The Snipe’s Lament
The life of an Engineer
Now each of us from time to time, has gazed upon the sea.
And watched the warships pulling out, to keep this country free.
And most of us have read a book, or heard a lusty tale.
About the men who sail these ships, through lightening, wind and hail
But there’s a place within each ship, that legend fails to reach. It’s down below the waterline, it takes a living toil- A hot metal living hell, that sailors call the “HOLE”.
It houses engines run by steam, that make the shafts go ’round.
A place of fire and noise and heat, that beats your spirits down.
Where boilers like a hellish heart, with blood of angry steam
Are of molded gods without remorse, are nightmares in a dream.
Whose threat that from the first roar, is life living doubt,
That any minute would with scorn, escape and crush you out.
Where turbines scream like tortured souls, alone and lost in hell,
As ordered from above somewhere, they answer every bell.
The men who keep the fires lit, and make the engine run.
Are strangers to the world of night and rarely see the sun.
They have no time for man or God, no tolerance for fear,
Their aspect pays no living thing, the tribute of a tear.
For there’s not much that men can do, that these men haven’t done.
Beneath the decks, deep in the holes, to make the engines run.
And every hour of every day, they keep their watch in hell,
For if the fires ever fail, their ship’s a useless shell.
When ships converge to have a war, upon an angry sea,
The men below just grimly smile, at what their fate might be.
They’re locked in below like men fore doomed, who hear no battle cry,
It’s well assumed that if they’re hit, the men below will die.
For every day’s a war down there when the gauges all read red,
Twelve hundred pounds of superheated steam, can kill you mighty dead.
So if you ever write their sons, or try to tell their tale,
the very words would make you hear, a fired furnace’s wail.
These men of steel the Public never gets to know
So little’s heard about the Place, that sailors call the hole.
But I can sing about the place, and try to make you see
The hardened life of men down there, cause one of them is me.
I’ve seen these sweat soaked heros fight, in superheated air.
To keep their ship alive and right, though no one knows they’re there.
And thus they’ll fight for ages on, til steamships sail no more,
Amid the boiler’s mighty heat and turbines hellish roar.
So when you see a ship pull out to meet a warship foe.
Remember faintly, if you can, the men who sail below.
My fellow Snipes and learned, and often memorized, this poem during our initial training phase for our rate specialties. As a Machinists Mate, these words were reinforced by our classroom instructors. The ‘Snipe’s Lament’ is attributed to an unknown sailor serving in the hell of the Pacific Theater of the Second World War. For myself and my Brothers who serve in bowels of our Navy’s mighty ships of war, these words were accompanied with the chills running through our bodies knowing that when in a Battle at Sea the Snipe is unlikely to survive. Today’s Snipe is unlikely to understand the “Snipe’s Lament” due to our modern technologies and perceived lack of a serious threat of Naval engagement. From my experiences, the Modern Snipe has a tendency to rely on their technology to protect them from harm. What the fail to comprehend is that we have a common enemy that bows to no ideology, that enemy has plagued our Navy since the very beginning. This enemy cannot be defeated by and is often allied with technology.
This enemy is Complacency.
The second half of my Naval career was as a Gas Turbine Systems Technician (Mechanical). Our gas turbine engines rarely fail, and our support systems are designed to minimize the possibilities of a leak that can result in a fire. However, it is these systems that allow complacency to grab a foothold and lie in wait for the opportunity to surface and wreak havoc. At this point in my career I was already heavily involved in casualty control training. I brought with me all the skills I used when training in the 1200 psi superheated steam Machinery Spaces. More often than not, my methods were met with resistance in the world of the Gas Turbine Navy. However, by my insistence on using real life scenarios and forcing the teams being trained to actually shut equipment down as per their Casualty Control protocols (vice 80% simulation), my watch teams never failed during assessment or most importantly in real life. Through proper training, I have seen my Teams successfully combat significant oil leaks, class Charlie fires on the main power generator sets, class Bravo fires within the gas turbine enclosures, a complete loss of electrical power during a midnight transit of the Straits of Hormuz, a catastrophic failure of a main shafting bearing, and countless minor leaks & fire waiting to progress into a ship wide casualty response.
