Midnight Oil Run

FOUR years ago, on an August morning in Valdez, Alaska, I boarded the Exxon Benicia, a 906-foot long oil tanker loaded with over a million barrels of Alaskan crude oil. I was a paid guest of Exxon, a free-lance writer invited by an Exxon editor to write an article about life aboard a tanker for a week as it churned its way from Alaska to Panama. In a curious way, after roaming all over the ship for six days and nights, I grew to like the huge dumbness of the thing. And the officers - young, energetic and cautious - impressed me with their professionalism.

But in fact a tanker is the world's largest floating projectile, requiring enormous skill from those who dare to aim it. Once under way, and with the best weather conditions on the flattest sea, it can require as much as 20 minutes to come to a full stop.

On the third day of the journey in the open sea off the coast of Canada and with no other ship anywhere on the horizon, I was invited to steer the beast.

The bridge is on the seventh floor of the superstructure at the stern. From there the helmsman can look across the full length of the ship - three football fields - as he holds the wheel. I was told the course and shown the compass heading. For the next 20 minutes or so, with the first mate looking over my shoulder, I tried my best to keep on course.

Every course adjustment I made was evidenced on the course recorder, a device that leaves a paper trail of the journey. The needle on paper showed that I zigzagged ponderously for 15 minutes while I learned quickly that this is the world of triple slow motion, that it is impossible to make sudden moves with a tanker.

After 20 minutes I had reduced large zigzags to little zigzags. When I turned the wheel back to the first mate, he returned the ship to automatic pilot and asked if I wrote better than I steered.

Later, at night under a full moon, I walked the length of the ship down ``Broadway,'' the long center corridor between the enormous pipes on deck, all the way to the bow where a veteran seaman was standing watch. The air was warm, the sea dancing with light.

As we talked it was clear he was one of those weary human beings who like to predict catastrophe because only he knows how graceless man can become. ``It's just a matter of time,'' he predicted, ``before something serious happens with Alaskan tankers.''

But what of the precautions, the emphasis on safety, all the efforts to make Alaska and oil compatible? I asked him. ``It's nonstop monotony,'' he said. ``Twelve times a year, we go back and forth for weeks and weeks. You begin to think tankers are a snap, but they aren't. Somebody or something will lose it big before long.'' He was almost cheerful about it, explaining that he loved the sea, but who could love a tanker? He said it again in different ways, but the night was too beautiful, the tanker too earnest underfoot for me to want to hear more or openly agree. I told him he was the wrong man to be a watchman. He said he was the right man.

I excused myself and strolled blithely up ``Broadway'' as if the poise of the moment, even from the deck of a tanker, would be good for years to come.

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