Saturday, February 18, 2012

Home is the Sailor

It's Saturday morning here in the farmlands.  The night's rime of frost is already melting away as I watch crows circle over the fields I can see from my den.  According to the forecast it'll be unseasonably warm today and once I finish my second cup of tea I'll get busy on a few projects I've successfully put-off 'til this morn.  The swale out front needs clearing once again, and I'll want to finish some work on the garage today before the weather moves in again.

Home on leave.  Home after half-a-year at sea; a single month off from shipboard duty in which to experience six months' worth of life deferred--to catch up on the many aspects of life that are of necessity put on-hold while cresting an Atlantic swell, dodging pirate skiffs in the IO, or riding a gale in the Med.  A month to enjoy the varieties of color that are absent on a ship at sea, to work the "honey-do" list, to walk the dog in the woods, and to hold the hand of the one you love during a soul-stirring performance by a guitar trio.

I need this time at ease; every seaman does between long voyages.  Stargazing in the back yard, enjoying a fine meal in a restaurant, relishing the embrace of a loving partner, exchanging tales with neighbors and friends, and most of all taking the time to absorb the very idea, the essence of home, family, and community.  I need this reinforcement, every few months, as a parched land craves rainfall.  I'm home, and I need this feeling.

And yet...

This morning I dozed to the crash of surf in my ears, to the whine of rigging, and the slope of the deck in a heavy seaway.  In my comfortable bed in upstate New York, in an environment as antipodal in nature as it is possible to be to that of a steel ship cresting a heavy swell under a lead-grey sky, I sailed in my dreams.  As the rumble of screws and groaning of hull metal gave way to the purring of our elderly Persian cat and the mattress' motion as my wife rose to make coffee, I awoke with a vague sense of loss.  Loss and shame, a sense almost of infidelity.

I honestly do live two lives, and therein lies the source of my guilt.  One existence is defined by comfortable surroundings, a loving wife, family and friends, the other by cold HY-80 steel and solid Shipmates, raging storms and starlit nights on lookout duty.  The sweetness of the first accents the hardness of the second, the long separations in turn make the reunions seem magical.  This dichotomy could be said to summarize me; these two nearly opposing realities form my paradigm, and though being away hurts me and my dearest ones I can not imagine giving either up willingly.  To do so would change the very balance of my life.

When far away upon business in great waters I dream of home, and when safe in our little house I look forward to the next deployment, the next voyage.  But I can take comfort in the knowledge that I am not unique.

Many times in my career I have seen this tableau; the ship is anchored off the shore of some island, some enticing foreign port.  The crew are aching to be ashore, thronging the decks in anticipation of "liberty call".  All eyes are directed shoreward, all details noted and pointed-out as the libertymen await the 'water-taxi' or whaleboat ride to shore.

Finally, the boat arrives; boarding seems to take forever as the long line of men creeps down the gangway to the waiting tender.  Still conversation and sightseeing are concentrated on the distant land.

But once the water-taxi casts off, and the liberty party is underway for their days' adventure, a shift takes place.  Eyes that feasted on "the beach" ahead of the small craft now turn astern, cameras concentrate on the receding hull of the ship that the Sailors have just departed.  Minds pass from anticipation of the pleasures to be had ashore to consideration of the sleek gray vessel that has brought them here, and which will carry them away again.

In extreme cases I have seen Sailors in waterfront cafes and bars, on beaches alone and in groups, gazing out to sea, out to the "boat" in fascination, as if to ask how something so important, so large in their day-to-day lives, can seem so small, so insignificant in the distance.  They speak in hushed voices, as if their fascination with an inanimate shape of steel and aluminum is something to conceal from passersby.  A secret to be zealously kept.

Two weeks remain of my leave.  Already I am setting-aside items to pack, equipment I'll need when I report aboard my next ship.  My mind-set is beginning to change, day by day; by the end of the month I'll be quite impatient for the next assignment, the next challenge.  My wife has dealt with this part of my career and nature for nearly a quarter-century, and while no doubt the words "deployment" and "separation" mean very different things to her, she has always supported me in my chosen vocation.  This is what I am.  This is what I do.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Red Planet

            Through the eyepiece of my telescope I see a blob of yellow-orange, a mottled shape that ripples and boils, defying any attempt to focus it to a coherent image.  Eye and brain struggle in concert to find detail in this vision, attempting to coerce scattered, jumbled photons into cooperation by an effort of will, an effort sadly lacking in effect.

            It is neither a flaw in my equipment or perception that produces the chaos visible in my ocular, but the work of eddies and turbulence in the miles of Earth’s atmosphere that lie between my optics and the evening’s observing objective.  Having crossed a distance of 118,000,000 kilometers through near-vacuum with minimal attenuation the sunlight reflected from my target has finally had to penetrate a barrier of thickening, roiling air--leavened with smog and a hundred varieties of particulate matter--to reach my temperature-stable telescope and acclimated eye.  It isn’t surprising at all that the image resists resolution!

