A Weak @ Sea

It’s mid March in 2007, we, the USS Nitze (DDG-94), are patrolling a box of the Indian Ocean off the coast of Mogadishu, Somalia in a United Nations operation to curtail pirating of private and commercial vessels. It is also an attempt to identify and break the lines of communication for Al Qaeda and the other major terrorist networks. During the daylight hours we will board and search cargo vessels as they depart Mogadishu. Evenings are spent gathering intelligence data and searching for the night runners who are most likely up to no good.

Sunday:

            The day starts at 1:00 AM when apparently I woke up an hour too early for my shift. It turns out that on Sunday’s we change shifts at 2:30 instead of 1:30 like the rest of the week, I did not get that memo. Oh well, that just gives me more time to wake up and catch up on some of that elusive paperwork. We are patrolling about 5 miles off of the coast of Mogadishu, Somalia trying to curtail the pirate activity. Somewhere around 4:30, most of the ships ventilation decides to shut down without a reason. We scramble around and finally, through a series of co-incidental actions, it all restarts itself – again without apparent reason. Other than that, my shift is uneventful, which is a good thing, but monotonous in the lack of action. Finally 7:30 rolls around and I turn over the watch. Sunday’s are ‘Holiday Routine’ when at sea. Holiday routine is our reward for a six day work week. On Sunday, we do nothing but stand our watch and handle the routine tasks that keep the ship afloat. It is usually the day that we catch up on rest and relaxation. Sunday is also the day that we have our ‘Flight Deck Picnic’.  Each week, a different group of crew members sets up the grill and cooks dinner. Most of the crew relaxes in shorts and t-shirts lounging on the flight deck while listening to music and socializing with their friends. Me, I use the time to catch up on paper work and sleep. When the Chief’s take their turn on the grill, I usually volunteer for the clean up. After all the fun and excitement of the day, I get to relax on the weather decks and watch the waves roll by. This is my favorite part of the day, just me and the waves. On occasion, we’ll be visited by whales, dolphins, and other sea critters. Towards the end of the day, when dusk arrives, we can see the lights of civilization coming from Mogadishu. After my daily dose of fresh air, I return to the job and make one final lap of my engine room before calling it quits for the day, 1:00 AM rolls around fast over here.

Monday:

            Once again, my day starts at 1:00 AM; this isn’t likely to change anytime soon. As usual, my shift is uneventful. After I turn over the reigns to my watch relief, it’s breakfast time and then off to start the daily routine. My daily routine starts with reviewing the previous day’s fuel oil and lube oil reports to verify that all samples and tests were conducted properly. I also review the accountability log for the fuel we consume – it‘s just like keeping your check book balanced. I do this daily because at the end of the month we have to send out a report detailing how much fuel we have onboard, how much we purchased – and from who, how much we deliver to another command (helicopters), and how much we consume with the ship’s engines.

            This morning we refueled the ship with around 170,000 gallons of diesel fuel. Imagine driving down the interstate alongside of a gasoline tanker truck with a fuel hose connected. We pull up alongside of the oiler (fuel ship) at around 13 knots and around 200 yards distance between the ships. Next the oiler will shoot over a series of lines which they eventually tie onto a six inch diameter fuel hose that can deliver around 3000 gallons of fuel per minute. On a ‘normal’ refueling evolution, I would be sitting in my air conditioned fuel testing office in front of a fuel control console. Today, however, I am out in the hot sun at the forward refueling station watching a valve not leak. Before you think that the hot African sun has gotten to me, let me explain why I am watching a valve not leak. Prior to the previous refueling evolution, maintenance was conducted on the valve that controls the fuel being delivered to the ship. Apparently, my maintenance technicians are unfamiliar with the concept of torque when tightening nuts & bolts. When you add in fuel being delivered at 100 psi and 3000 gallons per minute, you get a big old puddle of fuel and one angry Commanding Officer. Before you ask, I was not onboard the ship when the initial maintenance was conducted. After reporting back to work from my ‘vacation’, I took my maintenance people back to the fueling station and introduced them to proper procedures and demonstrated the proper use of a torque wrench. Today, I ‘volunteered’ to monitor the valve to ensure it didn’t leak. Anyway, all went well and it didn’t leak a drop.

After that, I take a ‘power nap’ from around 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM. This nap is necessary because I am a key member of our training team and our window of training is from 7-10 PM. Throw in my daily shift which starts at 1:00 AM and you’ll soon take every minute you can for a couple hours of sleep. Tonight, we are practicing putting out electrical fires, containing flooding caused by ruptured pipes in the engine rooms, and fuel fires in the engine enclosures. By the way, the average temperature in the engine rooms at night is a balmy 95F and 90% humidity. Let’s just say that the shower at the end of this training session is well deserved. After running the training exercises, the team gets together and argues for about an hour on how good or bad we think the training went. Then it’s off to the shower and bed for three short hours of sleep before starting the routine over again.

