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Waging War Off the Port Bow!

Near midnight off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, a pulsing white beacon on the black water signals the captain of the supertanker Chevron Arizona that the ship's 800-mile journey is fast approaching the most dangerous mile of all: the last one.

The wind is blowing briskly from the south as the ship approaches the spectral light, which sits atop a buoy marking the seaward entrance to the Port Everglades channel. With the ebb tide producing a strong rip through the channel mouth, maneuvering the ship into port will be tricky tonight.

But that's to be expected. Sea and weather conditions are seldom perfect.
More troubling for ship and crew is tension on the bridge of this 700-foot-long ship heading into port with some 450,000 gallons of high-octane gasoline aboard. Illuminated by the eldritch green glow of the radar scope, the two most important men on board are engaged in a subtle duel for control of the ship.

As the vessel passes the buoy, Tom Hackett, the pilot whose job it is to guide the ship safely into Port Everglades, is calling out compass headings to the able seaman at the helm. Hackett is doing it quickly, with only a couple seconds' pause between one number and the next -- "2-7-1... 2-6-9... 2-6-8... 2-6-5."

The rapid course corrections are necessary to keep the ship moving down the middle of the channel, a narrow chute cut into the coral sea bottom and outlined by a series of flashing red and green lights.

Normally the strong, Gulf Stream-driven current along this coast flows south to north. Tonight, though, perhaps under the influence of the rip, a narrow but strong countercurrent has reversed course and is flowing just as strongly north to south across the mouth of the channel.

This has caused the ship to spin slightly on its axis in the channel like a truck entering a power-slide on an icy road. Now Hackett has engine power set at half-ahead to propel the ship across the current, the ship is making 11 knots straight toward the port, and God help the yacht that blunders in the way now.

The helmsman is having difficulty achieving and maintaining the headings Hackett wants, so the pilot abandons the approach of calling out numbers and starts telling the helmsman exactly what to do, step by step: "Rudder five degrees left. Rudder ten degrees left. Rudder full left. Ste-e-a-dy. Rudder ten degrees left."

The captain of the ship, a big, blond, jovial fellow who earlier had been laughing and joking, isn't so jolly now. He doesn't know Hackett. He's given up control of this multimillion-dollar ship and cargo to a stranger. The two met for the first time 15 minutes ago, when Hackett shuffled through the hatchway onto the bridge, paused to peer for a moment around the darkened wheelhouse, and then announced his presence with a homey, "Anybody home?"

Now, with Hackett standing behind the helmsman and looking over his shoulder to check the man's quickness and accuracy at following orders, the captain has something to say. With a studied casualness in his voice, he asks, "So... how's that bell?"

Hackett doesn't answer because the question is a direct challenge to his competence. The term bell is seaman slang for engine power; it comes from the bell that rings whenever the bridge signals the engine room to add or cut power. The bell is indicated on a large dial. Hackett knows that this inquiry is not so much a question as it is a warning -- almost a rebuke. The bantering that took place among the officers has stopped. What the seamen on the bridge are hearing in the captain's four-word question is actually something more along the lines of: "You do realize that this ship has to stop in half a mile, don't you?"

Abruptly Hackett turns and strides toward the door leading out onto the starboard wing of the deck. "Taking it outside, Cap'n!" he calls. The captain and first mate follow.

By now two tugboats have chugged out of the port in response to Hackett's radio summons and grabbed hold of the ship's bow and stern. Hackett walks all the way out to the far end of the deck, where he can lean out over the dark water 200 feet below and speak into his radio without being overheard. He's talking to the tug captains, telling each where to push, where to pull, how hard, and in what direction. The tugs acknowledge each directive with a short blast on the whistle.

One of the tugs is positioned on the ship's port bow to counteract the pull of the ebb tide; the other is attached to the stern of the ship by a thick rope called a hawser. As the Chevron Arizona reaches the point where the channel penetrates the shoreline, the water around each tug is churning into white froth as the two boats strain to stop the ship before it plows into the berthing dock ahead. Now Hackett has the bell at full-astern to stop the ship, making the deck shake as the ship moves forward on momentum alone.

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Paul Belden

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