Lost at Sea

Mon – February 21, 2005

Which has a dramatic title, but is really only a wee, tiny little sea story that doesn’t go anywhere in particular.

But which I’ll share with you anyway.

In the spring of 2002, the carrier on which I had the privilege of serving was returning from a relatively successful in port period in Mazatlàn, Mexico. By successful, I mean: No one was incarcerated (overnight), everyone came back to the ship (by the time we left port) and what very little had been broken had already been paid for. Since Sailors of all ages, stripes and varieties are, as a class, much given to howling at the moon once ashore (and away from home), we reckoned this a successful port visit indeed.

The ship had been on an independent steaming exercise, or ISE – just ship’s company, for the most part, with only a few S-3 Vikings to keep the Air Department engaged. One of the chief advantages of the S-3 is that the aircraft has a very large wind envelope, and could be launched downwind as well as the more conventional launch into the wind. The other advantage is its fuel efficiency – you could cast them into the sky, and not worry about them again for four hours or so. We were just starting out work-ups for the fall 2002/2003 deployment – an eventful one for the proud old ship, and the last she would ever make after 42 years of service.

Coming home at optimally fuel-efficient speeds, it was actually quite a peaceful passage – without a full air wing embarkation, no one was hectoring us to fly just a little more. Since we didn’t have to continually turn the ship off the homebound course and into the wind every hour and a half, there was no lost ground we had to make up to stay on time, on track. We could shoot the S-3’s on whatever heading we happened to be on, and they’d go off and fly for several hours while we enjoyed the warm sun and cool ocean breezes.

For once, no one seemed to be in a hurry, and even the desultory engineering and damage control drills lasted no more than a few hours of every day. There was time to do your job, train your people and still some left over for yourself – I read books from the ship’s library, and had the chance to PT every day. For a carrier ops guy, this was as close as you came to luxury, at sea. Very nearly a pleasure boat cruise. Delightful.

One afternoon, one of the S-3’s shot off into the azure sky on a surface search and surveillance mission. Not long after they’d gotten airborne, the crew called back to report what appeared to be a derelict boat in the water, just up the track, and not far off our course. The crew reported no visible survivors.

Now, there is an inviolable custom of relief among those of us who use the sea – all mariners, once stripped from their fragile shells are equally subject to the whimsies and rages of our ocean home. And anyone with an imagination has wondered what it would be like to find himself afloat and alone in the vast emptiness of the sea, subsequent to some general disaster or individual mischance. So the Captain hesitated not at all to get a fix on the derelict’s position and order the ship’s course altered to close within range of assistance.

Very little else was going on aboard ship, and in the way that information seems to flow almost telepathically through a tightly knit community, the flight deck and catwalks on the starboard side soon came to resemble a holiday fair, as Sailors of all rates found a reason to make their way to the weather decks. Soon enough we were abeam the derelict, at a range of perhaps 500 yards. The crew of the ship’s starboard RHIB had long since been standing by their falls, ready to lower away. Up on the bridge, every pair of binoculars among the watch team was focused on the small orange hull bobbing to starboard, and the signalman on the bridge wing, looking through the big eyes confirmed what those of us in aux conn suspected: The derelict was very severely damaged – struck, it seemed almost certain, by some vastly larger vessel.

As the CO ordered the RHIB to lower away and investigate the hulk, we turned over the potential reasons a boat might find itself out here in a mostly untraveled sea lane, all by itself, mortally wounded. Two were benign – she had broken her moorings somewhere north, and floated off to sea, down the current, before being struck in the night by some merchantman. Or, she had been swept over the side of some larger vessel, before suffering a similar fate.

Or, at some currently unknowable time and distance past, a terrifying drama had played out over the course of a very few agitated moments – a small crew of fishermen perhaps, motoring home in the dark of the night, not sensing until it was almost too late the looming presence overhead, the sound of the merchant’s engines overwhelmed until almost the last moment before the grinding of skin to skin, followed quickly by the cold, swirling inrush of the sea. The screams perhaps, and then the silence. The vanishing stern of the larger ship, all unaware of what horror they had left in their wake.

All of these ran through our minds as the little RHIB chugged over to the derelict. The CO, ever mindful of his responsibility first to his own people, gave frequent guidance to the boat officer in charge of the RHIB’s crew: Approach slowly – check for underwater debris – do not get entangled – put no swimmer in the water. If the young lieutenant junior grade was overwhelmed by all the rudder being provided from aux conn, he gave no signal of such in the professional, “aye-aye” he gave to each new set of instructions.

