Small nuggets of fact often are below mountains of folklore. Getting to the nugget usually is impossible. So it is with most sea stories. But this story is true and was told to me by an Admiral I knew back in my Navy days. My first father-in-law, the Cap’n, confirmed it.
Navigation and pilotage are difficult. The texts would have you believe that we have a science before us. It is, in truth, an art. Like many art forms and crafts, there are bits of received knowledge that point the way. Most mariners can recite verbatim even the most obscure “Rules of the Road” – a set of international rules and regulations for preventing collisions at sea and inland waterways. Beneath those codes are even older traditional sayings and acronyms used to remember basic things – like BPOE- Black Port On Entry. BPOE meant, in my day, that on entry into a harbor, you left the black can buoys to your port side while entering. The black cans marked the channel.
And that’s where the old sea story comes in. It seems there was an admiral of great repute and skill who every morning arose, had his coffee, and went into his day cabin, opened his safe, and read from a note. That accomplished, he proceeded with his day. None of his staff knew what was on the paper. After he died, they opened the safe and found this note: ” Port-Left, Starboard-Right.” None of the aids will do any good if you can’t tell Port from Starboard – left from right.
The admiral swore to me that he had been among the crew who’d opened the safe. The Cap’n claimed that it was he on board Liberty Ship Charles Owen that had opened the safe. Even though the ships were thousands of nautical miles apart in space and at least a decade separated in time, I believe the story. If you spend enough time at sea or even sailing in coastal waters, you learn that human perceptions and memory are frail items. That’s why we have all the rules, aids, and techniques, and still, things go wrong. Ask any sailor. Life on the water is dangerous.