Monstrous Black Can

In the great cornucopia of energy drinks that are available on the market there is one that outshines all of the rest: Monster. This elixir comes in a tall, black can and can be found well-stocked in every ship’s store throughout the United States Navy. It’s quickly replacing coffee as the go-to drink of choice for the haggard Boatswain’s Mate or Electrician’s Mate running on two hours of sleep and looking ahead at the seemingly insurmountable six-hour-long watch only thirty minutes away. But hand that same Sailor a can of Monster and watch the magic change wash over him.

As soon as he pops the tab you can smell the fruity, metallic liquid sloshing and fizzing in the can. Then he takes a hearty slug and as soon as this manna from heaven touches his lips his back straightens, his eyes light up, and the rush of energy shoots from his mouth to the very tips of his fingers and toes like a lightening bolt striking a pine tree. Moments later that aluminum can will be empty, ready to be repurposed into a receptacle for dip spit (See smokeless tobacco). But what about the Sailor? Well that Sailor will be ready to tackle the world. That very Electrician’s Mate will have so much excess energy he’ll be ready to stand watch and then go fix every motor-operated valve in the bilge of Auxiliary Machinery Room 3.

But as wonderful as this drink may be, and as tasty as it is the morning after standing the reveille watch, I’m not sure how beneficial the regular consumption of it is. Once, while finishing a final project in college, I drank three of these lovely concoctions in the span of an hour. They allowed me to finish my project but I felt as though my heart was going to explode through my chest. Also, I’ve watched friends and colleagues drink Monsters throughout the day and then tremor and jitter uncontrollably for hours. Not to mention that if you find a spare hour or two to sleep during your busy SWO day, these bad boys will nix that idea fast, quick, and in a hurry.

So, with all data available to me, I decided to ween myself off of Monsters and find another source for my caffeine (Lapsang souchong seems to work pretty well). It’s a bit rough on the midwatch but it’s manageable. At least I don’t have to worry about spontaneous cardiac arrest.

Dopo

There’s a special sensation when pulling into port for the first time. There’s an electricity in the air, a palpable excitement shared amongst the entire crew. Each new sight and smell and sound builds the excitement to a crescendo of magnificent proportions. the young seaman who the previous day had been run down, tired, exhausted from two-and-a-half months at sea with nothing to alleviate the drudgery of grinding and painting the chalks and bits but the occasional bird perched atop the hurricane bow is suddenly renewed by the bright Mediterranean sun and the promise of liberty.

And liberty, blessed liberty, that short, seemingly infinitessimal time when a Sailor can depart the ship, and then walk, run, or fly to the nearest bar and drink himself silly and attempt to arrange more carnal pastimes. Or he can immerse himself in the culture and language of whatever paradise he finds himself in. And the troubles and toils of the day job won’t follow him.

And thus it was, as it has always been, when we pulled into Bari, Italy — the crown jewel of the Puglia region of Southeast Italy — after almost sixty straight days at sea. And the crew felt that same excitement, and each deck seaman scurried about the forecastle with an extra pep in his step, and tended his lines with that much more dedication. And then, once safely moored, and all business attended to, those glorious words were announced on the 1MC: “Liberty Call, Liberty Call. Liberty Call for duty sections 1 and 2.” And then those same deck seaman raced across the brow to regain their land legs.

And my compadres and I — all four of us — set foot onto Italian soil, some for the first time. The first stop was to find a caffeteria and scratch the itch that only a capuccino could scratch. And then we wandered, as we are wont to do. There’s a special joy in getting lost in a foreign city. The hassles of leading Sailors and long bridge watches and wardroom politics seem miles away, completely unreachable, and the to-do list that stretches a cable’s length is replaced by the top notch priority of finding a good bowl of pasta and magnificent bottle of wine. Your troubles can wait until later; “dopo” in Italian.

And after sixty days at sea; sixty days of rushing; sixty days of maintaining a steady strain; the near complete lack of any kind of hurry that pervades the Italian culture is a welcome relief. Everything is dopo: paying for your coffee? Dopo. Can we have the check, please? Dopo. Signora, when do we need to check out of our hotel room? Dopo.

What a welcome relief it was. This sleepy seaside city, who’s real claim to fame is that it contains the cathedral that houses the bones of Saint Nicolaus (Yes, that Saint Nicolaus). This same seaside city which has been a crossroads for various conquering armies throughout the millenia, was a refuge from the storm of operational commitments and uniforms, where you could almost pretend you were a civilian. And like all Sailors, every now and then we all need some time in a safe port from life’s tempestuous struggles.

