Thursday, December 13, 2012

'Til the Stars Fall from the Sky

Hello Fellow Stargazers!

I just wanted to invite all of you to join me tomorrow night (specifically, Thursday night into Friday morning) to observe the Geminid Meteor shower. This is an impressive display under almost any conditions but this year’s shower takes place at the "dark 'o' the moon" so that under clear, dark skies we should see more than a hundred “shooting stars” an hour around the peak time of midnight to early AM on the 14th. More useful info here.

Most major meteor showers are associated with comets; the particles of dust and ice that enter our atmosphere to produce natures' fireworks show are debris left along their orbits. The Geminids, however, seem to spring from asteroid 3200, or Phaeton. As we’ve discovered with unmanned flyby, orbital, and even landing missions on a handful of Asteroids, they are all different, and Phaeton is a real winner; it has an orbit around the sun which strongly resembles that of a comet, but spectrographic studies with earthbound telescopes indicate some pretty typical asteroidal materials making it up. One theory is that Phaeton is a large comet that has exhausted it’s store of "volatiles" (ices and other materials that can sublimate and form a comet's distinctive tail) and now zips around the sun leaving a trail of clay-ey deposits in its wake. We may not know for sure until a spacecraft gets out there to take a look—and that could be a while, yet!

I'll be watching (weather permitting) from Supply's bridge wings, here in the central Mediterranean, and I hope as many of you who can do so will be out there under the stars for what promises to be a spectacular show. Dress warmly and be safe out there--not only is it nice to have a friend out there to share the stars with, it just makes sense to have an "observing buddy". Even if you only go out in the evening hours, you are likely to see quite a few of these bright visitors from space—last night I watched from 8PM to 11PM and saw over twenty!

Enjoy the show!

Tom Epps
Resident Astronomer
USNS Supply (T-AOE 6)
Mediterranean Sea

A Sailor Looks at Fifty

"Mother Mother Ocean, I have heard your call. Dreamed of Sailing upon your Waters Since I was Three Feet Tall"
--J. Buffett, "A Pirate Looks at Forty" (1974)

USNS Bridge T-AOE 10, Persian Gulf
This morning Supply cruises southward in the Gulf of Oman through a light chop under overcast skies. Only yesterday we were dodging dhows and offshore supply vessels in the southern Persian Gulf but last midnight we transited the southbound narrows of the Strait of Hormuz, leaving the traffic, dust and smokey haze of those waters behind. Now, for the first time since I checked aboard five weeks ago we can see the actual horizon; that sharp line of demarcation between grey sea and equally grey sky. That border seems weirdly empty; no dhows, no clusters of offshore platforms with their giant natural gas burnoff torches held aloft on spindly steel arms, no murky hydrocarbon-based filter to give every bright light an orange halo, the very sun an amber tint.

Now the razor-sharp horizon is interrupted only by the upperworks of tankers and container ships bound for Muskat, for Bandar Abbas, for Al Fujairah. They are easily spotted at distances of fifteen to twenty miles from Supply's high bridge wings, a sure indicator of the air's clarity--not that we watchstanders need such a gauge to tell us we are free of the 'Gulf's influence. We breathe deep of the clean air, savor it like fine wine, throw open the bridge wing windows to the cleansing breezes that tell us that we are no longer prisoners of a sour, dirty inland sea, but that we have broken free, that our ship carries us into deeper, wilder waters. That we are--finally--on the open sea where we belong.

Where I belong.

In the tiny cubicle in which much of my off-watch time is spent reading, writing and sleeping I keep an old, blue-tinted plastic folder. In this well-worn receptacle are the many documents that I am required to carry with me on every voyage, those pieces of paper and card that proclaim me an American Citizen, an accredited Merchant Mariner, and a member in good standing of the Seafarer's International Union. Other papers affirm my qualifications as a fork-lift driver, a helmsman and winch operator, and verify the most recent dates of my refresher training in fire-fighting, small arms, security tactics and first aid. In other words, the contents of this folder summarize my legal status and training as a Mariner.

But they do something else; they reveal a timeline of my career to date. Here are the DoD Forms DD214 that describe in succinct if sterile terms my 24 years' service in the United States Navy and Navy Reserve. Here the copies of training certificates, scanned awards, medals and letters of commendation. This is a summary of my retirement benefits form the Navy and Veterans' Administration, this a collection of evaluations from Chief Mates and Captains over the past ten years. And here, perhaps most important to me right now, is a plastic document protector containing my sea-time letters, the true summary of a life at sea.

"Seventy-six men sailed up into San Francisco Bay, Rolled off of their ship and here's what they had to say..."
--Blues Image, "Ride Captain Ride" (1970)

USNS Joshua Humpreys T-AO 188, Persian Gulf

 My career at sea began in April of 1981 when I reported aboard my first Navy ship at the base in Norfolk. I remember a windy, wet day as I carried my seabag up Pier 24, and also the anticipation coursing through me when I first looked upon USS Moinester, the Knox-class frigate that would be my home for the next four-and-a-half years. The Ensign snapped to the zephyr, the 1MC muttered incomprehensible announcements and a working party toiled on the pier, passing boxes of canned goods up the brow to the midships quarterdeck. And I remember as if it were yesterday the moment when, directing my best salute first toward the flag and then the Officer of the Deck, I requested permission to come aboard.

That was thirty-two years and twenty-three vessels ago, and still the thrill of that first boarding persists whenever I join a new command. Adding-up my sea-time I find that I've spent over twenty-two years attached to one ship or another; frigate or tugboat, offshore supply boat or guided-missile cruiser, destroyer, communications ship or crewboat...all are separate chapters in my memory, all special in one way or another, and all bring to mind voyages, adventures and misadventures, and the many Shipmates I have known through the years.

Ships: Peterson, Wave Tide, Mount Whitney, Clark. Noble names like Normandy and ridiculous ones like Elephante Grande. Moinester and Rebecca Tide, Ramzi River, Joshua Humphreys, Arctic, and Daigle Tide and many more still sail in my thoughts as I think back across the many years. Mostly they have been good ships, well-founded and -manned. Occasionally, however...

Sailors: Pete Leenhouts, Rich Wood, Pat Fennerty, "Chip" Boyd, Billy Howard, Dave Baird, and Frank DeMasi; Bobby Batchelder and Jon Mellow, Vic Martino, Rebecca Anlage and "Lee" Trevino, James Achey, Jason Ivey and Max Pettit, Tom Laipple and Brian Frye. Steve Godfroy, Bill Jones and Bernie Plancinis, Oliver Evans and Larry Lewandowski, "Doc" Bryant, Tom Rorie and The Tedinator. Shipmates and companions all on the long voyages, sharing the excitement and the boredom of mid-watches and anchor details, the fury of storms at sea, the raucous and quiet moments in port; these are only a very few of the names that spring to mind, just a sampling of the memories I treasure.

