Heavy Seas

Heavy Seas

By FTG1 Tracy Garner DD 468, DD 836, DD 884

For a tin can at sea, deteriorating weather conditions could bring anything from a bumpy ride over choppy seas to mountainous waves crashing over the main deck. It could mean a brief encounter of a few hours, or a struggle lasting several miserable days. It has been said that to appreciate the power and grandeur of nature, one could stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon and gaze out over the precipice. This would surely impress upon you just how puny and insignificant you truly are. I would add that if you should do that with the wind howling and the earth pitching and rolling beneath you as you desperately cling to a small bush you could then acquire roughly the same appreciation of your puniness as does a tin can sailor riding out a storm at sea.

The way it starts: The first hint of what is to come could be the proverbial red sky at morning. Or it could be the less dramatic mid-day sky gradually becoming gray, along with the suddenly restless sea. The word would be passed to prepare for heavy seas as the wind begins to form whitecaps and whip a fine spray off the higher waves. As the waves grow larger and the wind increases, the sky and sea merge into a gray haze while the ship begins to respond with pitches and rolls of increasing magnitude with no real pattern. A certain carnival atmosphere develops and the noise level within the ship increases as a sudden heavier roll is met with exuberant whooping and hollering, often accompanied by the sound of some unsecured piece of gear crashing to the deck. This continues as the angle of the rolls increase until, at some point, the ship gradually becomes quieter. Everything that was going to fall has either fallen or been secured, and simply being about the heaving decks is no longer such great fun for the tiring crew. Now the loudest sounds heard are of the bow plunging down into the next wave trough, waves slamming against the hull, and the constant squeaking of the expansion joints. If it gets bad enough, sometimes the whole ship shudders as the screws break the surface due to the ship riding over the crest of a particularly large wave. In the pilot house, the inclinometer is now being watched as much as the chronometer as the helmsman must continually fight to keep the ship on course since winds and gravity work with the waves to skew the ship left and right.

When the carnival ride has lasted long enough but doesn’t end, one could start to see similarities between this situation and a tilt-a-whirl ride operated by a sadistic madman with the power to make the ride last as long as he wishes and even go faster. There is no emergency stop button and no way off. Storm or no storm, life goes on. The ships routine is maintained if possible, watches must be stood and ships work will still be accomplished. Everything that needed to be done still needs to be done but now the doing becomes more difficult. Any small task that requires two hands now requires two men since you can use one hand for the ship, but must reserve the other for yourself. Simply moving about the ship means keeping one hand free to grasp whatever is handy that will keep you from careening off in some unwanted, possibly dangerous, direction. Going through a watertight door often becomes a struggle as the ship rolls and the weight of the door requires all your strength to pull it closed behind you, you dare not release your grip to let the door swing uncontrolled. The interior passageways become wet and slick from the sea spray entering as people access the weather decks while moving around topside becomes a series of ungainly dashes across a pitching, rolling and dangerously slick deck. These dashes are usually made while keeping your back to the wind and the biting rain or spray. The word is passed over the 1MC for all hands to lay clear of the forecastle and fantail. It becomes too dangerous to venture there because the odd wave breaks over the decks, carrying away anything or anyone not secured. Having a meal becomes an adventure requiring you to manage your tray with one hand while alternately eating or hanging onto the table with the other, and the deck would always become slick from the inevitable spilled food. The menu would be modified somewhat, no need to make a bad situation worse. Breakfast eggs are scrambled only, no over easy (the steam line griddle is also pitching and rolling). This whole process of going to the mess deck for a meal would seem to be a lot of trouble for one with no appetite, but skipping a meal is not a wise choice. At the end of a long day, you wearily climb into your bunk and then grasp your bunk frame or chain to keep from being tossed onto the deck during a heavy roll, awake or asleep you do not give up that hold. When it is time to hit the deck you will have newly stiff and aching muscles from clinging to your bunk for hours. These aches will accompany the existing dull aches and pains accumulated from the physical struggles of the day before. You start your new day by being tired.