Where the Sky and Sea Meet

Life at sea can begin to drag at times. It seems to occur more often the longer you’re at sea. The nights drag into days and the days mix together until the only dividing line is each day’s watch. And then those blend together until you try to create your own log and  can’t remember if that particular helicopter landing, where the winds wouldn’t stay put off of the stardboard bow and the seas were so confused that the deck wouldn’t stay anything resembling steady, happened on Tuesday or Thursday three weeks ago. And so Sailors, being the crafty individuals that they are, have created their own metrics for telling the days apart. Many in the crew use burger days (The U.S. Navy serves hamburgers for lunch every Wednesday, fleetwide). And then conversations like this occur: “Hey dude, do you remember when Chief said we needed to get that fuse box squared away?” “Yeah, man, he said next burger day.”

But at least obsurd conversations like that break up a long midwatch, as does the ever popular game of “Who’d You Rather?” So far Scarlett Johanson and Fat Amy are neck and neck and factions have arisen amongst the crew over their particular favorite. And even then, games and training can only last so long, until halfway through that long midwatch you run out of things to talk about and everyone is left to their own thoughts as they struggle to remain awake and retain what sanity they have left. Those are the nights when you venture out to the bridge wing and stare up at the stars and see the brilliant studs of light puncture the inky black sky for as far as you can see. And then the watch stretches on as you transit the vast Atlantic Ocean.

Eventually, you’ll look out and see no one else for miles, and then you’ll look down at the radar scope and confirm that electronically, and it’ll dawn on you that you’re really alone out here. If something should happen it’ll be up to you and the other 199 members of the crew. As the ship rocks side to side, and the swells crash into the port beam, you call down to the Central Control Station, where the engineers control the engines and bowels of the ship, and inquire what the sea water injection temperature is. “Hey pilothouse, CCS, SWIT’s about 60 degrees.” “60 degrees, bridge aye.” Sixty degrees: That sure is cold. . . And I haven’t seen a single surface contact all night. And then the thought begins to creep in, as you stare out at the empty sea: If I go overboard, I’m probably not making it back. Ditto for if we all have to abandon ship.

And it makes you realize how important it is that we do our jobs right, and keep the ship running and afloat. You realize why all of those man overboard drills are so direly important. You see how important it is that the look outs stand a vigilant watch. And why it’s so important that you stand a vigilant watch. And then the sun breaks the horizon and shines its wondrous rays down on the sea below. And you eagerly greet it.

Distant Shores

It’s a strange sight, to sit off the coast of a country you’ve never been to and probably won’t ever visit. At night you can distinctly make out the dark mass of land as it breaks up the almost endless sky. And the lights sit ashore, twinkling, waiting for the sun to rise. And there I sat, perched atop the rails on the port bridge wing, leaning against the life boat canister, surveying the coastline for movement of any kind. The only sounds are whine of the gas turbine engines and the whoosh of the ventilation fans. The air is static and the South American humidity so thick it feels as if I’m breathing a glass of water. And the watch drags on.

Conversation has gone stale and the drug runners don’t seem to be interested in coming out to play to tonight. No doubt they could see our ship from shore and thought better of it. Whoever thought standing a five hour midwatch, after standing the reveille watch the morning before and then working through the day, was a special kind of cruel.

But it’s in these moments, out here, all alone on the bridge wing that I can finally afford the time to be introspective. I have the freedom and the privacy to be alone (Yes, alone, finally!) with just my thoughts. Here, watching the coast roll lazily along, I can ponder life’s mysteries and breath a little easier.

But the humidity doesn’t get any easier to take. I soon retreat back to the pilothouse which is cooled by an asthmatic air conditioner. I walk through the door just in time to meet my relief. We do a quick turnover and then I lurch down the ladder and back aft to the wardroom.

I raid the gedunk drawer and pull out a couple whole grain poptarts (These are just like regular poptarts, but with a better marketing team). It’s been a long day and I just want to decompress. As I munch and munch and think over how uneventful the watch is, I feel the ship come alive beneath me. Both gas turbine engines are now online and are screaming at full grunt. I know that the bridge team have spotted a drug runner and are now giving chase.

And such is the life of a warship at sea: Long periods of boredom unexpectedly punctuated by moments of sheer terror and excitement. As for me, I cleaned up my garbage and went to bed.

Kipling Friday

The King and the Sea

17TH JULY 1935

After His Realms and States were moved 
To bare their hearts to the King they loved, 
Tendering themselves in homage and devotion, 
The Tide Wave up the Channel spoke
To all those eager, exultant folk:-
"Hear now what Man was given you by the Ocean! 

