Thursday, February 3, 2011

Deep Blue Sea, Baby, Deep Blue Sea*

I've started looking at this CORE PRIME thing, which is broken into five essential agreements. The first agreement (at least in the book) is AS IS - what is the current situation? What is our current surface culture? And I guess I gotta really limit this to the cutter culture, because I have no understanding or experience with the small boat community. So current cutter culture (CCC, because everything we do has to have an acronym)? What defines it? What are the good things about it? The bad, the ugly? How do we raise our young in it? Do we revere our heroes and respect our oldsters? What does success mean to us, and what is failure?

For me this speaks directly to an underlying question, one that I've said before I wanted to write about. Why do I do this? I remember when I enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1999, I had the goal of getting stationed at MSO Charleston in West Virginia. I joined to work in marine safety, clean up oil spills and scrub some ducks. Ships? Umm, yeah, I think I knew the Coast Guard had those too. But I wasn't interested. Then I went off to OCS (because being a gate guard and handling lines for 110s and getting yelled at by their Captains for not doing it right (DIP the eye of that, No, NO--not THAT bollard...faster, damn it, the wind's gonna take us) just wasn't cutting it for me). And I still don't know if it's intentional, but at OCS, they had us fill out our dream sheet (it was still a dream sheet in those days) while we were doing the section of instruction on Navigation and Charting.

I hadn't ever done anything like plotting or chart work before, but I've always liked maps...the possibilities they present, the new and different places, the distances in between. So, I got kinda a wild hair, and put a couple of ships on my list of places I'd like to be stationed after OCS. They were very specific ships, in very specific locations (210s in the Pacific Northwest and Texas), that I thought that I might like to see, but all the rest of the jobs were marine safety jobs, quietly ashore. Hahahahaha...that's not quite how the detailer saw it. He saw that I asked for ships. And he gave me a ship...a 378 out of Alameda, CA. I remember billet night very well. I ended the evening crying in the bathroom, wondering what the hell I had just done. And how the hell I could get out of it.

But I didn't get out of it, and made my way, with a certain sense of ragged hopelessness, to BOUTWELL. I hated it. HATED it! I reported in November, on the first day of TSTA (Tailored Ships Training Availability) in San Diego. TSTA is frantic, lots of training packed into a short period of time. I had *no idea* what was going on, no one had time to explain it to me, and I was just taking up space, trying really, really hard not to get in the way. I was overwhelmed with three different, thick qualification packages to work on, and I was assigned as the XO's Assistant to an XO who had the personality of a...ugh, I can't think of a good analogy, but I didn't care for him, and my primary responsibility was the ship's office, which was run by a particularly difficult YNC. I was 3000 miles away from home, no family and few friends around, surrounded by things I didn't understand and overwhelmed by the entire damn situation. It sucked.

My first actual patrol on BOUTWELL was an Alpat (Alaskan patrol), and towards the end, we pulled into Kodiak for a few days. I think I had conned (driven the ship) into or out of port once or twice before during TSTA, but was essentially just parroting what my coach told me to say. I didn't really get what I was saying, what the helm and engine commands meant. But this mooring into Kodiak...something clicked and the light went on. I was still parroting what WEPS (LTJG Blake Stockwell at the time) was saying, but I understood what he was saying, and the orders he was giving to the helm and engine room were making sense in terms of how they controlled the ship's movement. We swung around the south end of Nyman Peninsula, starting to slow our speed, watching the wind and waiting for it to come whipping down the sheer face of Old Womens Mountain and set us too fast down onto the wrong pier. I'm pretty sure we were going to the fuel pier, and Blake guided me through getting the momentum just right to be able to give a short counter-twist of the engines at the very end so that we could give the order "put over all lines." It was AMAZING! OMG, I got it! Now, granted, I had an *excellent* coach, and some of the best environmental conditions possible for Womens Bay. But it was a transformational moment for me, realizing that shiphandling could make sense. It wasn't all candlelight and roses after that; I still had some rough times, but the sea's seduction had definitely begun.

In retrospect, and with the benefit of a couple hundred more moorings under my belt, I've come to realize that shiphandling is about control. Understanding of the effects of the helm and engines gives control over the ship, which can overcome and dominate environmental and situational conditions. Knowing that it's a tight spot, being able to read the wind (with both arms in the air like a touchdown provides much better insights into the subtleties...just saying), accounting for the engine delay with precision to get just as much power as you need *right* then, visualizing the water rushing over the rudders to create a force differential to turn the bow, and then just doing it! Being able to put a couple hundred tons of steel exactly where you want it to go...that's a control freak's dream! Or at least, it works for me. I love being able to drive a ship. I could go on with this part of the story for a while, describing the particulars of some of the significant shiphandling experiences I've had. One engine ops, high winds and surges, steering casualties, sand storms and other low-vis fun, fires and/or alarms...but I know they get boring for most people after a while.

BOUTWELL taking a light beating
And as much as I love the feeling of control that I get from driving a ship, there is a striking irony that much of being underway entails walking the edge of losing control, or having it wrested away by the sea. I've only been to the Bering Sea that first patrol on BOUTWELL, but even then, in the infancy of my introduction to the ocean, I remember noting how the water could go from flat-ass, silver-glassy calm to a towering, raging fury in a very, very short period of time. The only control you get underway is that little bit that you are able to preserve through complete trust in your ship and fellow shipmates.

