, and while we'd probably experience some discomfort, we would be fairly in the clear before too long. It all worked out fine on paper, as the captain drew out the scenario on a weather map, advancing our DR relative to the storms official forecast. Still, I was skeptical, and thought the captain was putting altogether too much faith in the accuracy of the forecasts, which had theretofore been inconsistent with themselves as well as the track followed by the storm. Obviously, we could cross ahead, but the question in my mind was, could we pass ahead at a safe distance? I mentioned the possible danger of running up into the storm and being forced to heave to right in its path if things didn't work out exactly as planned, but the captain was confident that things would go his way.
By 0600 on Friday, the 21st, we were on the latitude of Manila, and still pursuing our intention to cut ahead of the storm. By then Hal was sporting maximum sustained winds of 65 knots. In the next advisory it was 85 knots. I wrote in my journal, "Typhoon Hal is still abuilding and we are still pursuing a potential collision course with the storm... I'm hoping the captain will reconsider making a dash across the front of Hal, whose winds are now 85 knots. Far better to sacrifice a day and stay on the safe side. I casually mentioned the danger (to the captain)... There's one thing that's clear, and that is that we're likely to be slowed and delayed no matter which course of action we follow." I was trying to influence the captain as inauspiciously as possible, as it hardly behooves a third mate to presume to "advise" the master about anything.
The sky had become overcast on my mid-watch and light rain had begun to fall. The wind, which had been light from the SSW, veered toward the west, and increased to about force 4-5. The barometer had begun falling steadily as we continued northward along the west coast of Luzon, dipping to 998 MB by 1500 on the 21st. The wind increased to a force 5-6, and had veered around to NNW. The seas were also beginning to build a little. Squalls became more frequent during my afternoon watch and the sky to the east became more and more threatening in appearance. We were now definitely closing with the storm, and I was becoming more anxious for the captain to reconsider his plan. I limited my council to what had already been said, however. I didn't envy the captain his dilemma, realizing he was under considerable pressure to arrive in Japan on schedule.
The winds increased during the afternoon and evening hours, as the barometric pressure continued to decline. Things continued to worsen until about 2100, when the sky cleared somewhat and the wind, which had risen to about gale force from the northeast, began to slacken and the barometer to steady. The captain breathed a sigh of relief and thought that we'd perhaps successfully crossed the front of the storm and were now on the verge of pulling away from its path. We were about even with the northwest tip of Luzon, now heading north-northeast at 19 knots. Hal was about 180 miles east-southeast of us, but unbeknown to us, was now heading almost northwest at about 17 knots rather than west-northwest. Maximum wind speeds were up to 95 knots according to the latest advisory.
Conditions soon changed again for the worse, as the wind resumed with increased strength. The glass resumed a more precipitous decline, and the squalls became both more frequent and considerably more violent. When I went on watch at 0000 on Saturday 22 June 1985, we were about 55 miles southwest of the Batan Islands in the Luzon Strait. The captain was on the bridge and it was apparent that the weather was deteriorating fast. The wind was still NE'ly and full gale strength, but the seas had not built up to any degree because of the Batan island group sheltering our position. A look at the barometer and an observation of the direction of the wind confirmed to me that we were still closing with the typhoon and may well be right in its path. Indications were that the storm was bearing almost due east-southeast from us. It didn't look good to me at all, and alarm bells were going off in my head. The first thing I ventured to the captain was, "Captain, I don't think it's too late to run."
Subsequently, after it was over and I had reconstructed events, my assessment turned out to be accurate. At about that time we had been more or less approaching the point of no return. But Hal had yet more surprises for us. It's forward speed was increasing as if to intercept us, and its track was again bending more westerly, toward the west-northwest, as if to head off our retreat.