"There was no thought of Orb or Crown
When the single wooden chest went down
To the steering-flat, and the careless Gunroom haled him 
To learn by ancient and bitter use,
How neither Favour nor Excuse,
Nor aught save his sheer self henceforth availed him. 

"There was no talk of birth or rank
By the slung hammock or scrubbed plank 
In the steel-grated prisons where 1 cast him; 
But niggard hours and a narrow space
For rest-and the naked light on his face-
While the ship's traffic flowed, unceasing, past him. 

"Thus I schooled him to go and come-
To speak at the word-at a sign be dumb; 
To stand to his task, not seeking others to aid him; 
To share in honour what praise might fall
For the task accomplished, and-over all-
To swallow rebuke in silence. Thus I made him. 

"I loosened every mood of the deep
On him, a child and sick for sleep,
Through the long watches that no time can measure, 
When I drove him, deafened and choked and blind, 
At the wave-tops cut and spun by the wind; 
Lashing him, face and eyes, with my displeasure.

"I opened him all the guile of the seas-
Their sullen, swift-sprung treacheries, 
To be fought, or forestalled, or dared, or dismissed with laughter.
I showed him Worth by Folly concealed, 
And the flaw in the soul that a chance revealed 
(Lessons remembered-to bear fruit thereafter). 
"I dealt him Power beneath his hand,
For trial and proof, with his first Command-
Himself alone, and no man to gainsay him. 
On him the End, the Means, and the Word, 
And the harsher judgment if he erred, 
And-outboard-Ocean waiting to betray him. 

"Wherefore, when he came to be crowned, 
Strength in Duty held him bound,
So that not Power misled nor ease ensnared him
Who had spared himself no more than his seas had spared him!"
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
After His Lieges, in all His Lands,
Had laid their hands between His hands,
And His ships thundered service and devotion, 
The Tide Wave, ranging the Planet, spoke 
On all Our foreshores as it broke:-
"Know now what Man 1 gave you-I, the Ocean!"

Kipling Friday

The Derelict

1894

And reports the derelict Mary Pollock still at sea.

SHIPPING NEWS.
   I was the staunchest of our fleet
   Till the sea rose beneath my feet
Unheralded, in hatred past all measure.
   Into his pits he stamped my crew,
   Buffeted, blinded, bound and threw,
Bidding me eyeless wait upon his pleasure.

   Man made me, and my will
   Is to my maker still,
Whom now the currents con, the rollers steer --
   Lifting forlorn to spy
   Trailed smoke along the sky,
Falling afraid lest any keel come near!

   Wrenched as the lips of thirst,
   Wried, dried, and split and burst,
Bone-bleached my decks, wind-scoured to the graining;
   And, jarred at every roll
   The gear that was my soul
Answers the anguish of my beams' complaining.

   For life that crammed me full,
   Gangs of the prying gull
That shriek and scrabble on the riven hatches.
   For roar that dumbed the gale,
   My hawse-pipes' guttering wail,
Sobbing my heart out through the uncounted watches.

   Blind in the hot blue ring
   Through all my points I swing --
Swing and return to shift the sun anew.
   Blind in my well-known sky
   I hear the stars go by,
Mocking the prow that cannot hold one true.

   White on my wasted path
   Wave after wave in wrath
Frets 'gainst his fellow, warring where to send me.
   Flung forward, heaved aside,
   Witless and dazed I bide
The mercy of the comber that shall end me.

   North where the bergs careen,
   The spray of seas unseen
Smokes round my head and freezes in the falling.
   South where the corals breed,
   The footless, floating weed
Folds me and fouls me, strake on strake upcrawling.

   I that was clean to run
   My race against the sun --
Strength on the deep, am bawd to all disaster;
   Whipped forth by night to meet
   My sister's careless feet,
And with a kiss betray her to my master.

   Man made me, and my will
   Is to my maker still --
To him and his, our peoples at their pier:
   Lifting in hope to spy
   Trailed smoke along the sky,
Falling afraid lest any keel come near!

What Happens In Thailand. . .

Foreign Liberty: Nothing Beats It

If you’ve spent any time around the Navy or Sailors you’ve probably heard unbelievable stories about the wondrous things that can be found in the Far East. In Hong Kong you can find yourself a personal tailor and have an entire bespoke wardroom made for you for pennies on the dollar. In Singapore you can find out just why they call it a “Singapore Sling”. In the Philippines you can enjoy the many multifaceted joys of Filipino gourmet cooking. But with all of the joys awaiting you in the Orient, there’s one place that is only talked about after the drinks start flowing and that’s Thailand. In the interests of keeping the blog out of the gutter and far away from the censors, I’ll refrain from retelling some of the stories I’ve been told of adventures in places like Phuket and Bangkok. Just remember, if ever you invite your friends from a West Pac deployment to your retirement, ensure that they don’t tell stories of the good times you had.