"Where it all ends I can't fathom, my friends; if I could I might throw out my anchor..."
--J. Buffett, "Son of a Son of a Sailor" (1978)

USS Dwight D. Eisenhower CVN-69

Along the way, through all the long watches and lonely nights spent far from those I love, I find that my enthusiasm and love of the sea, the great ships, and the men and women that sail in them has never diminished, never faltered. A hundred times my joy in the moment of casting off lines has been mistaken by "old salts" as a naive "landlubbers" notion, something that, sooner or later, I will "get over". This hasn't happened, not in over thirty years of navigating the deep waters of the world, and I expect it never will. Mother Ocean still calls....

Tom Epps
Able Seaman
USNS Supply
Arabian Sea

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Reporting for duty!

Hello Everyone!

Arrived in good order last week—the flight from D.C. to Bahrain was relatively painless for a change as I slept clear across the Atlantic and much of Europe—and am now settling-in nicely aboard Supply. She is a near-twin of my old ship Arctic (Supply is the elder sister-ship), differing only in minor interior detail, so becoming acclimated to my new home @ sea has been pretty easy. Even the differences between “8” and “6” are so minor that the feeling is less one of being aboard a new ship as it is a sense of coming home again.

The crew is first-rate and I even know many of them (including the Captain) from previous voyages together, so the first couple of days were a nearly continuous session of “whatever happened to whatsisname” and “remember when” discussions! Several times I’ve had fellow voyagers from previous ships walk up to me, take my hand, and welcome me BACK aboard—when I had never even set foot aboard this ship before last Sunday!

It has also been quite easy to get into the swing of things on watch. I’m assigned to an experienced, professional watch team of four Mariners under the direction of the ship’s Navigator, and already we’ve taken each other’s measures…and the news is all good. I’m going to enjoy working with these guys, and I expect to learn a great deal from them.

Astronomically things are looking up as well (ouch!); with the coming of Autumn to the Gulf the triple-digit temperatures have moderated and the skies have been clearing—much of that yellow dust precipitating out—and already since I’ve been here we’ve had a couple of beautiful nights! Of course I brought along my 10x50 binoculars and a heavy photo-tripod (telescopes simply aren’t practical in this venue—I’ve tried and it just isn’t worth the effort of toting the equipment around the world) with a binocular adapter, plus my bino solar filters, and have already put them to work.

The other evening I hosted a small ‘star party’ on deck and had a dozen of the crew up there examining the Hunter’s Moon (the October full moon), and I’m planning another get-together later this month for the Leonid meteor shower. In other words, I’m up to my old tricks, “pushing” starlight!

To summarize my first week & a half aboard USNS Supply (T-AOE 6); I think I’m gonna like it here. More to come!

Tom Epps
Able Seaman
USNS Supply
Persian Gulf

Saturday, October 20, 2012

"Ready In All Respects..."

Newport News
Bags packed and set out on the porch, passport securely tucked in jacket pocket, taxi en route; in a few minutes I'll start out on yet another voyage in yet another ship.  It's been over two months since I've felt felt the roll of a hull and heard the whine of engines beneath my feet, and it's time to return to that world.  I'm ready.

And even now, with over two decades' time cruising in a dozen types of vessel behind me, I can feel the old tension building within me.  It is a familiar sensation, composed in part of curiosity about my new ship and my future duties within her and in part of anticipation--the pleasurable mixture of expectation, the tingle of worry that every new employee in a strange company, every new suitor on the first date is has known.

Will I measure up to my new command and Captain's standards?  Will this be a good "fit" of mariner and vessel or a "square peg" situation?  Will I be happy as a member of Supply's crew or will I count down the weeks and months until, disappointed and disillusioned, I can carry my gear down her gangway?

In other words, will this nautical Blind Date be the successful beginning to a new chapter in my seagoing career?  I certainly hope so, but I've sailed enough to know that sometimes it doesn't happen that way.  I can only do my best, whatever position I find myself in, and wear my "game face"..

My cab is here, and it's time to go.

Mare Est Vita Mea!

Monday, October 15, 2012


Newport News
For the past few weeks, as I've applied my limited handyman-skills to our little house in Virginia, I've fought various battles against ants, bees, and the American Cockroach.  In all of these engagements against household invaders I've felt that I occupied a kind of moral high ground, harboring a sense that, unlike my insect opponents I belonged there, and had the right to use force (often deadly force) to unseat them from their accustomed habitats.

Not so with this particular denizen of the Epps manse...
This beautiful spider set up shop just a few days after I arrived from New York, spinning her web immediately outside my den window.  Day after day as I dealt with paperwork or un-tangled the interesting tale of our former tenants (since evicted as they felt dis-inclined to pay their agreed--and quite reasonable--monthly rent), I'd glance up and out from my desk to watch her getting her house in order, snaring her next meal, or resting with legs curled tightly about 1/2-inch carapace, resembling an orange diamond when she did so. 

Perhaps it is reflective of the loneliness of my "geo-bachelor" existence (Lucy has remained in New York as we prepare to move south whilst I returned to duty) that I developed something of a friendly relationship with this arachnid--friendly on my part, anyway.  I was careful not to disturb her web when cleaning outside the den or mowing the grass, and cheered in her favor whenever a wandering Anopheles or beetle flew too close to her sticky snare.

I have always been fascinated by spiders--the larger and hairier the better.  Considering my history with eight-legged critters (I was bitten by a Brown Recluse about ten years ago--it's necrotic venom dissolved a sugar-cube-sized portion of my chest.  A disgusting experience, and quite painful as well!) one might expect that I'd be trying to squash "Charlotte" rather than photographing her.  Despite this past , I find myself examining webs and following Wolf Spiders through the grass, enraptured by the quick movements, the acrobatics, the various habits of these creatures.

Unfortunately, all good things must end.  Yesterday I noticed that my "roomie"s web hung empty and un-kept, and a careful search of the side of the house revealed no clue as to her whereabouts.  The nights grow cooler, and insects less numerous than only a few days ago; she might already be wintering-over, waiting for spring's warmth to return.

Maybe I'll see her next year.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Supply Run...

Norfolk, Virginia
Well, here I am, back on duty!  Checked-in to the "Pool" of mariners available for assignment on Tuesday morning, updated my medical and training status--and was almost immediately called to the Admin side of the shop to accept orders! (I suppose I should be flattered...and I am!)

I'll be flying out next week to meet my new ship in the Persian Gulf region...USNS Supply (T-AOE 6).  She's the slightly elder sister of my old friend Arctic, and so ought to be quite similar to T-AOE 8 in layout.  She certainly LOOKS a lot like my old "mistress"...
Sisters in HY-100: Supply seen from Arctic's bridge-wing
I'm looking forward to getting aboard and learning what similarities--and differences--there are between these ships--no matter how cookie-cutter they may look on the outside there are always unique features, and of course a different Captain and crew to get to know and learn to work with.  Just as with Arctic back in 2005 and Joshua Humphreys earlier this year, a great part of the fun of this life @ sea lies in experiencing the endless diversity of  ships and shipmates, and in learning how best to contribute to that synergy of steel and humanity that makes up the community of a vessel on business upon great waters.

