Drifting to Starboard

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“Drifting to Starboard,” Liahona, August 2004, 38–39

Drifting to Starboard

One evening after the United States Navy destroyer on which I served left Pearl Harbor for the North Pacific, I was the officer of the watch for the night shift. I retired to my bunk after supper to get some sleep before going on duty. I felt the roll of the ship as I was dropping off to sleep. Later when I relieved the watch, the roll was more pronounced, and as I stepped out into the blackness of the open bridge, I felt the bite of the wind.

During the winter the North Pacific can be quite rough, and that night the waves were large enough that the wind was starting to catch their crests and cause a white streaking of foam.

“I am ready to relieve you, sir,” I said.

The officer on duty’s face reflected the soft glow of the compass, and he reported the ship’s course and speed. He added that the captain had turned in for the evening, then said, “The barometer has dropped three-hundredths in the past hour.” This meant stormy weather.

“Does the captain know this?” I asked.

“Yes, but he did not leave any special orders.”

He closed the door to the pilothouse behind him, and I found myself alone looking out at a menacing sea.

When ships encounter heavy weather, officers are to keep the ship’s bow heading into the wind with just enough speed to maintain steering. If waves strike the ship broadside, heavy rolling occurs, which can cause injury to the crew or even capsize the ship.

After an hour the waves had become mountainous. The wind was howling, and sheets of water were being blown through the air from huge cresting waves. The ship would climb the front side of the approaching wave, reach the crest, hang momentarily, then glide swiftly down the back side of the wave, plunging into the trough and resurfacing with water running over the deck, all the while pitching and shuddering. To steady the ship I had to reduce speed.

As the storm increased, I learned that the barometer had dropped another five-hundredths. I called the captain to report the worsening conditions. He simply replied, “Very well,” and hung up.

Soon the helmsman called out to me, “I am having trouble, sir. She is falling off to starboard!” I quickly checked the compass and discovered that the bow was inching toward the trough. If that continued, we could end up in a dangerous position broadside to the waves. I ordered the helmsman to make the necessary adjustment, but before long the needle started drifting back. The helmsman tried to correct the drift again, but the ship was slow to respond.

Conditions were worsening. The wind was now shrieking at about 100 miles (160 km) per hour, the waves were 50 feet (15 m) high, and the ship’s bow kept moving toward the trough. Fear rose inside me because I knew if one of these waves hit us broadside, the ship could quite possibly capsize. I called the captain, who was awake because the violent motion of the ship made it impossible to sleep. He was worried too. He did not have any advice but told me to do the best I could.

The helmsman informed me with a frightened voice that he had done all he could, but the bow was still drifting to starboard. I was utterly desperate and fear was turning to panic as I continued my frantic mental search for a solution. The most nightmarish thoughts flooded my mind. I felt helpless and entirely humbled.

In my childlike state, I cried out to the only one who could help me—my Heavenly Father. The answer to my impassioned plea was immediate and clear. A voice in my mind said, “Use your engines. Use your engines in opposition.” I instantly understood.

I ordered, “Starboard engine ahead two-thirds. Port engine ahead one-third.” Slowly the ship’s bow responded by moving out of the impending trough. As the ship headed back into the waves, a great feeling of gratitude engulfed me. The storm continued, but I was able to maintain the ship’s direction by adding to one engine and subtracting from the other.

A skeptic might say the solution was in my mind all the time, but I know better. It came in answer to prayer.