Captain Payne – “What a ride! What a captain!”
by Captain Bill Hopkins AMHS (retired)
Captain Harold Payne (1921 – 2002) was, in my opinion, the greatest shipmaster the Alaska Marine Highway System has ever produced. Payne was a kind man, and some took advantage of his good nature, but very little ever escaped his watchful eyes. Captain Payne held his judgments of people to himself, saying only, “Leopards never change their spots.” Our captain was a benign dictator, sometimes taking his meals with the crew, never speaking down in condescension, but horizontally in two-way speech, yet, there was no doubt who was in command. Unspoken, but observed in Captain Payne’s character, “new skippers, and old ones, should keep their egos in check.”
Using his leadership style and considerable nautical skills for the behalf of others and for the good of his ship, Payne was deeply respected among our fleet. This fine man was the captain who had rescued sixty-six passengers and four injured crewmembers from the burning Norwegian cruise ship Meteor on the early morning of May 22, 1971. The Meteor was returning from an Alaskan cruise and only seven hours away from its final destination in Vancouver, British Columbia.
While southbound off Texada Island, some ten miles north of Sisters Island Light in the Strait of Georgia, British Columbia, a mattress fire inside the forward crew quarters expanded killing thirty-three crewmembers. For some reason, these crewmembers were trapped and could not escape to the upper decks. Captain Payne with his chief mate, Walter Jackinsky of Ninilchik, Alaska, and the crew of the northbound Malaspina went to the Meteor’s aid.
Smoke was pouring from the portholes of the forward crew quarters. Desperate crewmembers had their heads poking outside the portholes trying to find fresh air. Captain Payne had Jackinsky prepare and lower away the Malaspina lifeboats. Within two hours of receiving the Mayday call from the Meteor, the Malaspina had rescued the survivors from the burning ship; many still in their nightgowns, and then brought them to safety in Vancouver. Both Captain Payne and Walter Jackinsky received citations from the U.S. Maritime Administration for “the highest traditions of the U.S. Merchant Marine.”
A quiet, but thoroughly competent, honorable man with penetrating eyes, no one could handle a ship better with such grace and ease as Harold Payne in all weathers and current conditions. As a child, before the creation of the Washington State Ferry System, Payne had been raised onboard his father’s private sector ferryboat in Puget Sound on the Keystone to Port Townsend route. In 1943, at the age of twenty-two, Payne earned an unlimited third mate ocean license. Like Captain Hofstad [see Captain Hofstad – A Mentor Who Taught How to Navigate Alaska’s Waters], Payne had sailed between Seattle and Alaska for the U.S. Army during World War II. Payne was all business and liked to tell us that he was “old school.”
After the war, Payne was captain of the tug Vesta Miller working log tows out of Seattle and towing cargo barges between Seattle, Valdez, Seward and Anchorage. “The tugs were a challenge for me,” he humbly noted. “I remember one time with a tandem tow we went around East Chugach Island and Cape Elizabeth (western tip of the Kenai Peninsula) to enter Cook Inlet, but it was too rough for us and we ended up behind East Amatuli Island in the Barren Islands and jogged there for two days.”
“[Captain Payne] was the first captain to deliver a barge through the ice to Anchorage,” recalled Captain Charles L. Bates. “He would take a barge from Seattle to Nikiski and then work his way through the ice to Anchorage. Before this, Anchorage was considered a port only in the ice free months. Captain Payne told me the first trip when they tied up, they couldn’t get the barge alongside because there was too much ice between the dock and the barge. The longshoremen had to ride the crane to work the cargo. He was the ice specialist for Foss. Then SeaLand came in with Keith Collar as pilot and the ships started making it a regular year round service.”
When the Alaska Marine Highway System began in 1963, Payne signed on as a second mate. Our larger ships began sailing the Skagway to Seattle route in 1968 and Payne received command of his beloved Malaspina.
Ship handling was second nature to him, and as his chief mate, he began teaching me important skills, saying, “Ninety percent of all ship handling is in one’s approach to a dock. If it is a bad approach, you will work hard to recover and dock the vessel. If the approach is good, it will be less work and easier on the engines with fewer engine commands.” Payne was respectful of his engines, and of the marine engineers below in the engine room who monitored and maintained them.
Payne taught to “view the current as your friend, let it do a lot of the work in ship handling,” adding, “knowing your ship’s maneuvering capabilities in combination with the current can be accomplished very easily.”