But before I can come to know and find my niche in Supply I first must meet the ship in a distant port.  The journey begins in one weeks' time...

Stay tuned--this ought to be good!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Weighing Anchor

Yes, I know it's been a while since I've posted anything significant--aside from Mr. Masefield's wonderful poem, which seems to sum up my sea-going predilections perfectly.  It's been a great leave; busy with projects in both New York and Virginia (more on that later), plenty of long walks in the woods with Lucy, my infinitely Better Half, and our little English Bulldog, Delany (otherwise known as Woola--look it up!).  Evenings of star-gazing and a terrific recital of four-hand piano music, a drive to Drakes' Island (Maine) for a Beach-combing weekend, a fossil-hunting expedition amongst half-billion year old stromatolite "sea gardens", and of course the joy that comes of holding my Love close, of feeling her head on my shoulder as we drift off to sleep, the deep sorrow of that final kiss and last wave goodbye before I begin the long drive back to Virginia, back to the sea.

I'm in Newport News now, plying my limited 'handyman' skills in preparing our little house for occupancy;  after our two-year experiment of living in New York we have decided for a myriad of reasons to move South once more.  Thankfully the old manse never sold in our absence (thank the economic nightmare of the past four years for that blessing) and remains in good condition; most of my efforts are toward cleaning-up the mess left by our tenants and some light repair work.

Next Monday I'll be attending small-arms (M-14 rifle, M-9 pistol and 12-Gauge shotgun) and security training at a facility not too far south of the North Carolina line, and the following week I'm due to report for duty and assignment to a ship.  This, as they say, is where things get interesting...stay tuned!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Sea Fever

Sea Fever
John Masefield

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

I must go 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 go 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.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Sons of Perseus

The Sons of Perseus
09 August 2012

There is quite a lot going on this Saturday night/Sunday morning; the conjunction of Spica, Saturn and Mars continues as a celestial triangle gradually becomes a line of 1st-Magnitude “stars” in the evening sky, a major meteor shower reaches full intensity (its “peak”), and the Moon plays ‘tag’ with two bright planets.  Plenty of excitement for the evening observer and early-riser to enjoy, so lets get started!

First, an update on the ongoing conjunction of Saturn, Spica and Mars.  Over the past week Mars has moved eastward and will be passing between stationary Spica and slow-moving Saturn during the next week.  Even now, as it draws “nearer” the ringed planet and distant star, Mars has moved close enough that you can easily view all three simultaneously through binoculars.  Compare the members of the triad members’ relative brightness and hue—what a terrific contrast of colors!

Keep an eye on these three—the show isn’t over.

Now, for the Main Event.  On Sunday morning the Perseid meteor shower will reach it’s peak for this year; over the past few weeks we’ve been seeing more and more of these “shooting stars”, and the time has come at last for the grand finale.  The Perseids (the name is Greek for “the sons of Perseus”, a reference to the mythological hero) have been observed for at least 2000 years, and are one of the year’s most impressive displays of celestial fireworks, with up to 80 bright meteors (and hundreds of dimmer ones) visible to the naked eye per hour at peak. 

The best time to observe meteors is in the three to four hours before dawn on Sunday, when Earth’s rotation brings the shower’s “radiant” (the area of the sky from which the meteors appear to move outward from) up in the eastern sky.  As the name suggests, the Perseid shower’s radiant is located in the constellation Perseus (see the map below), but don’t concentrate your viewing on that spot alone.  Pick an area with as few lights, buildings or trees as possible, lean back so you can comfortably watch your chosen “sector” (I usually use an air mattress or lawn recliner chair), have a thermos handy and bug-repellent ready, and enjoy the show.

The closing act for the night will be the view to the east an hour or two before sunrise; the waning crescent Moon, 1st-Magnitude star Aldebaran, Jupiter and Venus will be putting on a lovely display.  Jupiter and Aldebaran (alpha Tauri) will be above the Moon, and Venus (brightest thing in the sky after the Moon) will be low above the horizon. 

I hope you all can get out for at least part of Saturday night/Sunday morning’s sky show—you don’t need to put in an all-nighter (though I probably will!) to observe four planets, the Moon and one of the most amazing meteor showers of the year.  Let me know what you do see of the night’s attractions by writing to my shore-side email ( , and above all—be safe out there in the dark!

Tom Epps
Able Seaman
USNS Joshua Humphreys
Persian Gulf

Photo Dump

08 August 2012

Welcome back to All @ Sea!, my effort to illustrate in my own words and images what it is like to live and work in the great ships.  My name is Tom Epps, I’m 50 years young and a veteran of 24 years’ service in the United States Navy plus nearly 8 years sailing in the US Merchant Marine, in the Gulf of Mexico “oil patch” and the Navy’s Military Sealift Command (MSC).  Currently I am working aboard USNS Joshua Humphreys, a replenishment oiler operating in the Persian Gulf region; her job is to provide USN and Allied warships with fuel, water, food and other stores that keep them sailing and carrying out their missions.
 HMS Diamond On Approach...

...And Alongside USNS Joshua Humphreys

Diamond Receives Fuel From T-AO 188
I would like to thank All Hands for the kind comments I’ve received in recent months about my postings and photographs as I’ve sailed in Joshua Humphreys; our voyage has carried us from the northern Persian Gulf south to the Horn of Africa and north to Suez, and it has been a busy and rewarding cruise.  Now, however, the time is come to say “farewell” to Humphreys and her fine crew; my tour of duty here is done and this coming weekend I ought to be flying back to the States for some R&R before the next voyage begins.  A few months of leave and some refresher training, and who knows where my next missive might originate!

French Frigate Guepratte On "Plane Guard"

I will of course be continuing to post on the All @ Sea! Blog ( while ashore—there are plenty of sea-stories yet to tell, after all!  I’ll also continue with my “Weekend Astronomy” bulletins when interesting stargazing opportunities present themselves—and there just happens to a good ‘un this weekend.  Stay Tuned!
Frigate HNLMS  Evertsen makes a handsome approach!

Evertsen's Lynx helo snaps our photo!

I’m going to close out this voyage with a few photos of ships that have come alongside for fuel in recent weeks.  In actuality this represents only a small fraction of our recent “business”, but I don’t always have the luxury of time to take photos of the ships that avail themselves of our services. (occasionally I actually work…)  I hope you will enjoy these images!

Tom Epps
Able Seaman
USNS Joshua Humphreys
Persian Gulf

And we close this voyage with the powerful South Korean frigate Wang Geon...

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Celestial Triangle

Good Evening, Shipmates!

I’d like to invite you all to step outside this Saturday and Sunday about an hour after sunset and look to the west; if you have clear or mostly-clear skies, a reasonably low horizon and not too many lights interfering with the view you’ll see three bright “stars” in a small, almost equilateral triangle formation, gleaming in the late twilight. All three will be of approximately the same brightness, but of wildly differing colors—one a steady golden hue, the second orange or yellow-brown, and the third a twinkling light blue. Unlike the annular solar eclipse in May or the Transit of Venus in June, you won’t need a telescope or special filters to enjoy this vista, but a pair of binoculars will show their colors plainly. Be sure to bring the kids out for this one, and have some fun with the facts and figures listed below.

