I went into the union hall on a Tuesday to update my documentation; the Rep was waiting for me. “I need you for five days,” he said. “Can you do that?”
“Sure,” I replied, but when I heard which company I'd be working for, I had a bad feeling about it. I died a little inside but I hid it. My gut is usually right on.
That night I was on a red-eye for New Orleans to take a 1100' military RO-RO (roll on, roll off) vessel out into the Gulf of Mexico for “speed trials.” I had never driven a ship down the Mississippi, so hell… why not, right?
It has been a few years since my last U.S. Navy vessel experience... how bad could it be? The processed food, horrible bedding, toxic stack-gas, and ever-present patina of grease aside, I mean.
|My ship on the right, her sistership to the left made-up to us.|
Arriving fresh from my red-eye flight at 1120 on Wednesday, I was quickly run through the sign-on drills. After filling out the exact 12 pages of sign-on forms I had filled out in the union hall the day before and giving copies of my passport, MMC, TWIC, Fit-For-Duty, Drug Screening, blank “STCW Rest Period Log Form HR-122” (to be filled out before pay will be issued by The Company), I was given the “Vessel Indoctrination And Familiarization Tour Form HR-121” and I was led around the ship and instructed to check all the right boxes. A little redundancy never hurt anyone.
Nor is any tedium left to chance. The important stuff (like lifeboat muster and fire stations) was given the same level of importance as “Department Procedures,” and an inordinate amount of time was spent listening to those touched with brilliance ask questions that had just been answered while we wandered around the ship en masse. Much was glossed over… for example, winch and windlass training.
|I swear they have only one room layout used on all ships.|
The bosun was on the second week of his first bosun’s gig. The only person with more experience in the unlicensed deck department than me had been at sea since the 70s and it mystified me that he was issued a fit-for-duty at all given how completely he was out of shape. Typically, the chief mate serves as captain while the ship sits at the dock, but since we were headed out to sea, they brought on a captain. The captain was 8 years my junior and had never been on this ship before. To say it's a miracle the ship left the dock at all would be an understatement.
So out we go, flushed into the Gulf on the tide of pesticides and fertilizers eroding from the poisonous and corrupted heartland of ‘Merica. Call-outs were bungled. People wandered around looking for where they were supposed to be. Nobody seemed to know what was going on… it was exactly how I remembered my last Navy ship experience - and hence, the company I was working for.
|The steering station.|
We steamed out into open water and once we cleared the headwaters of the Mississippi and the hundreds of oil drill platforms and drill ships, I breathed deeply and attempted to relax into my watch schedule. Of course, that ain’t gonna happen on a 5 day voyage… and even if it were to be a longer run, it wasn’t going to happen with this company. I relaxed into nothing. There was no schedule to relax into, only frustration and anxiety-producing miscommunication.
Well, that and a spider and wasp infestation. We lowered all 4 lifeboats and with each drop of the gravity davits a cloud of pissed-off wasps would envelope us. Those of us born in the South scattered like cockroaches on a kitchen floor when the lights are suddenly thrown on in the middle of the night; the rest of the crew were yankees and northwesterners who didn’t even see them.
Our “speed trials” were quickly scuttled when the engine room informed us during my first sea watch that we couldn’t slow down or the engine would blow up. Really. Those exact words. “If we slow down, the engine will blow up.” Like a bad movie starring Keanu Reeves.
The captain maintained an amused detachment, though his manners failed to hide his lack of incredulity. The plan became that we’d come into the anchorage at the mouth of the Mississippi, skid to a halt in the "parking lot", and get towed upriver, the caveat being that they wouldn’t take us on in seas greater than 3 feet because the surge caused by heaving could part the lines. Three foot seas are also known as “dead calm” on a ship, BTW.
As we headed in, 5 tugboats greeted us and the pilot came aboard while we were still under full speed. There was much hemming and hawing about the sea-state being too great, and I crossed my fingers that we wouldn’t be delayed. That I’d be heading home the next day. That I would get off this boat before anything else of consequence happened.
I left the bridge and went to the foredeck to assist in taking on the tow line (the one that might not actually get sent up to us), a task so mind numbingly familiar and simple to do, and something so routine, that there was no way to fuck it up. Done it hundreds of times. Easy peasy.