The captain wasn't ready to run yet, however. We continued our course until 0300 when the Batan Island group was about 16 miles distant on our starboard bow, by radar. By then the winds had increased to a stiff force 9, remaining northeasterly. The barometer had fallen continuously, and the seas had grown to what might be called very rough. Conditions continued to worsen markedly during the first two hours of my watch, then they leveled off at a severe plateau. The wind throbbed and screamed in the rigging. Our speed was beginning to suffer drastically, as the ship began to labor in the increasingly rough head sea. The possibility of having to heave to in the path of the storm was now becoming a very serious and real concern.
At about 0230 the captain said, "Well, Mr. Carr, it looks like you were right." That admission didn't come easily to him. By then, however, I felt we'd almost waited too long, but the master had made a crucial decision, and I wasn't about to bring up any further misgivings or change my recommendation. We were far too close to the storm, and conditions had become too severe, to presume to second guess Hal's exact location and direction of movement relative to our own.
With the benefit of hindsight, we had indeed waited too long, as Hal was now redirecting its course almost westward! In another ironic twist, the captain's intended plan of action would have been vindicated had he persevered rather than admitting that I had been right! I had been right, but the decision to run had come too late. At that point we would have been better off continuing our north-northeasterly course - for Hal had by then changed course and would have passed well to the south of us! But we had no way of knowing that at the time. Perhaps we could have stopped and studied the direction of the wind and detected a veering that would have alerted us to the changing situation, but that too is speculative hindsight. The captain had decided to run - and a difficult call it had been - so run we would, for better or worse.
At 0300 we successfully came around and started running southwestward. At the time of our turn, the barometer stood at about 980 MB. After our turn, with the wind and seas fine on our starboard quarter, we rode much more easily, but we began taking deep rolls. Crashing sounds could occasionally be heard from below, as inadequately secured gear in the galley responded to calls of gravity in unaccustomed directions. With the assistance of the wind and following seas, we were making good speed, which we figured would put distance between us and Hal's wicked eye.
Soon after we had made our turn, we received another storm advisory confirming that the center of the typhoon had been almost due southeast of us at 0200, (21/1800Z). What surprised us was that Hal was much closer than we had expected (about 110 miles distant, at that time). The "predicted" direction of movement had again been radically changed to almost north-northwest, a course which indeed would have put us right in its path had we not turned around! Its speed of advance for the previous observation period had increased to about 17 knots! We then knew, based on that updated report, that we'd done the proper thing in turning around and running southwestward. The way the captain and I figured it, we should now begin to observe an almost immediate rise in the barometric pressure as we pulled away from Hal's center at what we believed to be almost a right angle to his track. But that didn't happen. Instead, the wind continued to increase in velocity and the barometric pressure continued to fall!
Later on in the morning of the 22nd I wrote: "Well, it's 0600 and we are enjoying the zephyrs of typhoon Hal ...I venture a guess that the captain has learned a powerful lesson about typhoons, which will stand him in good stead in the future..." The wind was of full hurricane force and showing no signs of slackening. The seas had increased more than proportionately, as the fetch had broadened out to the north from whence the wind was now blowing.
Things just weren't adding up, but we figured that we couldn't help but to be improving our position by keeping the wind on our starboard quarter and running south-southwest as we now were. As the storm moved on north-northwestward, we figured, the wind should continually back, and we would eventually be able to work our heading toward the east, keeping the wind and seas on our starboard quarter, and finally pass through the Babuyan Channel between Luzon and the Babuyan Islands - beneath the storm. But Hal wasn't headed north-northwest, as forecast, or even northwest. He was at that moment headed almost due west by only a little north, directly over the Babuyan Islands, against all former and current predictions! Had we not turned around, we would have escaped the savages to come. We had, in fact, crossed the storm's altered track several hours before. Now we were once again crossing Hal's bow, in the opposite direction, but with the storm much closer. Fortunately, however, the Hal's forward speed had slowed down again to about eight knots, which allowed us time to cross it, about forty or fifty miles ahead of the eye! But we didn't realize that at the time. All we knew was that things weren't as we figured they ought to be. We seemed to be making haste all too slowly - typical of the sort of "escapes" commonly associated with nightmares.