            Still, I bend over the eyepiece, careful not to cloud it’s optics with my breath in the icy air, keeping a watch on my ruddy blob of choice--astronomy teaches patience if nothing else!--and just as I begin to seriously consider going inside for a fresh cup of tea, it happens.
            The change is swift and only a few  moments in duration, but my vigil is rewarded; without warning the air steadies and the image snaps into definition.  My gloved hand races to find the fine-focus knob and what had been a hopelessly distorted and featureless globe of molten orange light is suddenly and shockingly transformed into another planet.  A “red planet“, although its defining coloring is closer in fact to an orange hue.
            Mars and I have a long history.  In my nearly forty years as an amateur astronomer I’ve observed it countless times, closely viewing four of it’s closest and most favorable approaches to Earth--known as Oppositions in reference to Mars’ and the Sun’s relative positions in the vault of the sky during these events--and always tracking it night-by-night as it moves against the background stars of the ecliptic.

            As the seeing improves my first rather irreverent observation of Mars is that it appears to suffer a horrific case of acne; the disk is crowned by a clear, oval patch of pure white.  This is the polar cap, a region of water ice and frozen carbon dioxide which alternates with its twin at the opposite extreme of the planet in growing and shrinking with the passing of seasons over the course of the Martian year, which is nearly twice as long as our own.

            As a volunteer at Lowell Observatory during my Senior year of high school in Flagstaff  I had the pleasurable duty of guiding Friday night guests from the elegant Library to the great dome that houses the 24-inch refractor telescope, listening to the brilliant Charles “Chick” Capen as he wove tales of myth, history and scientific discovery, and then, after the visitors had departed, seizing the opportunity to join him in viewing Mars (or whatever planet was visible at the time) through the great ‘optik tube’ before securing the telescope and closing the dome for the night. 

 Lowell Observatory Staff and Volunteers, 1980
(from left: Brian Skiff, Charles Capen, Pamela Helm, Myself)

            (One night in early 1980, only a few months before I enlisted in the Navy, I was privileged to be manning the dome and telescope control “paddle” when a distinguished guest came to visit the observatory, and so I was introduced to Professor Clyde Tombaugh--the discoverer of the dwarf-planet Pluto at Lowell in the late 1920s.  I recall that it was a beautiful night for stargazing on the appropriately named Mars Hill and that Jupiter and Mars were paired in the eastern sky in lovely “conjunction”.)

                As the seconds of steady seeing race by I search for more surface detail—a series of ripples cross the tiny disk to remind me that steady air is a luxury best not wasted—and become aware of subtle gradations in the coloring of the planet.  A dark triangular shape comes into focus, then fades into the ochre hue of the surrounding as it shimmers in my view.  Other forms appear and vanish again as I hurry to sketch them into my notebook.  Just a few more seconds…

            Lowell Observatory is named for Percival Lowell, who established it in Flagstaff in 1894 for the express purpose of Martian observation.  Lowell was of a prominent Bostonian family, a “Brahmin”, well known for his books and articles about the Orient, in which he had traveled extensively, and for his clear, persuasive public speaking style.  Having long been interested in science and the emerging technologies of the day, he became fascinated with the observations of an Italian astronomer named Giovanni Schiaparelli, who during the “great opposition” of 1877 had reported observing linear features on the surface of Mars.  While Schiaparelli himself never went so far as to attempt to explain the markings he had discovered, Lowell quickly came to believe that the “canali” (“channels”) were in fact artificially-constructed waterways—“canals” —transporting vital water from the planet’s polar caps to the parched lands around its equator.
 Percival Lowell's Mars
             Lowell’s “Mars Theory” would capture the imaginations of millions around the world.  From the single assumption that the “canals” were constructed by intelligent beings (Lowell was careful never to ascribe characteristics to his Martians), an intricate tale of a dying world and of a unified, peaceful civilization fighting to survive desiccation by disaster either natural or self-inflicted came to be.  And recall that Lowell was an accomplished writer and speaker; his ideas were quickly disseminated via newspaper and magazine articles and books with evocative titles such as “Mars and its Canals” (1906) and “Mars as the Abode of Life” (1908).

            While he wasn’t the first astronomer to believe in the likelihood of life on other planets, he was quite specific in his ideas and prolific in his writings and lectures; in his mind there was simply no other explanation for the “canals”.  The problem was that no-one else seemed to be able to see the fine lines upon which he based his theory. Astronomers based at all the major observatories in the U.S. and Europe weighed in; except for Lowell’s and Schiaparelli’s those features remained unseen.  Controversy erupted and debate raged as the 19th Century passed into the 20th, and Lowell, convinced of the veracity of his observations and conclusions, spent that first decade exchanging literary and verbal broadsides with astronomers around the world who simply didn't see what he saw.

