It Never Ends: A Month of Towing in the Bering Sea

It Never Ends: A Month of Towing in the Bering Sea

October 28, 2018 by CW4 MICHAEL W. CARR

File Photo: Shutterstock/E.G.Pors

By Michael Carr – He could not take it anymore. It was all too much. The constant gale force winds, the paranoid Master, the degenerate 2ndmate, the dysfunctional cook, and an engineer who hid from everyone. All were destroying his mental health.

A week ago, or maybe longer, he could not remember now, he had e-mailed his wife from the tug’s bridge computer and asked her to call the company office in Seattle.

“Ask for Janice and get me off of here…as soon as can. Please,” he wrote. He felt guilty asking his wife to intervene, but he also felt his inner strength and resolve rapidly draining away. He just did not have the fortitude to engage the home office.

Also, he thought, he did not want the tug’s skipper and crew to know he was begging to get off. He was worn out, mentally and physically. He had endured hardship before, but this was different. This time it was insidious, persistent and had relentlessly torn him down since he had embarked on the boat a month earlier in Nome, Alaska.

Prudhoe Bay* was a 147-ton, 90-foot tug built originally for work in Prudhoe Bay Alaska. But now she was hauling barges loaded with containers from King Cove in the Aleutian Islands, up the Yukon River, and to Nome. Built for “coastwise” trade, with a flat bottom and 10 ft. draft, the Prudhoe Bay was now being used to drag barges across the open expanse of the Bering Sea.

From King Cove to Nome is 800 miles of open and exposed ocean. Every low-pressure system coming off Siberia screams across the Bering Sea, bringing days and weeks of constant gales, clouds, rain, and miserable depressing weather. There are few places on earth as gray and demoralizing as the Bering Sea. It can make you lose your mind. There is no escape, no hope that by the end of the day – or week or month – conditions will have changed.

When Prudhoe Bay departed King Cove a month ago, or maybe it was more than a month, it’s too difficult to add up the endless days, they were towing a 400-foot barge loaded with containers stacked four high. A huge tow by any standard, with so much windage. It was almost comical to see the 90-foot Prudhoe Bay towing this monster of a barge.

“Who dreams up these operations,” he asked the tug’s skipper.

“They don’t fucking think about anything in Seattle,” said the skipper.

“They bid on jobs to keep their tugs busy and making money. If they thought we could tow a fucking iceberg to the lower 48, they would bid the job.”

“Great,” he thought. “What a mess. This is not what the Personnel Office told me I would be doing. I am so, so, so stupid.”

When Prudhoe Bay departed King Cove their first challenge was getting through False Pass, the safest and most protected passage through the Aleutians. False Pass comes by its name because it does not appear to actually provide a passage through the Aleutian Islands, but it does.

In some ways, the passage is awesome in its beauty, with high mountains and rocky crags lining the passage, which is a mere few hundred yards wide in places. Rain, fog and clouds obscure the mountaintops, and winds roll down the cliffs. If you were on a cruise ship it might be impressive and elicit “oohs” and “ahhs”. But on a 90 ft. underpowered tug pulling an uncooperative and mercurial 400-foot loaded barge it is just unceasing stress and concern.

Every mariner who tows knows about catenary. The catenary is that dip in the tow cable, which prevents the cable from jerking and breaking. Catenary allows a tow to be “in-step” with the towing vessel, ensuring both the tug and tow rise and fall in a seaway together. In deep open water, where the ocean bottom is miles away, the depth of the catenary is of little concern. But in shallow water, if the tow cable dips too far below the surface it will drag on the bottom. This is dangerous because a tow cable dragging on the bottom will stop a tug and allow the tow to overrun it, causing the tug to capsize and sink.

Unlike the Pacific Ocean, the Bering Sea is shallow, in some places as shallow as 60 ft. Constant attention to a tow cable’s catenary is essential, and because of shifting winds and erratic seas, the length of a tow cable must be adjusted often. Sometimes several times during a 4-hour watch.

On the Prudhoe Bay, the tow cable is adjusted at the towing winch on the stern. Since only one person is on watch at a time, the mate must leave the pilothouse, with the tug on autopilot, and walk to the stern to engage the towing winch to let out or pull in tow cable.