Payne taught to “feel” the ship, that is, feel it losing momentum through your feet, or feel the ship’s engines through your fingertips when touching the engine controls. “A ship travels faster at nighttime than a ship handler thinks,” he often cautioned.
Payne taught to “know the state of the tides and currents at all times and observe any current streams swirling around dock fenders and pilings.”
Payne taught to “gauge the wind” by watching the Alaska state flag flying above the wheelhouse, or by observing the exhaust issuing from the stack, or by reading the surface of the water. Very little intimidated Captain Payne, though he confessed, “I did back away from Skagway a couple of times when the wind was blowing so hard (70 or 80 mph) I thought my eyeballs would blow out.”
Payne taught situational awareness and never letting one’s guard down at any time.
With any good captain, there is an element of luck. Standing with him one stormy night on the port bridge wing while approaching southbound to our dock in Ketchikan, southeast wind blowing 50 knots, rain beating furiously against our faces, a barge moored at the adjacent shipyard dock stood in the way of our approach. Payne came in wide to avoid the barge all the while slowing the Malaspina down. Strong wind set the ship rapidly toward the obstructive barge, and Payne pushed down on the ship’s throttles to speed up and clear the barge. Malaspina’s stern missed striking the barge by only two feet. Payne turned toward me with a smile, and with his right hand raised and his index and middle fingers crossed, he said, “Some nights are like this.”
Where Captain Hofstad had taught the basics of ship handling, Captain Payne came along and polished me in ship handling, like smoothing a rough stone, giving me plenty of opportunities to undock and dock his vessel while under his competent and observant eyes.
“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another…” Proverbs 27:17
No detail was too big or too small for him. Anxious to use the bow thruster when maneuvering, Captain Payne could read my mind, placing his hand on the bow thruster control to block my impulse saying, “Not yet.” Payne believed in using a bow thruster sparingly. When backing away from a dock, Payne would not have his Malaspina shaking and shuddering when backing astern. With him, everything was smooth, easy, and graceful. A shaking and shuddering Malaspina would incur his immediate displeasure.
I began to earn his trust slowly, attempting to handle his ship as he wished it to be handled, good approaches with fewer engine commands. Soon, he would simply say, “Bill, take it into Skagway. I’ll be below having lunch in the officer’s mess room.”
Captain Payne was a master of Wrangell Narrows and Peril Strait. I say this humbly, for none was better. It is from him that I began to learn “the numbers” for dealing with these difficult waterways. Payne’s methods became a part of my thought processes. No longer having to expend mental energy on the numbers, they became a part of my procedural memory, taking me to a higher level of experience.
Sailing under Captain Payne’s leadership and instruction was the best thing that could have happened to me as a young deck officer with the Alaska Marine Highway System. Payne taught Wrangell Narrows by standing off to one side, yet close to the engine controls, usually behind my right shoulder, as I conned his vessel through “the Ditch.” I can still hear his soothing voice in my mind speaking softly, saying, “Now,” to indicate that it was the time to put the rudder over ten or fifteen degrees and come to the next course. If the ship was swinging too slowly for his taste, he would say, “Giver her more rudder,” or, if the ship was swinging too fast, “Easy on the rudder,” or, “Check her up.”
“Give her more snoose,” or “Kick her up a notch,” Payne would say, both phrases meaning to increase the propeller pitch to increase power, or, “Drop her down a peg,” or “Ease her back a little,” both phrases meaning to reduce the propeller pitch to decrease power.
By doing this, I learned the timing for making critical course changes, how much rudder to use and how much power to apply. A day finally came when I was conning his beautiful Malaspina through Wrangell Narrows when he fell asleep in his captain’s chair. The able seaman on the helm, steering the ship, brought the captain’s slumber to my attention noting, “The Old Man really does trust you now.” I doubted that he was truly asleep, but that he was testing me.
Captain Hofstad once advised, “A mate can learn more from a bad captain than a good captain because you’ll see the things you shouldn’t do.” There is comforting truth to this statement. However, being a student of good shipmasters serves anyone well. In due course, all observing officers who fall into a good captain’s orbit are placed on solid foundations. Honored by the State of Alaska in 1989, Captain Harold Payne became the Commodore of the Alaska Marine Highway fleet before retiring in 1990. Captain Hofstad was similarly honored a few years later.
Written by Captain Bill Hopkins, AMHS Retired. Visit the following link to see Captain Bill Hopkins book, “Alaska Sea Stories” on Amazon.
If you enjoyed “Captain Hofstad” check out “A Captain’s Account of Navigating the Treacherous Passageway of the Wrangell Narrows.”