So, what are we looking at? Most of you will already have guessed that one or more of our targets are planets, and you’re right; we are looking at a Conjunction (an apparently close approach of two or more celestial bodies as seen from our perspective) of the planets Saturn (Yellow or Golden), Mars (the Angry Yellow-Brown Planet) and Spica (alpha Virginis), the brightest star of the constellation Virgo and the 15th brightest star visible in our skies. As celestial events go this kind of apparition isn’t really very rare, but it is quite lovely, and given all the attention being paid to Mars these days quite an appropriate reason to brave the mosquitoes on a warm August evening.

As readers of my Blog will know, I have a soft spot for our ruddy, diminutive neighbor—the “fourth rock from the sun”. I’ve watched it through the telescope for much of my life through a succession of “oppositions” (see the Blog entry “Red Planet” for details of my obsession with the God of War) and kept careful track of our unmanned explorations over recent decades. A small constellation of orbiting probes have been scanning the planet for quite a few years, and rovers slowly crawling the Martian landscape have answered many of questions (and raised many more, which is as it should be) about the geology, weather and history of Mars. This weekend, in fact, is expected to mark a milestone in our Martian study; during Sunday night the largest interplanetary rover yet—NASA’s “Curiosity” is to enter our brother planet’s atmosphere and land to begin a new phase of the search for answers. “Curiosity” is a very ambitious program—and a risky one—but I await work of its safe arrival in Gale Crater with great anticipation.

On to Saturn. The sixth world out from the Sun, most famous for it’s spectacular and intricate system of rings, has also visited by man’s robotic emissaries. Even now the nuclear-powered Cassini probe orbits the “Lord of the Rings”, measuring and imaging the massive gas-giant planet’s storms, rings, and many moons. Run a search online for Cassini images of Saturn; prepare to be amazed!

Spica, as noted above, is one of the brighter stars gracing our skies, a Blue Giant binary (double star) over 10 times the mass of our Sun. Its companion star, which orbits the primary every four days, weighs in at over 7 times the mass of the Sun as well, making this a pretty impressive system. Spica is one of the closest Blue Giants to Earth.

Think about that for a moment. As you enjoy the quiet spectacle of the conjunction, and perhaps watch in weeks to come as the “Dance of the Planets” continues with Mars closing in on Saturn and both changing position relative to Spica, consider that Mars is the nearest of these three objects at an approximate distance of 240 million kilometers, Saturn next at about 1.5 billion km, with Spica a mind-pummeling 2.4 quadrillion kilometers*. Put another way, the Sun’s light reaching us now was reflected from Mars’ oxidized surface 14 minutes ago, Saturn’s icy rings and cloud tops nearly an hour and a half back in time, and shone out from Spica’s twin suns over 260 years in the past (in approximately 1752, the year that Ben Franklin demonstrated the principles of electricity using a kite, a key, and a thunderstorm!).

With all the distances involved, and the relative sizes of the participants in this celestial show, I think perhaps the most impressive fact is that the apparent brightness of each of our three neighbors is about the same; two planets, one tiny and the other the second largest in our solar system, and a double star incredibly far removed from our Solar System, all shine in the sky with nearly the same brightness, each in their distinct hues of red, gold and blue. Beautiful!

Space, as Douglas Adams once put it, is big. Really big. And this conjunction of two planets and a bright star is an opportunity to experience and share some appreciation of the scale of our Solar System and stellar neighborhood. It’d also be a good opportunity for a barbeque! So enjoy the burgers and steaks, and the show in the western sky; I’ll be watching as well from Joshua Humphreys’ bridge wing, out here on the Blue Stuff.

Tom Epps
Able Seaman
USNS Joshua Humphreys
Persian Gulf

* Please let me know if I flubbed the maths on that one!

Monday, June 11, 2012

In transit

"There's a little black spot on the sun today"
Sting and the Police, 'King of Pain'

06 June 2012

I awoke on my own at a few minutes before 0400; the alarm burred to life while I was brushing my teeth. A quick glance out my stateroom window confirmed the weather forecast for the morning - clear with some haze in the air - and as I finished dressing I reviewed my plan, searching for flaws. All equipment packed? Battery packs charged? Would two bottles of water be enough? What had I forgotten?

I'd been getting ready for this morning for three months, and anticipating it for many years. Ever since, as a teenager, I had read of Captain Cook's expedition to Tahiti (primarily to observe a Transit) and the journeys of Victorian era astronomers and geometers in a later century, my imagination has been fired by the idea of worlds in motion, of the clockwork motion of the Solar System, and being part of a grand event, a literal "once in a lifetime" occurrence; the Transit of Venus across the disk of the Sun.

I climbed two decks down to the mess deck and watched CNN while eating a bowl of grits and an apple; around the world observers were enjoying and sharing the experience I had yearned for so very long. With the event nearly halfway over my friends and associates in the US were closing down their observing sites as Earth turned them away from the Sun; the islands and mainland of the Pacific Rim were the only witnesses to the Transit now.

My own turn would come soon; dawn was only an hour away.

With time to spare I rode the elevator to Humphreys' bridge; there the weather instruments again verified the morning forecast. A cup of tea at the rail, watching the gibbous Moon sink toward the western horizon and the lights of metropolitan Dubai, and then it was time to go down to the flight deck and set up my equipment.

I might've been in the city this morning. I did receive an invitation a few days ago from the local amateur astronomy group to join them on a local university campus to enjoy the company of fellow observers as we watched the Transit through their telescopes. I could've probably cadged a sofa to sleep on, or even sprung for a relatively inexpensive hotel room near their site, and yet I had chosen to stay aboard ship to observe the event in the midst of an industrial nightmare of haze and dust, fumes and noise.

Why NOT go into Dubai to see the Transit? Certainly the view through the local astronomer's telescopes would have been far more impressive than that seen through my 10x50 binoculars, and their advanced imaging gear would undoubtedly produce better photographs than my little "consumer shooter" camera with a piece of aluminized Mylar solar filter material (essentially a pop-tart wrapper) rubber-banded across the lens. Who could be better company than other amateur astronomers, fully cognizant of the event and its mechanism and meaning, both physical and historical?

Who, indeed?

The Jumbled Horizon of the port of Jebel Ali at Dawn

By the time I reached the flight deck with my knapsack full of gear and bottles of water, the eastern sky was rapidly growing lighter; when I had finished attaching filters to binoculars and camera to tripod sunrise was only minutes away. With one last adjustment to the camera's manual settings, I was ready.

0529: Sunrise - but an invisible one, masked by desert dust and industrial gloom! Patience, Tom.

0542: Finally, rising from the murk, the flattened yellow-orange globe of the Sun--and even without any optical assistance at all I could clearly see the tiny black dot in its upper-left quadrant. Venus. I stood in awe; at last I was seeing with my own eyes that which I had read about and imagined for so many years! If only there were someone handy with whom I could enjoy the experience...