Tuesday:

            This new and ‘exciting’ day begins around – get this – 1:00 AM, didn’t see that coming didya?

Yet another uneventful shift in the big boy’s chair babysitting the engines and generators goes by without incident.

            The engines were originally designed for use by commercial and military aircraft – specifically the DC-10 and C-130 series airframes. They were modified for use in land and marine applications by removing the turbo fan (the large swirling fan blades you can see in the engine intakes if looking on a jet) and installing another turbine to convert the jet exhaust into the mechanical movement that rotates the propeller. The ever so complicated procedure to start one of these beasts is to take exhaust air from the electrical generator plant turbines and align it to the air driven starter of the main engines. Once air is available to the starter, we depress a button on a console and watch the magic happen. Ninety seconds later, the engine has spooled up and is ready for use. Now that the engine is up and running, we push another button to release the brake and send the power to the transmission. The brake, by the way, is pretty much identical to the disc brake system on your car. The only difference is, we use an air system to engage the hydraulics for the brakes (replaces the foot on the brake pedal). Our transmission is actually just a series of gears that reduce the high speed of the engine into the lower speed, higher torque needed to turn the propeller. Now that the brake is disengaged, and the propeller is turning under power, we can make big boat go fast through the water.

            Normally we only use one of the propeller shafts under power and let the other just windmill. This saves us fuel since our average speed through the water these days is about 5 to 10 knots. Today, we are going to switch up the shafts by powering up the Starboard one and letting the Port one windmill. In general, we switch engines daily (we have four, oh by the way) and shafts every other day. During the daylight hours when we have to chase the bad guys, we will have both shafts under power to increase our speed and agility in the water.

            Evening rolls around and the battle begins once again with the training monster. Tonight we are taking a few steps backwards and walking our teams through the procedure for combating a fuel oil leak that turns into a fire. My team in the forward engine room will do fine; they work well together and are enthusiastic. It’s the aft engine room that worries me a little. The team back there is raw and inexperienced. Plus the training team members in that space lack the experience that I have in working with inexperienced crew members. However, my time is short and they need the practice so I am keeping my distance. Over all, the training is somewhat successful. Later this week we’ll see the teams in action and find out if the training worked. I’m relatively happy because my part is done by 20:00 (8 PM) and I finally have the chance to get more than two hours of sleep before my next watch shift.

Wednesday:

            It’s one in the morning and I’m off to the Chief’s mess for a cup of tea before starting my next watch shift. The Chief’s mess is our dining and lounge area of the ship. It is exclusive to Chief’s and officers who were once Chief Petty Officers. In fact it is the only area of the ship that even the Commanding Officer requests permission to enter. Of course, he doesn’t have to request permission to enter; it is his ship after all. It’s is our sanctuary and most of the crew respects it as such.

            After my shift is over, I manage to wander off to sleep for about two hours. This daily routine takes a toll on me because it really messes up my sleep cycle (or lack thereof). But it is a necessary evil in the Engineering Department. We must run the show 24/7. Without my crew, the lights go out, the ship drifts aimlessly, and all of our sophisticated weapons systems are useless. But I digress.

            My sleep is cut short due to an unplanned ‘man overboard’ drill. Basically, we throw a dummy in the water and see how long it takes to recover the dummy and conduct a head count of all personnel onboard the ship. We manage to account for over 350 personnel and recover the dummy in less than seven minutes. It’s not a bad response time, but not good enough. Our goal is 100% accountability for all personnel in less than five minutes. Every minute counts when you are floating in the sea with all of the nasty critters looking at you on their dinner menu.

            We got word yesterday that our mission here on the Horn of Africa is winding down. Sometime next week we will depart our station and head off to Bahrain for a short port visit. We will get some badly needed maintenance done and give the crew a chance to rest. We are coming up on our 45th consecutive day at sea. The 45 days consecutive at sea will earn each crew member two beers during a special steel beach picnic on Saturday. Coincidentally, our ‘beer day’ is also St Patrick’s Day. Of course, being one who has does not partake in alcoholic beverages, the beer day is meaningless. Anyhow, shortly after leaving our station we will partake in the time honored tradition of ‘Crossing the Line’. By that I mean that we will cross the equator and celebrate with the traditional ‘Shellback Initiation’ ceremonies. I, being a crusty old salt, accomplished this feat many times while stationed on the left coast. As a matter of fact, I am one of the few ‘Golden Shellbacks’ on board – and in the Atlantic fleet for that matter. A golden shellback has crossed the equator at the International Date Line. I’m way too old for these games and will more than likely take the watch and let the others have their fun.

