Friday, May 29, 2015
Thursday, May 28, 2015
Wednesday, May 27, 2015
I'm not being anthropomorphic here; a ship is a huge, compartmented steel box filled with engines, generators, miles of cabling and a million fittings from watertight door gaskets to telephones to missile launchers. It has no "life" beyond that of any building or other construct of man's devising.
The heart and soul of the ship lies in the men and women who live and work within her steel compartments, in the thousands of lives that pass thru during her own span of years. In Captains courageous and meek, in boiler techs and firemen and boatswains and CIC watchstanders, in helmsmen and lookouts and bakers and stewards. The real life of the ship is the story of those who sail in her, their dreams and anxieties, laughter and tears, triumphs and failures, lives and deaths.
Take away these vital elements and the ship becomes what it started as; half-a-million tons of steel, a thing lifeless and sterile. A pitiful object succumbing slowly to rust, quickly to the breaker's torch, or to the ignominy of being placed on the auction block for sale to another fleet.
This is the sad thing about the end of a ship's service; that the story of her crews and Captains is ending. There will be no more adventures or mishaps, liberties in foreign lands or close calls at sea. All that are left are the fading memories of those days when that great steel construct breathed, sailed, fought and lived in the hearts of the many Sailors who will remember her as theirs.
Today I present to you USS Simpson (FFG-56). For nearly thirty years her crews have sailed on waters kind and hostile; she has seen Cold War, Gulf War, Civil War, Drug Wars and War on Terror. More than a dozen Captains have commanded her, and thousands of Sailors have worked her mooring lines, baked her bread, maintained her weapons and engines, chipped and painted her decks and bulkheads. They have in turns loved her, cursed her, cared for her and for each other, and each of them has given her a piece of themselves large or small.
And now they will leave her.
Simpson is completing her last deployment; in a very few weeks she will return to her homeport to begin the long, difficult process of decommissioning. Slowly, as her vital systems are shut down for the last time, as her lockers are emptied and crew depart for new stations, she will begin to revert to the lifeless shell that she began as in the yard in Bath, Maine; when the final ceremonies end, and she is officially decommissioned, the process will be complete.
But it's more than simply an honored warship departing the scene; Simpson is the last of her class, the last frigate in U.S. service. Her fifty sisters are gone; once a mainstay of the Fleet they are now a memory, mostly transferred to foreign navies to sail with different names under other flags. This is the end of their time.
Today John Lenthall is privileged to conduct Simpson's final underway replenishment. As FFG-56 moves smartly alongside we all take time to admire the frigates' lines and élan. We've seen her many times before, but today's UNREP is the last opportunity for us to celebrate three decades of service. Conversation on Lenthall's bridge wing ebbs and flows; remembrances of Simpson and of other frigates we have known are interrupted by silent moments of reflection as we watch the men and women working on her decks.
Finally, her bunkers topped-off and provisions replenished, a flash of color is visible at Simpson's signal bridge; four men can be seen hauling on the halyards as her Battle Ensign breaks to the wind. Proud colors streaming back from the mast, gas turbine engines whine as FFG-56 accelerates away.
With a final salute given and returned, the last frigate in the United States Navy bends on twenty-five knots and pulls ahead of Lenthall, headed home for the very last time.
Sunday, May 24, 2015
I've been an avid amateur astronomer since I was ten years old. Over all the years since then the love of the skies has been a constant; considering how many years I have been wrapped up in the pursuit of galaxies and nebulae, asteroids and comets, and all of the wonders I have witnessed, I think it would be fair to say that I've spent my life looking up.
At home I have an assortment of telescopes (some people collect Beanie Babies—I collect precision optics) and on every clear night I try to get out under the stars, moon or planets, often gathering with other amateurs at star parties or setting-up a 'scope in a public place for the purpose of sharing the skies with strangers (this is called Sidewalk Astronomy).
In addition to these pursuits I have the privilege of volunteering at the Virginia Living Museum (VLM) in
But I also have a job—one that takes me far from my Virginia home and the previously mentioned collection of instruments, from the VLM and my favorite stargazing haunts, from my friends and fellow amateur astronomers.
I'm a merchant mariner by trade, making my living on the sea. Out here, with no streetlights or outdoor advertising (often for thousands of miles in any direction) the nights are darker than anywhere in the
Most amateur astronomers on land pine for skies such as mine, and well I know my good fortune, never passing-up the opportunity to stand on deck and admire the heavens thus revealed. I would not trade this view of the cosmos... but there is a price to be paid.
