Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Storm at Sea - 1989

A Brief Narrative from My Navy Days.

It was 1989. My ship was off the coast of Egypt doing operational exercises. We had spent about a week playing tag with a Soviet cruiser. At times we could have thrown rocks at it and hit our target. They didn’t like us, we didn’t like them.

I went topside and took a whole roll of film up close of the communist ship. It fairly bristled with weapons. We found out later that by 1989 the ships in the Soviet Navy were literally falling apart. When I sent that roll to be developed, they kept it longer than normal, and then sent back a whole roll of blank negatives. They enclosed a note that the film was totally blank. I somehow failed to believe them, and wish now I had held that roll for development when I got back home.

So we headed south for Alexandria and spent about a week there for a little R&R. It was a liberty port and we were allowed off the ship all day if we did not have duty.
I went down to the Pyramids at Cairo, and got to go inside the biggest one. It is a big pile of rocks with a bunch of climbing, narrow passages that open up into a large chamber at the top. It was completely intriguing, and along with the Museum of Egypt, there in Cairo, made a great trip. I got tons of pictures, every single one of which developed perfectly.

Later in the week, my Chief Petty Officer, some of my buddies, and I went out to eat at a rather nice local restaurant and had a big dinner. The resteraunt would be rather upscale there, but here would be around midlevel.

In one respect, Egypt is a lot like Mexico. If it isn’t well cooked, don’t eat it. I followed this rule religiously, and only drank bottled water. I had no problems. The meal was nice and I had a fairly large steak. It looked fantastic, but it had a strange taste. The texture was not what you would be looking for in meat. It had a fine mealy or grainy texture. Everyone else said theirs tasted strange too, so we began to pick on the waiter about what kind of meat the steak might actually be. We are convinced to this day that it wasn’t beef. We finally decided it was camel, but the waiter laughed like that was real funny. We didn’t think so.
Most of the guys had a salad and some vegetables. Not me. I stuck with only those items that had been cooked at a high temperature. By the time we left Alexandria, some of those guys were in bad shape. You don’t need the details but suffice it to say they had two or three days of unrest.

We left Alexandria and headed north toward Italy, which was our next port of call and was to be a working port. It was then that we hit the worst storm I was ever in at sea.
The ship was an old destroyer; small, light on armor, and fast, with a lot of firepower. It bobbed like a cork float in a fish pond. Sailors call ships like that a Tin Can. My tin can was taking twenty-eight and thirty degree rolls and pitching like a bronc. Everything that was not tied down or secured in cabinets or bins became missiles flying off shelves or ledges often hitting other objects or people and doing some degree of damage. We had men being injured just trying to walk.

We changed our heading into the wind to try to limit the roll but this turned us directly into the oncoming waves. With each crashing wave the entire ship would shake and begin to climb, only to break through the top and crash down into the trough between that one and the next, sending water and spray across the bow up to the bridge and beyond. The captain banned anyone from being on the main deck or 01 level topside.

I went up through the interior of the ship to the bridge and then to the 04 level. Topside on the 04 level the wind almost carried me away. It was howling and shreiking in the superstructure, and it grabbed you with cold bitter fingers, ripping and pulling at every fold and seam of your clothes. I stepped out on the 04 level and let go facing the wind. I was leaning at around a fifty degree angle into the wind, letting the air resistance hold me up. Had it suddenly stopped blowing I would have fallen flat on my face. It was about then I got soaked.

I fought my way forward against the oncoming gale until I reached the forward wall of the 04 level deck, which overlooks the bow of the ship. Looking over, I was just in time to see the bow plunge from the crest of a wave, downward to drive hard into the next approaching wall of water. Green sea water ran across the nose and rushed astern, while a huge column of water splashed skyward to be captured by the howling wind and thrown straight back toward the superstructure. I caught my share right in the face. My winter working jacket caught its share and grew somewhat heavier as it soaked up some of the water.

I looked around the ship and saw nothing but massive waves and water spray that had been stripped from the crests by the wind. The salt water in the air soaked my face and stung my eyes. I could taste the seawater on my lips, and feel the power of the ocean under my feet. We were in the ocean's realm and it was showing us how small we were. I stayed on deck for only a few minutes before retreating inside to dry off and tell my buddies in Gunplot how bad it was.

It got worse.
After several more people had gotten banged up, they told us if we were not actually on watch to stay in our rack, (that’s Navy for bed). I was only too happy to comply with that, so I headed back aft to hit the sack. I stumbled along, down the main passageway, doing ok, until I had just gotten past the Chief Petty Officer’s mess. The bulkhead on my right side took a notion and just reached out and smacked me silly. Actually, the ship rolled hard to the starboard side and as I attempted to adjust my balance, I ran into the port bulkhead which was coming my way fast. (I was walking aft which means the port was to my right and starboard was on my left). Naturally that knocked me off balance so that when the ship rolled back to port I stumbled into the starboard bulkhead. I know what a pinball feels like trapped between two of those bumpers, getting smacked back and forth. The passageways on a destroyer are narrow, so I put out both hands, one against each wall and steadied, then continued on.

My rack was a bottom one and was only about eight inches above deck level. Even so, I did not want to get rolled out on the floor by another set of hard rolls. I rolled up several towels and tucked them, along with my shoes and an extra blanket under the outside edge of my thin mattress to make a dish shaped depression in the middle. It was there that I curled up and fell quickly to sleep. (It’s amazing how fast I could fall asleep back then compared to how long it takes me to wind down and fall asleep now.)

Each night we had an evening prayer which was given across the ship's 1MC speaker system. That evening during the storm it was my turn to do the prayer. We rotated that duty amoung the ship's Lay Readers, who also held services on Sunday in the absence of a Chaplin. I went to the bridge with my Bible, and read from Psalm 107: 23 - 32

23 They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;
24 These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep.
25 For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof.
26 They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble.
27 They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wit’s end.
28 Then they cry unto the LORD in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses.
29 He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still.
30 Then are they glad because they be quiet; so he bringeth them unto their desired haven.
31 Oh that men would praise the LORD for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men!
32 Let them exalt him also in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders.

I prayed asking for God's protection and that he would see us safe through the storm and into our next port, then headed for gunplot to stand my watch. I had the 11:00pm -7:00am watch every night.

During the night, the waves began to lessen, though the weather was still rough. We felt the difference and knew we were heading for the edge of this weather system and hopefully a better day.

I went to bed that morning with my rack still rolled up on one side and the ship rolling steadily. I was quickly asleep. When I was awakened to take my next turn on watch, the ship was in much calmer seas and was barely rocking and rolling along. I had slept like a rock and don’t have any idea when we finally got away from that storm.

No one really understands me when I tell them about the ocean and how much I loved it. It’s been eighteen and a half years and I can still taste the salt in the air.

James Lee Frady (c) 2/28/2009