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  • Writer's pictureJosh Humphreys

Right full rudder

The following story is true. Only the names have been eliminated to protect the innocent.

It was a warm, late spring sunny morning and a crowd of several hundred parents, spouses and a rather bizarre group of Granby Street girlfriends had gathered on the dock at Berkley Base at Chesapeake Virginia. Berkley Base was the home port of USCGC INGHAM, a 327-foot ocean going High Endurance Cutter, and she was about to depart on a 45-day patrol to an Ocean Station somewhere in the North Atlantic. This scene was repeated each time a Cutter left with waves of hankies mixed in with tears, both on the dock and on the ship. The same scene played out upon the return of a ship but with much more gusto amongst the shouts and smiles. Nevertheless, INGHAM was making ready to depart. She had already set the Special Sea Detail which meant the crew was at its assigned stations, the Captain and XO were on the bridge, the Machinists were in the engine room, the Boiler Tenders in the fire room. Each rate had its best men in position, ready to get the ship underway.

The XO took the con and ordered mooring lines 3, 5 and 6 taken in smartly. The deck crew responded and looked like a well-oiled machine. This was not their first day in the gas station.

“Starboard ahead one third! Port back one third!” shouted the XO, his every command passed to all departments including the engine room on sound powered phones. He could also be heard all across Berkley Base. He would never be described as shy or timid. The intention here was to take up a little tension on the two aft leading spring lines so the stern of INGHAM would move slowly away from the dock. When the stern was 10 or 12 feet from the dock, the XO yelled, “All back one third! Take in lines 1, 2 and 4 smartly now! Right full rudder!” The Quartermaster responded, “Right full rudder, sir!”

As most folks know, a ship can only steer if she is moving through the water either forward or backwards. The rudder has no effect on a ship that is motionless. So, in this case, as the ship begins to back down and her rudder is in the ‘right full’ position, her stern will go to starboard…and that is exactly what INGHAM did. Out into the middle of the Portsmouth Turning Basin, in front of all those people on the dock and dozens of Navy crewmen on five or six destroyers moored nearby, just as planned. Once she got to the middle of the Basin, she would stand down the Elizabeth River and head out to sea.

She had backed to starboard sufficiently that her bow was pointed straight to the middle of the river and the XO shouted, “All ahead one third.” The ship slowed to a stop as the two steam engines ceased going in reverse and began making turns to move forward. This did not happen instantly…it took several seconds to stop the screws from turning backwards and a few more seconds to get them moving forward. This delay was well known and anticipated by all ship handlers. The XO was smiling, quite proud of himself having stopped the backward motion of INGHAM just as she was perfectly lined up with the center of the Elizabeth River.

The Quartermaster had anticipated hearing the XO command ‘Midships’ but that command was not spoken. Midships means turn the steering wheel, in this case to the left, until the rudder is in its middle position, neither left or right…in such a position as to make the ship steer straight ahead.

So, just to recap, INGHAM has begun to move forward, slowly, with her rudder in the right full position. Because the rudder is still right full (you know the Quartermaster cannot or would not change the position of the rudder without an order from whoever has the con…in this case the XO) and because the engines are turning the screws forward, she is retracing the exact route she took to back away from the dock. The ship is 80 yards from the concrete dock, still crowded with well-wishers, and closing steadily. The Quartermaster looks at his Chief as if to say what the hell? The Chief shrugs. The ship continues to head straight for the dock. The Captain and the XO see what is happening but do nothing. 60 yards from the dock and closing faster. The Quartermaster yells, “Sir! My rudder is right full!” No reply from the XO, he’s looking at the dock. 40 yards from the dock and still increasing speed when the Quartermaster screams, “SIR! MY RUDDER IS RIGHT FULL!!” 35 yards from the dock and some of the crowd begins to back up slowly then more quickly until finally most have turned and are running off the dock as INGHAM heads straight for a rather unpleasant occurrence. 30 yards and the Quartermaster again repeats himself only this time screaming at the top of his lungs adding a fearful edge to his words, “SIR YOUR RUDDER IS RIGHT FULL! THE RUDDER IS RIGHT FULL!!!”

The XO is frozen as he looks at the dock getting closer and closer. 25 yards and the Captain grabs both Engine Order Telegraphs and moves each handle forward all the way, backwards all the way, forward again and back to the “Back Full” position and yells, “All back emergency! All back emergency!! That order, even though the Captain never ‘took the con’, was instantly sent to the engine room via sound powered phone.

Now we wait. In what seemed like uncountable minutes the engines finally reversed. The ship began to vibrate and shake as her 200 PSI steam turbines began the emergency backdown. Closer and closer. Will she ever stop? More backing noise from the stern as the twin screws cavitate the water in the Elizabeth River. 20 yards. 15 yards. 10 yards. Should we sound ‘Collision’? 5 yards and a huge amount of jet-black smoke billows from the stack because the boiler room had replaced all Bunker C fuel nozzles with 35’s to make as much steam as possible for the “All back emergency” order. Safely in the grass ashore, the spectators have stopped running from the dock and have turned to witness the crash. 5 yards and still moving forward. This is not going to end well. 15 feet, 10 feet and she is still headed for the dock, albeit slowly.

There is an old theory that the Coast Guard has a Guardian that looks after shipwrecked sailors in peril. Well, INGHAM certainly was in peril as she inched her way toward the unforgiving dock. Nobody on the bridge moved, no one blinked, everyone grabbed something solid and held their breath. The Chief Boatswains Mate, standing at the very tip of the fo’c’sle looked overboard and with both hands extended upward and a yard apart was indicating how far the ship was from the concrete dock. Slowly his hands got closer and closer until finally he turned to the bridge and held his hands 3 inches apart and the ship began backing.

The XO came out of his trance and retook the con, backed her out properly and steamed down the river without further ado.

The incident was never discussed by anyone on board. Two or three family members reported they enjoyed the show. They indicated they thought the XO was a master ship handler by bringing her in to just three inches……. then backing out again.

The engine room never asked what caused the Emergency Back Full order. The Quartermaster never spoke a word about the incident. The Captain and the XO never brought it up. Everyone more or less wanted the whole embarrassing episode to just fade away. And fade away it did.

Until now.

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