In this month’s Confession a pontoon proves to be the downfall of a callow officer and his passenger
It was 1971 and the scene a Royal Navy warship in the Far East, moored bow and stern between two buoys. I was the duty midshipman.
At about 1am, the captain’s dinner party guest – the master of our accompanying tanker – was ready to return to his own ship and I was to take him there in the captain’s barge, a 27ft single-engine motor cutter.
With my crew, an able seaman, I swarmed down to the boat and drove round to the accommodation ladder. Just forward of this, a stores barge had been moored overnight, and there was a vicious three knots of tide, supplemented by about 20 knots of wind, both from astern.
While prudence would suggest stemming the wind and tide, and “ferry gliding” into the accommodation ladder, good order and naval discipline dictated that when I was alongside, my boat should be pointing in the same direction as the warship.
This meant coming in downwind, downtide, and, because of the stores barge, with no safety run off.
Riding a superb run of luck, I brought the boat in perfectly and smartly first time, and my passenger embarked.
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I drove off with a considerable glow of satisfaction at having performed what I felt was an outstanding bit of boat handling under seriously difficult conditions, with both
the captain and the duty lieutenant commander watching.
The tanker was at anchor about three miles away, giving those who monitor such things from heaven ample time to remember that the only purpose of a midshipman’s pitiful existence is to learn lessons, and that I was clearly well overdue for one – in this case that pride cometh before a fall.
The tanker was at a single anchor, lying to wind and tide, making the approach considerably easier than had been the case at the warship.
Nonetheless, I needed to approach with a degree of confidence – the boat did not have the power to recover if I got it wrong. I took a fairly steep approach at speed (well, about six knots, which in that boat was pretty well flat out).
As we got about 50 yards away the master, who had until then been sitting quietly facing forward, suddenly turned and shouted back to me.
Wind noise, his distance away from me, and the fact that I was on top of a diesel engine, meant I missed what he said, so, following my invariable practice in such circumstances, I simply nodded and smiled inanely.
This was a mistake. He grew increasingly agitated, continuing to shout as we got closer, until I realised why. Outboard of the accommodation ladder, which I could see perfectly clearly, there was a black, unlit pontoon.
I did the only thing possible, slamming the engine astern and throwing the wheel hard over. Although this reduced the impact, it was still sufficient to unseat the master, who ended up nose-down in the bilge of the cuddy.
All things considered, once he had picked himself up, he was remarkably calm, and I began to cherish hopes that the incident might be suppressed.
I made my second approach more cautiously. As we approached, I shouted forward to my crew to prepare to grab the pontoon with his boathook, to discover that where previously there had been an able seaman standing smartly on the foredeck, now there was not.
This struck me as being a bit concerning – I couldn’t but feel that his absence might involve all sorts of unpleasant enquiries and, probably, a deal of difficult paperwork. But I was relieved to see him miraculously standing on the pontoon, where he had apparently been catapulted by the impact.
My relief was short-lived, however, when I saw the state of his uniform – no way would this story not be spread, suitably embellished, as soon as we returned. Those looking down from heaven had definitely ensured that this midshipman had acquired today’s lesson.
The author of every confession we print wins the original Stephen Shaw cartoon artwork (above) and an Icom IC-M23 Buoyant VHF Marine Transceiver handheld VHF radio worth £165.
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