How much to pull in or let out? It’s an educated guess. Let some out, pull some in, then go back to the pilothouse. Check your speed over the ground, check the depth, check the tow. Is the barge riding smoothly behind you, or is it yawing or pounding into the waves? Is the tow cable jerking or is it staying in the water? Tough enough during the day to accomplish this task, almost impossible at night. This task is always a challenge when you are rested, but after weeks of towing in gale force weather, you frequently cannot remember what you were doing.

“Was I pulling in tow cable, or letting out cable?” Fatigue. Constant, unrelenting fatigue.

Earlier in the month, Prudhoe Bay had sat for over a week on the east side of St Mathews Island. They sat in the Island’s lee as gale and storm force winds blew across the Bering Sea. St Mathews Island sits in the middle of the Bering Sea, hundreds of miles from nowhere. There is no escape, no lull, no pause, no reprieve.

Anchor watches were 6 on and 6 off. For 6 hours you sat in the pilothouse, by yourself, listening to wind howl and the rain pound on the windows. You watched the barges “blip” on the radar screen, a few hundred yards away. Anchoring was not really anchoring, you let out hundreds of feet of tow cable and made a circle in shallow water. The tow cable lies on the bottom and acts as an anchor for both the barge and tug. Day after day, you sit. Generators running, engines on standby. Mind numbing. There is little conversation or human interaction. Your watch relief shows up, looks around, asks if anything has changed, and then says, “I got it.” Off you go to your bunk, praying that space aliens will abduct you before you have to wake and go back to the bridge.

When winds finally subsided, the tow cable was reeled in and the Prudhoe Bay resumed her slow chug-chug-chug towards Nome. Speed over the ground rarely exceeded 7 knots – slow jog or easy bike ride on land. At 7 knots, you cover 168 miles a day. You don’t want to look at the chart since it seems like you will never arrive at your destination. Chug-chug-chug. The Prudhoe Bay is a noisy tug. There is no escape from the weather or machinery.

He finally tells the skipper that he has requested to get off when they arrive in Nome since he knows Janice from the home office will, hopefully, soon notify the skipper that a relief is on the way.

“Why do you want to get off?” asks the skipper, more concerned about whether the request has something to do with him than anything else.

“I just can’t do this anymore,” he replies. There is no attempt to make an excuse, or invoke some lame excuse, or blame anyone. “I just can’t do this,” he says again. “It’s just too much.”

“Yeah, I get that, this isn’t for everyone,” says the skipper. “It’s a real bitch, in fact, it really sucks. I am thinking of retiring myself. No-one wants to do this run.”

He feels a relief having told the skipper, and prays his relief is on the dock in Nome when they arrive. A week later, Prudhoe Bay and her 400-foot barge pull into Nome and moor along the harbor’s seawall. He looks out and sees his relief standing there, with his sea bag, ready to board. They shake hands, exchange words, and advice, and then he walks up the muddy wet pier with his bag over his shoulder. He does not look back, and his pace increases the further he gets from the tug.

*Tug name changed to protect identities.

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THE POWER OF MUSIC

THE POWER OF MUSIC…

Written by a Shipmate who wishes to remain anonymous

Someone recently posted about how certain songs trigger old memories and transport them back to a specific period of time… It got me to thinking, about songs that almost literally take me back to a specific time, place, and in some cases a person… I grew up and went thru school with C&W music, but then in the late 50’s, along came Elvis, Bill Haley, The Platters, Marty Robbins, Jim Reeves, and many other greats with the impending splitting of Rock and Roll from C&W. Some stayed C&W, others went to the popular Rock & Roll side, lots of great music, but no specific song defines that place and time for me… until I got to WESTPAC… The first one was when I got to Iwakuni in ‘64, I had always been a Marty Robbins fan, and as I turned right at “Three Corners”, and was walking past the bars, I heard a song coming from a little Country “Stand Bar”, so I went in, and behind the bar was this little 18-year-old sweetheart that cemented my love of Japanese women forever… She was the daughter of one of Mama-san’s friends, sort of “sowing her wild oats”, under Mama-san’s strict supervision, before hopefully settling down to become a traditional Japanese wife. She apparently liked me, because she quickly figured out that it was the song that drew me in, and from that time on… even after I had been gone for two or three months, as soon as I walked in the door, she would stop whatever song was playing and put it on… As soon as she realized what was happening, Mama-san sat me down and had a “come to Jesus” talk with me, she only allowed us to go out to the base for a movie or something, and then she insisted on coming along and chaperoning… But, as they say, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”… Anyway, any time I hear this song, I’m suddenly a 22-year-old 2nd Class, having my first taste of the Orient, and learning just how delightful Asian girls can be…

