.........Think of it this way. You are driving your car along a road and you are approaching an intersection. You can see across the flat, level field. There is a car on another road headed towards the same intersection. You hold your left arm out the open window and point your finger at the approaching car. A few minutes later you do the same. If the approaching car is still at the same angle it was a few minutes before, and neither of you slow down or stop at the intersection, you will be able to touch that car with your outstretch hand shortly. That is also called a two car accident. The same principle applies to two ships at sea. We use a radar to get the distance to another ship. We use a compass mounted on a pedestal to take bearings to the other ship. The maneuvering board lets you plot the approach of another ship and determine how close it will come to your ship.
.........Back to the formation steaming I mentioned earlier. Let me put it another way. You are on a parade ground. There is a marching band in the middle of that parade ground.. You are a majorette. There are five of you in a line up front. There are five more baton twirlers in the back and four more along the side of the band as it marches down the field. You come to a point where the drum major orders everyone to turn to the left at once. When the formation makes that turn you and all the majorettes and baton twirlers are expected to be in the same position relative to the band that you were before the turn. You are supposed to be at the front of the band formation again. The same applies to ships in a formation at sea.
.........In a Navy formation of ships, an aircraft carrier is usually in the center. It is the “guide.” Just like the marching band on the parade ground. The destroyers escorting the aircraft carrier are like the majorettes. The maneuvering board helps you find the new course to your station, what speed to use, and how long it will take you to get there. See, just like magic. I wish it was as easy as making a turn in a parade. It isn’t. In fact it can be quite dangerous.
.........Back in 1893 there was that collision between two British Navy battleships. Yes, I read some history. Correction….. I read a lot of history. Anyway, there was some confusion about a signal to change station. The HMS Victoria was rammed by the HMS Camperdown during formation steaming. One battleship and half the crew went to the bottom in a matter of minutes. Oh yes, so did the admiral who gave the order. The problem was that nobody spoke up about a seemingly bad order. Everyone figured that the admiral knew what he was doing.
.........Another example is the ramming of the luxury liner Andrea Doria by the liner Stockholm in 1955. The Andrea Doria went to the bottom off New Jersey in 250 feet of water. At the inquiry, the captain of the Andrea Doria was asked if he kept a plot (maneuvering board) of the Stockholm since he had the other ship on radar. The captain said he didn’t think it was necessary since they were in open waters.
.........The one example is ever closer to home. Even after all these years, I am reminded of what can happen if you make a mistake using a maneuvering board. The USS Evans was ahead of the Australian aircraft carrier Melbourne one night in June of 1969. There was a change of station ordered. Someone at the maneuvering board made a mistake and they turned the wrong way…… in front of the aircraft carrier. The Evans was cut in half. The front half sank immediately, with all the officers, leaving only the back half of the ship afloat.
.........Once I became a naval officer I was never assigned to a ship that did formation steaming. All our steaming is what is called “independent steaming.” That is what the qualification says in my service record, “qualified OOD underway, independent steaming.”
.........I did have to learn to use the maneuvering board for calculating how close another ship would come to us, but that part is pretty easy. There is a bit more to it than that, and I learned how to take action to make sure the ships passed safely. Most of the time, I would call the captain and tell him, “I have a contact with a CPA (closest point of approach) of 9,000 yards at a bearing of 330. I intend to change course to 120 for 20 minutes to make a CPA of 10,000 yards and then return to course 100.” That means the other ship was going to come within four and a half miles of our ship. When you have a ship that takes two miles to stop, you don’t want a CPA of less than five miles. I even got pretty good at it. I could even do it with a grease pencil on the radar screen instead of one of the plotting sheets. When I left active duty in 1973, I counted my blessings that I never had to work a maneuvering board in a formation of ships. That thought was to come back and haunt me a year and a half later.
.........In November of 1974, I was living in Illinois. I was not on active duty, but I was still a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve. I was assigned to two weeks active duty for training on a destroyer out of Mayport, Florida. Hey, I was going to leave cold Illinois and head for warm Florida. I was even going to get to be on a destroyer. I had not been on one since my first two weeks training as an enlisted radio operator when I was in college.
.........I reported to the ship in Mayport on a Saturday. I was given an empty bunk in a two-man stateroom in the area forward of the forward smokestack. This is just behind and below the bridge. This was going to be pretty nice, I thought. That feeling was to last all of twenty four hours. The next day the captain came aboard. He told me that the ship was not scheduled to go to sea for the two weeks I was there, so he was going to change my orders. He was sending me to a destroyer which was operating with a carrier group doing flight operations off the Florida coast. I was excited to know I would get to go to sea in a destroyer. I had not been smart enough to realize what the implications were at the time.
.........Monday morning, first thing, reality started to set in. There wasn’t any room in the officer stateroom area on the new ship. I had to take my bag aft, all the way to the stern. In back of the last big gun mount was a ladder that went down below the main deck to the enlisted crew’s compartment. Through a hatch to the port side I was to be bunked in a long narrow room next to the crew’s quarters. Under the deck, right below my feet was the port shaft and the propeller it was turning. There wasn’t going to be a quiet moment of sleep with all the vibration that shaft and screw made. What a change from “officer’s country.” I was glad it was November, because there also wasn’t any air conditioning back there.
.........I spent the day getting a tour of the ship and meeting the officers. I still had no idea what was in store for me so I was in pretty good spirits. I figured that at some time I would get to “conn” or drive the ship. After all, I was considered to be a pretty good ship handler on my last ship. It was only after dinner that night, right at 8:00 PM that my world came crashing down on me.
