“Unknown vessel in vicinity of twenty-eight degrees, forty-two minutes north, fifty degrees, forty-five minutes east, course 190, speed 5 knots, this is a United States Navy warship ten miles off your port bow. I am engaged in flight operations and restricted in my ability to maneuver. Request you contact me on this frequency and alter your course to the southeast to maintain a safe distance, over.”
Down on the flight deck, the CO and his problematic wingman sat in their turning fighters thinking their private thoughts.
Of the drama playing itself out in slow motion on the bridge, they had no knowledge.
Farokh was a fisherman and the son of a fisherman. That worthy’s father had been fisherman in turn, and his father before him and so on as far as anyone could remember. The dhow upon which he sailed, with its diesel motor hacking and coughing behind him had in fact originally belonged to his grandfather, although it was true that his father had replaced the engine sometime back in the ’60s. Farokh had been told by his grandfather at their village that his own father, Farokh’s great grandfather Farhang, had fished by sail and when the wind died, by strength of arm. His dhow had been lost at sea back before the turn of the century, leaving his grandfather an orphan. But all of that was the will of God, rheumy-eyed old grandfather had said, inshallah.
Sometimes, Farokh reflected, he wished that he had a sail of his own. The wind was directly from abaft, and it blew the smelly blue diesel smoke over the single white light he shipped aft in concession to the rules of the sea and to prevent the Revolutionary Guards from having a pretext to board him and shake him down. Although the Bahre Farsi was a good provider, all thanks to God, so that neither a man nor his sons would ever fear to starve in the honest work of hauling fish up out of the sea, neither would they ever be truly prosperous. No, in order to prosper one had to smuggle a bit on the side, and keep the Revolutionary Guards from seizing the cigarettes, booze or hashish and selling them themselves, after of course, having emptied Farokh’s wallet.
Smuggling however was something Farokh stolidly refused to do, unless of course he had to. But his wife Mahasti had been nagging him for quite some time now to sell the old truck that had been his father’s (peace be upon him) and buy a car, so tonight Farokh had slipped his moorings at sunset with two bales of hash stowed right forward under the counter and beneath his fishing nets, one bale for him and one for the farmer. The night after next, inshallah, he would be in Bahrain where he knew a man who would trade booze and cigarettes for the hash and these he could pass to a man he knew in the next village over for cash which he would then split more or less evenly with the farmer. In time he could buy Mahasti a car, inshallah, although probably not a new one: God punishes the greedy. He decided to reverse course momentarily and see if he was being followed, but once satisfied that no one was coming up on him out of Bushehr, he resumed his southwesterly course to Bahrain.
Wrapped up in his private thoughts, Farokh was late to see Leviathan haul up on his port bow, the noisy diesel masking the sound of her engines and those of the aircraft moaning on her flight deck as she closed in the darkness, 100,000 tons of American steel looming in the night. He had been idly picking his nose and eyeing the results appreciatively in the low glow of his engine console when he was startled suddenly out of his reveries by the sound of a great whistle like a foghorn blowing five short blasts, a signal that this was no Leviathan but rather a ship of enormous proportions. It also signaled, as Farokh knew very well from a life at sea that the master of the other vessel considered the situation to be dire. He heard voices too in the darkness, a strange and alien tongue shouting through a mechanical announcing system – some sort of prayer perhaps? – and then another signal which he could not identify, three short, high pitched beeps, repeated over and over again. Something flew loud and low over his head, something he felt more than saw.
Momentarily terrified, Farokh briefly considered putting his helm over and trying to maneuver, but once he’d settled down he attempted to fully understand his predicament – this great ship had a strange and, to him confusing light configuration – he could not easily determine her heading in the darkness. It occurred to him that to turn at this point might as easily put him more squarely in her path as otherwise. He shrugged philosophically. “Doubt makes the mountain which faith can move,” his mother had told him as a boy and anyway it was all in the hands of God. Still, there was time to close his eyes and say a prayer, if not to wash himself nor break out his prayer rug nor yet consult the compass, so this Farokh did do, knowing that Allah was great and merciful and would forgive him the exigencies of the moment.
