Ever since I was a little kid I have been captivated by ships and by the sea, and I especially loved going to the beach as a small child between the ages of 2-5; bobbing in the chilly water as I got slapped by small waves made as ships passed by.
I remember going to Whidbey Island in northwestern Washington State as a small child under the age of five, but also as an 11 year old when I go back to visit my aunt and uncle. I vividly recall the sight of the dark green island looming ahead in the distance as we emerged from the fog on the front of a ferry, the nostalgic smell of seaweed and salt everywhere.
My memories of going out sailing on a yacht over Lake Michigan in the cool sunshine were so comforting and vivid. I will never forget my first time sailing in my life. I was 8 or 9 years old, and we were living outside Chicago. One of my great uncles had a sailboat and my parents use to take us kids out on it for the day. I loved the sunny hazy day, the sails, the jibs, the colorful spinnakers spread across the blue sky like sideway parachutes, and the many dozens of small yachts chasing the wind as they raced by.
Everyone made sure we used only the most proper nautical language; there was no bathroom, no floor, no ceiling, no kitchen. These things were now the head, a deck, the overhead, and the galley. You didn’t go “downstairs” you went “below”. I learned what my starboard side was from my port, and we learned especially fast what “coming about” was and that it meant to duck and not get knocked by the boom as the main sail caught the wind and swung across the small craft pulling us in a new direction
I loved the sea, and I couldn’t wait to finally get underway and be sailing on deep blueness, caught between the weight of the sea and the sun. The sea was the thing I dreamed about. And I would be pleasantly surprised when my dream came true. The idea of being a sailor, and perhaps joining the Navy all cooked quietly on a back burner the next couple years.
All of these things seem so miniscule looking back, but it would come back to me and I loved it with a ravenous appetite: I loved the water, I loved being underway. It was in my veins. It goes without saying that I recall my first time going out on a ship in the US Navy many years later just as vividly.
In 2000 I turned 21 and joined the US Navy. I checked into my new Command in April 2001 in San Diego, and near the beginning of May I was told I would be going out to sea for two weeks on a sister destroyer, and I wanted to jump off walls and scream! For real! This was about time! I was happy to finally be a real sailor!
I had all of this in mind as well as the sharp smell of raw sewage and salt water in my nose as we all crossed the brow of a sister destroyer a couple days later with my sea bag slung over my shoulder.
The guy in charge of me was this overly cocky control-freak 3rd class, and after an hour with the guy trying to show me and everyone else up like it was a race I wanted to bash my head into a wall. I started off shadowing him during his 4 hour Engineering watch twice a day.
Standing the basic “sound and security” engineering watch wasn’t that hard for me to catch onto; heck it was such a basic watch and I learned it fast. There really isn’t much to it; a person basically runs all over ship making sure everything that should be locked is, all temperature gauges down in all the main and auxiliary spaces are within normal ranges, and then take soundings to make sure there was no flooding in the voids below the waterline. Then you check in at Central Control Station or CCS, which is the space where all engineering spaces and equipment is overseen, to verify, that yes, everything is as it should be. And you do this once an hour for four hours straight, the length of one engineering watch.
I was already gulping down everything that was going on down in the main space. Bringing a gas turbine engine online caught my heart forever: I was in love! Listening to the hot whine of 14,000 rpm’s got my attention, and it was here that I made my mind up – that whatever I had to do, I was going to progress as fast and knowledgeably as I could through the more senior engineering watch standing positions and basically reach the sky and pull it down to me.
I began to imagine the possibilities, and I swore I would have my engineer officer of the watch or EEOW letter before too long. This was a big deal in Engineering; the EEOW is the guy in charge of all the engineering spaces and all watch standers down in there. It’s a lot of responsibility, but as you progress in the Navy you grow to fit that part and you learn how to handle everything.
But right now I was starting with baby-steps, and no matter who you are, being on a ship for the first time is a wake-up call, having to take a ton of info in right away, and learning how to deal with everyone and everything going on is a culture shock as well. The Navy has its own traditions, and its own rules. The guys would joke about the “unwritten manual” because sometimes the folks above us would make things up as they went, and we had to pretend to not mind and just do it and move along.