.........I was summoned to the bridge by the PA system. I walked onto the darkened bridge. I looked aft and saw the menacing shape and lights of the aircraft carrier Saragota. She was about a mile behind us and to the left. I reported to the OOD (Officer of the Deck). I was informed that I was the JOOD (Junior Officer of the Deck) for that watch. It would be a four hour watch and I would get off at midnight. No problem, I thought. The OOD was also a lieutenant. I was going to get to conn the ship. Then came the blow I was unprepared for. I was to man the maneuvering board for the next four hours.
.........I was glad the bridge was darkened. I was weak in the knees. I am sure I turned white as a sheet. In fact I thought I was going to pass out. Here I was, a full lieutenant, and I had never used a maneuvering board in a formation before. I had not even done any formation problems since officer training school. Even back then I could never do it right. I’m glad the OOD wasn’t looking directly at me. I was sure he would know that I was in trouble. As it was, he had turned to look behind us and watch the carrier with his binoculars.
.........Right then and there, I should have confessed my ignorance. The captain, or even the OOD should have asked me if I could use a maneuvering board. A look at my service record would have told them that I had never served in a ship that sailed in a formation. Here they were going to hand me a job that could very well get us all killed. The Evans came to mind. I was still undecided when I slowly walked over to the chart table where the maneuvering board pad was. A a parallel ruler, a pair of dividers, and a pencil were next to it. I think it was the fact that the carrier had just made a course change that decided me. Hopefully, there wouldn’t be another course change for another half hour. I had to learn quickly, or get us run over by that carrier behind us. Destroyers have always been called “tin cans.” I never knew the reason why until I heard a remark a few years before that someone made. They had called aircraft carriers “can openers.” Wow, that was not something to joke about.
.........The OOD was busy. Once on station, the officer of the deck maintains the ship’s position by using two instruments. He takes a bearing on the guide, the carrier using a compass. He also uses the radar to keep tabs on the distance to the guide. He then tells the sailor at the engine order telegraph in the pilothouse to make minor changes in speed to keep on station. He does this by adding or decreasing turns on the propellers to make small changes in speed. Orders to the sailor at the helm are made to make small changes in course.
.........I had only two things going for me besides the recent course change. I used to be pretty good at using a maneuvering board at one time. Of course that had been for determining how close a ship would pass. On this night someone had left the last problem on a sheet of maneuvering board paper. This was not going to be easy, I thought. For one thing, this ship was twice as fast as my last ship. When there was a change of station, everything would happen twice as fast as I had been accustomed to.
.........Today, upstairs, in a large, walk in closet-like room filled with bookshelves, on the top shelf, is a book titled “The Maneuvering Board.” I have kept it all these years. I got it before I retired from the Naval Reserve. I didn’t have it on the night in question. I was going to have to do it from memory and logic derived from looking at the crumpled maneuvering board sheets that contained the night’s past problems. I had dug them out of the trash can next to the chart table.
.........I was sweating bullets as I tried to remember how to work a problem. When I had worked a problem concerning meeting a ship, I had always put my ship in the middle of the worksheet. I soon realized that in this case I had to put the carrier in the middle and the destroyer plotted in front and to the side. It was starting to make sense. I was still praying for more time. The carrier was launching aircraft. That took a some time. It took just enough time for me to risk staying on the bridge. If I had asked to be relieved of my duties I would have been the laughingstock of the ship. I could also expect to never get promoted again.
.........The carrier finally decided to change course. It gave a preparation order of “Turn nine zero.” That gave all the ships a few minutes to figure out what the carrier intended to do. I hurriedly plotted our course and speed to the next station before the ship gave the order to actually make the turn. When the order came, “Stand by, execute,” the carrier made its slow turn of 90 degrees to the right. All of the other ships in the formation changed course and speeded up to get on station. We had been about 30 degrees to the right of the carrier’s bow at a distance of approximately 700 yards. We were supposed to be back on that same bearing and range within a few minutes or hear a blast from the admiral on that carrier.
.........We made it. I was shaking. As the night wore on I was tested, time and again. Somehow I managed to not only not embarrass myself, but to not get us all killed.
.........One time did give us a scare. We had gotten an order and had rushed to our station, only to see both port and starboard running lights of the carrier. That meant only one thing. The carrier was headed right for us. It took the OOD and I a few seconds to realize what was happening. The carrier has to be sailing into the wind to launch and recover aircraft. The winds were light. This time the carrier was trying to find some wind. They had forgotten to tell the rest of the ships that they had changed course again. I worked frantically to guess at what the carrier’s course was at the present time and to get us close to where our station should be. I succeeded, but not without a lot of anxiety. We got there just about the time the carrier remembered that they had left us all scrambling to a station that they had not announced.
.........When I got relieved by the next watch at midnight, I was a drained man. The strain had almost been too much. For the next two weeks I got to conn the ship a few times. Most of each of the four hours of my watches were spent plotting our next course and speed to station on the maneuvering board. After that first night, I was alright. It was living through that first night that was the hard part.
got down that maneuvering board book off the top shelf in my small
so I could attach a photo of a worksheet. I looked over some of
problems in the book and made a not too surprising discovery. It
looked like Greek to me. I know that if I took some time…… a lot
of time, and studied that book, it would all come back to me. In
the meantime, it will just have to remain a bit of lost magic.