Friday, October 4, 2013

A Christmas Story (Retro 2007)

What follows is an "All @ Sea" email that I sent out to friends and family on 23 Dec 2007, just a day after the ship I was working, USNS Arctic, was involved in a Search-And-Rescue {SAR} in the Persian Gulf.  This happened long before I thought of starting this Blog, and I was pretty happy to find an intact copy of the text recently.  So come with me now, back to a cold Winter's day in 2007...

December 23, 2007
Well, here we are, nearly two months into our deployment, and now Arctic is working in very familiar waters indeed: the Persian Gulf! Officially, according to the US Govt., it's known as the "Arabian Gulf", but this appears to be a political issue as acknowledgement of the "Persian" name implies Persian (ie; Iranian) influence over the region. Most of us go by the name that this body of water has had for four hundred years-it's worked so far!

We came south thru the Suez Canal and Red Sea early in December and relieved our sister ship, Supply, a few weeks ago, and now we are acting as "one stop shopping" headquarters for the 5th Fleet and Allied units operating in these waters. We rendezvous with a destroyer, cruiser, or carrier, they come alongside, and we transfer fuel, refrigerated stores, ammo, and-of vital importance-mail via "highlines" stretched between the hulls as we cruise along. For a frigate or destroyer, the process of refueling can usually takes an hour or two, but with a nuclear carrier and her very thirsty aircraft it can take a sizeable chunk out of one's day.

But that's how we make the money out here, supplying "bullets, beans, and not-so-black oil" to the fleet. As I've mentioned in previous missives, it's hard work, long hours, and I enjoy the process thoroughly! Especially when the unexpected happens...

Yesterday morning we were transferring fuel and supplies to our local "nuke" carrier, Harry S Truman-a weekly event, when our lookouts noted a ship dead ahead which showed no inclination to get out of the way (per the international Rules of the Road). I was on the bridge, preparing to take the helm, when we made radio contact with this apparent miscreant, a supertanker named British Courage, and discovered that the tanker was maintaining position in order to provide a lee (a calm area caused by the ship's hull and superstructure blocking the wind) for a life-raft that they had discovered drifting across the sea-lane. Suddenly the day got a bit more interesting-as we came within visual range someone in the raft raised an arm and began waving for help!

Tanker British Courage and one of our Knighthawk Helos
British Courage was doing all she could to provide a lee, but she wasn't able to close in on the raft safely due to the high winds and seas. That's where Arctic comes in! We executed an Emergency Breakaway, freeing Truman from our tender embrace, and immediately launched our two helicopters, "Villain" 01 and 02. As we closed on the rescue scene (I still had the wheel and so heard most of this from the lookouts and the Captain) our helos went into hover over the raft and quickly determined that it held eight survivors of a sunken ship-and that they'd been adrift for well over a day! In a raft of that size they must have been very uncomfortable in terms of space and the action of the seas (from our 60,000 ton hull it's easy to see even high seas as minor...), and they seemed pretty happy to have suddenly garnered all of this attention.
Our Helos commence rescue operations
Our rescue swimmers (brave guys who actually jump into nasty seas ON PURPOSE) went into the water and started hoisting the survivors up into the helos, while we continued to maneuver to maintain a lee-British Courage, relieved that a far more maneuverable ship had taken over, had moved off to continue her journey-and Truman stood by with her superior medical facilities to receive the survivors. It was all over in an hour, and our two helicopters headed for the carrier with their human cargo. We proceeded to sink the raft with machine gun fire, and then made our way back to Truman to continue the day's work of transferring supplies and jet fuel.
Castaways safely aboard USS Harry S Truman
I still don't know what ship the eight castaways abandoned, and I may never know; given how fast things move out here our little rescue operation is already "old news"; but I can't help thinking of them, huddled in a tiny raft after the trauma of seeing their ship-their home-lost, waiting in the cold and noise of the 50-knot winds for rescue that doesn't seem to ever come. How long until one begins to lose hope, when a day has passed since the sinking? They must've seen a hundred ships on the horizon (the Gulf is a busy place) but with no way to signal, and little chance of being seen, those distant hulls must've seemed more a cruel taunt than potential salvation. What was it like, I wonder.
And what was it like, well into the second day of their exile, to see the enormous bulk of British Courage moving in to shield them from wind and wave; to see men on deck searching for a way to reach them. And then the roar of rotors and jet engines, rising over the sound of the zephyr, and the sight of our two helos, gray, stumpy and ugly, moving across the water towards them. And the coming down of two professional rescuers, in black neoprene, leaping from the hovering machines, and then seeing their shipmates, one by one lifted from the grip of the cold, cruel sea, and carried aloft. Carried to a huge, gray ship and warm beds, and medical help? Saved at last.

How did it feel? Well, I've never experienced anything remotely as terrifying as what they went thru, but if I should hazard a guess, I would say it probably felt like a miracle to those eight men; it probably felt like Christmas.

Merry Christmas, everyone, and Happy New Year.

Tom Epps,
USNS Arctic
Persian Gulf

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