Wikipedia defines a ‘crank’ as “a person who unshakably holds a belief that most of his or her contemporaries consider to be false” and we may comfortably place Percival Lowell in this category.  However, I think it to his credit that he did not insist his staff at the Flagstaff Observatory be as centered on Mars as he was; in fact he encouraged them to pursue other studies in addition to their primary task of Martian study.  His associates, then, proceeded to make significant discoveries and to develop new techniques in their “spare time”; pioneering the use of photography in planetary study and forging the observational tools that would bring about the discovery of Pluto in 1929.

And Lowell’s obsession with Mars had other far-reaching effects;  his ideas inspired many writers, among them H.G Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Wells’ “War of the Worlds” carried forward the idea of a slowly dying Mars launching an assault on Edwardian England, while Burroughs’ “John Carter” series spurred the imaginations of millions with “Barsoomian” canals, soaring cities and monsters on a world battling for survival.  These literary creations have kept Lowell’s Mars alive in the public consciousness, and almost certainly influence us today in our robotic exploration of the red planet.  How else can we explain the almost obsessive search for evidence of life on a world which has given us not the slightest evidence of a biosphere, either past or present?

It may be that Percival Lowell’s connection to us across the many years is the willingness to cling to a vision, a dream, in spite of all the overwhelming evidence against it.

My Mars Sketches (Opposition of 2003) 

Mars shimmers again in my eyepiece, steadies for another second, and then violently boils over as my brief period of favorable “air” abruptly ends.  I put down my unfinished sketch and rub my eyes to relieve their strain, then note the time for my observing logbook.  After checking the view again I rise from my chair and stretch, then head inside for that fresh cup of tea and a brief break before resuming my wait for that next all-too-short period of “good seeing”, when for a few moments I’ll enjoy once again a relatively clear view of the Red Planet.  There is a sense of history in this pursuit; of kinship with observers in a time before orbiting telescopes and computers, who kept the cold watch atop Mars Hill a long century ago.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

War Games II

05 December 2011

It is a quiet morning on the Gulf of Absolution; Arctic is underway on her nefarious mission, transporting a cargo of death and destruction to the civil war-torn country of Orangia.  One more “delivery” and we can head for our home port for a well-earned celebration.  The life of an arms smuggler is good, non?
Suddenly, a hail from the lookout…a massive grey ship is surging over the horizon astern of us, and launching small boats as it closes in!  Even as all eyes turn toward these interlopers a sound from above shocks us—the whine of jet engines, the throbbing roar of rotor blades.  Enormous helicopters appear from above—how could we not have heard them earlier?!—and within seconds heavily armed men are sliding down thick ropes onto our fantail and bows.  Eight, sixteen, twenty-four—thirty-six troops are unshipping weapons, checking their spacing, and advancing upon the deckhouse.  The United States Marines are here…
No time!  No time to react to this overwhelming attack, to the disciplined barbarity of the onslaught.  We try to resist.   The sound of small-arms fire, the stutter of  automatic weapons, the crash of a grenade, the smell of cordite and the ozone of tasers rises up the companionway to our bridge.  Clutching our weapons, we try to hide in the suddenly all-too-open wheelhouse; we will spring our ambush when they reach the top of the ladder coming from the deck below…
Nothing prepares us for the assault when it comes.

Back to the Sea

09 November 2011

For Those Who Came In Late...(or, what Tom has been up to since his last missive, aside from referring to himself in the third-person!)

My last post (in mid-July) detailed USNS Arctic's return from the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea to her homeport of Earle, New Jersey, and my imminent departure from T-AOE 8 after over 5 & 1/2 years service in her (from October 2005).  On 18 July I shouldered my seabag, said 'farewell' to the many Shipmates who came on-deck to wish me well, shook the hands of Captain Hartley and Chief Mate Ivey, and formally "paid off" the ship.  I wouldn't be so melodramatic as to say I wiped away a tear as I caught a last glimpse of the ship from the road as the taxi bore me away to the rail station, but it was a pretty emotional departure for me. 

I left Arctic not because of any antipathy for the ship or her crew; I'd simply been feeling somewhat restless of late, ready for new challenges.  After better than half a decade attached to the same ship, including three overseas deployments and dozens of shorter voyages, I was ready to move on.  There are plenty of ships out there...

Amtrak carried me swiftly to my home in Upstate New York, where Lucy and I enjoyed a sweet reunion after the long separation of deployment, and where I was able to spend a great deal of my accumulated shore leave star-gazing and falling ever more in love with my fascinating and very patient wife.  In fact, my leave lasted over a month and a half, into early September, at which time I packed my gear and reset my thinking into sailor-mode in preparation for a return to the sea.

It isn't quite a direct route, of course.  I drove down from NY to Virginia in my elderly Hyundai, enjoying the scenery and taking my time, and upon arrival checked into MSC's "Customer Service Unit", known colloquially amongst CivMars as "the Pool".  Essentially this facility acts as a sort of union hall, processing a Mariner's paperwork, ensuring his/her qualifications and medical records are in order and up-to-date, and then making assignments.  This can take some time--I have known CivMars to get caught in the CSU's slowly-grinding gearing and end up sitting around (literally) for weeks or even months before their name is called on the PA and they receive their orders.

