Sea Stories

The Williamson Turn

Evan Lewis

Evan Lewis served on multiple merchant vessels over forty years

A Williamson Turn is designed to return a vessel to its track headed in the opposite direction, used most familiarly to recover a man overboard. [-webmaster]

It was a beautiful clear and sunny morning aboard the P&O ship RMS Strathnaver, about a day and a half out of Aden heading for Bombay. The boat-drill, man overboard exercise and fire drill had been completed and Captain Eade and the staff Captain had just left the bridge. The bridge wallah rushed in from the port wing, highly excited, shouting "Sahib! --Sahib!" accompanied by a torrent of to me incomprehensible Hindustani, and then fell to the wheelhouse deck. I called to the Second Mate who quickly ran in from the chartroom and closely questioned the prostrate, but concious, bridge wallah (this particular Mate was recognised as one of the most proficient in their language in the P&O by the Indian seamen). The Second turned to me and said, "Bring her on a reciprocal course," as he hurried back towards the chart room. I called over my shoulder, "Shall I do the Williamson Turn?" A quick "Yes" was the reply.

The wheelhouse soon became a hive of activity, a re-enactment of the drill which had taken place some minutes earlier, except for two differences. This time it was for real, and secondly we were going about as opposed to recovering a dummy thrown from an almost stopped ship.

I should explain, as anyone who has spent long lonely hours behind a ship's wheel will know, there isn't much to read apart from drill instructions, return flags to lockers, etc.(or in the case of at least one scruffy Bristol Channel Tramp, which could hardly raise enough steam to counteract a strong head wind, a large notice saying, "Key to the radar cabinet may be obtained from the Master." I found that one hard to come to terms with, as also on Liners such as the Queens Mary and Elizabeth where it was mandatory that the stand-by Q.M. took radar watch during fog, but would be relieved for smoko by a bridge boy who could well have been on his first trip to sea. Anyway back to the story).

The notices on the Strathnaver's bridge included one on performing the "Williamson Turn" devised by a USNR officer, John Williamson. It went something like this: "In the event of man overboard and wishing to obtain a reciprocal course come 60 degrees compass and then turn wheel opposite direction till full 180 degrees of original course is reached." I had no idea whether it worked in practice or was just another theory. Anyhow it worked a treat. The staff Captain searching through his binoculars exclaimed, "There he is!" As we got nearer I could see his red Fez still intact on his head, right ahead. My only thought then was that we would get him as long as no sharks beat us, which fortunately didn't occur. So Captain Williamson I lifts me lid.

Some days later the bridge wallah confided to me that the Kolasi concerned, while securing number 2 accident boat after the drill, was involved in a fracas with one of his team. In other words push turned to shove.

Relevant to this story is that not many months ago a number of service personnel returning from Timor aboard a Navy vessel were reportedly in high spirits with one going over the side. Later in a navy press release it was stated that the "Williamson Turn" had been performed.

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