31 July 2017

Navy Memories #5: Man Overboard!

Previous installments here:
  1. Boot Camp Memories
  2. About Those Navy Memories
  3. First Orders
  4. Anchor's Aweigh

When we last left the illustrious crew of the Willie Wood, I had written about the routine. But what about events which were not routine at all?

Like any other profession which puts people in harm's way, life is days of routine, interrupted by periods of high adrenaline. Sailors never know when the General Quarters alarm may sound, which is why we drill and drill and practice and practice ... ad nauseum. Knowing what to do without having to stop and think about is the difference between a quick, accurate response and disaster.

For example, in December 1973:

U.S.S. William M. Wood (DD 715)
We were in the Mediterranean, sailing out of Elefsis, Greece. The skies had been black for days. The darkness outside seemed to seep into the interior of the ship, along with the chill of the damp sea air that pervaded everything. Seas didn't just "toss", they writhed and groaned like living things in untold misery, and shot up waves that looked like overhanging cliffs.

stormy weather at sea
The winds also howled and moaned, and whisked tons of seawater into the atmosphere. The wash of ocean across the decks had become a familiar, if unwelcome, sight. Sometimes, the bow (that's the pointy end) dove so deep that the forward gun mount appeared to be underwater.

For an even better description of what a big storm at sea is really like, go here.

The announcement was repeated hourly over the 1MC (P.A. system), "Weather decks are closed (off limits) to all hands. Attention on deck: the weather decks are closed to all hands."

Those who were susceptible to seasickness had been in their racks (bunks) for several days, as well. The rest of us tried to work, but it was nearly impossible to get much done when the deck beneath our feet was rolling and pitching fore and aft, side to side, with a continuous series of 15- to 22-degree rolls in all directions.

The gasket on the porthole in my office on the main level of the ship had dried out a bit, and wasn't completely watertight. This would prove to be a problem, later on.

"Attention on deck: the weather decks are closed to all hands."

The only escape was in sleep. We lashed ourselves to our racks with tie-down straps, and slept like babies. Well, most of us did. The rocking, rolling, rising and falling did wonders for those who had learned to embrace it. The forward rolls in this storm was occasionally so great that the screws would lift clear of the sea, and the change in pitch was distracting until we got used to that, too.

A ship in a storm at sea, but not MY ship.
Working hours at sea are different than in port. When tied up to a dock, the daytime shift was 0800 to 1700, with an hour for lunch. At sea, we worked 0800 to 1800, with two and a half hours for lunch. Many would go back to their racks and sleep during this time. It's not like we had anyplace else to go.

"Attention on deck: the weather decks are closed to all hands."

We had taken on a new batch of sailors just before leaving port. That's not unusual; sailors come and go all the time, as their tours at one duty station expire, and they transfer to another. This time, though, we'd taken in quite a few newbies, and many had been on board for only a day or two before we got underway.

The storms started almost immediately, and it seemed that they'd never end. Those of us who had our "sea legs" watched in amazement as our feet drifted from one side of the midships passageway to the other, at times literally walking on the bulkheads (walls). This storm was something special; we all knew it. Or at least most of us did.

"Attention on deck: the weather decks are closed to all hands."

The storms grew worse. Moving around the ship became more hazardous, and we used both hands, as well as our feet, to balance ourselves when we had to move. Using the head was an issue, and sailors had to brace themselves with both hands there, too. (This may sound funny, but try taking a shower when the stall is pitching from 25 degrees to the left, to 28 degrees to the right, and moving up and down at the same time. When we got ourselves braced as well as we could, we had to suffer the water sweeping from side to side as it, too, obeyed gravity.)

Most of the parts of the ship were readily accessible, during this time, but there were two exceptions. The front and rear gun mounts had exterior hatches, and access was normally just a few steps from a rear door opening on an athwart-ships passageway, to the hatch on the side of the mount.

"Attention on deck: the weather decks are closed to all hands."

Not so, during this storm. The weather was too rough, and tons of seawater were constantly washing across the deck, driven by gale-force winds. The gunners had to go through berthing* compartments to access their work areas. They went down a ladder, through the compartment in question, and then up another ladder into the base of the mount.

"Attention on deck: the weather decks are closed to all hands."

One of the newly-arrived Gunner's Mates was R.M. He either didn't understand what the announcements meant, or paid no attention. More about him, later.

This is the storm during which we were shown The Poseidon Adventure, as I relayed in the previous post. Insert your own jokes here; you can't make this stuff up.)

On the worst day of the storm (the day after seeing Poseidon, naturally), we took a 36-degree roll to starboard. The ship heeled over, like it had done every minute or so for days, but then it didn't stop. The list increased. At my desk, I faced the port side. My chair started to scoot away from the desk; I grabbed the handles on the front of the desk - placed there for that purpose - and tried to pull myself forward.

The chair slipped away from me and tumbled across the compartment, crashing into the desks on the outboard side. I put my feet down on the deck and had trouble leaning forward, as the list continued to increase. Eventually I was hanging full-length from the handle (visible through the uprights on the chair, above), with my knees and toes dragging on the deck behind - not beneath - me.

Book and manuals, normally held in overhead shelves with lengths of rope (see above), began to rain down on my head and back. Drawers slid open, and papers on the desktop slid across and showered the compartment.