On the darkened bridge, the Officer of the Deck raced to the starboard bridge wing and right out to Aux Conn itself, following the swearing Captain who was already throwing the window down in Aux Conn and leaning out to see whether or not they had hit the dhow. It was going to be so close, so very, very close.
The dhow had never answered the JOOD’s radio calls of course, which in itself was no surprise. It had been moving so slowly that it was difficult to determine her vector – her course seemed almost maddeningly at random – COTOP had provided no fewer than three maneuvering board solutions in the last ten minutes, each of which the OOD had followed and none of which agreed with the previous recommendation nor had any apparent effect on the problem. The Captain had seemed strangely silent, almost passive, and the OOD had mistaken what was a manifestation of his physical exhaustion for confidence in his own abilities. Critical moments had been lost, entire sea miles swallowed whole as the ship took up launch course and speed.
At two miles with the contact still at constant bearing and diminishing range, the Handler started to break down the chocks and chains restraining the fighters on the flight deck, loading the fighters and support aircraft on the waist catapults. At one mile the squadron CO had been taxied out of his parking spot on cat 1, starboard side on the bow. Once clear of the jets on either side, the yellow-shirted flight deck director signaled him with crossed light wands, “Hold brakes,” and then “Spread wings,” followed by “Hook down.” The CO pulled the parking brake out with his left hand while simultaneously spreading the wings with his right before throwing the hook handle down, selecting AIM-9 on the stick-mounted Weapons Select Switch and MSL Cool on the starboard vertical console. The fuselage trembled slightly as the wingfold motors spread the wings to the down position, while the raspy growl of the uncooled Sidewinder faded to a sibilant hiss as coolant flowed around the seeker element. Troubleshooters swarmed under his jet to verify the hook point and retract function on his tailhook, while red-shirted ordnancemen verified the status of his now accessible wingtip Sidewinder missiles. All good, “Hook up,” followed by “Fold wings” and “Come forward.” The CO eased the parking brake off and crept the throttles up to taxi power. On cat 3, the Hummer rattled down the track and into the night sky.
“Boats, five short blasts,” the OOD had cried, his voice trembling as the dhow neared a mile, right forward on the bow, almost under the shelf of the bow catapults, almost out of sight. Once out of sight he would not be able to tell which side of the ship the dhow was maneuvering towards, if in fact it was maneuvering. At that point it would all be in God’s hands.
“Bosun’s mate, aye-aye,” replied the BMOW and the sound of the ship’s signal whistle sounding its hoarse cry of emergency and distress brought the ship’s Captain now fully out of his chair, shouting “Officer of the Deck! We need to maneuver the ship!” followed rapidly, too rapidly by, “Aye, Captain – CONN, left full rudder!”
“CONN, aye – Helm, left full rudder!”
“Helm, left full rudder aye!” and spinning of the ship’s great wheel to the left before being countermanded by the Captain himself, “Belay that! Ease your rudder to left ten! Officer of the Deck, what’s the ship’s speed?”
“Ease my rudder to left ten, aye!”
“Twenty knots Captains, winds were light for launch,” the OOD replied, quailing under his CO’s fierce and red-eyed glare: Above 15 knots, use of full rudder was restricted due to heel, but they were in extremis even if aircraft were taxiing and launching. Even as the Helmsman eased his rudder back to ten degrees left the ship dug into the turn, heeling well to starboard, the physics of mass and momentum at war with the two great rudders biting into the frothing sea. In Flight Deck Control the Handler cursed before screaming into the 5MC flight deck announcing system, “Head’s up on the flight deck, turning port, heel to starboard!”
On the bow cat the squadron CO’s heart leapt suddenly into his throat as he felt the ship heel over, port side rising into the air before him as the starboard fell away behind him. He swore violently into his oxygen mask as the throttle setting for taxi power became suddenly insufficient to move forward against the sloping deck – she slowed, she stopped, she started rolling backwards, back towards the parking spot, back towards the deck edge, back towards the invisible, waiting sea.
“Bosun’s Mate of the Watch, sound the collision alarm!” cried the Captain.
—> Part XLI – A near miss