When my watch was over at 0400, I had gone below feeling sorry for the captain who was now permanently installed on the bridge for the duration of the storm. I got into my bunk thinking that I would very soon be able to detect an easing of the storm conditions. When I retired, I found myself struggling to stay in my bunk against twenty and twenty-five degree rolls. I tried to sleep, and had almost succeeded in dozing off when at about 0900 we took an extreme roll to port which almost launched me up and over my bunk lee rails! All four of my bunk drawers jumped up and out across the deck, slamming violently into the inboard bulkhead. It was impossible to pull those drawers out without first lifting them up. Such had been the violence of the roll, which I learned had been in excess of forty degrees! Crashing sounds could be heard throughout the ship. One elderly passenger, (we had five or six passengers on board) had been thrown out of her bunk, and it was a wonder that she had not been seriously injured.
I got up and went aft to the officers' lounge to take a look at conditions through the large aft facing windows. The scene was surreal, and couldn't have appeared more menacing. The view was absolutely awesome, and there I braced myself, along with some other crew members and passengers "viewing with growing alarm and wonder" the unfolding spectacle before us. The seas had built into what could only be described as phenomenal proportions. Spray was scudding over the surface in broad white streaks, indistinguishable from rain, which was also flying horizontally through the air. The seas were so large that they seemed to threaten to completely overwhelm the vessel, rolling up from astern in what seemed slow-motion due to their monumental proportions. But the stern always rose to meet them, seemingly just at the very last possible instant before being totally overwhelmed. Then we would literally seem to surf down the mountainous slope of the wave. We were often broaching to, like a launch in breakers. I could imagine the difficulty the quartermaster was having trying to prevent it. Sometimes it would seem we would be about to be swamped by a mountainous sea, as the ship would broach and be canted over to a distressing angle, seem to hang, threatening not to recover, then slowly straighten up - but never all the way, for we were heeling like a sailboat in a blow. The others were watching the spectacle with wide eyes too, transfixed, holding on for dear life, fear and wonder on their faces. Some of the passengers had never been to sea before. None had imagined they would experience anything like this. Disbelief, and raw fear, were clearly etched on their faces, and we had crew members whose faces reflected the same degree of terror. But clearly anybody, including the most seasoned old salt, would have viewed the scene with keen interest. I know I certainly did.
I made my way to the bridge to see what the latest developments were. Obviously, we weren't getting out of the storm as cleverly as we had anticipated. The quartermaster had his hands full, having to use frequent full rudder to counter the vessel's tendency to broach. Maintaining his station at the wheel was a challenge in itself. Holding a course was next to impossible, but he was doing his heroic best. The mate on watch was braced up in an after corner of the pilothouse, observing with a distinct look of alarmed disbelief. The captain was at one of the forward pilothouse windows, looking out upon the tempest, feet spread wide, clinging firmly with both hands to grab-rails for support. The wind was howling and screeching through the rigging, like a pack of wolves, part banshee gone mad. The entire vessel seemed to be humming in a most urgent and distressed manner.
The wind being aft, permitting the forward windows to remain open, caused a pulsating, ear-popping, vacuum in the pilothouse. The captain, with his baseball cap firmly pulled down on his head, had the appearance of being in danger of being sucked out through the window into the raging storm. The hair on the sides of his head was streaming straight forward. Even his walrus-like mustache seemed to be reaching desperately for the forecastle. Otherwise appearing calm as a rock, he was muttered something about, "HUNDRED AND FIVE KNOT WINDS!" in an awe-inspired voice. He spoke as if he was unaware of my presence as I joined him.