I was rather more fortunate in September; from arrival at the CSU to receiving orders was slightly less than two weeks.  On September 15, therefore, I was handed a packet of official papers containing my medical record, travel documents, and "go-to" USNS Arctic!  Yes, nearly two months after leaving 'Polar Bear' permanently I was on my way back to her!

Of course, you CAN refuse orders to a particular ship, but you have to have pretty good reasons why, and it would be unwise to do it too often lest one garner a reputation as a "refusenik", upon which time your options would narrow significantly.  Having departed Arctic in good standing with Captain, officers and crew, and having no beef with the ship or her duties and schedule, I decided to accept my new/old posting in good humor, and made plans to return to duty in T-AOE 8.  For a few months, anyway.

Looking over the travel documents, I was somewhat surprised to find that I had been allotted two day's travel time--plus a considerable cash allowance--to reach a ship moored less than five miles from where I stood!  I was to learn later that Arctic had shifted her operational homeport from Earle to Norfolk back in August, and that for the foreseeable future she would sail from Virginia vice New Jersey.  But why so much money to reach a ship I could have strolled to that afternoon?  I guessed (correctly, as it turned out) that the travel time and funds were based upon an assumption that Arctic was still based in New Jersey, brought this discrepancy to the attention of the CSU clerk who'd issued me my orders, and shortly I was bereft several hundred dollars and ordered to report aboard within 24 hours.  This made more sense to me--had I accepted without question the larger travel allowance I would probably have had to pay it back sooner or later anyway!

Early the following morning, with the same bag on my shoulder, I walked down to Pier 8 in a light fall of rain.  The old, familiar hull rose above me, haze-gray with just a light streaking of running rust; Arctic welcoming me back silently in the dawn, looming in inanimate benediction over her returning son.

Showing my ID to the sleepy pier sentry, and opening my bag for inspection, I felt that old anticipation again.  In all of my boardings over three decades of seafaring there has always been this moment for me, a frission of uncertainty and excitement as I look upon a new vessel and wonder what is to come.  What will this ship be like?  What will be my role in her, and will I measure up to my new duties and responsibilities?  Looking up at my old home at sea I wondered at my emotions...why should there be this feeling when I'm simply returning aboard after a few short months away?  How much could Arctic have changed in so little time?  What could be so different?  Logically, this surge of anticipation made no sense to me.

Logic, as even Mr. Spock will acknowledge, isn't everything.

My return aboard was as much of a surprise to the watch as the orders had been to me..."Epps! You're back!" was an oft-heard refrain for several days after I checked aboard.  A notable pair of exceptions were the Captain and Chief Mate; they didn't seem at all surprised to find my name on the muster list.  Hmmm...I smell a conspiracy.  Perhaps I flatter myself overly, but a Captain can always request a valuable crewmember's return from CSU...  (Down, Ego--Down!)

Logic, be durned; over a month into my second hitch aboard T-AOE 8, and things are indeed different from my last tour of duty in her.  My new billet has a very different set of collateral duties and responsibilities--I am no longer an Unrep Helmsman but a Signalman during Underway Replenishment (UnRep) operations, and I'm gaining a new appreciation of Damage Control procedures as I spin-up as a leader on #4 Fire Party, donning bunker gear, breathing apparatus and thermal imager to track down "hot spots" in smoke-filled compartments, knowledge and skills one hopes fervently never to need. My duties have changed, bringing new challenges, and I am glad of have returned to doing exactly what I had during my previous tour aboard Arctic would have been--well, BORING. And we wouldn't want that, would we?

Some things do remain the same; I have moved back into the same "cube" which I occupied for several years, and once again stand my watches on the bridge at sea and as fire and security patrol inport.  These functions haven't changed (much), and neither has the spectacle of a sunset at sea, or the vista of stars and Milky Way wheeling above the masts as the ship gently yaws on a following sea and dolphins play alongside.  I believe I can live with this.  For a few months.

Mare Est Vita Mea!

War Games

Friday, 02 December 2011

This bright, chilly morning finds USNS Arctic moored at Naval Station Mayport, just a few miles from Jacksonville, Florida.  We are completing cargo in preparation to get underway later today for participation in a Composite Unit Training Exercise, or COMPTUEX, off the coast of Florida and the Bahamas.

