(Silverdale, Washington; Sept. 17, 2020) – The greatest single piece of seamanship I ever witnessed occurred the day my captain summarily ordered the tugs away from our 17,000 ton warship and proceeded to dock her without assistance, thereby avoiding a collision with an 114,000 ton cruise ship.
Commander Stephen ‘Cole’ Hayes was the third commanding officer I served under aboard USS Ponce (LPD 15). He was a great big, jovial bear of a man who could freeze a room with a glare, or light it up with his smile. He assumed command of Ponce on May 31, 2011, during a very understated change-of-command ceremony. That was Captain Hayes right there: a man of impeccable ability and supremely humble confidence. (The commanding officer of a ship is always addressed as ‘captain’ no matter their actual rank, so I will refer to Hayes as “captain” during this recollection.)
Ponce was on a tour of the Caribbean in late 2011. We spent a few days at Port Canaveral in Florida before heading to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Following St. Thomas, Ponce would make what would be only her third-ever visit to her namesake city of Ponce, Puerto Rico.
Captain Hayes’ actions on Nov. 10, 2011, prevented Ponce’s journey from ending in disaster.
A harbor pilot who is an expert on the local waters comes aboard and assumes command of a ship when she pulls into port. After the pilot is on board, the tug boats will begin to tie onto the ship in order to guide her safely to her berthing. Even in today’s age of multiple thrusters allowing gigantic ships to spin in place, tugs are critical to maintaining harbor safety. A giant ship might be able to effectively park herself, but if she suffers a steering failure, those tugs will keep her, and the surrounding ships and facilities, from harm.
Ponce was over 40 years old, and built long before ships were equipped with anything but fixed screws and rudders. Logic and physics seemed to dictate vessels such as Ponce required tugs to safely tie up due to their limited ability to maneuver in the close confines as a port.
The St. Thomas pilot came aboard right on schedule. Shortly afterward, the tugs approached and began to tie onto Ponce. The plan was for the tugs to back us into place, allowing us to tie up on our starboard side. The other side of the pier we were aiming for was occupied by the titanic MV Ruby Princess, one of Princess Cruise’s newer ships at the time.
I was just outside the bridge taking photos as we began the maneuvers. My job as ship’s photographer required me to capture imagery for public release and be on hand to create a visual record of any adverse incidents. I nearly got a camera-full of “adverse incidents” that morning.
I heard the pilot begin cursing and then yelling into his radio. Glancing in from the bridge wing, I saw Captain Hayes huddled up with the harbor pilot as the pilot grew increasingly agitated. Normally, I would have stepped into the bridge to get a few shots of the watches at work during the mooring process, but the level of tension I saw on the the faces of the pilot and Captain Hayes convinced me wisdom dictated being elsewhere.
I headed down to Ponce’s fo’c’sle to get coverage from there. Once on the fo’c’sle I realized what was causing the ruckus on the bridge, and what I saw scared the living HELL out of me.
The tugs were pushing us directly towards the bow of Ruby Princess. That damned ship was so big the tip of her bow was nearly above our mast. Looking back into the bridge windows, I could see the pilot now fairly screaming into his radio. I knew he had contact with the tugs because I heard them responding to him over the radio when I had been outside the bridge. I could only guess the tugs were not obeying the pilot’s orders (Captain Hayes later confirmed my suspicion).
Ruby Princess’ crew began popping up on their bow as we got dangerously close to their ship. A collision with such a behemoth could easily cripple Ponce, even at our slow speed, and would undoubtedly cause significant damage to Ruby Princess as well. Ponce was moving at an angle to take the hit diagonally across the middle of our starboard side. I think everyone on deck with me experienced the same feeling of their hearts stopping as the tugs continued pushing us towards a collision.
Captain Hayes abruptly ordered Ponce untied from the tugs NOW. The Deck Department team untied us so fast I wasn’t able to get any photos of them doing it! The tugs backed away and Ponce’s engines roared to life, shoving us forward and clear of Ruby Princess. Everyone on the Proud Lion’s fo’c’sle had barely registered our safe evasion when we realized the ship was turning into the pier and sliding in under our own power. Captain Hayes did what I didn’t think could be done: he docked the 570-foot, 17,000-ton Ponce without assistance. Using his knowledge of ship handling and seamanship, the captain parked us right where we were suppose to be with no mess, no fuss, and no collision. The only difference from the original mooring plan was that we were now tying up on our port side instead of our starboard side since we came in bow-first.
I spoke with the captain later that day. He told me the tug drivers had indeed been unresponsive to the pilot’s orders. When the tug drivers crossed invisible line he’d drawn his mind, he took over from the pilot, ordered the tugs away, and piloted Ponce into her berth himself. I asked him if the pilot was angry with him for summarily taking over, and he answered in the negative. Hayes told me the pilot considered his actions proper, and credited him with preventing a major collision.
I’ve seen many great moments of seamanship, but Captain Hayes’ quick thinking and outstanding knowledge of ship handling that November day is the greatestpiece of seamanship I ever witnessed.
Hayes was promoted to full captain a few years later. Tragically, he died from injuries he sustained during a vehicular accident on Okinawa in February of 2017. His death hit many sailors, including me, like a hammer blow from hell. Hayes was a sailor’s captain, and the archetype of the professional naval officer. He was a leader who really did believe he was only successful if his sailors were successful. Hayes elevated everyone, officers and enlisted alike, through his inspiration, encouragement, and consistency. He continually set the example of what he expected by holding himself to the same standards he held all of us. He was one of the top three commanding officers I ever served under, and his loss is still felt today.
Captain Hayes is remembered fondly by many people in the Navy for many reasons. Chief among these for me personally is the day he did the impossible, saving both Ponce and Ruby Princess from a collision and docking a large United States warship without tugs. He was a great sailor, and a master seaman.
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