0544 Local Time: A Little Black Spot on the Sun…

Those who know my astronomical activities and interests well have likely guessed why I "passed" on going in to Dubai to watch the Transit, why I stayed aboard this morning to view Venus' passage in the less-than-optimal conditions of massive port complex, having to deal with the noise, vibration and sluggish motion of a ship alongside the quay rather than a solidly-mounted telescope in a quiet, clean location. They know that the only thing that comes close to the pleasure of stargazing for me is the satisfaction I get from showing other folks what is out there, what they can see in the skies with their own eyes if only they know when and where to look.

You see, with me it's all about astronomical "outreach"; making the effort to share the heavens with the public. When back in Virginia (my home-base with the Navy) I try to take advantage of every opportunity to set-up a telescope in a public place, inviting passersby to "come take a look at Jupiter/the Moon/some sunspots". Aboard whatever ship I am currently sailing I work to drum-up interest in lunar eclipses and meteor showers, conjunctions and comets. You might be surprised at how many people gaze through the eyepiece or stare through binoculars and then tell me that they've NEVER viewed the Moon before that night, or even knew that you COULD see a planet with your unaided eyes!

My motives are quite selfish in this pursuit; in raising awareness and appreciation of the visual wonders of the Universe I find that my own enjoyment of those same wonders is enhanced. As if I were seeing each object or event through fresh eyes; coming into greater understanding as I explain to new stargazers what they are seeing and some of the theory behind it.

0733 Local Time; Finally Out of the Murk

For two weeks I've been sending email updates to Humphreys' crew with the purpose of making them and their families back home (in the States, Philippines, Guam and Samoa) aware of the Transit, how to view it safely, and what we can expect to see aboard ship. Yesterday, having made the decision not to go to the city for the event, I sent one last notice out informing all hands that I would be on-deck this morning, and inviting them to come out and watch the show with me.

0830 Local Time; The Spectacle Draws to a Close

Had just one member of the crew turned-out to watch our "sister" planet cross the solar face the effort would have been well worth my while. I would have been satisfied with a few early-risers joining me on the flight deck - but as the Sun cleared the omnipresent dust cloud over the harbor I am happy to report that a dozen of my Shipmates were on-station, carefully passing the filtered binoculars back and forth and wrapping Mylar over their own camera lenses to capture the scene for themselves.

Score! (Virtual fist-pump)

Today, as we watched Venus glide across the face of the Sun, passing groups of sunspots (I counted six separate groupings - one of our Boatswains Mates was sure he saw seven), I kept busy explaining the event to late arrivals, answering questions about our local star and sister planet, taking photographs and - just occasionally - claiming the binoculars for a few minutes' admiration of the spectacle. The hours flew by, and soon Venus neared the point on the solar disk where it would move clear of the Sun and vanish from sight against the glare.

0836; The “Black Drop” Effect

I was thrilled to see and record the famous "black drop" effect, which happens when a transiting planet seems just about to "touch" the Sun's limb; the edges of the two bodies seemed to melt together, with Venus acquiring a teardrop-shape both through the binoculars and the camera. Many theories have circulated over the years to explain this phenomenon; today the accepted explanation is that the "black drop" is the result of the effect of turbulence in Earth's atmosphere on the seeing and thus the resolution of optics and the eye. Whatever the reason, certainly the effect is striking and otherworldly!

Even as the Transit drew to a close, with Venus rapidly approaching the point of egress from the Sun's disk, more members of Humphreys' crew were stopping by to take a look at the unfolding spectacle. With my attention divided between sky, camera and answering questions I have only a vague idea of how many members of the crew came by, but a full page of my observing journal is taken up by "guest book" entries, giving a minimum number of twenty-two.

0848; Venus Departs the Stage

0849: Finally, over three hours after sunrise and the "beginning" of the Transit (at least for us), and with the day already heating toward the triple-digit temperatures common in this desert land, we watched as the deep shadow of Venus moved off the Sun's face, finally vanishing from sight. A collective cheer met the conclusion of the event; we all raised our water bottles in salute to a rare and beautiful show!

As the party on the flight deck broke up, and I began to pack my gear, I just had to pause and turn the binoculars on Sol once again. Our Sun's disk seemed oddly empty without that small, round silhouette gracing it's face, and I felt a moment's sorrow and even pride; sorrow in that this long-awaited Transit is now finished, and pride in having experienced it first-hand, in having seen and helped others to see this amazing demonstration of our dynamic solar system.

The next Transit of Venus will be one hundred and five years from now. I certainly won't see it; astronomers still decades from being born will observe the 2117 Transit and other wonders which we cannot even imagine, and perhaps as they do they will think back to the stargazers who preceded them, who braved storms and desert heat to watch a planet silently glide across the face of the Sun. To be remembered in this way, however abstractly, is a form of immortality that appeals to me.

It is enough for me to know that today I realized a childhood dream in that black spot on the Sun, and that in the course of my own exaltation I was able to open the eyes of a few others to the beauty of the skies. NOW I can begin in earnest to prepare for the Total Solar Eclipse, coming up in August of 2017. After all, it's only five years away!

"I recommend it therefore again and again to those curious astronomers who (when I am dead) will have an opportunity of observing these things, that they would remember this my admonition, and diligently apply themselves with all their might in making this observation, and I earnestly wish them all imaginable success..."
Sir Edmund Halley on Transits

Monday, May 28, 2012

Fifty Shades of (Haze) Grey

Frigate USS Moinester at Anchor, Med 1981


Now hold on...put away the Manual of Courts Martial, postpone the keel-hauling and give me a chance to explain...

The Military Sealift Command* is in the business of providing the Fleet and our allies' naval vessels with fuel, water, food, mail delivery, and just about every kind of logistical support. MSC does other jobs as well, but our bread and butter is the underway replenishment (UnRep) of warships, either by Connected Replenishment (ConRep) or Vertical Replenishment (VertRep). A look back through the photographs I've posted over the years will show both of these techniques in use; we practice a lot, and can transfer impressive amounts of fuel and cargo in short order to thirsty and hungry combatants.

Our major customer is, of course, the U.S. Navy; I'd estimate that at least 7 out of 10 Unreps we conduct out here in the Gulf of Aden (GOA) involves the transfer of fuel and stores to an American destroyer or frigate. These ships are notorious for having small bunkers and high-performance engines that gulp down DFM (Distillate Fuel Marine, essentially high-test diesel fuel) at astounding rates of consumption, and their helos drink plenty of JP5, or "jet" as well.


The problem with the USN ships is that they all look alike, or at least all the ships of each type look pretty much like their sister ships. When Arleigh Burke comes alongside, the only way to tell her from John Paul Jones is to check her "pennant", or hull number--otherwise these ships are virtual carbon copies of each other. Nearly sixty carbon copies. Likewise the frigate Taylor is pretty much indistinguishable from Elrod or Kauffman; ditto the cruisers Normandy and Leyte Gulf. A fleet of cookie-cutter warships, our surface combat force is divided into exactly one class of each type of ship...and the same rule applies in general to aircraft carriers and amphibious warfare vessels as well.