 What on earth is a COMPTUEX?  It’s a kind of graduation exercise for the ships and air units of a Navy Carrier Strike Group and Amphibious Ready Group, the culmination of a prolonged training process ensuring the force’s readiness for deployment.  The preparation for overseas deployment begins more than a year prior to that tearful goodbye at pierside, with individual ships’ companies working in classroom environments and simulators, qualifying in the theory and practice of damage control, boarding operations, rules of engagement (ROE) and of course fighting the ship in a variety of combat scenarios.  As months race by, and as Sailors and their families “psych” up for the coming separations, shipboard training intensifies in accordance with a well-established plan intended to have the crews and vessels operating at peak efficiency by the time they deploy, and slowly moving from single-ship practice to multiple vessels, then introducing the embarking air groups and supporting submarines, ever more intensive and complex training scenarios, and finally, mere months before the deployment is scheduled to actually commence comes the Composite Training Unit Exercise, which brings all the ships, aircraft, men and women of that incredibly complicated instrument of national policy that is a combined Strike Group together in a synergistic melding of people, machinery, and purpose.

Quite an event, and quite exciting for the crew of T-AOE 8 in general and for me in particular, as Arctic will have a role in this exercise well beyond the critical duty of providing fuel and supplies to the ships involved.  We will be assisting with the training itself, acting variously as a “suspect vessel” or piracy victim for boarding teams to practice storming by helicopter “fast-rope” and small-boat tactics, convoyed ship for destroyers to escort thru sub-infested waters, and even a vessel-in-distress to be “rescued”.  And, of course, we’ll be the subject of many a targeting exercise, the simulated object of many a phantom missile, torpedo or smart-bomb.  (Better than the real thing…)

It’s a tough job; we won’t get a lot of sleep in the weeks to come, and plenty of coffee will be consumed on the bridge, but I have been through COMPTUEXs many times, sailing in destroyers, cruisers and frigates as they prepared for overseas movement, and thus know well the value of Arctic’s contribution to this exercise.  We’ll put crews, aircrews, ships and aircraft through their paces, helping them to learn their duties more fully, so as to be even more ready when the unexpected comes along during their upcoming deployment.  We, the Captain, officers, men and women of USNS Arctic, in our great ship, will act as the whetstone that sharpens the skills of the Strike Group, making them that little bit more ready for the voyage ahead.

 Frankly, I can’t wait to get started.  This is gonna be good!

Tom Epps
Able Seaman
USNS Arctic
Mayport, Florida

Convoy Duty II

20 June 2011

Good Afternoon, Shipmates!
The attached photos continue the trend this week of unusual imagery--three of them are taken of the presentation on one of our radar displays on the bridge, and the fourth through a night-vision scope on the starboard bridge wing.  I wanted you to see these images because they illustrate very well the changes in anti-piracy tactics we have effected in recent months--and how these changes have affected the battle here in the Gulf of Aden.

Here is an excerpt from my posting of 8 March, "Convoy Duty"...

The plain, simple fact is that there is no way, short of a massive, organized convoy system along the lines and scale of that which protected allied shipping in the Atlantic in WWII that the limited number of warships on anti-piracy patrol out here can possibly maintain watch over the massive number of merchant ships that transit these waters headed either northwest into the Red Sea en route the Suez Canal, east toward India, Pakistan and the Persian Gulf States, or south along the coast of Africa
Westbound Convoy (Radar PPI Image)
 Well, I am happy to report that such is now the case.  Someone at Fifth Fleet in Bahrain apparently dug up a copy of Admiralty Instructions from 1943 and as of two months ago initiated a good, old-fashioned convoy escort system for the protection of merchant ships against enemy "raiders"--German pocket-battleships and U-Boats in WWII parlance but Somali pirates these days--and it continues today.  The radar images you see here are of two of these massive convoys--one eastbound to the Gulf and Indian Ocean ports and the other westbound to the Red Sea and Suez Canal, and the night vision image is of a small part of one of them seen from our bridge as we passed close-aboard the other night.
One major departure from anti-U-Boat convoy organization is the arrangement of the escorts.  When defending slow merchants against enemy submarines in WWII, Allied escort units (usually corvettes, sloops and destroyer escorts--the classic destroyer was built for high speed operations and was notably inefficient at the low transit speeds of the convoys then--in addition, there were NEVER enough "tin cans" to go around) would move on the outskirts of the convoy, usually forming  lines in front and to both sides of the merchant ship columns.In THIS case the escorts take positions ahead of and in the middle of the formation, the better to deploy against approaching pirate vessels.  You can clearly see the "leader" units at the head of their respective convoy groups in the photos.

Another oddity is that the convoy escort forces are not "multinational" in nature.  Somewhere the decision was made for convoy escorts to be homogenous--all from one country or another.  This rule (if it is one) does not apply to the merchant ships being escorted, only the escorts themselves, and each convoy series is designated by the nationality of it's escort.  So, the "eastbounder" shown in the attached photos was a Chinese PLAN (Peoples Liberation Army-Navy) convoy, whilst the "westbounder" was operated by the Russian Federation.

