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.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Ship Happens!

It has been a very interesting two weeks since last I posted; from a hotel room in sunny-but-cool Norfolk to an oiler in the sunny-and-hot waters between Oman and Iran this has been quite a transition! As noted on my Blog, I got a phone call on the afternoon of the 14th that my assignment plan had been radically changed and that instead of a prolonged period of refresher training in New Jersey I was penciled-in to fly out of Dulles for Bahrain on Friday the 16th to join a new ship. There followed a day and a half of semi-frantic preparation; re-packing my seabag for warmer climes, arranging to check out of my room and drop off my car at long-term parking, and shopping for necessary items for a Long Sea Voyage.

Flew out as scheduled and had a very relaxing trip; I enjoyed a biopic about Admiral Yamamoto and then slept all the way across the Atlantic and most of Europe!--I guess all that running around on Thursday had me a little tuckered-out! Landed in Manama late on Saturday afternoon, checked thru customs and caught a ride to the port in the midst of a howling sandstorm.

And that was how I first saw my new ship; USNS Joshua Humphreys was a slightly darker silhouette in the driving yellow sand and dust, with the sun setting beyond her she looked almost unearthly with halos of dazzling yellow refracted by the particles blowing past her security lighting. I checked-in at the Gangway, greeted a few old Shipmates now serving in this ship, and carried my gear aboard.

From the beginning I had thought it interesting that I'd been assigned to Humphreys so abruptly, especially since my experience with MSC has been entirely in a different type of ship, the larger, faster AOEs, which deal with ammunition and combat ordnance far more than the fuel-providing oilers. When I met the Chief Mate and Captain the next morning I learned that my selection for this posting had been far from arbitrary, however. It seems that Humphreys has had the bad luck to lose no fewer than two of her Unrep Helmsmen in recent weeks, one of whom resigned and the other suffered an accident that required he return to the States for medical attention. Thus, Humphreys's Master and the detailers back in Norfolk were faced with a conundrum in that in order for the ship to perform her duties she needs at least three (and preferably more) personnel with this critical qualification on the watchbill. Given the currency of my quals and record aboard Arctic I was a natural for one of these vacant billets--and with a series of Unreps scheduled for the following week it was essential that I get over here fast!

And so here I am, "subject to requirements of the Service" as my Royal Navy friends would say! I'll be posting soon about life and work aboard my new ship, but I wanted to get a few photos out to represent my first two weeks aboard her...I think that one certainty is that I am unlikely to be bored here!

USN SH-60B Helos of the Golden Falcons Vertrep USS Abraham Lincoln from USNS Charles Drew

Dhow in the Persian Gulf

HMS Daring in the Persian Gulf

Iranian speedboats work hard to keep us on our toes!

USS Cape St George alongside USNS Drew