Yawn. The luster of being a ship enthusiast and photographer begins to dull when all of your "customers" look alike. I suppose I could just take one photo of a destroyer and "photoshop" different hull numbers on it...who could tell?

Guided-Missile Destroyer USS Charles F. Adams in Gitmo 1983
It wasn't always this way. When I joined my first frigate, 'way back in 1981, the Navy's surface force consisted of a half-dozen different classes of guided-missile cruiser (both nuclear and conventional propulsion, or CG and CGN), at least as many 'makes' of destroyer and guided-missile destroyer (DD and DDG), and five distinct classes of frigate and guided-missile frigate (FF and FFG).

A walk along the Norfolk piers was a safari of ship classes, with quite a few variations in class and even unique hulls, one-off warships or survivors of elderly classes. In fact, it wasn't unusual even in that era to see ships alongside that dated back to World War II and the Korean War!

This began to change with the Reagan years. The President and Navy Secretary John Lehman were committed to updating and improving our naval forces across the board, and under their direction the Navy began to acquire newer and vastly more powerful ships and submarines. As the eighties wore on into the early nineties, the variety of cruisers and destroyers to be seen pierside and at sea began to decrease; the Fleet started to resemble the homogenous force that sails today. Half-a-dozen cruiser classes vanished to be replaced by the incredibly capable Ticonderoga/Bunker Hill class ships, and entire classes of DDs, DDGs, and frigates were decommissioned, sold off to other countries or "expended" as targets during naval wargames. Many of these ships were quite young as hulls go; the entire Spruance and Knox classes, capable ships with decades of useful service remaining, simply disappeared to make room (physically and financially) for the new Burke class DDGs, while the Virginia-class CGNs were little more than fifteen years old when they began to be decommissioned.

By the beginning of the 21st century the deed was done. Today we have one class each of the DDG, CG, and FF types...and the last of the frigates are soon to fade away, to be replaced in a very limited manner by the new Littoral Combat Ships (LCS).

{{Informed readers may note that I refer to the Perry-class frigates as FFs rather than FFGs. This is due to the removal of all the remaining FFGs' missile armament back in the early 2000s. A cost-saving measure but, in my opinion, a potentially expensive one -- the Perrys now deployed to hot-spots around the world now have NO anti-aircraft or anti-ship capability beyond their point-defense "Phalanx" mounts and 76mm guns. And our potential enemies know this. Our leaders might want to remember that Less Capable Does Not Mean In-Capable, and that some defense is better than none.}}


Yes, I understand the advantages conferred by standardization of types and classes; the Navy's logistical juggernaut need only funnel a certain, fixed variety of components and their associated paraphernalia to the ships of the fleet. When we had five classes of destroyer on-line, there were five separate parts pipelines supplying them all, ditto the multiple cruiser and frigate classes--and the supply of ordnance to a dozen missile systems and five major calibres of gun armament required a tremendous and complicated logistical track. Additionally there is a great savings in manpower and facilities when you only need train Sailors to operate six weapons systems rather than seventeen. Building all of the cruisers, all of the destroyers to a couple of designs makes perfect sense in this context.

And it IS true that these ships are orders of magnitude more capable than the older classes that they replaced; having experienced service in a cruiser and witnessed the power and precision of modern weapons and sensor systems I would look rather foolish if I were to claim that our force is not better-equipped as a result of the changes I've broadly outlined above (I do have one argument regarding this point, but will save it for a future post). In fact, I am quite pleased to concede that a single Bunker Hill- or Burke-class ship carries more firepower, and can apply it more flexibly, than any single hull has ever done before. They truly are magnificent fighting machines, and crewed by trained officers and Sailors they can effect control of an enormous area of the sea, air, electronic and space battlefield.

It is possible that I have exaggerated somewhat the potential for boredom experienced when a powerful USN warship is approaching our starboard side and preparing to connect, but it is true that I take fewer photos these days as American ships draw close to Unrep. I have literally thousands of images of the cookie-cutter Fleet on my hard drive, and the unless something unusually dramatic is happening I just don't feel the impulse I once did to capture Arleigh Burkes, Bunker Hills, and Perrys.

Perhaps I suffer from overkill. In any case it must be obvious that my complaint is purely based on personal aesthetic preferences. But not to despair; there IS an antidote to shipspotter's ennui...


You'll recall my estimate that 7 out of 10 Unreps we conduct are with American warships; the good news is that the other 3 involve combat ships of other nations. There are plenty of them out here in the GOA, involved in anti-piracy patrols either as part of the "Combined Maritime Force" or despatched independently by their governments for escort and protection of merchant ships. British, Dutch, Turkish,French, Spanish, Belgian, German, etc...I'd estimate that at any time there are twenty warships of Allied nations in this region, and at least a dozen "independents", such as Russian, Chinese and Iranian vessels. The independents tend to rely on their own logistical ships (I suspect the Iranian frigate begs for fuel from the ships they escort--oh, that's mean, Tom!), but all of the Allied warships, eventually, end up alongside an MSC oiler for fuel, fresh water and stores.

For the naval enthusiast with camera at the ready, this constitutes a target-rich environment.

Nuclear Guided-Missile Cruiser USS South Carolina in the Med, 1988

I find that there is a special excitement in that first visual detection of an unidentified warship; when distant video on the radar screen resolves itself into a masthead just above the horizon, and examination through binoculars reveals its naval provenance. Sometimes our first indication that there is a foreign warship near comes when a strange helo flies by and we puzzle over its markings. Perhaps the "stranger" materializes full-blown from a fogbank or sandstorm, like a wraith from beyond in some monochrome film. But always there is the thrill of the unknown; there is someone else out there, a man-o-war with unknown intent, and it is a small part of my job to resolve the ambiguity and report to my Captain not only what type of vessel it is but a reasonable summary of its class and nation of origin.

I have to admit that I'm pretty proficient in this task; ever since my early years in the Fleet I've been fascinated by warship technology and design, and have spent a great deal of time and effort becoming familiar with the identification features and flags of most of the major classes of combatants world-wide. Recently I even wrote a small booklet on the subject of warship identification, a guide to the classes of ships one might encounter on patrol or transit in this region of the world. Strictly an amateur effort ("Warship ID for Dummies"?) but it has been well-received by bridge watchstanders and captains aboard several ships.

The major drive in my fascination with this topic is the sheer variety of approaches utilized by different countries in what one might expect to be a pretty standardized mission; the design and construction of a warship. While merchant ships worldwide are built to a half-dozen layouts, when it comes to combat ships the number of themes and variations thereof are staggering! As I am quite sure I have written at least once in the past year or so, we all do the same things but do them differently, and therein lies the nub of the matter--with a fairly constant international naval review in progress I can dismiss the cookie-cutter aspects of our own Fleet and concentrate on the amazing variety of men-o-war to be seen out here in the busy waters of the southern approaches to the Red Sea.