We'd received another typhoon advisory. Hal was now said to be sporting winds that surpassed the century mark, and it seemed we must be in the very worst of it. We were -- just about exactly so! I could appreciate the captain's fascination with the scene. It was every bit as interesting as the view from the officers' lounge had been. Incredibly, I could see that long strips of paint were being stripped from the cradled cargo booms and kingposts by the force of the wind. The foredeck was frequently swept by boarding seas. Dunnage, pallets, and lashing chains, their ends shackled to the deck, were being washed every which way about the forward decks adding an awful growling sound to the screaming and humming. The lee rail often shipped water as the ship rolled deeply to port, in spite of our high freeboard - and heavy spray continually surmounted the weather side of the ship, fanning across the decks and hatches. From time to time nothing but a wall of water could be seen ahead, as we descended into successive broad, deep watery canyons. Alternately the bow pointed skyward and nothing appeared beyond it but gray clouds and wind-swept water, scudding from the tops of seas and mixing with rain from above. Then down we would descend, as if falling from a precipice, accelerating until the bow nearly buried itself in the bottom of the trough as the sea behind pushed as if to send us under.
"We can't get away from this damned thing!" the captain shouted to me over the tempest. Indeed, things weren't exactly what we'd expected. We both expressed our extreme disappointment in Hal's so-called "navigable semi-circle". I joked that Hal had spotted us and was in hot pursuit, having obviously turned solely to run us down. We were, in fact, at that time still almost in front of the storm and only just barely in the navigable semi-circle. Things could have been worse -- a lot worse -- than they were, however. We rejoiced that the nature of our cargo did not readily lend itself to shifting. That was something -- and that was our salvation. Had we been loaded in the manner we had been only weeks previously, our situation would have been desperate indeed, for no lashings could have withstood the kind of violent rolling and pitching we were now experiencing. Heavy cargo adrift would have presented the ultimate nightmare, and our doom would have undoubtedly been sealed. Even as things were, our survival was not a foregone conclusion by any stretch of the imagination.
The barometer had bottomed out at 0700, at 964 MB, (off the barograpgh chart!) and was now, thankfully, on the rise. At that time we had probably been only about some forty miles directly in front of the storm center. Only from that time had we been increasing our distance from it's track and entering into the navigable semi-circle. Yet the strongest winds were about ninety miles from the eye of the storm, and we were now experiencing them. With the barometric pressure on the rise, the isobar gradients were so close that the barograph stylus was describing an almost vertical line on the barograph chart. If anything, the wind velocity seemed to still be increasing!
When I returned to the bridge for watch at noon, I was dismayed to see that the wind and sea, still undiminished, was almost directly on our starboard beam. The seas were still in the phenomenal category, and we were taking more frequent extreme rolls. We weren't broaching as much, but thirty degree rolls had become the norm, (that is, thirty degrees on each side, not from one side to the other!) and it taxed the imagination to understand why the ship just didn't roll on over when the really extreme rolls of forty to forty-five degrees occurred. Could we have rolled to fifty degrees? The clinometer probably wasn't reliable under under such violent circumstances. It was swinging wildly, but it was seen to reach fifty degrees more than once! What a ship! I wondered, giving silent thanks that we had such a well-found vessel under us.
It was good that the wind had backed nearly to the west. That meant the storm was getting farther westward, but I thought we should have changed our course some time before to keep the weather on our quarter. I was a little alarmed. The wind was keeping the ship heeled to port about five to ten degrees. That meant that rolls to the port were much deeper than rolls to the starboard. It was frightening when the ship would roll deeply, almost dipping the lee rail, hang precariously, as if trying to decide whether maybe it ought to go on over, and then, recovering at a painfully slow rate, fail to fully recover before another huge wave would bear down on us from windward repeating the process. With some anxiety, I inquired why we were on such a dangerous current course.