Sigh. We prepped the winch when I got there. The mate asked us to prep the next winch as a backup. A backup? Yeah. Better safe than sorry, right? Yeah. I have never done it before, but hey… why not? If dropping the messenger down to the tug and hauling their tow line aboard somehow failed a second winch would be… well… kind of useless. But whatever.
|Two winches. Sad to say I have no photos of the windlasses.|
I’ll pause here to explain something about ships’ equipment. Ships tend to have two anchors on the bow. The windlasses that haul up the anchors and let them go are run on the same hydraulic power pumps as the winches for two of the bow’s mooring lines. A central shaft runs through one windlass and one winch on one side, and another runs through the windlass and winch on the other side.
There is a gear that engages each shaft to its windlass, and another gear that engages each to their corresponding winches. By moving each gear separately you can engage the windlass or winch and use them independently of one another. The winch has its own hydraulic brake, and the windlass has its own hydraulic brake. The only thing they share is the power and the shaft.
So I was tasked with prepping the next winch, the just-in-case-winch, but the shaft wasn’t engaged. So I tried to align it and realized the pump was off. I relayed this vital information to the bosun, who immediately came over to the winch station, tried the power (exactly as I had), and then, inexplicably, reached over and threw the valve to the hydraulic brake for the windlass, which began to loosen; he turned and walked away.
The gear for the anchor is always left disengaged when coming into port should the ship need to drop anchor in an emergency, so as soon as the tension was released from the brake the wildcat was freed and the anchor started to run. And it ran like hell.
Did I mention we were doing 18.5 knots? Through the oil fields of The Gulf of Mexico? That if we slowed down the engine would “blow up?”
Rust and brake dust immediately filled the air with the ungodly din of tens of thousands of pounds of anchor and chain running out through the hawsepipe, the wildcat gaining speed with each link that fell in the water flowing swiftly astern. And a cloud of pissed off wasps. My god I hate wasps!
In my three days aboard I hadn’t even looked at the windlass side of the shaft on this boat (it is the Bosun’s job), and I attempted to spin the hand brake for two seconds (my last 3 ships windlass brakes operated this way) but it was fixed as solid as stone. Upon seeing that I wasn’t going to engage the brake I got out of the line of fire and let someone in who DID know the system (the chief mate).
By the time the brake actually stopped the wildcat there were over 6 shots in the water (more than 540 feet). And, of course, we did what all ships do when the anchor is dropped- we stopped. The tugs left. The pilots left. Recriminations formed but weren’t forthcoming as everyone weighed (pun intended) the situation in their minds.
I guess the Old Man (who is younger than me) decided to look the other way, the pilot looked the other way, the tug operators looked the other way… hell, everyone looked the other way. No harm, no foul. We weighed anchor a few hours later and successfully took on a tow line and began the long slow upriver crawl.
My watch became a bow watch. Just me, the mosquitos, five towboats, and the least interesting watch partner I’ve ever had to suffer through since that punk on the big old C-10. I suffered through two full watches of tedium punctuated by breathtaking sunsets and insect bites before we arrived at the dock 24 hours after “dropping” anchor the day before.
The tie-up went as you’d expect- each line sent to the pier or the mooring buoys was an utter fiasco. The softlines were 6-inch “anaconda line” (nylon) that required 10 men to handle (we had 4), the main inshore line was on the winch occupied by the disabled port side anchor. It was made monumental by an inexperienced crew.
As soon as we were finished, our sistership came alongside and we made her fast to us- which was twice the fun as the first tie-up because I got to watch the other crew go through the same process - all I had to do was throw heaving lines and “take on the eye” of their lines.
Most ships have a “mooring plan,” a schematic of the current tie-up used to organize and streamline the process, often summed up simply in one brief description, for example, “two offshore, two inshore, one spring, and a softline breast.” But this was clearly “docking by feel.” There was a line on the deck? Throw it out! Where can we put the eye? Hell, anywhere it’ll go! The bow ended up being “softline anaconda spring, softline anaconda breast, two softline amsteel breasts, two inshore, two offshore.” It was a mess.
Anyway. I was discharged later that morning, 40 hours of overtime in 5 days. The company screwed up the transportation plans to the airport so the entire crew spent a couple hours with our luggage sweating on the dock telling bad jokes, stories, and getting restless. They also screwed up my pay.
The navy invented the term, SNAFU (Situation Normal All Fucked Up) for a reason… and I feel accurate in describing this entire experience as a classic SNAFU. There are few things in life that are certain, but I’m pretty sure this was my VERY LAST grey-hull ship. Pretty sure.