Fire and flooding are two of the most probable and dangerous casualties that can happen during routine daily operations. To make sure the crew is prepared; we run fire and flooding drills throughout the week. A flooding drill starts out by a training team member activating a flooding sensor in a machinery space. Just before activating the flooding sensor, the training team member will set up visual aids (props) to help the responding crew member visualize the flooding. Our standard flooding prop is a green flag which is supposed to indicate a flooding rate of either ten or one hundred gallons a minute. The rate of flooding depends on the size of the rag. Now, when our watch stander arrives on the scene, he physically sees a green rag however, in his mind he sees a broken pipe with a lot of water spraying out. This is where the fun starts. The watch stander reacts by calling the controlling station (CCS) and describing the size and location of the leak. The senior watch stander (EOOW) now has to make quick decisions on how this leak affects the ship, should stop the affected pump or start a stand-by pump first. Depending on where we put the leak; that can be a big decision to make with little time available to make the right choice. Once the leaking pump has been stopped, we must quickly isolate the leak by shutting the right valves. This too, is a decision which requires a bit of thinking. Shutting a valve may stop the leak, but what if it disables a critical system? What if the valves chosen fail to stop the leak? I shut a valve and leak got worse, now what do I do? All of these questions need quick and decisive answers. After all, the more water that fills the space, the less buoyant the ship will be. And if the ship loses enough buoyancy, it tends to act like a submarine and that makes for a bad day. In general, we surface sailors like to keep our ship at or near sea level at all times. Anyhow, after we finally stop the leak, we have to determine how to get rid of all of that water. In most cases, getting rid of the water is easy, the majority of the spaces where flooding is most likely to occur have systems built in to remove unwanted water. However, many spaces require us to set up portable pumps to remove water. Now that all of the water is gone, and the ship is once again safe and stable, the training team gathers up all of the involved parties and tells them what they did wrong and how to improve their actions to minimize any mistakes made. The trainers will also solicit feedback from the trainees on how to improve the training process and make the game more realistic.
Fires are quite possibly the worst casualty that can happen on a ship. They can spread rapidly and we have limited space in which to retreat. A fire can be a simple class Alpha fire in a trash can to a raging class Alpha fire in a berthing or work space. To understand what a class Alpha fire is, think of your average house fire. These are the ‘easy’ fires to extinguish since we use water to put the fire out. But, too much water can be just as bad as the flooding we just talked about. The difficult part of any fire is extinguishing it before it can spread or cause adjacent spaces to catch on fire due to the heat. The next big fire threat is an electrical fire, or class Charlie fire. These fires are challenging in that you must first find the power source and then turn it off. That may sound like an easy task however, the ship has several power panels scattered throughout all spaces. The right power panel isn’t always close to the fire. To make things even harder, some of our equipment has more than one source of power. Our training team member will start this drill by activating a space fire alarm, or stopping the piece of equipment affected by the fire. This will set off an alarm in CCS and a watch stander will be dispatched to investigate. When the watch arrives, he will see a flashing light on the electrical component that is on fire. Again he makes the report to CCS on the location of the fire. At this point he will find the nearest CO2 fire extinguisher and wait for somebody to secure the electrical power. The EOOW will call for the Repair Electrician to go to the scene of the fire and assist in the event that simply securing the power doesn’t put the fire out. Now the training team has a couple of options when the electrical power is secured, we can indicate that the fire put itself out or he can indicate that the fire is still burning inside the affected piece of equipment. To show the fire out is pretty simple, just turn off the flashing light. If we want to show that the fire has not gone out after the power was secured, we will shine a red lens flashlight or red laser pointer around the cover to the electrical component. The watch stander sees this as the heat from a fire that is still burning. Now he must open the covers and use CO2 to extinguish the fire. While all of this is happening, the EOOW must determine how the isolating the fire will affect the ship. If the fire is on a pump, how will stopping that pump affect other pieces of equipment. Will stopping the pump put the ship in a harms way because of the tactical environment? If the fire is on a major power distribution switchboard, what equipment will we lose? Again, there are a lot of things to consider in a short period of time.
The worst of all fires are the class Bravo fires. They are fires caused by fuel oil or lube oil leaks in a machinery space. We start this fire by using a yellow rag on a section of fuel oil or lube oil piping. Depending on the system involved we will indicate a loss of pressure to that system by activating an alarm. When the responding watch standers see the yellow rag, they envision a flammable liquid spray coming from the piping. They will report to CCS the size and location of the leak. While the EOOW is responding to the leak and securing main engines, stopping the shaft and stopping the pumps feeding the leak the watch stander is trying to prevent the fuel or lube oil from contacting a heat source that will cause ignition. They do this by tossing a specially designed deflection blanket over the leak and shutting the nearest valves to the leak. The watch will also be activating the bilge sprinkling system to disperse fire fighting foam over the bilges. This covers the fuel to prevent any sparks or heat sources from causing ignition. While this is happening, other members of the watch team are arriving to help by breaking out the fire hose supplied by the fire fighting foam system. Once this hose is manned up, they start spraying down the decks and flushing any remaining fuel into the bilges where is can be covered by the foam blanket. At the same time, the rest of the ship is manning up the repair lockers and preparing for the worst possible scenario, the Bravo fire. After the watch standers think they have the situation under control, the training team will start waving a red flag and start a smoke machine to indicate that a fire has broken out. The watch standers will attempt to extinguish the fire but they do not have the gear needed for a sustained attack on the fire. What they are lacking is proper fire fighting suits to fend off the heat of the fire and breathing gear to offset the choking smoke generated by a fire. Now they must make the decision to abandon their fire fighting efforts and evacuate the space before the fire or smoke traps them. At this point they find their way to safety and activate the installed halon fire suppression system. Now the repair lockers are called in to make sure the fire has been extinguisher. After waiting for the halon to take effect and put the fire out, the repair locker send in the attack team. The attack team is the first group of fire fighters to enter the space. As they enter the engine room, they see heavy smoke wafting up the ladder from the middle level of the space. Before transiting down the ladder, each member will kick the ladder treads to make sure the ladder is secure. Without hesitation, the team transits into the heavy smoke prepared to face any situation that awaits them. After the first team member is safely on the deck of the middle level, the team leader will join him. The team leader will then stray from his protective hose and scan the entire level through a thermal imaging device to see if there are any stray fires hiding in the midst of the smoke. Once the team leader determines that no sympathetic fires are burning on this level of the engine room, the team will slowly progress to the lower most level and repeat the process. This is the most dangerous part of the process for here is where the original fire started. If they disturb the protective foam blanket covering the raw fuel, the fire will reignite. When this happens, the team will be forced to attack the fire with their fire fighting foam. As all of this is happening, the Damage Control Assistant (DCA) is in CCS coordinating the efforts of all the Repair Lockers. He is solely responsible for the safety of all personnel involved in the fire fighting efforts. He must ensure that no single team member runs out of air and that they have a constant supply of fire fighting foam at all times. Eventually, the fire will be fully extinguished. Now the DCA and the officer in charge of the locker must determine the best way to remove all of the smoke from the space and send in another team to make sure that all hot spots or smoldering fires are fully extinguished. If all has gone well, the fire will be extinguished in less than two hours. As with all training evolutions, the training team will once again gather all involved parties and explain what went wrong and how to correct it for the next time.
