The World

A funny thing happened on the way to the ocean

WILLIAM LOWTHER August 7 1978
The World

A funny thing happened on the way to the ocean

WILLIAM LOWTHER August 7 1978

A funny thing happened on the way to the ocean

They call it the “Lemon Fleet“—nine tankers chartered by the United States Navy to carry volatile cargoes to military bases around the world. The trouble is that it Isn’t just the cargoes that are volatile, It’s the ships themselves. In a series of bizarre

from forward gear into full speed astern. They managed to stop the engines just before the Pacific hit another vessel, so there wasn’t much damage.

But they couldn’t get it to go forward again. “I asked our people when they returned how the trip went and they just rolled their eyes," recalls a navy department official. “You wouldn’t believe this great pink tanker cruising around backward. We call It the Pink Panther.’’

Superstitious seamen decided the epi-

accidents better suited to Monty Python than real life on the ocean waves they have embarrassed the Pentagon, scared their crews stiff and, right now, are drifting toward a series of:court appearances.

Things went wrong from the start. The first of the fleet, the 25,000-ton Sealift Pacific, was painted blushing pink Instead of red and grey, because of a mix-up. Then, easing out of San Pedro, California, on its maiden voyage nearly four years ago, it slipped, for no apparent reason,

sode was a bad omen—and events have proved them right. The fleet, total cost $180 million, is now the object of a legal labyrinth of claims and counterclaims which add up to more than $150 million. Some of the hairier incidents from the files Involve:

The Sealift Atlantic—another “lemon” that is happier in reverse. It slipped Its gears during a voyage from England to the Virgin Islands last fall and there was nothing the crew could do about it. It just

had to go backward.

Sealift Mediterranean which surged forward while undergoing engine tests in a Japanese port, snapping its moorings and throwing the gangway into the harbor. Before anyone knew what was happening it, too, slipped into reverse and trapped the lines in its propellers.

It was the human element that nearly sank the Sealift China Sea. Because its automated controls and telephone system were out of order, hand signals were being used to manoeuvre in Los Angeles harbor last January. The signal for astern was a pat on the backside, that for forward a pat on the head. But the man in the engine room mixed them up and the China Sea rammed a freighter, damaging it so badly it had to be towed away for scrap.

The sorry saga goes on: a fire in the engine room of the Sealift Arabian Sea, controlled just when the crew was about to abandon ship; anchors that can’t be lowered or hauled up; lifeboats that are so difficult to launch they’re useless in emergencies; groundings, oil spillages.

urrently all nine ships are required by the U.S. Coast Guard to put an extra man on watch whenever they are manoeuvring in port.

No one seems to know exactly what’s to blame. Some criticize the shipbuilders, others the ships’ complicated automated gear, still others the crew. But on one fact all are agreed. As Coast Guard Rear Admiral William Benkert, the merchant marine safety chief, put it in a blinding glimpse of the obvious: “We do have problems with these ships—no two ways aboutit.” WILLIAM LOWTHER