Here on the deep waters, where such beautiful vistas are to be seen, a telescope is a worse-than-useless extravagance, mere dead-weight to be carried about. For even a great ship such as John Lenthall moves slightly to the rhythm of swell and wave, pitching and rolling if only so slightly; also heeling to the winds, the combined motion making even a low-magnification telescope useless aboard ship!
Ah, irony! To view starry nights unsullied by the glow of city or town, security lighting or fast-food eatery, but to be denied the best possible means of enjoying such skies and the multitude of celestial objects visible under even minimal magnification. Back home, I have telescopes (too many, perhaps) to use under the East Coast skyglow, but under these all-but-perfect skies all of them are useless.
This really doesn't bother me. Seriously.
You see, I've lived this dual astronomical lifestyle for over thirty years, and it's just how I operate. When at home or based ashore (which does happen, though rarely) I won't be caught without telescope, mounting, tripod, eyepieces, equipment cases, and a small library of star atlases (think: "Rand McNally" for the Milky Way) and observing guides for stars, moons, and galaxies, but space is limited aboard ship and so I carry a pair of stabilized binoculars, my traveling observing journal, and a laptop full of resources. Thus, whichever environment I am stargazing in, I am well-equipped.
My observing mindset changes as well as my baggage. Ashore I endeavor to add to "my" collection of observed galaxies and planetary nebulae, as well as spending quite a bit of time gazing at Jupiter and Saturn, whereas aboard ship I concentrate on open and globular star clusters in addition to binocular-bright double stars but hardly ever look at the planets, which binoculars simply won't do justice to.
(An example is Saturn, which only yesterday reached opposition—the point where the planet is opposite the sun in the sky and therefore closest to earth. Were I at home I'd be spending nearly every night gazing at Saturn's ring system through my best refractor telescope, watching its brighter moons moving in their orbits as hours go by, but since I'm aboard ship I simply note the "Lord of the Rings" as it rises at sunset and then move on to examine the lunar crater Petavius)
Underway, I spend quite a bit of time moon-gazing, something I rarely do ashore, and of course whenever I receive notice of a bright comet or nova I can pursue them with binoculars.
So I live a kind of bipolar life, astronomically-speaking, appreciating the benefits of both telescopic and binocular stargazing in two very different environs, and accepting the limitations of each as well.
As noted above, this works for me.
Someday I will retire from the sea. I'll go ashore permanently; to the world of light-polluted skies and the neighbors' dogs, and I'll have to resign myself to never rarely the skies again the way I do out here. Not seeing the Milky Way curdle it's way 'cross the sky, seeing the glows of Vega and Altair reflected from the water's surface.
But then…I'll have more vacation time for trips to remote areas of
Today's Photo: In Summer of 2011 I was sailing in USNS Arctic off the coast of
In total I took over three hundred photos over a two and a half hour period, later sorting out the forty or so that came out well and Photo-Shopping them into this montage. This was my first ship-board attempt at astrophotography and I was quite pleased with the result. I hope you will enjoy it as well.
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
It was late summer of 1984. I'd been serving in Moinester for just over three years, standing watches in
"Ghostbusters" was a big hit that summer, and it was natural for Sailors involved in the hunting of subs to parody that film's theme song. Ray Parker's "Who ya gonna call?" was popular refrain when a new mission came up. I found myself going a little bit farther; one day in CIC I doodled a silly variation on the "Ghostbusters" logo on a plotting sheet. I really shouldn't have been drawing then and there, as we were involved in an operation at the time, and the sheet was an official "log" of the ship's movement and contacts being tracked by our radar and sonar. Still, I was young, and 30+ years later I can't argue with the results of my little violation of regulations.
My drawing was simple, actually. A red circle with a diagonal line across it, and a caricature of a submarine, plainly Soviet, captured in the middle. Down to the right of the line were a school of six rather happy-looking fish. And that's all there was to it; three minutes "work", when I really should have been working.
Since I'd drawn the logo on an official log sheet, and erasing anything from such a document is verboten, I could hardly crumple it up and throw it away. So the drawing stayed, which meant that over the next few hours quite a few people saw it. Including the Captain.
The good news is, he liked it. So much so that a few days I was called to his office—not for a chewing-out but for a sales pitch. Captain Forrest Horton wanted me to flesh-out my design, so that it could be used on ship's emblematic items like t-shirts and Zippo lighters, ball-caps and stickers. All of these items would be for sale in Moinester's ships' store and though I would never receive any remuneration for my efforts I would have the satisfaction of contributing to crew morale, esprit de corps, and FF-1097's Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) fund.