At this point, the office went dark. I tried to see over my shoulder, but couldn't because of the angle. I wound up looking under my arm, to see that the porthole was under water, and water was pouring in around the defective gasket. This was something new ...

I remember thinking, "We're going to have to mop that up."

Slowly, with shuddering, creaking and a groaning vibration felt deep in our bones, the ship began to right itself. It took a long time - too long - before the feeble daylight began to show through the porthole, and the water stopped running down the bulkhead.

It was a 36-degree roll; the ship's capsize point, we were told, was 37 degrees. A great many of us got a little weak in the knees when we realized how close we came to a literal watery grave. Fortunately, we didn't hear about that until some time later.

Almost immediately after righting, the call of "Man overboard!" was sounded. Our aft lookout had seen what looked like a figure wash across the fantail (the rear of the ship), and then go through the life rail back into the sea.

R.M. hadn't taken the warnings to heart. He tried to go out the forward hatch (front door, at the end of the passageway nearest the front of the ship), to get to the forward gun mount. Why? To retrieve a Louis L'amour novel which he was reading. I told you they popular.

But one of the biggest waves of the storm had hit just as he opened the door, allowing a substantial amount of seawater to enter the interior passageway. The next man to see it pulled the door shut, and was trying to figure out how it got open in the first place.

To make what is now a long story a little bit shorter, R.M. washed across the main deck, went under the ship and came back up on the opposite side, at the fantail. That's what the aft lookout had seen. He was then sucked back under the ship, where he was pulled through the twin screws.

We conducted the standard enumeration of the crew, and his absence was reported to Ship's Office in very short time. The skipper, of course, had brought the engines to full stop when the alarm was sounded, and we performed an "Anderson" turn, where one screw goes forward while the other goes in reverse, neatly pivoting the ship in place. This maneuver is not possible with modern, single-screw ships.

The lookouts finally saw R.M. bobbing in the water, nearly a quarter-mile to starboard, and a diver went in to get him, trailing a safety line. The ship, in the meantime, was now at rest, bobbing like a cork in the rough seas. Many of those who hadn't gotten sick before, became so now.

He was in very bad shape from being chewed up by the screws; the Hospital Corpsman (enlisted man always known as "Doc", roughly equivalent to a paramedic) told us that R.M. died three times on the table, while Doc tried to stabilize him and bandage the worst of his wounds.

We called a helo from the carrier for an evac, and never saw R.M. again. On the Book O' Faces, he recently turned up to make some comments on a post recounting "man overboard" incidents. That was the first time I knew he survived.

* * * * *

The manual typing and compiling of reports about that incident took several days, as every single individual (officers on the bridge, lookouts, crewmates, R.M.'s supervisor, etc) had to submit hand-written notes.

I typed up reports from some of the bridge crew, and only found out the rest of this story later, as we all compared notes. The bit about R.M. trying to retrieve his book came from his own comments on Bookface.

* * * * *

But not every incident was quite so dramatic, or lasted such a long time. A couple of shipmates with whom I've reconnected have offered some of their recollections and/or reminders, and I'll write about them next time.

* Sleeping areas



threecollie said...

These stories are simply amazing. Definitely book material!

Rev. Paul said...

threecollie, it never occurred to me that anyone would think these stories other than mundane. I don't know what to say, except a heartfelt thank you.

drjim said...

I never went through any storms like that in my time at sea, but then we were a civilian ship, and tried our best to avoid that stuff.

The worst roll that ship ever took was 23* (I was aboard that trip), and we were picking up stuff for 12 hours the next day, and figuring out better ways to secure it.

Rev. Paul said...

Jim, you can count yourself fortunate, sir. My ship was 365' long, 36' at the beam, and a 12' draft.

drjim said...

The Sea Launch Commander is a highly modified RORO. She's 665' long, 105' beam, and draws 26' of water. Displacement is 33,000 tons, and she's rated at 11kts cruise, and 19.5 kts max. We generally cruised to the and from the launch site at 18~19 kts, but I've seen her scoot along at 24 kts, as reported by the GPS in the room I did the tracking from.

Rev. Paul said...

The Wood displaced 2,200 tons, give or take. On the other hand, we won the "fastest in the squadron" contest in the spring of '74, at nearly 40 knots. It was the first time in a dozen years that all four boilers had been online at the same time.

drjim said...


Holy smokes....that's flying!

Rev. Paul said...

"Greyhounds of the seas", man. :) It was probably closer to 38 kts, but it sure felt like flying.

Old NFO said...

And THAT is why I was an aviator... :-)

Toirdhealbheach Beucail said...

One time Reverend, when I took a ferry from Galway to the Aran Islands, we had winds and waves that rolled us maybe 8 or 10 degrees. I had never felt such a thing in my life and never desired to again.

Thanks for sharing!

Rev. Paul said...

NFO, I had the "object falling out the sky" reaction to permanent aviation, but thinking about what might be under the surface made me a LOT more skittish. Surface warfare seemed to be a reasonable alternative. ;^)

TB, I understand. And I'll be writing more about the time at sea.

Comrade Misfit said...

Thanks for the link.

The captain on my ship had the after lookout watch secured. He ordered that we were not to turn for a man overboard and he said as much over the 1MC.

Rev. Paul said...

You're welcome. :) We were mighty tired of bobbing like a drunken cork by the time the swimmer got back with the man. Those who weren't already seasick were close to it by then. And I still don't know how we managed to avoid capsizing while sitting still.