            No training tonight, there is an advancement test in the morning and the ‘kids’ need their rest. It’s time to jump into the ‘rain locker’ (shower) and call it a night. This is the second consecutive night for me to get 5 hours of continuous sleep!

Thursday:

            Today started as usual at 1 AM, after two weeks this schedule is starting to wear out its welcome. However, my ‘complaints to management’ are finally being heard and there may be a change in the daily routine soon.

            Finally, something new and exciting happened today, we had a failure of the propeller hydraulic system for one of the propulsion shafts. Normally, an equipment failure is a bad thing. This, however, was an easy fix and it did break up the monotony of the day.

            Our propellers are controlled by a hydraulic system that changes the angle of the propeller blades depending on the required power output for the desired ship’s speed. We have to vary the blade angles because our engines are not capable of reversing direction and the gears used to transmit engine power to the propeller shafting also cannot be reversed. For an easy idea of how this works, think of a box fan that you put in a window. You position it based on whether you want to draw air in from outside or push air to the outside. We do the same thing with our propellers, sort of. Since we cannot pick up the propeller and turn it around physically we change the direction of the individual blades. Anyway, the problem was with an electrically operated valve that took about thirty minutes to replace. Like I said, it was an easy fix.

            While waiting for our window of time for maintenance, there was excitement on the beach. A couple of plane loads of soldiers, from Uganda I am told, flew in and tried to take over. We were close enough to see the explosions of the mortar fire and watch the planes fly in low and slow. Of course, our mission here does not allow us to interfere with the local civil wars so all we do is hang out and watch. It’s all over in a couple of hours, nobody knows who won, but the fireworks were cool. J

After that, I spent another exciting evening training the junior watch standers how to start and stop the main engines from the engine room. Not exactly a fun filled evening, but it does kill time. J

Friday:

            After yet another early morning shift supervising the plant, it was a lazy morning and I was able to catch up on a little bit of sleep. I managed to accomplish four consecutive hours of sleep. However, that little nap lasted through lunch. L Ah but one of the benefits of being a Chief is that we always have some sort of food available in the Chief’s Mess.

            After a quick snack of soup, we began another training exercise. This time it was a fuel oil leak in an engine room that turned into a fire. The drill was pretty uneventful and we survived the experience. However, the ship’s training team is a little too optimistic in their assessment of our abilities to successfully put out a fire and keep everyone alive. I try to point out these things but as usual I am accused of being overly critical and mean. It’s just another sign that I am too old for this game. Anyway, I usually ignore the comments and talk to the ‘kids’ directly to make sure that they are trained how to get out alive. Bottom line is this: we can always buy new engines; loss of life is something totally different. I’ll have these knuckleheads back on track; it’ll just take me being stubborn.

            The night ends as usual with a set of drills where we ‘pretend’ to break things and see how the ‘kids’ react. It’s an exhausting process due to the heat in the engine rooms and fatigue of the long days. But, the end result is a well trained group of watch standers and that is really all that matters.

Saturday:

            Today is a catch up day, no training. Most of the day is spent coordinating the proposed maintenance scheduled for our next port visit. We are going to be in port for about 6 days and have two weeks worth of work to accomplish. This is typical for a deployment and with a little bit of luck, all of the major items will be accomplished. It will have been close to 55 days at sea by the time we pull in next to the pier. It seems like a long time without land under the feet but it is far from a record for me. My longest consecutive time at sea was 128 days during my first deployment, USS Dahlgren 1988. Anyway, in addition to preparing for the massive mountains of maintenance we are also planning our crossing of the equator. We, modern day sailors – adult sailors, make a huge deal over crossing the big imaginary lines in the ocean. This time it is the equator, in September it was the Arctic Circle. When we cross these imaginary lines in the ocean, those who have not yet crossed must prove their worthiness to King Neptune. Did I mention that we are allegedly adult and are operating a multi-million dollar war ship? Anyhow, fun will be had by all and another tradition will gather new followers. Me, I’ll be in the plant making sure all systems are running and letting the younger folks go play the silly games. I’m too old to play games and get excited over imaginary lines in the ocean. Besides, as I mentioned earlier in the ‘week’, I’ve been there – done that.

            Well, it’s off to the rain locker and into the bunk for a movie and rest before I start this same dull routine all over again.

Ah the glamorous life of a sailor.

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