I’m honestly surprised that something like that doesn’t happen more often. Anyway, I just thought I’d share some humor on this glorious Tuesday.

Rules of the Road

Every year, we Surface Warfare Officers are required to take an exam on the US Coast Guard’s Navigation Rules, and we must pass with a ninety-percent or more of our answers correct. This is no mean feat as the  Collision Regulations (aka ColRegs, Rules of the Road, COMDTINST M16672.2D) are written more for the joy of the Maritime Lawyer than the Professional Mariner and as such serve better as a sleep aid than an exciting novel. Unfortunately, my job as a mariner requires memorization of the Rules, something I’ve always struggled with. But with enough studying, I can usually pull off a passing grade. At sea, it’s a bit easier since real life makes comprehension of the regulations easier. For those who don’t understand and heed the rules, a sad fate awaits:

Anyway, I have a ColRegs test tomorrow and needed something to break up the boredom of studying for it. If you’d like to try your hand at some of the questions, follow this link to USCGQ.com and chose the Rules of the Road question deck. Best of luck!

Never Underestimate The Mafia

Fresh Bread Baked Daily! The Best Thing About Being Underway.

I mentioned the Duffel Blog a few weeks back, and have stumbled across another article I thought worthy of mention due to its ability to shed some light on some of the more interesting facets of Navy life. The article is a discussion of the first non-Filipino cook aboard a warship, which is big news, considering the stranglehold that the Manila Mafia has on certain rates like Culinary Specialist.

Back in the day, when we still had a base in the Philippines, the Status of Forces Agreement we held allowed for 2000 Filipinos to enlist in the Navy in any rate not requiring a security clearance. Naturally, that meant that a large portion of them went into the supply rates. Sadly, the practice stopped when we left the Philippines in the 1990s.

Is the Filipino Mafia an actual criminal organization within an organization that is the bedrock of national defense? No, not even close; but the Filipinos are a tight-knit bunch. Their culture places a lot of emphasis on family values and community which means that they tend to seek each other out on board the ship. Usually the most nefarious thing they have planned is a cook out.

Now, I like the Manila Mafia. The Filipino Sailors I’ve had the privilege to work were some of the most efficient and hardest workers I’ve had the pleasure to work with. And one of the benefits of their tight community is the advantage of being able to tap into the network and using it to work out solutions to problems through back channels. For instance, say you happen to need a solenoid valve that no one seems to be able to locate within the confusing vast Navy Supply system, just reach out to the Filipino Mafia and that valve will be in your hands within a few days. Just remember: When that valve arrives, don’t ask questions of how it got there.

The Boatswain’s Pipe

A Boatswains Mate Pipes

I’m an occasional reader of The Duffel Blog; it’s sort of like The Onion, but for us military enthusiasts. As such, it provides me with not but a few chuckles on those days when I find it hard to find humor in my job leading sailors. So when I saw an article poking fun at the Naval tradition of piping over the 1MC, I about fell on the floor laughing.

Now as much as I love the traditions and pageantry of the Navy, the shrill sound of the boatswain’s pipe is one that I could easily do away with. It’s a special hell waking up from a short post-midnight watch nap to the sonorous sounds of the boatswains mate of the watch piping chow as loud as he can. But like most traditions, it comes with plenty of history. Before the advent of the 1MC with which we can now announce to the whole of ship’s company that it’s time to knock off work for lunch or that they may now dump trash over the starboard side. Before the days of electronic bliss, the boatswain’s pipe was the only means with which to inform the entire crew at once of important events throughout the day. It was also used to announce the embarkation or debarkation of important visitors.

We also still use it for ceremonies, such as piping aboard the official party at changes of command and graduations. We also use it for more solemn events like funerals. It’s one of those things that as annoying as it may be at times, it provides us a sense of who we are, where we’ve come from, and esprit de corps as men and women of the Navy. But, I could still do without it.
Let Me Play You The Song of the Boatswains Mate

Dangit, Boats, not right in my ear!

Once More To Sea

So I’m off again on the great adventure. Not for as long as before, but still for long enough that regular posting will be light. If I can get decent intarwebz where I’m going you can expect more travel log photos. If not, well you’ll have to be content with Longfellow Fridays. See you upon my return. Skal!

Also, if anyone was ever interested in what it takes to actually build a Viking longboat, then follow this link.