YOUTUBE.COM

Marty Robbins Saddle Tramp

Marty Robbins was the musical equivalent of a Frederick Remington or Zane Grey. His stirring saga songs and tales of the old west are loved all around…

As things started to heat up in Vietnam, we transferred from Iwakuni to Sangley Point in the Philippines, to get closer to the patrol zones. After securing the planes, and settling into billeting, we immediately decided to go out to Cavite City and experience some of the “Cultural Attractions” of our new home… Out the main gate, straight down “Radio Road”, (later changed to Doctora Salamanca), one of the first bars you came to was a high-class establishment called the “Sugar Shack”… went in, and met this sweet young lady, (wouldn’t even hazard a guess as to her actual age, just let it suffice to say, her Work Papers said she was 18, and what Sailor in heat is going to argue with the Philippine government…?) That was when I experienced my second epiphany about Asian girls… Pilipina Honeykos are every bit as delightful as Japanese Ojousans… Needless to say, after that night, this song immediately transports me back in time to when I was a young Sailor, experiencing my first taste of the beauty and “cultural diversity” of the PI…

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=iHzjfGF6MiU

 

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The next three or four years are all jumbled together, as I bounced all over WESTPAC, furthering my education, or as the college boys might say, pursuing my Master’s and Ph.D. in Asian Studies, with a specialty in Oriental girls… Visiting such exotic Sailor universities as Japan, PI, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, and Thailand… But as delightful as most of these ports were, there were no real epiphanies, unless you count the now anticipated revelation, Chinese, Thai and Korean girls are every bit as delightful as their Japanese and Pilipina sisters, but no particular songs defining those studies… except for…

JAPAN: When I hear one song, I’m again young Sailor, learning about Oriental girls from the experts in Thieves Alley in Yokosuka, Four and a half street and “D” Avenue in Yokohama, “Whisper Alley”, and BC Street in Okinawa, and the alleys of Sailor Town and Saki Town in Sasebo…https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=8S5JZVQxHIQ

Olongapo: Again, this song, I’m a young Sailor, alive, uninjured… just back from flying combat rescue from North SAR Station off Haiphong with two months pay, combat pay and no taxes, crossing “Shit River” and heading down Magsaysay… I’m sure there were other songs, but can’t remember any… it seemed like this was blaring from every bar and disco on the strip…https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=QkwmSzPdVnY

Finally, ‘Nam… I’m transported back to my in-country visits and a little different type of education, by this song… incidentally I met a guy in the VFW one night who had been an announcer on AFN Vietnam and he said they probably got more requests for this than all the others put together…https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=wJVpihgwE18

That about sums up my song triggered memories of being a “young, dumb and full of cum” Asia Sailor… got one more when I was a bit older, that I may tell you about someday… but it is X rated, and I’m not sure I’m ready to tell it right now…

I may post later… or tell it in person if I’m ever able to make it to Branson…??

YOUTUBE.COM

LOS BRAVOS – “BLACK IS BLACK”

Que lo disfruten!!!! ….. Enjoy!!!!

I’m now far from that young Sailor, exploring Asia and discovering just how delightful Oriental girls can be, but I just had another epiphany… I was sitting here unwinding, sipping a glass of wine and checking Facebook when I decided to put on some music… I put it on “random play”, and the second song to play seemed to describe the situation as it is now, and to be the perfect one for the end of this series… One line in particular I thought was especially appropriate…

“He said, son, it was great, but it ended too soon

Now I’m just an old man with nothin’ but memories…” Y’all have a great Navy weekend

 

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Lifer

I do not actively seek discounts or freebies given to retirees or veterans. If a discount is offered at the time of check-out, I graciously accept with thanks. — Garland

theleansubmariner

This one is going to make somebody mad.