"I'd love to put the sea back on the quarter," the captain said in an exasperated tone, "But I can't. We haven't got any sea room!" When I looked at the chart, I saw his dilemma, and our problem. Because of the intensity of the storm he had delayed trying to head eastward through the Babuyan Channel until that option was no longer available. The captain had been fearful of intentionally going into relatively restricted waters under storm conditions. At the time, I had thought he had made an error in judgment there, because we were now irrevocably committed to a dangerously close lee shore. But the captain had been faced with a seemingly "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. Both alternatives presented potentially disastrous situations. In retrospect, the captain probably had little choice, as Hal's track had been much further south than either of us had imagined at the time, having passed directly over the Babuyan Islands.
The danger of our current position was obvious, and nothing could be done about it. The only other option would have been to attempt coming up into the seas and heave to, perhaps managing some headway away from land. However, the force of the wind and size of the seas had not yet begun to diminish, and that option was unattainable for the time being. We could not have swung our bow against the force of wind we were experiencing, nor held a heading against the combined forces of wind and sea. We were almost exactly in the trough of the predominate seas, and fifteen miles to leeward was the coast of Luzon.
I thought about our aged steam turbines churning away down below, and the times I'd been on similar ships when the plant would be lost for hours at a time. Our lives were now very much in the hands of our engineers. If they should have a serious problem, disaster would certainly follow. No reflection on our engineers, but I began to have a distinct feeling of insecurity.
The wind continued backing slowly, but remained full storm force, or very close to it. The seas became even more wicked. They were shorter, steeper, and crossed by large, deep swell from the northwest, the direction toward the storm center. Occasionally we actually had to look up at the crests of waves from our 60 foot height on the bridge! Had our freeboard not been as great at it was, the decks would have been awash with many more tons of water than was already the case, and much damaged might have been done to deck houses and equipment, not to mention the adverse effect it would have on our stability.
As the wind backed toward the west-southwest, the laboring of the vessel in the seaway became even more violent and erratic. We were now pitching almost as violently as we were rolling, and often taking green water over the bow and starboard side. The kind of motion we were experiencing was particularly disconcerting on a large ship. It defied the laws of physics! The strains on the vessel's hull must have been beyond calculation. Back-breaking, incredibile twisting strains. It seemed that any moment the vessel's strength must give out, its back break, and its torturous labor end in total break-up. But the old vessel held -- a testament to the design-excellence and workmanship of post WWII American shipbuilding. (I thanked my lucky stars we weren't facing these conditions on a larger vessel of more recent construction!)
We continued in this very precarious situation for several nerve-wracking hours, ever acutely mindful of the rocky shore only a few miles to leeward. It seemed the barometer would never begin to level off. We were under reduced speed now, and had been since sometime on the eight to twelve watch, yet we had averaged almost 19 knots from 0300 to noon. The ship had been surfing much of the time while the wind was aft, and we had had to use full power for maximum steerage in order to control broaching.
By 1700 the barometer was beginning to level off and the wind had begun to moderate noticeably. We continued to steam slowly southward, however, until the wind was down to about force 6. Then, at 0030 on Sunday the 23rd, we again came about and headed north. The seas were still rough and the swell deep, but by 0630 they had calmed down enough that we could resume full sea speed. The captain had managed to get a much needed rest, and he was once again interested in getting to Japan. His ETA had to be revised, of course, but we had weathered the storm of our careers. Having survived it relatively unscathed, we were feeling somewhat euphoric. By 1600 we were passing Batan Island. Hal had cost us about 36 hours. The wind was then down to force 4. The only sign of Typhoon Hal remaining was a lingering heavy confused swell, a leaden sky and light drizzle.