As the voice reports threaded back to the ship, rolling gently in the current with no way on, you could almost see the petty officers standing at their posts on the helm and engine order telegraph leaning to starboard, trying to catch each word.

Probably a 50 foot boat when whole – cut right through the middle – no sign of survivors – had been in the water a while, probably weeks based on the water stains and sea grass in the cockpit – should he put the search and rescue swimmer aboard?

Negative, was the reply. Get the registration number from the hull, if you can. Return aboard.

The hulk was too large and awkward to heave aboard, and in any case salvage was no part of our mission. On the other hand, it did present a hazard to navigation. Our consciences satisfied on the human dimension, I turned to the Captain and suggested “Scat drill?” The CO looked at me for a moment before smiling and nodding. Good idea. The bosun’s mate of the watch called the code words for repel boarders on the ship’s 1MC, and in moments there was a whirl of activity throughout the ship, as red-shirted ordnancemen ran shouting and laughing to their sponsons, breaking out the .50 cal heavy machine guns from their lockers, fixing them to the mounts and placing the ammo cans with their linked rounds in ready storage trays. The stopwatch was running, as it always did on such drills.

From a standing start, it was pretty credible work for the gunners, as all mounts called manned in ready well within the time limits apportioned to the drill. They made these reports to the still-gasping Gun Liaison Officer (GLO) on his sound-powered phone headset. The GLO, like most ordies, was built more for strength than for endurance, and had had to charge up from the division office on the 3rd deck, down below the water line, to his post on the bridge at the 08 level, well above the main deck – some dozen flights of steeply canted Navy ladders – and was still panting a bit from the effort.

Such drills were conducted regularly, the world, as some have notice, having changed in the last few years. When announced the guns were manned up, until the ship fairly bristled with self-defense, interlocking fields of firepower. Today was a special day however – not only would the guns get fired (a special treat), but there would be a real target for the gunners to shoot at. Fifty rounds per mount were authorized, at first firing from aft to forward mounts. The competitive aspects of this ensured that the gunners wouldn’t blaze away recklessly, but aim their fire precisely. The “Ma Deuce” packs a heavy punch, and it would be clear to all if rounds fell short or long of the target, with the ocean bearing witness, and sharp-eyed shipmates lining the weather decks ready to fulfill their cherished role as technical critics, if called upon.

This went on for quite some time, and since the derelict’s hull was packed bow-up with floatation filling it proved wonderfully resistant to our efforts to sink it. Much savage joy was entertained on the sponsons to starboard, but eventually the GLO requested permission to speak to the Captain, and told him that the gunners in their mounts to port would take it very hard indeed if they could not have a turn to shoot. Mightn’t the ship be turned about?

Now, this particular Captain could be rather prickly at times, and he was not much given to the notion of Sailors at gun mounts offering unsolicited advice on the ship’s navigation. Still, he was also a kind-hearted man, and after a moment’s pursing of lips counter-offered that the gunners to port might shift to the starboard side batteries to join in on the fun. This caused the GLO in turn to become thoughtful, no doubt envisioning the possibility of fist fights on the starboard sponsons, as men still warm from shooting were asked to step aside from their very own guns in favor of those less fortunate in their watch, quarter and stationing bill. Whatever reservations he had, he (wisely) kept them to himself and transmitted the CO’s orders, adding on his own account some very specific and rather dramatic imagery predicting the pain and suffering that would accrue to anyone entertaining notions of playing the fool on the subject of turning over his gun mount.

The derelict eventually gave over to the sawing and hammering of the .50 cals, and slipped beneath the waves. Her disappearance was noted in the ship’s deck logs, and as exultant port side gunners shot their fists in the air to the dejected starboard side gunners proclamations that, after all, the port side boobies had just finished what the starboard side folks had started, the ship gradually picked up way and returned to track.

The Sailors lining the rails went back to whatever work or entertainment awaited them, the echoes of the staccato gunfire still ringing in their ears. And as the sound of the waves rushing past the hull picked up again, the sun began to sink into the western horizon. And as the sunset worked its customary, deliriously beautiful magic on the intersection of sea and sky, we were all of us left with our own private thoughts about the day we had passed and the things we had seen.

We never did discover how the derelict came to be there. And that’s another thing that Sailors get used to – the fact that some things, you’ll just never know.

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Filed under by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Humor, Lex, Naval Aviation, Navy, Neptunus Lex

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