And then there is the sickness:

Everyone who has experienced a storm at sea more than once probably has developed his own way of coping. Some are affected more by the motion than others but I think everyone suffers to some extent. What works for one will not necessarily work for another and it is a solitary challenge to find your own way to endure. The always present, well-meaning advice may or may not be worthwhile. For example, the often suggested and timeworn trick of eating crackers is suspect. I have seen boxes of crackers eaten between bouts of cracker spewing; they may help some, but not all. In a sense, even though you are crowded together in the steel confines of the ship, when the storm hits you are very much alone.

When it comes, the nagging queasiness is yours and no one else’s. To prevent it from becoming the all-consuming seasickness requires you find some coping skills, and those can only be found within. They say seasickness is mostly a mental state, and your mental state is what you make it.

Even though the struggle to prevent the queasiness from becoming nausea and vomiting is a solitary pursuit, for the maintenance of good order and discipline, all hands must consider their shipmates. Even if you should be that rare individual who feels no ill effects from the motion, due to the lack of adequate ventilation you still do not open a can of sardines or light a cigar inside the ship. Also, there will be no whining or complaining, since anyone you can complain to will be in the same boat, so to speak. Whining is sure to bring ridicule and scorn, but no sympathy. If you do come to the point of actually needing a trash can between your knees you may receive a sympathetic word, along with a request to take it somewhere else. The smell of vomit lingers in the close confines of a space, much to the discomfort of those required to be there. Also, cleaning up vomit often results in a chain reaction. Last but not least, the considerate shipmate always pukes leeward. My first and only experience of actual, hanging over the rail, seasickness did not occur during my first or even my worst storm. After that one unforgettable episode, I decided that nothing that will likely happen at sea can be much worse than reliving that terrible day. My own experience taught me that I would fare much better by just staying too busy to give much thought to the ship’s motion. If it became too rough to work, or if I ran out of anything to do, I should simply stretch out somewhere, with my work jacket for a pillow and my ball cap over my eyes, and nap. After all, what are the chances that the Chief would leave the goat locker and come looking with some task or other, he would likely be immersed in his own storm coping ritual.

There are not that many places in a tin can where a man can stretch out and reasonably expect to be left alone. My favorite was my tiny air-conditioned Mk 25 radar room on the 01 levels, across from radio central. Any port in a storm, I suppose.

The absolute worst thing I could do was to just sit wedged in a corner thinking about my discomfort, or discussing it with a shipmate.

And then it would pass: As the worst of the storm passes, the skies begin to clear and with the sun, random rainbows appear. The seas calm, conditions quickly return to normal. The ships’ routine becomes an actual routine again as the crew cleans up the mess and repairs any damage. With the return of calm seas and clear skies, modified condition Yoke would be set and the watertight doors topside opened to help air out the interior spaces. Soon all would be just as if nothing unpleasant had ever happened and the specific memories of this storm will simply merge with those from the past.

Instead of being a place of mortal danger, the fantail is once again the crews’ preferred gathering place for scuttlebutt and socializing while watching the sunset.

Thanks to foul weather, I was once fortunate enough to have a unique experience and learn first hand, how they did it in the days of old. During a visit to Bangkok, I had bought an inexpensive hammock made with nylon netting. Taking little space, it was easy to keep rolled and stashed out of sight. While riding out one uncomfortably close typhoon I decided I should try it out at sea. The only place I knew which had room to sling a hammock fore and aft, and was normally unoccupied at night, was the ordnance shop on the 01 levels behind the after stack. I informed some people where I could be found and retired to the shop for the night. The hammock was slung between bulkheads and above the workbench with enough room to avoid hitting anything as it swung suspended high in the small space. I then turned out the lights and, using my Zippo to light my way, carefully climbed from the bench into the hammock and settled in. The experience was unlike anything I had known before. Reclined in complete darkness, snuggled down into the hammock, all sensation of the ships rolls simply disappeared. Even with the lateral motion added to the rolls due to my height above the waterline, the only apparent effect was the sense of becoming noticeably heavier and lighter as I swung wildly to and fro. I could completely relax without fear of being tossed onto the deck below. To wake hours later refreshed and feeling as if I had spent the night at a Holiday Inn was a most pleasant revelation. I have since decided that hammocks may not have been used on destroyers of the day simply because the Navy was averse to spoiling its enlisted men.

Thanks, Tracy