Sunday, February 7, 2016

Short Stories: Sea Buoy 2 Charlie Bravo

Sea Buoy ‘2CB’ marks the entrance to Chesapeake Bay and the Thimble Shoals Channel, major water routes used by both merchant and military vessels as well as pleasure craft. The importance of these deepwater routes is immense and of absolute critical value to us, as is demonstrated by the sheer density of ocean-going traffic - inbound and outbound - 24/7 every week. Congestion and, therefore, danger are always present to the wary and the unwary alike. It is with this clear perspective that certain early morning events that occurred just before a fourth of July weekend are now being told. 

CC-1 was a communications flagship, a unique vessel designed and operated to maintain direct, continuous voice contact with the White House. With dimensions of 700 feet in length and a beam of about 50 feet, CC-1 was initially intended to become a coal collier, but converted into use as a cruiser by adding an extra deck, extensively redesigning both interior and exterior, and outfitting it with electronic equipment, with very little armament. Aside from a unicorn-like mast, the ship was further distinguished by a smooth topside surfaces to allow rapid wash-downs when required by contamination. A crew of 1200 men included almost 200 radiomen and electronics technicians to tend the ship’s main mission.

NAN Division was the name assigned to the Navigation Department, a group of 20 Quartermasters responsible for operating and maintaining the ship from the bridge, maintaining charts, publications and navigation instruments, keeping track of CC-1’s position at all times, and taking direct charge of navigating during times of General Quarters, severe storms, special Sea & Anchor Details during entering and leaving port, going alongside another vessel, and piloting in restricted or unfamiliar waters. A related duty was keeping the communications staff informed frequently of the range and bearing to their land-based antenna, located in the Virginia Capes area.

The morning in question saw an unusual weather condition, with dense surface fog that masked both vision and detection by electronic instruments. Just after dawn, NAN Division and its special Sea & Anchor Detail was set to relieve the regular watch at the piloting table, helm, lee helm, port and starboard wing lookouts, and after-steering. A Master Chief Quartermaster oversaw these changes on the bridge, assisted the Navigating Quartermaster, the Officer-Of-The-Deck and the Navigator - who, in turn, reported directly to the Captain.

A single sweep of the surface radar briefly showed a small blip on the screen off the starboard bow, but repeat sweeps showed nothing, probably due to ‘sea-return’ caused by the relatively short distance between ship and the blip. That was clearly a cause for alarm, as CC-1 continued its slow westward approach toward 2CB. As a precaution, the Captain ordered ship speed to be cut to ‘all-ahead one-third’, then to ‘all-stop’.

At nearly the moment the new helmsman took the wheel, a visual sighting of a ship bearing down on CC-1, off its starboard bow, was made! The Captain immediately ordered ‘right full rudder’, then ‘all-emergency-back-full’ and the ship began to physically shudder as its forward progress was stopped, then reversed. Unfortunately, the ‘lee helm’, responsible for the engine order telegraph, did not know how to properly signal the order - by repeated movement of a lever. But, the helmsman quickly leaned over and performed this signal to make sure the engine room responded as needed. Slowly, CC-1 turned and began backing down, but the other ship continued to bear down on it, looking like a sure collision. Quickly. the Captain sounded the collision alarm, simultaneously ordering the starboard side to be cleared of all personnel. Sailors stationed at the bow were frozen by fear that the ship approaching would certainly kill them in the inevitable collision that would soon follow. 

As CC-1 backed down and gained sternway, the bow began to swing left, placing it again closer to the approaching ship. The helmsman loudly requested permission to shift the rudder to correct the leftward swing, but this went unheard in the commotion. But, with the Chief’s blessing, the helmsman shifted the helm to left full rudder, countering the dangerous swing and thereby lessening the chance of a collision. Just in time, the bow missed the ongoing ship by a matter of less than 10 feet! The two sailors stationed on the bow later reported they could actually look down the stack of the ship passing right to left. Loaded almost to the ‘gunnels’ with what turned out to be JP-5 aviation gasoline, that ship continued its course without so much as acknowledging CC-1’s presence! Apparently, it had set its auto-pilot as it exited the Chesapeake Bay, meaning no one was even paying attention to what might be encountered. Unfortunately, this has been a common cause for maritime accidents and near-misses, particularly with merchant vessels.

The sense of relief onboard CC-1 was palpable! Everyone had been on nervous edge from the tension of a likely collision at sea. What happened after that was a tense and  unrelenting focus on getting the ship safely into port. The helmsman was so intent on steering a course so precisely that he hardly noticed the time passing, until CC-1 was nearly at the dock. 

When liberty call was sounded for R&R, the helmsman and other members of NAN Division and ship’s crew elected not to go ashore, instead to rest, thank God for saving them, take showers, and try to sleep. Those who did go ashore, went straight to a beer joint. It took some time to remember the Fourth of July was a national holiday, meant to honor our country’s founding, celebrate its blessings and the reasons their ship was necessary. 

Later, NAN Division held ‘lessons learned’ sessions, after which training exercises became much more relevant and compelling because of the vivid memory of what nearly happened near Buoy 2 Charlie Bravo.