Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Short Stories: The Storm

As the young helmsman struggled to keep DDR 880 headed into the waves, he braced himself firmly - feet wide apart - against the ship’s wheel to keep from slipping or falling. In the chaos of the storm, it was sometimes difficult to tell from which direction the waves were coming, but the helmsman knew the ship could not withstand a broadside attack. He, a new Midshipman, had been pressed into service when the experienced Bosun’s Mates and Quartermasters usually assigned the special Sea & Anchor detail were so depleted they could not function. 

The vessel, designed to withstand rolls up to 57 degrees before ‘turning turtle’ or capsizing, was already reaching 45 degrees - port and starboard - in addition to pitching violently. More troubling, DDR 880 carried heavy topside electronic gear necessary to perform her duty as Radar Picket, providing early warning alerts to the Task Force or Fleet she was assigned. The steady onslaught of 45-foot waves - equivalent to 5-story buildings from trough to crest - was sorely testing her endurance, as well as that of the crew, over half of which were incapacitated from severe seasickness, vertigo, exhaustion, or injury sustained during the storm. Below decks, floor surfaces sloshed with vomit so often that keeping the mops busy and toilets flushing almost continuously was necessary. Long before, cooks in the galley had given up trying to prepare regular food requiring trays and utensils, instead turning out sandwiches, soda crackers and coffee. 

No one ventured out on the main deck without an emergency mission, lifejacket, a rope to belay themselves, and a buddy, because danger of being washed overboard was almost certain. Besides, all water-tight doors and hatches were dogged and secure. In time, these precautions might be relaxed, but now they were strictly enforced for ship integrity and crew safety. Indeed, it was difficult to even traverse interior passages without walking on one bulkhead or the other in between steps on the deck. Crew members trying to rest had to strap themselves into their bunks to prevent rolling onto a deck or bulkhead. 

At the height of the 3-day storm, waves raked the ship with such force that plexiglass windows on the bridge were shattered, soaking those inside with cold seawater, plus the knowledge that the storm could get worse before it got better. Worse, DDR 880 now needed fuel, as much for ballast as for propulsion, and normally was never more than 2 or 3 days from replenishment. Empty fuel tanks were not helping to control the heavy rolling, just the opposite. Just before the storm peaked, the ship actually took ‘green water’ down the forward stack, quenching its number one boiler; definitely not a recommended event!

Gradually, as the storm subsided, shipboard routines began their return to normal and the crew readied itself for their next challenge; that of approaching, then steaming alongside a large auxiliary ship - an Oiler - to refill its fuel bunkers. While two ships thus travel close together, the seas always run rough and turbulent between them, even in calm conditions. With the storm not yet over, steadily navigating side-by-side this close to another vessel was tricky enough by itself, without the necessary complication of hooking up to an overhead hose system that allowed fuel to be pumped across the span of 200 to 300 feet of turbulent water running wildly past. But, with this needed task at hand, crew members carefully prepared to venture onto the main deck and man the ropes to pull the fuel hoses over from the Oiler, then hook them up and begin to receive the heavy residual oil - called ‘Bunker C’ - into DDR 880’s tanks. 

The first monkey-fist weighted leader line was twirled and thrown over from the Oiler and caught, then hauled in by the crew, allowing a larger line -tied to the leader- to follow. This larger line was for actually hauling over the fuel hoses, a task that proved overly difficult, forcing the crew to either let it go, or risk being pulled overboard. Again, the Oiler’s monkey fist flew, bringing the leader line over to DDR 880, and again the attempt failed. By this time the crew, being thoroughly wet, knew the drill and the new danger hauling the refueling hoses over entailed. Again and again, the monkey fist made a brief visit to the vessel, failing four more times to bring over the hoses. Finally, the seventh attempt succeeded, allowing sufficient fuel to be pumped into the thirsty vessel to sustain it for a few days, until it made port in the Bay of Biscay.

Relief came at last for the tired crew and damaged equipment aboard, as the storm’s fury finally blew itself out. Later, in swapping sea stories, we learned that other ships had also dealt with traumatic conditions that threatened damage almost as severe as DDR 880. In fact, two newer vessels with experimental aluminum superstructures, suffered structural failure and personnel casualties, requiring their being towed into Portsmouth, England for extensive repairs. 

What the young helmsman learned was that the sea was a mighty force that could not be tamed, especially in a storm, but could be carefully coaxed into allowing ships and men to live for another voyage, if one had the necessary skills and experience. From the moment his ship made port, he committed those lessons to indelible memory, to be used again whenever ocean conditions might threaten.

The remainder of DDR 880’s cruise was relatively uneventful as far as excitement is concerned. Nevertheless, both helmsman and crew seemed to approach each day with newfound awareness of what could happen and how best to deal with it. This is the essence of training, including development of teamwork and safety consciousness. Respect for the sea is a tradition with mariners, particularly those who survive for long. Poseidon does rule the waves, but also all things nautical; this is not just mysticism, but eternal reality! Davy Jones awaits those incautious enough to dare him.