(also may have some cussing so you have been warned)

I don’t mean for that to happen, but I have noticed this topic on some of the veteran’s Facebook pages over the past few years and I already know that some people are going to be pissed off.

I am very sorry.

Really.

But I have a bit of a rant.

Here goes. First, if you ever served in the military and were honorably discharged, thank you very much for your service. I am proud to have you as a brother or sister and know that you are very special and unique. Not all of your generation served and I have heard that it may be as low as one percent of any generation that put on the uniform of the United States of America. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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Advice for an Asia Sailor’s Girl

Advice for an Asia Sailor’s Girl

By Garland Davis with content stolen from Cort Willoughby

I have been asked by many young ladies how to tell if an Asia Sailor is serious about a relationship. The following actions by your Asia Sailor are indicative of his deep feelings for you and whether he is a possible candidate for marriage.

  1. He helps you carry the ten cases of beer he asked you to buy for the weekend and only insists that you pay for half of it.
  2. He isn’t bashful about hawking up a loogie and launching it to windward out the window of your car causing it to splatter all over the rear passenger window.
  3. He isn’t bashful about scratching his nuts and adjusting them to a more comfortable position.
  4. He commonly responds with “What the Fuck” when presented with a problem, such as, loss of the bottle opener.
  5. He refuses to buy vehicle air fresheners to cover up the odor of the fart blown seat covers in his vintage gray Dodge Ram with the ‘Running Rust’ paint job.
  6. He asks if you shoot pool and then attempts to involve you in a game he invented called ‘Strip Pool.’
  7. He is not stingy about offering you a dip of his Copenhagen.
  8. When you have to pee on a road trip, he is considerate of your privacy and pulls over near a copse of bushes so you can piss secure that no one is watching.
  9. He involves you in a philosophical discussion regarding the merits of Fellatio and Cunnilingus.
  10. He quickly overcomes the taboo of farting in your presence and no longer closes the bathroom door when taking a shit at your apartment.
  11. When he farts in bed and pulls the covers over your head, stand by for a proposal and a ring!

These are all indications that your Asia Sailor is a keeper. Always keep in mind that as an Asia Sailor he is a Pubic Servant.

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Notre Dame, a Class Act

Notre Dame, a Class Act

Stolen from Paul Reuter

Call me a sissy. Call me corny, out-dated, or whatever you think appropriate. But on Saturday, 12 November 2005, I cried. I sat in front of my television with tears streaming down my face. It was not a war movie or a love story on the screen, but a football game!

I had just watched my team, Navy, seriously defeated by a powerhouse Notre Dame squad, 42-21. But that was not the reason for my tears.

When the game ended, a reporter ran up to Charlie Weis, Notre Dame’s phenomenal coach, and asked him one of the usual post-game questions. Coach Weis politely, but firmly, told the reporter he had something more important to do and, pushing the microphone aside, headed for the opposite side of the field. With him went the entire Notre Dame team.

What I saw next I will never forget. With their fans looking on, The Fighting Irish joined the midshipmen and stood respectfully with them as the latter sang “Navy Blue and Gold,” their alma mater.

An article in The Observer, a South Bend newspaper, described the scene:

The weather was beautiful, the team looked great, and the home crowd at Notre Dame Stadium had plenty to cheer about on Saturday. However, the most impressive event in that stadium was when 80,795 people did no cheering at all. No yelling, no talking, not even an odd sneeze. Dead silence. That’s what the Navy band received at the end of the game while they played their alma mater.

From that moment on, I am forever a Notre Dame fan (though I will still root for Navy when the two teams meet). It was a moment of pure class, of unabashed patriotism, and of true sportsmanship; an all-too-rare combination.

The class part is not too surprising. Though I am not Catholic and have been to Indiana only once, I have long had a healthy respect for Notre Dame as a university with class. Educational standards and the value of tradition have always brought this school much well-deserved respect.

The patriotism part is a bit more complicated. As a Vietnam veteran, I lived through an era when respect for the military was wanting by too many Americans. It was a time when CBS actually considered taking the Army-Navy game off the air. It was a lonely time when no one thanked you for your service.