And so I became USS Moinester's "official" artist. In addition to refining "Sub-Busters" I became the ship's go-to guy for mission and exercise logos and cartoons (I'll try to dig some of those up for posting as well), and even illustrated the ship's newsletters for a while. Admittedly my work was amateurish but I had a lot of fun with it, and people did seem to enjoy my contribution. In late 1984 I even received a Letter of Commendation (LOC) from Captain for my artistic endeavors in general and for "Sub-Busters" in particular.
And my design? Five years later, outside the Naples USO, I bumped into a young man wearing a "Sub-Busters" ball-cap—it was my design right down to the six happy fish, but it was from another ship! Some other frigate had adopted my logo. They say that imitation is flattery; is that true of plagiarism as well?
A final note: three years ago I received a birthday gift from our kind neighbors Leo and Carmela; opening the wrapping I was gob-smacked to find a large mug from Moinester—complete with the "Sub-Busters" emblem. The wonderful thing is that Leo and Carmela had run across this mug in a thrift shop and bought it knowing that I collected naval mugs and cups; they actually had no idea at the time of the relationship it bore to me! What a fantastic coincidence—and an amazing gift. It now holds pride of place in my collection.
Moinester sails under a different flag now—she decommissioned in 1994 and now serves on in the Egyptian Navy, but a small part of her legacy, my part of it, lives on. I'm proud to have created a lasting emblem for a great crew and our fine ship. Not a bad legacy, not bad at all!
Sunday, May 17, 2015
Saturday, May 16, 2015
Here we have the Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boat (RHIB) from destroyer USS Ross coming alongside John Lenthall to deliver passengers for transport to our next port of call. This happens quite often; ships on lengthy patrol need to send crewmembers ashore and receive new hands in turn, and the roomy accomodations of our MSC oilers are tailor-made to facilitate this requirement. Usually this process is pretty straightforward, but occaisionally things go awry; a change of schedule or other contingency can leave Sailors languishing aboard the oiler, awaiting further transport to the new location of their intended command. Sometimes, in rare cases, a contingent of Sailors might wander Vandervecken-like for weeks, moving from oiler to oiler, port to port for weeks on end, orphans of the Sea!
In this case, however, Ross's personnel were speedily conveyed to port, and caught their connectiong flights back to the States. Some of them were going home on-leave, which means we are likely to see them again, quite soon, as they catch their ride back to that distant warship. Water Taxi, indeed!
Friday, May 15, 2015
Thursday, May 14, 2015
Allow me to introduce my first ship. The vessel on the left in this scanned photo is USS Moinester, a Knox-class frigate based out of
The Knox frigates were the last steam-powered destroyer-type ships to be built for the U.S. Navy, and suffered many an embarrassing engineering fault during their careers. Stubby in profile, propelled by a single screw, mounting a single 5-inch gun and (initially) no anti-air or –missile capability, these frigates were widely derided by the crews of fast, sleek destroyers bristling with twin-armed SAM launchers and multiple guns. Moinester and her forty-five sisters were the "red-headed stepchildren" of destroyer squadrons around the world.
Ah, but while FF-1097 and siblings would never win a beauty contest, never shoot down a supersonic drone on the Wallops or Vieques ranges, never best a DDG's speed, there was one thing they could do, and do superlatively well.
Specifically, Soviet submarines. Streaming towed sonar arrays from their transoms on long cables, cloaking themselves in clouds of tiny bubbles blown from masker belts beneath their waterlines to absorb and redirect their own mechanical noises, "running silent", the Knox frigates were anti-submarine warfare (ASW) terrors. Add an SH-2F "Seasprite" helicopter and you had a winning team.
When a Soviet sub was patrolling off the shores of Bermuda, or Guam, or
I learned my job in those years aboard FF-1097. Standing watch in
I've come to love Moinester, though it is said that a Sailor always loves his first ship and remembers her fondly. At the time of my service in her I cannot say there was much feeling for the ship, herself. I enjoyed being part of a small, close-knit crew, enjoyed the camaraderie and the travel. But real affection came later, when Moinester was my past and I was sailing other seas in other hulls.
Life in the early Reagan-era Navy wasn't always pleasant. Drug-and alcohol abuse were rampant in the Fleet, and I can remember racial divisions as well causing troubles aboard. Adding these difficulties to the constant pressures of a time when nuclear war was not only possible but probable, when Cold-War tensions seemed to ratchet higher with each "incident" around the world, each sword-rattling demonstration of national resolve. Into this milieu introduce a young man still trying to finish the job of growing up and dealing with his own demons.
I think that if you had walked up to that 19-year-old--perhaps in a "banana suit" for a radiological contamination drill, or standing the mid-watch on deck in a blizzard—and told him of the long, amazing, fascinating, and occasionally terrifying career ahead of him, of all the places he would go, the ships and oceans he would sail, and the long parade of people we would meet along the way, he would have looked at you as if you had lost your mind, used some very uncouth language, and explained that he would never, NEVER consider re-enlisting. Ever.
