Saturday, April 20, 2013

Ready in All Respects for Sea...

Finally, I've received orders...I'm to report in two weeks' time for duty aboard USNS Alan Shepard, T-AKE 3, and I'm quite pleased by this assignment.  Not only is my new ship named for a personal hero of mine, first American to launch into space and fifth to walk on the moon, but she has a great 'rep' in the Fleet.  I've been hoping for several weeks to "score" these orders, and when the folks in the front office told me I had to restrain myself from a celebratory fist-pump!
USNS Alan Shepard seen from USNS Arctic, 2011
I'll be spending most of the next two weeks helping Lucy move our accumulated goods down from New York to Virginia, but already I feel the old excitement.  I'm headed back to sea again, and this ought to be a good one!

Mare Est Vita Mea!

USNS Alan Shepard, 2011

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Sea as a Playground

So, you took a cruise.  Knowing the good record of the major cruise lines, chances are that nothing happened save that you wore yourself out on the dance floor and put on three pounds at the buffet.  You enjoyed picturesque vistas of lovely islands and sunsets and lost some but not all of your money in the casino.  You took a thousand digital photos for your loved ones to admire and in general had a terrific time.

Alternatively, your cruise ship had a major engine room fire that caused a general loss of electricity, food and sewage service throughout the vessel, which then drifted dead in the water off the coast of Mexico for several days.  No lights.  No AC.  No toilets.

Or your vessel struck the rocks off a tiny Italian island and rolled onto her beam-ends, drowning dozens of your fellow passengers and leaving you to swim ashore while--apparently--your Captain took more comfortable passage.  Hey, at least she capsized onto the rocks--a few hundred yards further out and she'd have rolled completely over, killing thousands. Including you.

Or a fitting carried away below decks and the entire South Atlantic tried to come in.  By the time you realized that anything was wrong the ship had taken a severe list--and the crew had abandoned ship, leaving one of the entertainment staff to send a distress call and arrange your rescue before the ship herself succumbed. 

Perhaps your great-grandparents also enjoyed a pleasant, tranquil transatlantic voyage.  Or perhaps they didn't... 

Okay, so you signed up for the adventure of a lifetime.  Just remember that not all adventures are pleasant, and that the sea can be a cruel and unforgiving playground.  Those of us who regularly work on great waters know this all too well; a sea voyage can be uncomfortable, unpleasant, and even dangerous, and a ship--no matter how elegant and solid she may seem--is simply a steel shell filled with machinery that can break down, flammable materials ready and willing to combust, stores of food and water that may or may not be of the highest quality, and--lest we forget--many, many representatives of that frail, fickle, and unpredictable herd called humanity.  Many of them in the crew.

There is no such thing as "safety".  It is a myth, a fiction, a phantom that we seek but can never achieve.  We can expend enormous energies in an attempt to make a vessel, an automobile, an airliner more safe, we can in fact go a great distance toward achieving that goal--but we will never, ever fulfill the dream.  People make mistakes.  Ships founder.  Shit happens.

So book your cruise, make sure your passport is up to date, and pack your bags.  Plan on having  a great time aboard that floating hotel.  But make sure you pay attention to the safety briefings, watch carefully as that crewman demonstrates how to fasten your life-jacket, and learn the emergency exits from your assigned deck and common areas.  Do this first; the casino, dining room or cabaret will wait a few minutes.

And if the worst should happen--as has happened before and is statistically certain to happen again--keep calm, make your way to your emergency station, and follow instructions.  Take care of your loved ones and yourself, and do your best to survive while the sea does her best to kill you.

You can always call your lawyer and get interviewed by CNN later.

Caveat Emptor

P.S.  Trust an Old Sailor: NEVER put on a life-jacket inside the "skin" of the ship.  Wait until you get out on deck.  Too many people have been trapped inside a sinking vessel when she rolled over, the deck became the overhead, and their life-jacket buoyantly pinned them to it.

Sailors are meant to be on ships...

Sailors are meant to be on ships,
Ships are meant to be at sea,
And land ain't nothing but a hazard to navigation!

After all of these years I certainly understand the meaning of this saying, oft-repeated in the Fleet.  Life on land is complicated; at sea it becomes simpler, more manageable, comprehensible.  When ashore I have to deal with the traffic on I-64, standing in line at the ATM, the noise of small children in the cinema, and a thousand other complications that arise when I find myself caught up in the "real" world; when sailing these stressors diminish and fade away.

Aboard ship I know my place, I am familiar with my duties and responsibilities, there are few surprises to interrupt the splendid routine of life underway; a life which resembles closely that which Sailors and Mariners have known for many hundreds, even thousands, of years.   The self-contained world of a sea-going vessel has a structure honed and refined over uncounted voyages which, while perhaps not perfected, serves well to maintain her bottled ecosystem, her government, infrastructure and citizenry. 

On the deck of a great gray ship alongside other seafarers, whether in calm or storm, in close-quarters maneuvering with an aircraft carrier or transiting the Strait of Gibraltar, I am at peace.  I'm not a spiritual man by any definition that I know of, and not prone to "new age" ideas, but if there is a place where I am 'centered' or find 'balance', it is out there on the deep sea, where the days' tensions can be wiped away by the sight of a broaching whale, inevitable "personality conflicts" put into perspective by a sunset or sunrise.

I have been ashore since late in February, and confess that the yearning is upon me.  As much as I enjoyed being with Lucy in New York, as much pleasure as walking Delany and enjoying the woods behind our little house gave me, as much as I treasure those nights at the museum where I volunteer, introducing guests to the wonders of the night sky and our own central star--the call of the sea beckons.

I'll be there soon.

Friday, April 5, 2013

In Control...

Well, I finished Helicopter Control Officer (HCO) school on the base in Norfolk this morning--aced the simulator runs and the written test, and so am all set to begin running things in the control tower.  Bring it!


Of course, not.  This was only the initial step in the qualification procedure; no Skipper in his right mind would allow a newbie like me to run his/her helicopter operations based on a five-day course and a few launch-and-recovery runs in the sim.  As they say, the past week's study has given me just enough knowledge to be dangerous.  Very dangerous.
The course was fascinating--unlike the vast majority of training curricula I've endured over the past three decades--and I can honestly say that I learned a great deal about helicopters; their flight characteristics and performance "envelopes", avionics and safety/survival equipment, what makes them fly, and what doesn't.  I do confess to have put our poor instructors through the wringer--I was the annoying fella who kept asking questions and slowing down the proceedings.  I was also the oldest member of the class by about fifteen years, and the only one to show up in t-shirt and jeans rather than a uniform.

I have at least one more shoreside course to complete before I return to sea, and then I'll begin "under instruction (UI) training in the tower of whatever ship I am assigned to.  This "OJT" under the tutelage of an experienced HCO will give me a greater understanding of my duties regarding flight operations and safety, so that when I do finally "solo" I'll be far more ready to assume my duties.

I have a lot to learn and un-learn, and perhaps a few ghosts to put behind me, before I can assume the Air Boss chair.  But I'll get there.