Thursday, December 13, 2012

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

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