I suspect that some of the tears I shed in front of the TV were a bit self-indulgent because I saw something I would have given much to have seen in those dark days. But it was not bitterness I felt; it was gratitude—thanks that we are now doing it right.

The sportsmanship part is something that lately we are not getting right. I have all but given up on my beloved NFL because it just isn’t much fun anymore when I have to watch players dance and strut after every routine tackle and wave the football in their opponent’s face after scoring a touchdown. I won’t say sportsmanship is dead, but it is seriously wounded.

But when those Notre Dame players stood beside their Navy opponents it was a gesture that said more than thousands of words could ever convey. Class, patriotism, sportsmanship— all in one simple, but noble, gesture.

I have since learned from friends who were there that the nobility went well beyond that one moment. I was told that the Notre Dame fans did not boo the opposing players when they first ran onto the field—which is often the case these days. Instead, they cheered them. And at the end of the first quarter, the stadium announcer asked the fans to recognize Navy “on this day after Veteran’s Day”—and they gave the Midshipmen a long standing ovation.

The Irish band played “Anchors Aweigh” several times during the game, and one witness watched as total strangers walked up to the midshipmen and thanked them for their service. He described it as not “just one act of manners…it was all day long.”

In post-game interviews, I watched spellbound as Notre Dame players spoke not of their own (awesome) achievements on the field, but talked instead of their opponents and how they faced far greater challenges in the future, not on the football field, but on the battlefield. Again, I cried.

Thank you, Charlie Weis, for a class act. Thank you, Notre Dame, for embracing patriotism. Thank you, Navy, for your service.

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Blockades do work

theleansubmariner

One of my earliest memories as a kid was the story about the Cuban Missile Crisis. While there were many parts to this story, the one that I remember most was the Naval Blockade.

October 22, 1962 – President John F. Kennedy orders a surface blockade of Cuba to prevent Soviet offensive weapons from reaching Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. By forcefully employing U.S. naval forces, President John F. Kennedy is able to achieve his strategic objectives and deal with a dangerous and well-armed Soviet Union without war.

I would be interested to hear from those who served during that time about their experiences.

Mister Mac

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Benjo Spider

Benjo Spider

By Garland Davis

Benjo Spider

Vesuvius was anchored in Sasebo. It was the early sixties and memory of the ammunition ship explosion at Port Chicago was still too fresh in Navy leadership’s mind to moor ammunition ships to the pier, consequently, these ships anchored out, usually in the remotest anchorage. One of my snipe buddies and I caught the 1900 liberty boat for the long ride to the Fleet Landing.

Besides long boat rides another detriment to liberty in those days was a thing called “Cinderella Liberty” which meant, if you didn’t catch the 2400 liberty boat from the Fleet Landing you turned into a pumpkin without a liberty card for a protracted period.

It was 2000 by the time we reached the pier giving us four hours to get drunk, laid, and back to the landing for the 2400 boat. We stopped by the club for a shot and a beer and to change our non-rate monetary pittances for Yen. With that accomplished, we were into an 80Y taxi and off to Sailor Town. A couple of large Kirin beers alongside a shot of Nikka Whisky (fine sippin’ whiskey for 50Y a shot) and we were ready for the girls.

My BT buddy goes into the head in one of the joints in which we were drinking. In the meantime, I am putting moves on one of the hostesses. This consists of showing her your dick alongside a thousand yen note. (And yes it was that cheap, back in the day.) Anyway, the BT comes back carrying the biggest goddamn spider I have ever seen in his hand. The Mama-san got a little pissed that he had caught her Benjo Spider. He ended up paying her a hundred yen for the spider. He paid another hundred for a box.

I didn’t get laid that night, but we had more fun with that fucking spider. Walk into a bar and place the box on the table. Pretty soon one of the girls would get curious and open the box. We thought it was funny as hell. Finally with the witching hour rapidly approaching, we caught an 80 yenner to the landing. He got out of the cab and tossed the box into the dumpster.

I said, ‘You should have turned the spider loose.”

He replied, “I did. I left it in that taxi.”

We laughed our asses off thinking about the passenger who discovered the spider.

We made our own fun, you know, back in the day.

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