“If it had been a snake, it would’ve bit me.”
That phrase is common in the Southern United States, often shouted in surprise when you’re vainly looking for something, and eventually discover it right in front of you.
Well, here’s an example of when the snake did bite, figuratively, and ended up sinking a ship.
In 1962, the one-year-old, 5,000 ton displacement, 444-foot-long British freighter, the M/V Montrose, entered the Great Lakes after its fifth transatlantic voyage from its homeport of London, England.
On June 30, 1962, it was docked at the Detroit Harbor Terminal taking on 200 tons of aluminum. Once the ship was fully loaded, a Canadian Great Lakes pilot boarded the ship at night to guide the vessel through the Detroit River, north towards Lake St. Clair and the other Great Lakes.
The Detroit River connects Lake Erie at its southern end and runs generally northeast approximately 28 miles to Lake St. Clair at the north. It is bordered by Canada’s Ontario Province on the eastern side and Michigan in the United States on the opposite bank. The river’s strong current runs to the south towards Lake Erie.
Now, imagine the chagrin of the Canadian pilot as he guided the vessel across the downside shipping lane to reach the upside lane on the Canadian side of the river. That course took it directly into the path of a heavily loaded barge on the American side, heading down the Detroit River. The resulting collision ripped a 48-foot long and as much as 24-feet wide gash in the ship’s port side bow.
The freighter immediately started flooding at the bow, soon raising the rudder and propellers out of the water. With no way to control the sinking ship, the crew and ship drifted in the strong Detroit River current, before running aground beneath the Ambassador Bridge connecting Detroit with the Canadian city of Windsor, Ontario.
This expensive mistake occurred in July, 1962, and I was there to record the aftermath, as were thousands of other onlookers. The links to other photos and videos are found below.
Sharper photos were taken by various civilians and published in the following link.
I imagine that salvage or other commercial divers were required to inspect the hull and attach lifting cables at the appropriate points. Typically, they might have wanted to weld patching plates over the huge gash in the hull. But the ship lay on its damaged side, so no patches could be applied until the ship was righted.
I wish I had those divers’ stories, but so far, I haven’t found any. Salvage divers tend not to talk about their arduous, risky, and sometimes horrifying work. Fortunately, this time there were no casualties. Every crew member on both vessels was rescued, having suffered minimal injuries.
The salvage plan involved righting and raising the vessel using large floating cranes on barges. Frankly, I cannot imagine the load on those lifting cables. But as you can see in following photo, there were many cables attached to the bow preventing the ship from drifting further down current. They likely helped stabilize the craft once the bow was partially above water.
No doubt a great deal of engineering calculations (and maybe educated guesses?) went into determining the number and placement of those cables. Salvage engineering is a torturous task, with calculations at that time being done by hand or using a slip stick (slide rule).
Below is a National Museum of American History slide rule identical to my personal Pickett slide rule, Model N1010-ES Trig. A similar slide rule accompanied the Apollo astronauts to the moon.
Digital calculators and computers were not readily available in 1962.
The following link is from the Lake Shore Guardian, and contains ample details of the accident. It is an interesting account. http://www.lakeshoreguardian.com/site/news/1037/MV-Montrose#.YDgVd-hKiUk
So, how could highly experienced and qualified seamen drive their ship at full speed directly into the path of a well-lighted barge, as was reported by the ensuing investigation?
The Lakeshore Guardian report does not give it a name, but I will: “cognitive blindness.” Cognitive blindness in trained and alert individuals often occurs when people are distracted. In this case, that distraction was another freighter pulling into the same berth the Montrose was attempting to vacate. The Montrose pilot made all ahead full to keep a safe separation from the ship coming in close behind it.
In their distracted state, they did not see the navigation lights from the oncoming barge, did not hear the barge’s warning whistles and horn blasts, and never responded with their own emergency signal until the last second. By then, it was too late to slow their ship, or dodge the barge.
Cognitive blindness caused by distraction has caused old and experienced automobile drivers to pull directly in front of oncoming vehicles. One such fatal accident occurred at an intersection my wife and I frequently traverse. The driver was physically capable of seeing the oncoming traffic, but in that and similar cases, their brain must not have recognized the danger.
In the link below, the U.S. radio program NPR interviewed Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simmons about their book, named after the psychologist’s invisible gorilla test.
The two psychologists had subjects watch a basketball game. Subjects were instructed to keep track of the number of ball passes between players. However, that objective was a distraction. The researchers really wanted to know if their research subjects noticed a man in a gorilla suit walking across the court. Remarkably, more than 50% of the test subjects never saw the gorilla.
A distraction while watching a video may be harmless, but a distraction while piloting a 5,000 ton vessel can, and was, disastrous. Luckily, no lives were lost, that time.
Among the multitude of other writings about the potential effect of distractions, is a new book on human factors.
While the work of Gareth Lock is focused on diving, the psychological factors it discusses apply across all disciplines, including seamanship. Chapter 7, Situational Awareness, has an interesting and relevant sub title: “Just because it’s there, it doesn’t mean you’ve recognized its significance.”
In summary, the deleterious effect of cognitive blindness can be found in all disciplines, including combat, aviation, diving, driving, space and seafaring.
As they say in combat, “The enemy you don’t see is the one that will kill you.”
The highlighted image at the top of this post is from the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University. http://reuther.wayne.edu/node/4331
“Capt. Ralph Eyre-Walker stands on the side of his wrecked British freighter, ‘The Montrose’. The freighter collided with a cement barge and sank in the Detroit River just downstream of the Ambassador Bridge, Detroit, Michigan.”
Photographer’s (Tony Spina) note: “I rode out with the captain the next day so he could get some of his belongings and captured this shot.”