Looking back at nearly three decades at sea, and forward to quite a number of years more, I'm glad, very glad that he would've been wrong.
Wednesday, May 13, 2015
Today I'd like to share a little of the local scenery. This is the German Navy oiler Berlin as she approaches the entrance to Souda Bay, Crete. The last snows are melting from the mountains that tower above the Bay, and the colors of springtime are well in evidence. It is a strange contrast; grey steel on beautiful Aegean background, but I like it!
Tuesday, May 12, 2015
Today's photo is of USS Laboon, guided-missile destroyer number 58 (DDG-58). Laboon is the seventh ship of the Arleigh Burke class which makes her one of the older destroyers in service, of early-'90s vintage. She weighs in at just over 9,100 tons (this is actually her "displacement", or how much water she displaces when stationary), and is approximately the size of a World War II light cruiser, or three times the size of a WWII destroyer. In fact, the Burke-class ships are among the largest destroyers in the world.
But is in firepower that Laboon and her sisters excell. Examining the photo, she would seem to have only the one gun mounting forward, but her vertical launchers conceal an impressive arsenal below decks. While I don't know what her actual load-out might be (and wouldn't tell you if I did know!), her launchers can hold up to 90 missiles ranging from short-range anti-submarine rockets through radar-guided SAMs up to telephone-pole-sized Tomahawk cruise missiles. In addition she can carry up to eight Harpoon anti-ship cruise missiles in launchers situated aft, plus two mounts of anti-sub torpedo tubes. In other words, Laboon and her sisters are very dangerous customers.
Monday, May 11, 2015
Today's photo posting could be titled "Success Redux", as it again features Australian replenishment ship HMAS Success; I thought you might like to see what see looks like from a different angle! Note that in this image she is still alongside John Lenthall (you can see the fuel hose at far left, connecting our two ships like an umbilical); this time we are seeing her in her entirety.
Success is of the same era as Lenthall; she was also built in the mid-1980s. She is quite a bit smaller, though, which reflects the thinking that went into her design. Australia had by then decommisioned their sole aircraft carrier (HMAS Melbourne, a former British flat-top) and had focused on a naval construction scheme based upon destroyer- and frigate-sized ships. Lenthall, however, was built to support large aircraft carriers and amphibious warships in addition to "small boys". Given this difference in intended role, a smaller "oiler" could be built to supply Australia's warships, a sensible decision as long as a return to carrier-centered operations remained off the table.
Success, like all Australian auxilliary ships, is manned by RAN officers and ratings rather than the US (and UK) practice of having a separate organization within the Navy, manned by civilian Mariners. This makes sense as well, since the RAN requires only a handful of replenishment vessels to support their forces, and a special command and manning structure for that purpose would be quite wasteful and superfluous. The opposite is true of the USN and RN; the size of these nations' fleets--and especially their active and nascent aircraft carrier forces--demand large, versatile auxilliary forces, and manning those numerous replenishment ships would be a tremendous drain on naval manning.
For all her differences in design, mission and manning, this "Ozzie" oiler and her crew are much like Lenthall; we have both come halfway 'round the world to support our nations' combat forces in troubled waters. It's not a mission you will hear about on the television news, and there will never be a movie made about our contributions to the support and readiness of our and our allies vessels, but without ships and crews like ours there would be no far-flung naval forces. A Navy without proper logistical support is, at best, a coastal patrol force.
So join me, please, in wishing these unsung heroes all possible Success in their voyaging!
Sunday, May 10, 2015
This is what we do, here aboard John Lenthall.
Today's photo is of the Australian replenishment ship HMAS Success taking on fuel and supplies from Lenthall. Running less than two hundred feet apart, the two ships pass lines across the water rushing between them. Teams on each deck handle the lines, which allow them to pull thick wire-rope "wires" over to make a substantial link; it is across these wires that fuel hoses and pallets of cargo will move.
This process is called Underway Replenishment, or UNREP. Only a few minutes after rendezvous the fuel is pumping and stores moving; hundreds of thousands of gallons of aviation "avgas" or distillate (DFM), hundreds of pallets being transferred efficiently to our customer. In the case of Success, we topped-off her DFM load and sent her on her way in just a few hours; a smaller ship such as a destroyer or cruiser takes considerably less time to replenish.
