On the Waterfront – Sailing Into History: The Greatest Seaman

(Pensacola, Florida; April 21, 2022) – I posted the original version of this column nearly two years ago while I was still in Washington State.  However, as the Proud Lion is sailing into history now, this memory has taken up pride of place in the formation of memories gliding along the channel for the Grand Review in my heart.

I’ve seen many near misses in my career, but, paradoxically, no major incidents despite the years I spent on the flight deck or deckplate at sea.  I’ve seen tow tractors dart across the flight deck under a landing F-14 Tomcat, but the pilot managed to wave herself off at the last moment and avoid the crash.  I’ve seen aircraft undertow in the hangar bay go skidding towards other aircraft across slick hangar deck flooring…but the crunch was (barely) averted.  This event came damned close to being a true maritime disaster; instead, it ranks as the single biggest moment of ‘crisis averted’ in my career, and it was averted by one man: the ship’s captain, then-Commander Cole Hayes.

The late Captain Hayes was an incredible leader under whom I served for too brief a season.  He took over the ship while we were still recovering from having a former CO fired at the end of the 2010-20111 deployment.  Our temporary CO got us home safely and helped us begin the recovery process we needed to go through following that event, but Captain Hayes brought us fully back into the light.  Many of us began getting excited to be underway again aboard Ponce under his leadership—and that’s saying something considering what we went through on the deployment!

What follows is the original column (with the original title and dateline), but with a few grammatical tweaks to smooth out syntax errors I missed back in 2020.  It’s a tribute to an officer who exemplified cool thinking under pressure and the courage to take command of a situation.  Sadly, Captain Hayes was taken from us only a few years after this story takes place, but let this recollection be a memorial to him and the sunny days when he was captain of USS Ponce.

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On the Waterfront – Master Seamanship

(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 a 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.)

Commander Cole Hayes assumes command of USS Ponce (LPD 15) during a small ceremony May 31, 2011. (Official U.S. Navy photo by MC1 Nathanael Miller/RELEASED)

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 is an expert on the local waters.  The pilot comes aboard to guide a ship safely through the shipping lanes to her berth.  After the pilot is on board, the tugboats will move into position and the process of making port can proceed.  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 of a port.

The St. Thomas pilot came aboard right on schedule.  Shortly afterward, the tugs approached and began to take on the lines from 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.

Shown here tied up in St. Thomas, the MV Ruby Princess outweighed Ponce by nearly 70,000 tons. (Personal photo of Nathanael Miller. November 10, 2011.)

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 to create a visual record of any adverse incidents for legal and investigative purposes.  I nearly got a camera full of an ‘adverse incident’ that morning.

I heard the pilot begin cursing and 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 onto 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 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 and passengers began popping up on their bow as we got dangerously close to their ship.  A collision with such a behemoth, even at our slow speed, could easily cripple Ponce, 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.

Clear of the danger, Ponce begins to swing into the pier on her own without help from the tugs. (Official U.S. Navy photo by MC1 Nathanael Miller/RELEASED)

The Deck Department 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 towards 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 supposed to be with no mess, no fuss, and no collision.  The only difference from the original mooring plan was that we were now tied 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 an 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; the pilot 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 greatest piece of seamanship I ever witnessed.

Safely in port and now far from the danger of a collision, Ponce and I could now begin enjoying the wonderful peoples of St. Thomas! (Personal photo of Nathanael Miller, November 10, 2011.)

Hayes was promoted to full captain a few years later.  Tragically, he died from injuries sustained during a vehicular accident in 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 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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Of course, Ponce had her share of mishaps.  Such things are inevitable in our world.  Remind me to tell y’all about the day the LCPL got out of control while being moved back into its rack by the B&A crane and smacked the shi…er, the daylights out of the helo hangar!  (Man, that helo hangar belted out a nice tone when it was hit.)  Many of our fellow veterans have more spectacular stories (like the fact Ponce was on her second stern gate when I sailed on her due to a mishap decades earlier).  These sea stories are part of the reward we earn for surviving the events we lived through.

Some sea stories are hysterical, and some are tragic.  Some, like this near-miss with the Ruby Princess in 2011, are heart-stopping moments of ‘thank GOD what-might-have-been didn’t happen!’  As much as I’d have preferred to not have my heart go into cardiac arrest at the sight of those damned tugs pushing us into a collision, I’m grateful I got to see the depth of Captain Hayes’ professionalism, skill, and seamanship.  By not just averting the collision, but docking the ship without help, Captain Hayes proved the ‘impossible’ is possible if one has the courage, imagination, and skill set to make it real.

Rest well, Captain Hayes.  We have the watch now, sir.

Check out my video on this topic at: https://youtu.be/YUrUVV_seMw

ATLANTIC OCEAN (Oct. 27, 2011) – Cmdr. Cole Hayes, commanding officer of the amphibious transport dock USS Ponce (LPD 15) watches as Lt. j.g. Matthew Hall uses a telescopic alidade to verify Ponce’s course as the ship approaches the Military Sealift Command fast combat support ship USNS Arctic (T-AOE 8) for the final scheduled at-sea refueling, known as an underway replenishment (UNREP), of Ponce’s 41-year career. During the UNREP, Ponce will steam only 180 feet off of Arctic’s starboard side and take on fuel as the ship travels to the first of its final three ports of call before beginning the long decommissioning process. Ponce is part of the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group, which is homeported at Naval Station Norfolk in Norfolk, Va. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Nathanael Miller/Released)

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