Another fun-filled event is replenishment at sea. This is how we ‘buy the groceries’ and ‘top off the gas tank’. To refuel the ship we will meet up with a replenishment ship at a pre-determined hole in the ocean. Once we meet up, the replenishment ship will accelerate to around 13 knots and signal us when they are ready for us to come alongside. At this point we will accelerate and drive alongside until we our fuel receiving stations are in alignment with their fuel delivery stations. Oh by the way, we are only a few hundred yards apart during this evolution. When we are aligned up just right, the delivery ship will shoot a line over to us. When I state that they will shoot a line, they literally shoot, they will attach a rubber slug to a spool of string and use a rifle to shoot it to us. Once we have the string in hand, our line handlers will start to pull the string across. As they pull this string across the gap between the ships it will gradually increase in size to a rope and eventually a heavy steel cable. The steel cable is called the span wire, it is the wire that spans the gap between the ships and supports the fueling hose. Once the span wire is connected, the delivery ship will slowly increase the tension on the wire and signal us to start pulling the fuel hose across. Now our line handlers have to pull the fuel rig across and slam the fuel nozzle into our receiving assembly. This fuel rig is a large bullet shaped fuel nozzle (probe) connected to an 8 inch in diameter fuel hose. Eventually, the line handlers get the hose over and seat the fuel probe. Once the probe has been successfully seated, the Oil King down below will open the valves to the fuel tanks and request permission from the CO to receive fuel. Keep in mind, we are still plowing trough the waves at around 13 knots a mere hundred yards or so from a ship designed to carry millions of gallons of fuel. As an additional ‘oh by the way’, we have two of these fuel rigs connected – one forward near the bridge and one just past mid ships. Once the CO has given the permission, the fuel ship will start the pumps and send fuel. On average we will receive anywhere from 70,000 to 250,000 gallons of fuel. The amount of fuel we need depends on how long it has been between refueling and the dynamic nature of our current mission. Some missions call for lazy days cruising around an imaginary box in the ocean while others require us to be plowing through the waves at 30 knots chasing the bad guys. Eventually, the Oil King has full tanks and calls for the fuel ship to stop their pumps. Now we send the fuel probe and rig back over. The fuel ship uses a winch and quickly retrieves their fueling rig and relaxes the tension on the span wire. At this point we release the span wire and rapidly accelerate away from the fuel ship. To relate this into simpler terms, imagine driving down the interstate at around 55 mph in your Recreational Vehicle. You see in the distance a tanker truck and notice that you only have a quarter tank of gas. You call the tanker and ask him to set his cruise control for 55 mph while you pull along side. Once you are alongside the tanker, you set your cruise control for 55 mph to keep pace with the tanker. Now one of your passengers crawls out onto the trunk while the tankers has someone crawl back to the fuel hose. Once you are both relatively stable he tosses a fuel hose over to you. With the fuel hose in hand, you top off your gas tank, toss the hose back and speed off into the distance. We have two different options to get the groceries and mail onboard. The first is basically the same procedure as the fueling evolution described above. Only instead of a fuel rig, we run a winch assembly across the span wire with pallets of stores hanging below. The other option is to have a helicopter fly over and drop the pallets off onto the flight deck. On an average we will receive about 20 to 25 pallets of stores again this depends on how long it has been since the last stores on load. To keep life interesting, we often will conduct both the refueling and stores on load simultaneously. Piece of cake, what could possibly go wrong!
In addition to these simple tasks is the mundane daily routine of the Engineering watch stander. We man our spaces 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. In the unbearable heat and intolerable noise, we make the electricity that keeps the lights on, we maintain the engines to ensure that everyone makes it home on time, we make the water needed for daily existence, and we maintain the climate cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Most of our shipmates have no idea what we do or how we do it. They just know how miserable life can be for them if we fail in our mission.
We don’t do this job for reward or recognition, but for the satisfaction of a job well done.