This is a little weird to me, but the important thing is that the system works.  A combination of "enhanced" defenses (razor wire barriers, water cannon and armed security "contractors", mostly) aboard the merchant ships themselves and the tight convoy formations have made it extremely difficult for pirate skiffs and motherships to make their approaches, and have prevented many attempted boardings.  One statistic released by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) indicated that successful pirate attacks in this region dropped by over 75 percent in the past two months.
Eastbound Convoy (Night-Vision)
Are ships still boarded?  Yes, primarily amongst those vessels who are unwilling to join the convoys because of their schedules or company policies, and amongst those who have not implemented the above-listed measures.  There are attempted boardings here in the Gulf of Aden every few hours on average, and successful ones once or two times in the same period.  There are no easy solutions to this problem, and there never have been, but cooperation and intelligent planning have reduced the number of ships captured by the Somali and Yemeni pirates from a torrent to a trickle.

I'm going to finish this posting with some information from the impressive blog "Ship Talk", which provides a great deal of coverage on this continuing battle.  The list below provides the names and particulars of the merchant ships and crews currently held for ransom by Somali and Yemeni pirates in harbors on the Gulf of Aden; please read the entire list through, and think of the mariners and their families who suffer the real horrors of modern-day piracy.

Tom Epps
Able Seaman
USNS Arctic
Gulf of Aden

* SOCOTRA 1: Seized on December 25, 2009 in the Gulf of Aden. Yemeni-owned ship had six Yemeni crew.

* ICEBERG 1: Seized on March 29, 2010. Roll-on roll-off vessel captured 10 miles from Aden. Crew of 24.

* Thai fishing vessel — PRANTALAY 12 — hijacked on April 17-18. Unknown crew.

* OLIB G: Seized on Sept. 8. Maltese-flagged merchant vessel with 18 crew — 15 Georgians, three Turks.

* CHOIZIL: Seized on Oct. 26. South-African-owned yacht was hijacked after leaving Dar es Salaam. European Union anti-piracy task force rescued one South African but two other crew members were taken ashore and held as hostages.

* POLAR: Seized on Oct 30. Liberian-owned Panama-flagged 72,825-tonne tanker seized 580 miles east of Socotra. Crew of 24 — one Romanian, three Greeks, four Montenegrins, 16 Filipinos.

* ALBEDO: Seized on Nov. 26. Malaysian-owned cargo vessel was taken 900 miles off Somalia as it headed for Mombasa from UAE. Crew of 23 from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Iran.

* PANAMA: Seized on Dec. 10. Liberian-flagged container ship en route from Tanzania to Beira. Crew of 23 from Myanmar.

* ORNA: Seized on Dec. 20. The Panama-flagged bulk cargo vessel, 27,915 dwt, owned by the United Arab Emirates, was seized 400 miles northeast of the Seychelles.

* SHIUH FU NO 1: Seized Dec. 25. Somali pirates appeared to have seized the Taiwanese-owned fishing vessel near the northeast tip of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. The vessel had a crew of 26 Taiwanese, Chinese and Vietnamese nationals.

* BLIDA: Seized on Jan. 1, 2011. The 20,586-tonne Algerian-flagged bulk carrier was seized about 150 miles southeast of Salalah, Oman. The ship, with 27 crew from Algeria, Ukraine and the Philippines, was heading to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, from Salalah with a cargo of clinker.

* HOANG SON SUN: Seized on Jan. 19. The 22,835-tonne bulk carrier, which is Mongolian flagged and Vietnamese-owned and had a crew of 24 Vietnamese nationals, was seized about 520 nautical miles southeast of the port of Muscat.

* SAVINA CAYLYN: Seized on Feb. 8. The 104,255-dwt tanker, Italian-flagged and owned, was on passage to Malaysia from Sudan when it was attacked 670 miles east of Socotra Island. It had five Italians and 17 Indians on board.

* SININ: Seized on Feb. 12. The Maltese owned and registered bulk carrier was seized with a crew of 13 Iranian and 10 Indian nationals in the North Arabian Sea. The 53,000 dwt vessel was on route to Singapore from Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates.

* ALFARDOUS: Seized on Feb. 13. The Yemeni fishing vessel was believed to have been pirated close to Socotra Island in the Gulf of Aden and has a crew of eight.

* DOVER: Seized on Feb. 28. It was taken about 260 nautical miles north east of Salalah in Oman. The Panamanian flagged, Greek owned vessel was on its way to Saleef (Yemen) from Port Quasim (Pakistan) when it was attacked. The crew consists of three Romanians, one Russian and 19 Filipinos.

* SUSAN K: Seized on April 8. The German-owned, Antigua and Barbuda-flagged vessel was travelling to Port Sudan from Mumbai in India when it was pirated 200 nautical miles northeast of Salalah, Oman. The 4,450 dwt vessel carried a crew of 10.

* ROSALIA D’AMATO: Seized on April 21. The Italian-owned bulk carrier was captured 350 miles (560 km) off the coast of Oman. The 74,500 tonne bulk carrier was on its way to Bandar Imam Khomeini in Iran from Brazil with a cargo of soya. The 21 crew consisted of six Italians and 15 Filipinos.