I am attaching images of a few of Joshua Humphrey's most recent "customers" as evidence of the variety of warships to be found battling the Somali and Yemeni pirates in this area. We have two Spanish ladies, the frigate Reina Sofia and patrol ship Infanta Elena, two very different examples of the Armada Espanola. There is the powerful and very professionally-handled Portuguese frigate Corte Real, of the ubiquitous "Meko" hull and potent sensor and weapons fit, the French Nivose, a chunky patrol vessel with a hull reminiscent of a World War II corvette and impressive endurance (with a maximum cruising range of 10,000 nautical miles at 15 knots she could reach Rio de Janeiro before exhausting the DFM we provided the other day). All of these vessels are strikingly different from each other in both their designs and their capabilities; each bringing a unique set of strengths and weaknesses, doctrines and tactics, to the fight.

SPS Reina Sofia Unreps from USNS Joshua Humphreys

Reina Sofia Unreps from USNS Joshua Humphreys

SPS Infanta Elena

Infanta Elena Alongside USNS Joshua Humphreys
FS Nivose


It is the study of these differences, and the array of technologies and techniques that they bring to the modern synergistic naval battle, that keeps me interested in these vessels and their officers and crews. It is the multiplicity of design elements, and the decisions made as they came together on the builder's ways, plus all the myriad changes and adaptations to a constantly changing battle environment, that draws my photographer's instinct to record them to best advantage. And it is my love of ships (some might say obsession), and of the kaleidoscope of types, classes, modifications and variations on the theme of the modern man-o-war, that keeps me glued to the eyepiece cups of my binoculars, waiting for that mast or wisp of stack gas on the razor's edge of the horizon; waiting for the slow appearance of yet another "stranger" to study, identify, understand and admire.

*This is the organization's old name, actually--NOW we are known as the Military Sealift Fleet Support Command--but that is WAY too many syllables for a common mariner like me! The new title appears on the letterhead, but not many of us are using it yet in casual conversation. The acronym--MSFSC--is even less popular with the rank and file. It's easier to say "I work for MSC"...

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Ring of Fire

An Annular Eclipse of the Sun

I'd like to take this opportunity to invite everyone to enjoy a pair of impressive celestial events over the next few weeks. I would think that anyone would be interested in these visible demonstrations of the movements of the bodies of our solar system, and that children especially will be fascinated.

First, a brief caveat...

WARNING: Never look directly at the Sun! The Sun's light, either seen with the naked eye or with optical magnification, can do permanent and irreparable damage to your eyes, including partial or permanent blindness. Observe the Sun--or any event involving the Sun--ONLY through properly filtered and operated instruments.

Ring of Fire

The first--during the afternoon of the 20th of May--is an Annular/Partial eclipse of the Sun by the Moon. It will be visible from a large part of the USA and much of Asia (on the morning of the 21st), and should be quite a show.

An Annular eclipse is one in which the Moon passes before the Sun's disk, but the Moon is too distant in its orbit to cover the Sun completely. The result is a ring of Sun surrounding the blackness of the Moon's disk, as seen in the attached image--a spooky vista to be sure. The Annular eclipse will be visible along a narrow track that runs from Taiwan across the Pacific Ocean and the western states, ending in Texas. (See the the map--shamelessly filched from this month's Sky and Telescope magazine)

If you don't happen to live within that track, not to worry! You'll still have the dramatic view of the Moon's disk creeping across a large extent of the Sun's disk...certainly an unusual and unique way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Given the dangers of staring at the Sun with either naked eye or optical equipment, I recommend you check online to see what your area's local amateur astronomers are planning for the event, or call the nearest planetarium and ask about their eclipse activities. Chances are that there will be at least one observing event (a "Star Party") within easy driving distance. They will have properly filtered instruments that will allow you to observe the eclipse in safety and comfort available for public use. I can almost guarantee that there will be a LOT of astronomical attention for this eclipse!

Two and a half weeks later--on the 5th of June--there will be yet another opportunity for you to stare at the Sun! Just make sure you do it safely.

Transit of Venus

Step outside tonight about an hour after sunset; if the skies are fairly clear you'll see a dazzling white "star" dominating the western sky. This is Venus, next planet in from Earth toward the Sun. On the evening of 5 June this planet will cross the disk of the Sun in what is called a 'transit', quite a rare event. In fact, the next time this will occur will be the year 2117, so THIS apparition is literally a "once in a lifetime" event!

Again, the transit will be visible in the late afternoon hours of June 5, and there should be quite a bit of astronomical activity surrounding it's observation; use those stargazing "contacts" you made for the eclipse and take advantage of the opportunity to get the kids away from the TV or computer to experience first-hand the "music of the spheres". The sight of our sister planet slowly crossing the Sun's face will be amazing.

I won't be able to watch the solar eclipse--Joshua Humphreys is sailing in the wrong hemisphere--but weather permitting I WILL be observing the Transit of Venus with properly-filtered binoculars. I hope you'll all take advantage of these two sky-watching opportunities, and further that you'll write me with your observations and impressions. Let me know what you see and what you think about these visible demonstrations of planetary and lunar motion. Above all, enjoy the spectacle--and be SAFE!

If you have any questions about these events--or any astronomical matters--I would be pleased to assist.  Write me at my webmail address of

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Into the light!

"When you see the Southern Cross for the first time...You understand now why you came this way"
-- Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

After long weeks under the umbrella of dust that cloaks the skies as seen from the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, we have left that filter of fine orange silt behind as we head down the coast of Somalia en route our new mission; supporting anti-piracy operations in these waters of the Horn of Africa. For the first time since I came aboard Joshua Humphreys the horizon is a clear, sharp dividing line between sea and sky rather than thickening haze, the air is clear and the sun rises and sets instead of fading into or out of existence through the murk. The change in our surroundings is reflected clearly in our officers and crew as well; all hands seem to quietly (and some not so quietly) rejoice at the return to the open seas. Conversation is more animated, laughter rises from the decks, and even song is heard to accompany the days' work.

For myself, I find that the sight of a whale or flying fish, the curved prow of a dhow, or the brassy sunlight on the wind-ruffled water brings me a greater happiness here under a clear, open sky than I have felt in the constrained quarters of the dusty Gulfs; the change in our environment is reflected in my attitude of the past few days. I know that as we become accustomed to this area our joy will be tempered, but for now all hands seem happy to celebrate their liberation (if only a temporary one) from the oppressive atmosphere of those waters bound by Iran, Oman, the UAE and Iraq.

Of course, a large measure of my change of attitude is due to the night skies out here on the deep blue, and the new and exciting vistas revealed by our southerly passage.

The southern stars have always held a fascination for mariners. So different from those to be seen in northern latitudes, they represent the mysteries of another hemisphere, of lands and ways far from the familiar ones of our homes. As night watches pass and Polaris sinks slowly and gradually toward the horizon astern, fresh wonders rise off our bows; the shapes of odd constellations and asterisms framing alien stars and an unfamiliar Milky Way stretching across the sky and beckoning us onward to new discoveries, star clouds and lanes of inky darkness etching unusual contours across the night sky.