One tradition was the playing of jokes on newbies or FNG’s (fucking new guys) like I was. And I was about to face it firsthand when DC3 came looking for me as I came back up to Filter Shop after work this one day.
“Hey Fireman,” he said. “I got a job for you.”
“Oh yeah DC3, what’s that?” I asked.
“I want you to go down to CCS and ask for the keys to the seachest.”
I knew right away that this was a joke. The seachest is merely the seawater intake located down in the main space, and such keys did not exist. People could spend weeks looking and never find them.
So I told him “Oh sure. And after I get those keys, do you want me to get you a bucket of steam to go with your bulkhead remover?”
He laughed raucously. “Oh I guess you’re too smart to pull jokes on huh?”
“Well, I wasn’t born yesterday.” And everyone laughed.
After this we seemed to get along much better. It was as if he had to mess with me at first to see if I was ok or not. The kid might have been an “over-paid fireman” as a 3rd class is notoriously referred to in Engineering, but after I put aside his over the top displays of cockiness I grew respect for him.
I realized he really had pride for our rate and he wanted to be sure I learned damn well what my job as a DC-man on-board ship really consisted of while underway; of the constant upkeep of all Damage Control spaces and all firefighting equipment, as well as standing watch twice a day.
I was also the one elected to take the daily draft reports up into the pilot house and how to properly report what the trim of this ship is set at to the CO. This is very important; DC3 would take me outside the skin of the ship in the morning after Quarters and taught me how to use the info that DC”A” school had loaded into my head – how to figure out what the ship’s trim and draft is set at, if it needed adjusting, so the stability of the ship can be maintained.
So every morning after logging draft and reporting it to the pilot house, we went on about our day; standing watch, doing maintenance, cleaning the many filters which came up to filter shop, standing more watch.
And even though it seemed like mundane senseless work the importance of everything sank in with me right off the bat, especially when DC3 instructed me gravely to “never gun-deck anything.” I knew immediately what he meant.
“Gun-decking” is old Navy slang which basically means the falsification of documentation in order to avoid actually doing the work either because you do not want to or you really cannot; no one can be in all the spaces at one time. It is physically impossible, as I have found.
The term echoes back to the olden days when it was a common practice of painting the image of cannon ports on the side of one’s ship in order to present the appearance of having more guns than said ship actually did, and thereby convincing any adversary that they were outgunned.
But in modern terms I realized that if we did let anything slide it could mean that if a true emergency occurred, the stability of the ship could very well be compromised. It was serious, but not all that hard.
The CO made a public announcement over the ship’s intercom system called the 1MC giving all of us a head’s up that the ship was getting ready to fire her large 5-inch gun mounted on the forecastle. I briefly went outside the weather decks and had a look around. San Clemente Island lay beyond my sight, and it was a trip to see it for myself, all lonely and barren, no trees or really any signs of life.
From the flight decks, and the helo hangers, to the missile silos that held sea sparrow missiles, I was really overwhelmed with amazement and awe with the DDG-51 class and the DDG-79 subclass ships and their highly earned and well-deserved rating as the most survivable and toughest ships in the whole world. This really hit me hard, and gave me some honest admiration for these both beautiful and deadly little ships.
When the ship began firing the 5-inch shells it was amazing how much noise and kick those things gave, and it made me ponder how interesting it had to be on those old battleships, when they were launching the equivalent of a Volkswagen Bug out the 16-inch guns on deck.
It goes without saying that the DDG-51 class destroyers are amazing ships; the best in our whole Navy; even in the entire world. I was pretty excited and couldn’t wait to really get down to the nitty-gritty and get to my very own ship as quick as I could. Being on someone else’s ship for a short cruise just wasn’t the same as getting underway on a ship that was mine.
And indeed, the better part of two weeks had gone by with the ship out doing what we all call “playing in the box” which is just sea games with subs and a carrier group perhaps. I think everyone was ready to get back to the shore, although most of these folks were seasoned sailors who were well-adjusted to the momentum of life at sea.
As I walked across the quarterdeck I said my farewells with mixed feelings: I wanted to be on my ship, underway, although it was my first time underway, and I was hooked! I longed to go back out to sea, just hopefully under better conditions and on my own ship someday.