Monday, February 6, 2012

Convoy Duty

Welcome to All @ Sea!, my attempt to convey the experience of sailing great ships on the high seas in support of the United States Navy.  This Blog began as a series of semi-regular email mass-mailings to friends and relatives whilst on deployment in 2011, and so I am posting the original mailings (not necessarily in chronological order) as entries here while I am at home enjoying some (hopefully) well-deserved leave.  I hope you'll enjoy this look back at the past year, and that you'll stay aboard as I continue voyaging in a few weeks.   There are plenty of watches left to stand and sea stories to tell!

Convoy Duty
One of the things I love most about my career is the opportunity it affords to see (and sometimes visit) the ships of other nation’s navies. Sometimes I have had to travel for the experience, such as during my shore-duty tour in the UK when I would routinely take the train down to Portsmouth to photograph visiting ships and submarines (of course, working in the Command Center in London gave me an edge over most other ship-spotters; I had the benefit of “insider” information!), but I think the most exciting encounters happen by surprise.
Such was the case yesterday; I was standing watch on the helm when Arctic’s radar picked up a massive group of ships. Seventeen distinct radar returns, in very close quarters, all heading west toward us. A check of the AIS (Automatic Identification System: a worldwide network for tracking and identifying merchant ships) revealed that this cluster of radar contacts, still invisible in the dust-storm, consisted of merchant ships large and small of various nationalities, traveling in loose formation with less than a mile’s spacing between them—the entire “gaggle” was less than six miles across!
We’ve seen this phenomenon before—on smaller scales--in these piracy-infested waters. Two merchant ships traveling the same direction will link-up so as to watch each others' “sixes” for signs of small craft or boarding activity, and as they proceed others join the ad-hoc convoy, following the principle of safety in numbers or perhaps hoping that by giving the pirates such a target-rich environment they will reduce their own chances of being boarded. Usually a convoy will have a half-dozen members—this was the largest we’d yet observed!
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. There are just too many large, slow targets for the pirates sailing out of Yemen, Somalia and Djibouti, among other states, for our ships and aircraft to cover adequately.
The warships must act as responders to pirate attack rather than a means of preventing the attack from occurring.
So the “merchies”, for the most part, are on their own—at least until they spot an approaching skiff or are boarded and call for help. Then they have the wrong kind of company at entirely too close a range. They have adopted a wide array of defenses and tactics to fight the boarders, including ingenious uses of high-pressure water hoses sweeping their fantails and sides, towed “caltrops” to defeat approaching small boats and a few other, more high-tech systems. These, combined with the impromptu convoy, might give them a good chance of making their next port-of-call. Maybe.
But back to our 17-ship gaggle! As enormous tankers, container ships and bulk-cargo carriers faded in-and-out of view through the shifting walls of dust, the starboard lookout reported a smaller shadow close astern of one of the medium-sized bulk carriers. Tension rose as we realized that we might be witness at any moment to exactly the kind of attack we were deployed to prevent—and then the lookout amplified upon his initial report; the new sighting was not of a pirate skiff but a warship!
At times like these, the years I have spent studying the navies of the world and the hours spent poring over ‘Janes’ Fighting Ships’ (the indispensable reference on worldwide naval forces) come in quite useful on the bridge. As soon as I could be relieved from the helm I grabbed my binoculars and the “cheat sheet” I keep handy for just these occasions. This is a reference that I developed a few years back, oft-updated depending on whose naval vessels we are likely to encounter on what body of water, with line-drawings of the major classes of warships and lists of their outstanding features and “pennant” numbers. (I did mention above that I enjoy ship-spotting, I think!)
A few minutes later our new friend was identified; a Type 054-Class frigate of the People’s Liberation Army (Navy) of China. Her name was Zhoushan, and though we did not make radio contact I suspect that she was tailing the lagging ships of the convoy, taking advantage of the low-visibility and lying-in-wait for a pirate mothership or skiff fleet looking to snap-up said slower merchant ships. I think any would-be boarders would have found a very unpleasant surprise awaiting them in the mid-day murk.
Zhoushan is a recent addition to the Chinese fleet, and one of half-a-dozen PLA(N) ships deployed to this region. Though she and her charges were soon out of sight, lost in the dust clouds, it is good to know that with her there the ships of that convoy have a better chance of making port. I wish the crews of those merchant vessels “Good Luck”, and the brave Sailors of Zhoushan “Good Hunting” as she continues her patrol!
Tom Epps
Able Seaman
USNS Arctic
Gulf of Aden

P.S. Only a few hours later, apparently, one of the tankers we had seen traveling separately toward the Strait of Aden and Red Sea was taken by a pirate vessel. And the war goes on.

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