Even those amongst us who are not stargazers can recognize changes in the evening sky show. Stars that were only a few nights ago directly overhead now circle well to the north, while those that were once low over the horizon now climb high overhead. The sinuous curve of Scorpius' tail and Sagittarius' "teapot" now dominate the sky above us, and the contrasting yellow and blue sparks of Saturn and Spica stand high in the West at midnight. Our eyes are drawn to these changes, just as a land-dweller notes significant alterations in his home environs; we slowly approach the equator and the heavens' changes reflect our southerly course as clearly as a street sign indicates a new traffic pattern to an observant driver.

Last night was the first perfectly clear one since leaving the Strait of Hormuz a week ago...and what a night it was! Stepping from wheelhouse onto bridge wing I was struck motionless by the sight of the Milky Way, its star clouds and dark dust lanes in high relief, strewn with the familiar stars of Cygnus and Aquila and bordered by Lyra and Sagitta. Further to the south, past the Scorpion and the Archer, lay the somewhat less-intimate stars of Centaurus, dominated by the amber beacon of Alpha Centaurus, one of the the nearest stars to our solar system, and by the glowing ball of hazy starlight that comprises the huge globular cluster named Omega Centaurus. Just beautiful!

Even as I stared in wonder at this starry spectacle I could hear the splash of dolphins alongside and see the glow of bioluminescent plankton, excited by Joshua's passage through their uncountable multitudes, reflected on bridge wings awnings. My skin goose-pimpled to the touch of the warm equatorial breeze, and my inner ear registered the slow roll of our hull, its pitch and yaw in the gentle swell, the vibrations of powerful diesels many decks below my feet. And while I admired the view and soaked up the myriad sensations rendered by standing on the deck of a ship at sea under the vault of the heavens, I was already thinking ahead, drawing-up an audacious observing plan for the weeks to come; intending to take full advantage of the star-gazing opportunities inherent in our mission on these waters.

I have my portable star atlas, 10x50 binoculars, and a library of observing references and guides on my laptop, plus what looks a golden opportunity to explore in depth a region of the sky that I rarely get the chance to even glimpse. I think I am going to truly enjoy the next few months.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Book of Joshua

Attention All Hands!

As of this evening I have been a member of Joshua Humphreys' crew for a month, and I am pleased to report that I've settled-in well to my new ship and duties. She seems a good vessel and well-founded; the crew is a happy one, the importance of which cannot be overstressed, especially in this operational theatre, and her officers and Captain are first rate.
 USNS Joshua Humphreys--a photo I took back in 2010

Joshua Humphreys is named for the Boston naval architect and shipbuilder who designed and oversaw the construction of the first six frigates built for the fledgling United States Navy (one of these fine ships, USS Constitution, is the oldest commissioned vessel still in service afloat, a testament to the skill of her creator). She is actually the second ship of the Fleet to bear the name; the first was a destroyer which served from 1920 through the end of World War II, even serving as a witness to the Japanese attack on Oahu in 1941.

The second of the 18-ship Henry J. Kaiser class of auxiliary replenishment oilers (AOs), Joshua is a bit of an anachronism. When she was finished in 1987 the Navy was surging toward the lofty goal of a 600-ship combat fleet set by President Ronald Reagan and Navy Secretary John Lehman, but with the radical reductions in the force brought about by the "peace dividend" of the early 1990s there were suddenly far fewer naval ships to support. As a consequence of this many older auxiliaries were scrapped; Humphreys was judged to be too young and potentially useful for this fate and was deactivated ("mothballed") in 1996.
And there, in the inactive ships facility in Philadelphia, she remained in suspended in-animation until in 2010 the call came for her services once again. Re-activated and with modernized power plant controls, she was then assigned to U.S. Central Command (CentCom) as the permanent duty oiler for the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea and Horn of Africa region, where she continues to serve today providing fuel to U.S. and Allied units operating in these waters as a mainstay of Task Force 53, the logistical arm of 5th Fleet.

I wrote "anachronism" above; the mix of old and new in Joshua Humphreys is obvious and sometimes jarring. Her replenishment rigs are the current standard,with shiny titanium winch drums and controls that her original designers (back in the 1970s) could only have dreamed of, but her internal arrangements distinctly old-fashioned; I read and sleep in my own large, clean stateroom but work on a bridge which resembles a nautical museum exhibit; digital readouts and LCD displays are tucked clumsily between bulky, old-fashioned gyro- and magnetic compass repeaters and other instruments that even with my considerable experience made my first trick on the helm a real challenge!

Not to give a wrong impression, though...I feel quite confident on the helm today, and have had my qualification as Unrep Helmsman confirmed by Captain Christian, the ship's Master. This is a point of pride with me; to be trusted to "drive" the ship when aircraft carriers and destroyers come alongside, keeping within tenths of a degree of the ordered course, is a prestigious if stressful honor. Of course, the extra money helps too...

Back to the good ship Humphreys; given that I spent over six years sailing in Arctic, I'm afraid that some comparison with my last ship is inevitable. And there are many differences between the Supply-class Fast Combat Stores ships (AOEs) and the Henry J. Kaiser-class AOs, in both mission and design philosophy. Arctic with her low, almost reptilian profile, was designed and built to naval standards, with vital control and living spaces spread through her and positioned for maximum survivability in a combat environment, and with her gas-turbine propulsion she can keep up with most of the warships she supports, running with the wolves if you will. Humphreys and her sisters, on the other hand, were constructed to a mercantile motif; in profile they more resemble the commercial tankers they are based on, and are arranged more for operation by a smaller crew with much more centralized facilities--all of her staterooms, offices and engineering spaces are located in an apartment building-sized superstructure set well aft.

Both classes of ship carry roughly the same amounts of liquid cargo (Distillate Fuel-Marine/DFM for ships and JP-5 for aircraft) but while the AOEs can deliver massive cargoes of stores and ammunition (hence the "E" in their designations--for Explosive Cargo), AOs have smaller holds and no ordnance capacity to speak of.

There are many other differences, some of which I am still becoming accustomed to. Not being built for high speeds or sustained flight operations (they have helicopter flight decks and the ability to refuel visiting helos, but no hangar or maintenance facilities to support embarked aircraft), the Kaisers are intended to operate independently of the Fleet, meeting with warships on the high seas (and well away from the threat of battle) to supply fuel and limited amounts of cargo via connected replenishment (ConRep) and vertical replenishment (VertRep) using those warships' own "whirlybirds".

I guess you could say that the AOEs (such as Arctic and her three sisters) are the thoroughbreds of this business while the AOs play the vital but less glamorous wagon-team role of carrying fuel to ships at sea, and while I certainly understand the differences between these ships and their missions and am enjoying learning the ropes here aboard Joshua Humphreys I DO occasionally find myself missing the wonderful speed, maneuverability and elan of my "ammo boats". Oh, I have no problem serving in T-AO 188--she is quite comfortable and has a great cadre aboard but I learned my trade on faster, more flexible hulls and I'll probably request assignment to one of them when my tour here is done.

John Paul Jones said that he wished to have nothing to do with any ship that does not sail fast. For my part I guess I just feel the Need for Speed.