* GEMINI: Seized April 30. The Singapore-flagged chemical tanker was seized off the Tanzanian coast, 115 miles east of Zanzibar. The 29,871 dwt vessel carried 28,000 metric tonnes of crude palm oil from Kuala Tanjung in Indonesia to Mombasa in Kenya. The 25 crew consist of four from South Korea, 13 from Indonesia, three from Myanmar and five from China.

Sources: Reuters/Ecoterra International/International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Centre/Lloyds List/

The Spirit of CVN-76

14 May 2011

Ahoy There, Shipmates!
It was another early-morning carrier Unrep/Vertrep; all hands were at their stations, Captain Hartley had taken his customary place on the port bridge wing, and I was about to assume the wheel.  The Captain had already ordered “Dip Romeo”; the red-and-yellow stood out from the halyard to a brisk wind in the ‘standby’ position, the coffee mess was recharged for another long morning, all replenishment and maneuvering stations had reported “manned and ready”, and our stalwart “Crusaders” were airborne and already depositing their first “picks” on the Bird-Farm’s flight deck.  As she had done safely and successfully nearly 60 times since leaving New Jersey in January, Arctic was prepared to transfer fuel and supplies to…
USS Ronald Reagan and Crusader 17
Wait a minute!  That isn’t Enterprise, coming up fast from astern…and that isn’t Leyte Gulf off to starboard!  And that ship off to port…why, that looks just like us!! What’s going on?!

No, it wasn't an episode of 'Twilight Zone'.  It was our first Unrep this deployment with the ‘new kid on the Gulf’, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), her escort cruiser USS Chancellorsville (CG-62), and one-stop-shopping supply ship USNS Bridge (Arctic’s younger “sister”—T-AOE 10)—and the first step in the long process of turning-over operations in this part of the world to another Carrier Strike Group (CSG).  Does this mean that we are heading home?  No, no quite yet…our departure from these water is still about a month away.  Just as we slowly moved into Carl Vinson’s group’s duties, now “Ronnie” and her consorts will begin that process, first working with us and finally, around the second week of June, relieving us.
USNS Bridge
The long trip back north up the Red Sea, and then west across the Med, into the Atlantic and then home is within sight, and what a lovely view it is!

I hope you’ll all enjoy these photos of our soon-to-be reliefs…they aren’t quite as pretty as we are but give ‘em a chance.  We were certainly glad to see ‘em!

Tom Epps
Able Seaman
USNS Arctic
Gulf of Oman

USS Chancellorsville

Pakistani Warship Tariq Comes to Call

07 May 2011
PNS Tariq
Good Morning All!
A few days back we had the Pakistani frigate Tariq alongside for fuel and water.  It was a perfect day for photography in the Arabian Sea only about fifty miles from the Pakistani Coast, and a great chance to compare this ship with her near-twin sister, Badr, whom we saw a while back (specifically, 29 March).  Both are Type-21 “retreads”, turned-over from Britain’s Royal Navy back in the 1990s, but they have some interesting differences.
PNS Badr
Compare these photos of both ships; the most immediate difference that jumps out is the missile armament forrard.  Badr has a powerful brace of eight ‘Harpoon’ anti-ship missiles (this is a greater loadout than most US warships deploy with these days!) whilst Tariq has a six-cell anti-air missile launcher in the same location.  Their masthead radar antennae are also different, as well as much of the electronic equipment topside.  Both have the distinctive R2-D2 “Phalanx” point defense gatling gun mounting atop the helo hangar.

Just by observing the obvious differences we can see that these two ship have very different missions; Badr is configured for anti-ship combat while Tariq is far better at defense, perhaps as a convoy escort in time of war.  Badr has a major punch, capable of taking-out a major adversary, whilst Tariq is laid-out as an almost purely defensive platform, with only her gun mounting forward for offensive use.  Interesting, as Vin Diesel used to say!

My reason for showing you this is to illustrate another reason why I am so fascinated with warships, especially those of other navies.  We all do essentially the same things, but we all do them in different ways; even closely allied nations have different approaches to the design and armament of ships and aircraft, shore defenses and anti-air systems.  If we all did these things the same ways…why, it’d be boring out here on the blue stuff!

Tom Epps
Able Seaman
USNS Arctic
Persian Gulf

P.S.  As a means of countering the boredom, here is a photo of an Iranian P-3 Orion patrol aircraft that overflew us during Tariq's unrep...Big Brother is Watching.

It's Always a Good Day for Dolphins!

06 May 2011
Good Evening, Fellow Voyagers!
One of my correspondents (and a long-ago Shipmate) asked me a few weeks back if ALL I do out here is take photos, and whether I actually have a job here aboard Arctic.  Rest assured that I do indeed have duties aboard ship—and one of the great things about those duties is that they allow me to keep a camera handy for those moments when the unexpected guest appears! 