We docked at our next port at 1030 on the 26th of June. There we got our first chance to stand back and look at our ship from a distance. It looked like it had literally been through a mill. It had! A mill named Hal. Superstructure and hull paint had been stripped off from every part of the vessel in large and small patches, leaving redlead primer showing through like so many battle wounds. We also looked into the holds for the first time. The cargo was in a literal shambles. Though it had been stowed skin to skin, the spaces had not been filled up fore and aft but simply walled up without shoring or bracing. The violent pitching had caused the "walls" to crumble at the edges, and pallets and rubber bales had been buffeted back and forth across the holds and tween decks. Though the dislocation was extensive, most of the cargo had survived in place and intact, with surprisingly little real damage except to a few pallets of broken "broom sticks." We had lost our fantail awning, (which had actually been a hard roof rather than a canvas awning) all our signal halyards had carried away, as had our radio whip antennae on the flying bridge. Considering the storm we had experienced, however, damage was amazingly minimal. There had been no personnel injuries, and no structural damage to the ship. We had been very lucky, to say the least.
Others hadn't been so fortunate, though I don't believe any other ship was nearly as close to typhoon Hal's center as we had been. Twenty-three persons had died, and nine others reported missing, as the result of Hal on Luzon and nearby islands. Total damage was estimated at $10 million. Eight crewmen of the USS Kirk, a Navy frigate operating five miles southwest of Subic Bay, were injured when a large wave crashed over the bow. Two people died on Taiwan, and eighteen were injured. Nine inches of rain was reported on the eastern side of that island.
Why had JTWC forecasts been so consistently in error with regard to Hal? To quote the 1985 Annual Tropical Cyclone Report published by JTWC, Guam, "Hal caused considerable forecast difficulties because JTWC's primary forecast aid, OTCM, (One-way Interactive Tropical Cyclone Model) was unable to resolve a narrow mid-level subtropical ridge due to its relatively course grid spacing." The explanation, of course, gets more complicated and explicit than that. But what it boils down to is an analysis of why the computer goofed.
Perhaps the more relevant question was, "Why didn't JTWC's presumably secondary forecast aid, human judgment and experience, click in when it became obvious that Hal refused to bare out OTCM projections?"
"Based on just this pattern," (Hal's actual track history) the Report noted, "and assuming that it would persist, a forecast track of west-northwest would have been a good choice. However... the OTCM consistently indicated a more northward, and even a recurving northeastward, track... JTWC followed the guidance offered by the OTCM, and as a result, the forecast tracks were consistently north of Hal's actual track..." (emphasis added)
Like the captain, who placed too much confidence in JTWC's forecasts, JTWC had placed too much confidence in its primary forecast aid -- its computer, and OTCM. This overconfidence in computer technology, in this particular instance, led otherwise knowledgeable meteorologists and typhoon experts astray. Without the computer, JTWC would undoubtedly have provided more accurate forecasts than it had. Likewise, armed with only the storm positions, without the forecasts, our captain would undoubtedly have acted more prudently than he did. He would have stuck to time-honored typhoon avoidance procedures. But he had placed more confidence in JTWC projections than his own professional training and seamanship.
This points to a major concern to all of us who place our lives on the line by going down to the sea in ships. As computer technology improves, so does our confidence in the sophisticated systems we increasingly use and upon which we are coming to depend. Yet, no system is ever quite infallible. This simple truism must never be forgotten. The shortcomings of JTWC's 1985 OTCM have undoubtedly long since been corrected, but this doesn't mean that computers will always call the shots correctly. Humans must still be ever vigilant and step up and take physical control when technology fails, or a "bug" unexpectedly appears. Often there isn't time to hold back and let the system have its head when things go wrong.
The day of the one man bridge may be at hand, (though I personally protest against its advisability) but that one man had best be a seaman who can immediately see when things are not going exactly as they should. Computer models, with the best of intentions, can still run a ship into a typhoon or hurricane, and GPS and integrated navigation systems, as wonderful as they may be, can just as certainly run a vessel aground.
6 June, 1996
Ref: 1985 Annual Tropical Cyclone Report, pages 28 through 33.
Mariners Weather Log, Vol. 30, No. 4, Fall 1986, page 205
Thanks to Richard DeAngelis, Editor of Mariners Weather Log, (1988) who provided me with the above reference material.
The name of the vessel has been changed in this account.
Return to Maritime Page