Seaman’s eye, transfer and history

With much attention paid to current arcade-like bridge designs, it seems that little attention, or mention, is made of “seaman’s eye,†or as one master memorably suggested, “It is sometimes well to look out the window.†Deep within his years of “looking out the window,†amongst a wealth of other experience, was the sense of his own vessel’s advance and transfer, should he have to put the rudder over in a collision-avoidance maneuver. How far ahead and how far perpendicular to his present track will the vessel move after executing a turn of 90° at x speed using y amount of rudder? How long can he wait for the vessel on his port bow to act before he may, or must, given the decreasing sea-room and the navigation rules?

Numbers of papers have been written on the subject, and one in particular relating to critical distance maneuvering sparked the recounting of an incident that not only in itself was tragic, but had possible history-changing consequences. The time, pre-World War I; the place, the Mediterranean; the situation, a naval maneuver.

With a distinguished record, the fleet commander was a respected tactician who demanded much but explained little of any forthcoming difficult maneuver until, and only after, its completion. By temperament, he did not welcome disagreements with his decisions; this was his manner of testing his subordinates and inspiring self-reliance under stress. His own self-esteem matched his well earned and justified accomplishments. Vice Adm. Sir George Tryon was commonly expected one day to be the next commander of Great Britain’s Royal Navy. 

This June day in 1893 he was commander-in-chief of its Mediterranean Fleet flying his flag aboard HMS Victoria. He had ordered his vessels to form up in two columns abreast at a distance of six cables (1,200 yards) with Victoria leading the First Division to starboard of the Second Division (led by HMS Camperdown) as they proceeded toward their next port stop, expecting to arrive and anchor well before sunset. The seas were calm, the winds light. On this fair day he would have looked to port and seen Camperdown steaming abeam, leading the Second Division parallel to his own at the prescribed distance.

Aboard Camperdown and flying the flag of Tryon’s second-in-command was Rear Adm. Albert Markham, ill at ease with the two-column separation just set — not because of the formation itself, but with the pending maneuver that would follow as ordered by the signal now flown by the flagship. (Keep in mind that the two columns of “ironclads†were then steaming abreast at 1,200 yards.) The order flown was (essentially) for the First Division to execute a 180° course change to port “in succession†(maintaining a column by the ship astern turning in the wake of the ship ahead), and for the Second Division to simultaneously do the same — except that the latter division was to turn starboard — thus the two columns turning inward toward each other as they reversed course (imagine pulling a sleeve inside out.).

Not only Adm. Markham but also the flag captains were almost immediately uneasy with the execution of that pending order. The procedure was for each vessel to acknowledge its receipt by hoisting the identical signal. Hauling the signal close-up (two-blocked) indicated received and understood. However, holding the signal at the dip (half-up) meant received but not yet understood — a way of questioning the order.

All of the ships two-blocked it except Camperdown, where the captain, as well as Adm. Markham, was concerned over the safety of the maneuver; Camperdown kept it at the dip. 

The objective was for the columns to have 400 yards remaining between them at the completion of the maneuver. If the diameters of their turns were 400 yards, then the 1,200 yards at the beginning of the maneuver would be reduced to 400 — the desired interval at completion. The problem was that the transfer for each ship was 400 yards; at the completion of a 180° turn, the lateral shift for each would be 800 yards — twice the transfer. That was the problem — had the admiral misapplied the distance attributable to a 90° change (the transfer) to one of 180° (twice the transfer) — mentally substituting one for the other? They would need 1,600 yards just to brush with no interval remaining — but they were starting with only 1,200 yards. 

Was he maneuvering his two divisions into danger or did he have another option in mind (without disclosing it)? Did he intend, they wondered, to take his division astern and around the other and then coming up parallel, oriented as before, except for the course reversed? The reason for these questions was the second part of the signal — “preserving the order of the fleet†— the division originally to port remaining so. The only way to achieve that would be for one division to half-circle the other. Tryon questioned Markham’s tardiness in recognizing the order (not two-blocking it); reluctantly the latter did so and the maneuver commenced when Tryon executed it by hauling down the signal.

Below deck the temperature in the steel shell soared to over 100° as the vessels moved through the calm seas under a summer Mediterranean sun. One officer lay uncomfortably in his berth with the stagnant humid air offering no respite from his 103° fever; outside on deck, it approached 95° and below decks, the ship’s crew sweltered. His rank was commander at that time, second-in-command aboard Victoria, but for a week he had lain ill, temporarily relieved by another officer who, at the moment, stood with the captain on the bridge.

Meanwhile, those aboard Victoria and Camperdown watched in increasing realization of what was going to happen. Victoria’s captain suggested backing the inboard screw to increase her turn rate, but the admiral was silent. The lead vessels were now bow-to-bow as they passed the 90° point and still turning inward — but not rapidly enough. Camperdown slammed into the starboard side of Victoria, opening her with her ram. Her late-closing watertight doors, the deep penetration, her design, all proved fatal as she rapidly listed and went down by the bow, taking 358 of her crew with her (nearly half) and Adm. Tryon himself. Camperdown was badly damaged, but survived.

The feverishly ill commander below struggled to the rapidly listing deck and slid down over the overturning hull into the water, one eye on the still-turning screws. Pulled under once, he finally surfaced and was pulled aboard a rescue launch.

Hearings held at Malta after the sinking absolved Adm. Markham as well as the two captains, deciding that Adm. Tryon’s maneuvering decision was at fault. Whether the admiral’s intention was to go astern or whether he had momentarily failed to double the transfer in his calculations was never directly addressed. Most of those aboard the other vessels believed the latter to be the case.

But what of the ill commander who narrowly escaped death as he slid down over the steel of the capsizing hull, avoiding the still-thrashing propellers only to be pulled down into the vortex and somehow resurface? He escaped from the sinking Victoria that June day and over the years he too rose steadily in rank and responsibility. In a twist of history he served at the Battle of Jutland some 23 years later as the commander of the British Grand Fleet — Adm. John Jellicoe. If the miscalculation, or more to the point the misapplication, of “transfer†in the maneuver had taken his life as it nearly did, who would have taken the Grand Fleet to sea that fateful week in 1916? How close did the momentary failure of “seaman’s eye†come to affecting history?

In time Adm. Jellicoe was raised to the peerage and would become known to history as Adm. Sir John Jellicoe.

Note: published in 1959 (Viking Press), Richard Hough’s “Admirals in Collision†provides both a technical and human account of the tragedy, with much attention to the subsequent hearings. Robert Massie’s “Castles of Steel†and “Dreadnought†(both Random House) provide extensive, in-depth and fascinating background on the naval arms race of the early 20th century with special attention to personalities involved. 

About the Author:

Following graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy, Jim Austin served aboard both a destroyer and cruiser with duties that included navigator, assistant CIC (combat information center) officer and air intercept controller. He subsequently worked on the submarine launched ballistic missile program for the General Electric Co.’s Ordnance Division. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard master’s license and writes frequently on ship collisions as seen through the twin lenses of the navigation rules and maritime law. He’s a retired physician living in Burlington, Vt.

By Professional Mariner Staff