Watching an UNREP in progress, or being involved in one, is almost mesmerising. Hose teams at work, forklifts moving cargo to and from transfer stations, even helicopters "picking" netted bundles of pallets from our flight deck and slinging them over to the receiving ship--it's a noisy, complicated ballet, carefully choreographed and well-rehersed; it's the process of naval logistics, and it's what makes the Fleet work.
Saturday, May 9, 2015
A warship, like any large engineering project, is a collection of compromises. How many tons displacement, how many guns or missile launchers, what sensors (radar, sonar, etc.) will it bring to the fight? Engines, defenses, armor, fuel capacity, damage control and fire-fighting equippage, what is the proper balance? What kind of endurance should it have, and how many spare parts. How large should its magazine capacity be? Will our hypothetical dreadnought operate in deep ocean waters or coastal, "brown water" environs, or perhaps both? How large a crew should we plan for, and how will they be provisioned, heated, cooled, trained, fed and bedded?
These and a thousand other considerations go into the process of designing a combat ship. And they must be considered in light of the fact that the ship will not actually kiss water for years--even decades. What will the naval environment be like when our warship finally is ready to sail? We need to plan for flexibility, the ability to change-out weapons systems, sensors and electronics, to replace damaged and worn components, all in an effort to keep our new design current and effective in the coming years. To keep it relevant.
Now, take all of the hardware, plumbing, shops and parts, and work out the most efficient means of fitting it all together. Decisions, deletions, modifications, compromises upon compromises, seemingly without end.
The average time for a new-design warship from beginning of the above consultations and considerations, moving on to debate in Houses of Parliament or other legislative bodies, into funding and legal wrangling, compromising at every step of the process, adding this and subtracting that, and finally to the moment when steel is first cut and keel laid, can be measured in decades.
For a new-design submarine or aircraft carrier, add a few more years.
For your consideration I offer the French Ship (FS) Forbin. Built at Lorient and commisioned in 2010, she represents the hard work of thousands of draftsmen, artisans, welders, and technicians over the final years of the last century and the first decade of this one. With a crew of 195 and displacement of just over 7,000 tons she is somewhat smaller and more lightly manned than an American Burke-class destroyer, but with comparable firepower and speed. Fifteen years of compromise and integration have brought her into being, and a fine, handsome, well-found ship she is.
In keeping with modern warship design principles, Forbin is built to have a minimum radar "signature"; to reflect the least amount of an enemy's radar beams as possible. Not truly "stealthy" (something that NO commisioned warship has accomplished, to my knowledge), her "low-observable" form makes her more difficult to detect, track, and attack than earlier designs. By hiding most of her weapons and equipment within radar-distracting shapes and special materials, Forbin presents fewer details for radar energy to reflect from, fewer "angles" to stand out on a hostile receiver. In a naval environment dominated by the active-radar-homing supersonic cruise missile, this is a valuable characteristic for any warship!
This is a warship of the future, the shape of things to come. I am quite impressed!
Friday, May 8, 2015
I'm writing to you today from the bridge of my current ship, USNS John Lenthall (T-AO 189). I've been aboard for over a month now; I relieved my old friend Lewis M. as Lenthall's Operations Chief so he could fly home to take care of some paperwork, and when he returns I suppose I'll be moving along to yet another hull. This is the way of the Mariner, signing-on and paying-off of a ship, then reporting to another. Sometimes we stay with a particular tanker or dry-cargo ship for the minimum four-month passage, and sometimes we end up staying aboard for several years. Considering our nomadic lifestyle, it's no wonder we tend to travel light!
I've actually sailed in Lenthall before; back in 2013 I came aboard for a short hitch as an "augment" before a billet opened up aboard Big Horn. I like this ship; she has a good crew and a great Captain, and despite being one of the oldest hulls in the Fleet she is quite homey and comfortable. Maybe some day I'll find myself here in a more permanent arrangement, but for now I plan to enjoy the cruise!
For me, a large part of that enjoyment lies in my principal hobby aboard ship; photography. Life aboard, weather, wildlife and of course the many ships we encounter in the course of a voyage; there are plenty of subjects available to the maritime shutterbug. I rarely come up to the bridge or venture onto the deck without my camera; you never know when "a picture" will present itself!
With this post I'm beginning a new project as part of my "All @ Sea!" e-newsletter series; I plan to post a new photo each day during my current cruise to reflect some aspect of the experience of the Mariner for my Shipmates ashore. If you'd rather not receive these missives please let me know, but I hope you'll join me for this voyage. I think it'll be a chance for me to "stretch" as a photographer, and a lot of fun as well! So enjoy the daily image, and certainly feel free to write with comments and critique.
USNS John Lenthall
Today's Photo: The Greek frigate Spetsai loiters off the north coast of Crete on a calm morning.