Mighty MAUI
First about the ship: My ships have always taken on more significance to me than just being a sum of their parts. They are more than all the spaces, the pieces of equipment, the amenities for comfortable living and all the other miscellaneous bits. I remember walking through HAMILTON's main passageway, after having been away from 378s for four years. It smelled the same as BOUTWELL, some odd, distinctive bouquet of Simple Green and diesel exhaust, with hints of JP5, sweat, metal, paint and salt. Never mind those weird, eerie noises in the bos'n hole and paint locker that give new OODs the heebie-jeebies. And I've always found it a little unsettling that the bridge, which is the center of the universe underway, is usually deserted and lonely inport. The engines and generators, the fuel transfer system, the idiosyncrasies of every ship, the awards on the bulkheads, that tear in the mess deck bench cushion, the dent I put in my rack drawer from kicking it too hard once when I was really pissed off, that damn ladder step that I *always* crack my knee on when I'm racing up to the bridge too fast, the scullery deep sink on morale pizza nights...they all make up the greater SHIP that is more than just the ship. Maybe that's why we capitalize a ship's name. It's more than just its letters.

The engineering, the construction, the fact that it all works and stays afloat awes me. 

And then there are the people. I won't spend too much time on this one, since I've said a lot about my crews before. But it comes down to it that I like Coasties; they are, on the whole, good, dedicated, smart, funny people. I recently watched a video from USCGC FORWARD that was posted on Coast Guard Digest. Never mind that it's a *great* song for their ship, the pictures of the crew made me smile. OMG, the guy running across the flight deck with Speedos on during steel beach... classically hilarious! Followed by Batman! How do they come up with that stuff?! The guy's attitude at minute 1:41 -- I just get the sense that he loves his job, or at least loves being a .50 cal gunner. The grapes, the blueberries, the baked potato. And whoever came up with the idea to take the inflatable pool underway was a genius. I think the institutionally supported resurgence of the term "shipmate" is a great thing.

Kwar Al Amaya Oil Terminal at sunset
But in the end, it all comes back to the ocean. Her beauty, her grandness, magnificence, power, mercurialness, depths and bounty. When I was on AQUIDNECK for a few weeks while their CO went on R&R, the crew thought I was a little batty because I asked for the 4-8 watch. It's kinda a crappy watch because you've got to get up at the ungodly hour of 3 am, and then still function throughout whatever goes on during the day. But I love the 4-8s... you get to watch sunrise and sunset. When I was on HAMILTON, I tried to make it a point to see as many sunsets as I possibly could around operations (sunrises, well, let's just say sleep and breakfast took precedence there); there were never two the same and it always gave me a chance to pause and ponder the benefits of being at sea for weeks at a time.

Then there's the wildlife found in her depths. It makes me laugh out loud to see dolphins swim alongside the ship and play in the bow wake. Sea turtles. Whales, even though I whine about them from time to time during whale season in the Maui triangle. Birds, photo-luminescence, mahi-mahi, halibut. Two very distinct memories about marine wildlife stick out in my mind: First was on BOUTWELL. I think we were down south, somewhere off the coast of Central America, transiting along. It was dark, probably the 8 to 12s. It must have been fairly soon after 9/11, because I remember thinking maybe it was some kind of threat. But there was this ball of light that came alongside the ship's starboard side, just forward of the bridge. It was probably 30 feet in diameter, moving along beneath the surface. It kept pace with us for a while, and then slipped under the ship and came out on the port side. I called the Captain when it went under us, and she came up to the bridge. Once the ball moved over to the port side, it didn't stay with us for too long, but continued on its track. CAPT Kelley postulated that it was a pod of dolphins or fish that was stirring up the photo-luminescence. But it was so very cool.

The second wildlife incident was on HAMILTON. We were transiting from Oakland back down to San Diego. All in all, that patrol was stupendously crappy. Lots of equipment casualties, people got hurt, people got fired, the patrol was extended, and then we had an unscheduled drydock for which we had to drive by our homeport that was burning from Southern California wildfires. I, at least, was desperately happy to be headed home. My sister and her husband were onboard, along with about a dozen other crew family members that were making the overnight transit with us. It was just before sunset, and we were transiting along the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The water boiled, just boiled with critters. There were birds, whales, porpoises, sea lions, whales, I don't know what all. We transited through the water that teemed with life for about 20 minutes. The ocean itself was flat calm, with a very light swell and no waves, but the animals were jumping and thrashing and tumbling about so much, that the water was far from calm. It was *incredible*!!

Those are certainly not the only two times I've seen amazing wildlife scenes, but they definitely stick out for me.

The could I forget the stars? The blankets of twinkling lights that spread over the skies from dark horizon to dark horizon.

 And then there's that inexplicable mystery that the ocean offers. The ocean will always be there; never the same, but always just what it is. Its possibilities are endless; hope is always just over the horizon. I can't even pretend to ever be as insightful or poetic as others over the years about what the ocean means to sailors. There's just too many good quotes that encapsulate it so much better.

"The cure for anything is salt water - sweat, tears, or the sea." -- Isak Dinesen

Roll on, deep and dark blue ocean, roll. Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain. Man marks the earth with ruin, but his control stops with the shore.-- Lord Byron

"When you see the Southern Cross for the first time
You understand now why you came this way.
'Cause the truth you might be runnin' from is so small.
But it's as big as the promise, the promise of a comin' day." --Crosby, Stills & Nash

*Lyrics from Deep Blue Sea, by North Mississippi Allstars


Just a Girl said...

My aunt just sent me this poem, saying it was my maternal grandmother's favorite. I'm glad to know I come by it honestly.

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

By John Masefield (1878-1967)

Laika 26X said...

"Wherever we want to go, we go. That's what a ship is, you know. It's not just a keel and hull and a deck and sails. That's what a ship needs. But what a ship is... what the Black Pearl really is... is freedom." – Captain Jack Sparrow

Just a Girl said...


That is one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite characters...ever! It used to be the subheader for my blog, but I didn't feel like I could justify keeping it up there once I left my ship -- while I'm a temporary sandpeep. Thanks for reminding me of it!

PS - I can't *wait* until the 4th movie comes out this summer!!