My responsibilities as a lookout, stationed on the bridge wings, place me in great position to catch those “Kodak moments”, and I am always careful to make sure the job comes first.  It does help that I’ve become the ship’s un-official photographer for most events, and that Captain Hartley and the officers tolerate my efforts and enjoy the results—especially the Operations Officer, who loves to email my photos of Iranian patrol boats and aircraft off to the Fifth Fleet Intel types!

Here are a few additions to the ship-board Aviary and Bestiary albums—we were joined this afternoon by an enormous pod (I would estimate 150) of dolphins, and several stayed alongside for twenty minutes or so as we cruised  westward thru the Gulf of Oman toward the Strait of Hormuz.  I also got several minutes of video of the “Games”, but I think that I’ll have to wait until I’m home and can post large files before I can distribute them (perhaps as a music video—anybody got the theme music from “Flipper”?).  In any case, enjoy these photos, and stay tuned—there’s more to come!

Tom Epps
Able Seaman
USNS Arctic
Persian Gulf


02 May 2011

Ahoy, Shipmates!
Early this morning I explored intergalactic space from Arctic's bridge-wing, pausing to admire a baker's dozen of the Milky Way's not-so-nearby neighbors as I swept across the galaxy-rich reaches of Ursa Major and Canes Venatici.  The "Whirlpool Galaxy", M51, was a figure-eight of ancient starlight, and M81 & M82 a tight pair of tiny spirals.  In my travels I also visited the beautiful double star v (nu) Draconis, a pair of identical white pinpoints in the head of the Dragon, and only a few hours before I had been gazing at the recurrent nova T Pyxitis, which is undergoing one of it's periodic explosive outbursts.

How was I studying these distant stars and galaxies from the deck of a ship cruising the Persian Gulf?  If I were in my backyard in upstate New York I would have been viewing M51 and v Draconis (but probably NOT T Pyx--it lies too close to the southern horizon from Schenectady's latitude) through my 8-inch telescope, but telescopes of any reasonable capability are quite impractical aboard ship due to the motion of the vessel ("rock & roll") and of course there is the storage requirement--it's a challenge finding space for clothes and foul-weather gear in my little "cube", let alone a decent telescope!

No, my seagoing "observatory" is equipped with a modest selection of equipment; a pair of binoculars, compact star atlas, observing notebook and red flashlight.  With these simple tools I have done the majority of my stargazing for many years, usually from the upper works of a naval ship, and often in less-than-perfect conditions.  Not a very impressive inventory, perhaps, but with it I have traveled the world's oceans for three decades and seen too many wonders to even attempt to catalogue here. 

My own astronomical odyssey began in March of 1970, when my father and I watched a total solar eclipse from our front yard in Virginia.  I remember my fascination and surprise--it was possible to actually see and experience the motions of worlds!--and I recall that from that day I was "hooked" on the sky. A long journey of discovery had begun, a journey which continues--and continues to captivate me--to this day.

I have a theory--supported by hundreds of entries in my observing logbooks since I first began stargazing--that EVERYONE is an amateur astronomer.  That the human animal has a hard-wired fascination with the world and Universe around us, and all it takes to bring this curiosity to the fore is to place a telescope in front of the person in question and offer him/her a view of the moon, sunspots or the planet Saturn.
Much of my land-bound time is spent doing just this--many amateur astronomers engage in what we call "sidewalk astronomy", where a telescope (or several) is set up in a public location and trained upon the moon or a planet, and then passersby are asked if they would like a peek. The hardest part of sidewalk astronomy, once people start gathering, is crowd-control, and fielding the many questions about telescopes, black holes and constellations!

I suppose what I do here aboard Arctic could be called "Flightdeck Astronomy"; when interesting apparitions such as comets or planetary conjunctions are pending I put up notices on the ship's bulletin boards, inviting interested crew-members to join me on-deck for an hour or two on the date in question.  The turnout is usually pretty good--for one meteor shower last year I had fifteen "guests" for most of the wee morning hours, and a transit of Mercury across the Sun's disk back in 2006 brought out nearly half the crew for a (properly filtered) look through my "coffee-can" scope!

I'm at it again this week; I'll be pinning-up a notice about the "Eta Aquarid" meteor shower, which will 'peak' in the pre-dawn hours Friday, and should be a good show at our latitude.  Then there will be a total lunar eclipse in mid-June; if our schedule holds Arctic will be at "ground zero" for that one!

So here's the pitch; why not take a look at the sky tonight, wherever you are?  Check out the meteor shower this week.  If it's cloudy then go out on the next clear evening and admire the view, then take the family out to moon-gaze next week as Luna approaches first-quarter and then full.  Use the attached star map (my friends in the southern hemisphere can download an appropriate map from to get familiar with the constellations and events for May, and start teaching the kids to recognize the starry figures in the sky. You don't need a telescope to start, or even a pair of binoculars--but you might find yourself needing one soon!

Most importantly, enjoy the show.  Trust me, you won't run out of stars!

Tom Epps
Able Seaman
USNS Arctic
Gulf of Oman

P.S.  Would you like to know more about astronomy or telescopes?  Drop me a line!