Thursday, July 16, 2009

From the Vault - A Sea Story - Storm Off Cape Hatteras

We were steaming off the coast of the US heading back from operations in the Carribean on the USS Milwaukee at the time the following occurred in February 1980. It was a Wednesday and I believe it was the 6th. I had the Dog watch that afternoon, that is the watch that runs through evening chow and you get relieved for about 30 minutes or so by the oncoming 8-12 so that you can get to eat.

Upon returning from chow I noticed that the barometer had dropped another .02 of an inch for the second hour in a row. Something was brewing along the lines of a low pressure system that would bear watching in the coming hours. I informed the officer of the deck, I believe it was Ensign Tyler that evening- he was a portly, pipe smoking fellow who affected an intellectual air that was mostly a fa├žade. He reacted with a derisive “Hmphh.” This was not all that unusual a response to receive from some of the younger officers. They seemed to look down upon the enlisted as an inferior class of people, lacking the money, or brains, or sometimes both- to get into college and become officers. They never understood that there were people who wanted to enlist, in the ranks, and serve there.

So nothing was done except that I informed the deck officer that heavy weather was approaching and a life line on deck would be a good idea. A 500 foot mooring line was secured to the after and forward bulkheads by means of shackles affixed to padeyes which were welded to the respective bulkheads. For some reason no precautions were taken to secure the ship for heavy seas.

I was relieved by QM3 Baker at 1945 for the 20-2400 watch. Star time was not an issue that evening due to the weather. We were running on Omega and Loran with a dead reckoning tracer as a back up. I entered into the Pass Down the Line log that the barometer had fallen for 2 hours in a row and to be aware of any changes in the sea etc. I left the bridge, and as was the custom of the day, smoked a joint before preparing to shower and retire.

By the time I got back to the after house and the Navigation Division berthing space the ship was being tossed and buffeted by huge swells and violent gusts of wind. The helmsman was a deckhand and the ship was not being handled properly. We were taking a lot of punishment that could have been avoided by having a more experienced man at the helm.

By now, objects all over the ship were being loosed by the storm and there was no way to stop the seeming avalanche of food supplies, crates, forklifts etc that had not been tied down. The 7 million gallons of fuel that we carried started to have its’ own inertial effect upon the handling of the vessel, making it even more unstable. The “Mighty Milwaukee” was taking rolls in excess of her design and the ship would shudder as she laboriously struggled to right herself after each successive roll. Standing was now impossible and most of the men were braced in their “racks” with feet and hands braced against the nearest stanchion or bulkhead, feet dug into the rims of the thin sleeping surfaces that served also as covers to the coffin like clothes compartment that lay beneath each. The coffin like similarities of these lockers were not lost on the men at a time like this.

Lockers were toppling and tables and chairs were being literally pitched as the violence of the storm increased. Most of the crew was now motion sick and those that weren’t were unable to do anything but hang on for the wildest ride any of us had ever been on.

Shortly after 2300 (11 PM) the phone rang and someone told me that the bridge was on the phone. I was told that the Captain was ordering me to the bridge. I went, on the double, expecting that I was about to be chewed out for the storm having taken us by surprise. I started across the deck and made it about 50 feet before turning back and using the cargo deck- which although it had the advantage of being enclosed , had the hazard of forklifts,tools and cargo being tossed and thrown about with considerable violence. Added to this was the possibility of falling into one of the open elevator pits. These were large, seven story deep shafts that were sometimes left open. Tonight , unfortunately, was one of these times. The effect of the ship moving about under me not only prevented me from walking a straight line at this point, but it was now carrying me close to these pits and several times I came near to falling in one. They were located on both the port and starboard sides, increasing this likelihood as I struggled forward.

At the end of this journey on the cargo deck I was faced with 4 interior ladders, steeply angled as compared with a normal stairway, but still an improvement over the exterior ladders which were precisely that, ladders welded to the bulkheads. Unknown to me at this time was that many of these ladders had been torn away by the tons of water crashing against the superstructure.

The bridge was a scene of disaster. There were 22 people in there- way too many. Captain Page was braced in a corner, legs apart and arms against the forward portholes, concerned but very much in command. “Well Willie- what do you think we should do?” Captain Page had been a Pilot– flew A-6’s and also was a flight instructor. With a good sense of humor and a relaxed demeanor among the men, he was a well liked captain and a good leader. He had a hard act to follow, coming on the heels of Captain Hawkins, who had come up from enlisted ranks via the NESEP program, which although not that rare, was quite an accomplishment and the men had idolized him as “one of us.” But Captain Page had more than filled his shoes and it was a ”tight” crew.

My first suggestion was to rid the bridge of as many of the puking , moaning men as possible, placing them in the passageways leading to the bridge itself. Everyone had plastic trash bags to puke in and the stench was beginning to become overpowering.

Standing was impossible at this level, we were hanging on to the overhead and the wire banks and piping that line it. Captain Page ordered me to take the helm.

The compass card was swinging wildly, port to starboard and back again over a field of approximately 180 degrees. We were at the mercy of the sea unless we could stabilize ourselves and begin to make some sort of headway. The Captain then ordered me to steer as necessary to make headway and hold course- I was hanging onto the overhead and steering with my feet- literally counteracting the swells by kicking the helm hard left and hard right.

I then received via the Captain , several course changes prompted by the other officers present on the bridge looking for the course that would give us the “best ride”. Captain Page asked my recommendation and I chose West as that would bring us toward our destination of Norfolk but not put us in shallow waters that could hazard the vessel. I was of the opinion that with 65 foot swells breaking over the bridge and winds of 98 knots (107 mph) with gusts greater than that, there was no course that was going to give a good ride. The Captain ordered me to make it so, which I immediately did.

We spent the next 9 hours or so riding through this maelstrom and upon breaking out of it in the morning and later approaching Virginia Beach, we were greeted by the most dazzling sight- over 12” of snow blanketing the Beach and everything beyond! After the violence of the past 10 hours the contrast was extraordinary and we began to open hatchways and portholes to air the ship out. The crew began to come back to life- restowing all the gear that had been thrown about but not washed overboard. The Officers took toll of the structural damage to the ship- ladders gone, boats torn loose, rigging fouled and ruined.

We moored at D and S Piers on the James River and there my memory fades a bit- we were very tired and I imagine that we cleaned ship and had an early knock off that day.

A week later on the 12th of February we were back out at sea- headed to the Azores to bring a load of fuel to the Task Group operating there. We were doing an underway replenishment when Captain Page approached me at the helm with an envelope saying “It’s a little bit late- read it later.”

It burned a hole in my pocket for several hours until I was able to leave the wheel and read it- you have to remember that Captains do not often slip notes to their crewmembers. The note- which I have memorized, said the following;

"As I think back on the events of last Wednesday night and the sudden and completely unpredicted storm- I continue to think of you and your performance on the helm.

From the perspective of the Commanding Officer, several of the variables which were being experienced were reduced the moment you took the helm. You obviously had the “feel of the ship” and your expertise helped me greatly in making the decisions regarding course and speed to order.

I operate with complete confidence when you are on the helm, and your performance last Wednesday night under the most adverse of conditions reinforced my previous observations of a real ‘pro’.

Many Thanks for a job extremely Well Done.

I called Captain Page one night and we spoke for 20 minutes or so about the storm and the “old days” aboard the Milwaukee. And just before we hung up- Captain Page asked me- “ Hey Willie- do you remember the collision with that Malaysian oil tanker? “

Well, that's another story……

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