Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Another chapter of my novel in progress, "Balite".

He looked out with his big 7 X 50 Navy binoculars toward the far horizon from his perch on the Starboard Bridge Wing. The gray rolling seas gently rocked the ship from side to side as well as from fore to aft. It was a pleasant feeling. The sea breeze caressed his skin like a massage. At times like this, it was hard to concentrate on his duties. His duties as the Officer of the Deck (OOD). Having to keep an eye on everything, literally EVERYTHING, on the ship kept him moving from place to place too frequently to relax or enjoy another day at sea.

They had been at sea now for four months and were only a few hours from pulling into their home port at Subic Bay Naval Station in the Republic of the Philippines. During those four months, they had visited Hong Kong; Inchon, Chinghai and Seoul, Korea; and Yokosuka and Sasebo, both in Japan. But, this was the place he truly liked the best. Subic Bay. Olongapo. The PI. This would be his last time approaching Subic from the sea. The last time he would be the OOD. The last time he would be out to sea period. He was leaving the Navy! His home for the last 10 years. Too much family separation had finally caused him to voluntarily leave and to return to civilian life. He would be getting out as a full Lieutenant (O-3E) and going into the Active Reserves. He would be going to a new home somewhere in Colorado, hopefully in Boulder.

The Quartermaster of the Watch came over and told him they were nearing the time for their last turn before entering the harbor. A long leg headed straight West towards Grande Island. A jewel of an island set at the entrance of the harbor. The Quartermaster signaled him that the time had come for the turn. “Helmsman, right standard rudder, steer course two seven zero!”, he ordered. Normally, the Junior Office of the Deck (JOOD) would have given the helm order but he had gone to the head. It was okay for him to be gone this far out at sea still. The helmsman barked back his order exactly to ensure it was understood. There was a slight tilt as the ship turned. As they reached a heading of 270 degrees, he ordered all engines ahead full in keeping with the Night Orders from the Captain. They had some time to make up due to the large storm, the outskirts of a typhoon, which they had weathered north of the island of Luzon. As the ship picked up speed, he realized that they had turned into the seas. They were nearly exactly perpendicular to their direction. This was the part of sailing he most enjoyed! Even after a night like last night, the one that was just two or three hours in the past. The side to side rocking motion was gone and was replaced by the ship plunging through the swells, cutting its way through the seas like a cross-cut saw. He enjoyed seeing the white water spray up from the bow. Last night, those waves had been towering and had washed over the entire forward part of the ship crashing upon the bridge structure itself and into the closed heavy sea doors on either side.

What a night it had been! His watch was now nearing its end as it was 0730 Hours and he was looking forward to some free time on deck before the work day started. He had been on watch for nearly eight hours, far more than the normal four. He had to stand the mid-watch due to the typhoon. Most of the other officers and men were seasick from the tremendous waves and swells it generated. He was relatively unaffected by heavy seas although he was susceptible to the rocking motion on very small vessels. So, the Captain had ordered him to stand back-to-back watches. They were in fact headed into, by necessity, an area of the ocean that was exactly in the middle of TWO typhoons! They had been heading east from Hong Kong across the South China Sea and had to pass north of Luzon. These were relatively restricted waters due to the various islands around and Formosa (Taiwan) to the north. So, they had no choice but to head east and try to pick the best route through outskirts of the two typhoons. They would survive but it cost them their Captain’s Gig. It broke its moorings in the heavy seas sometime during the night and was washed over the side.

He and the Navigator were the only two Officers on the Bridge. The Captain was trying to catch some shut-eye in his Sea Cabin just off the Bridge. For a few hours they had been enduring tremendous waves crashing over the ship. They had a bucket for puke - just in case – hanging from one of the sound-powered phone stations. When the Captain would come out every once in a while to check on things, he would light up a cigar! That was his idea of fun. But, he would just move off to the side some to avoid the sickening smoke. The Captain really enjoyed watching them squirm. It was pitch black and raining in thick torrents. Visibility was zero. The radars and LN-66 were virtually useless due to the echoes from all the huge whitecaps. They were depending mainly on the dead-reckoning unit and the electronic navigation system. These calculated their position based on last known good fix and the subsequent headings and speeds. But, if there was to be any other ship crossing their course, they would be in risk of collision because they simply could not see or detect it. They were sailing blindly.

The ship shook and groaned on every plunge into the thirty-five foot or taller swells. She would shake mightily and sound as if it were breaking apart. They had put out the heavy seas lines all over the deck in case some poor sailor had to go out on deck. But, luckily, that had not been required. The loss of the Gig had happened unknowingly and too quickly at any rate to have prevented it. The night lived up to that old saying, “Being an Officer of the Deck is long hours of boredom broken up by seconds of sheer terror”. They were actually experiencing just the opposite. He had not been bored at all for hours! They had the windshield wipers going full blast but he could still not see a thing other than whitecaps due to the incessant rains and the frequent splash of the waves upon the bridge windows. The port and starboard bridge wing watches were actually standing watch just inside the bridge doors for safety. The ship had been relatively locked down by setting Condition Zebra throughout the ship. This meant that most of the doors and hatches inside and outside the ship were closed. They were marked with large “Z” s to designate them as Condition Zebra. If you went through one of these doors you had to close it and tighten it down behind you. This Condition ensured that the sea would not easily enter the ship. Normally, this Condition is only set during General Quarters or the Collision alarm.

Usually, there were mid-rats (Midnight rations) every night down in the Wardroom as well as in the Crew’s Mess. These were simple meals or leftovers that were prepared for those standing night watches. However, this night was so bad that nothing was prepared except coffee. Coffee was always good anyway. Navy coffee was drunk strong and, most of the time, black. In later years, he would still always like his coffee strong. This particular night, the coffee went down good. It was comforting to have something hot on this cold, windy, rainy, plunging watch. The winds were pretty much hurricane strength, blowing up the waves to their towering heights. The Ensign up on the main mast was probably getting ripped to shreds. Not a junior officer but the Flag of the United States of America! They would have to replace it tomorrow, especially before entering port. Right now the winds were following for the most part but later they would be turning south and headed mainly into the wind. They would surely burn lots of fuel when that happened. They would have to crank up the engine speed as a result of the headwinds in order to keep on way. All the worst circumstances and situations seemed to be piling on this night, short of war of course.

He looked around at the Bridge watch. Many of the faces he saw, just kids really, were green from being almost seasick. But, they were standing their watch. Proudly it seemed. Most of them, like himself, were from the Midwest or other states not bordering on the ocean. Well, they were all certainly getting their fill of ocean tonight! Nothing like this in Kansas or Illinois. But, despite that, they all continued to function as they were expected. The Boatswain’s Mate of the Watch (BMOW) was in charge of the five other enlisted men on the Bridge and the good ones kept everyone sharp, awake and responsive to commands. The Quartermaster of the Watch, although enlisted, was in his own little world and did not work for the BMOW directly. The Messenger of the Watch was the one who, amongst other things, had to navigate the bouncing stairwells down to the Wardroom or Mess to fetch coffee. You had to have it just to stay awake during these late hours, even with the irrepressible excitement of the storm. Just about every Officer and sailor drank coffee. Some of the Chief Petty Officers were known to mix it with stronger brews even though it was against Navy Regulations. Like with many things, certain habits and behaviors were overlooked if you were a good sailor otherwise. It wouldn’t be “the Navy” if that wasn’t the case! Work hard then play hard, that was the unofficial Navy motto. Well, tomorrow they would be playing hard indeed.

Finally, they had exited the typhoon’s area of influence and arrived in calmer seas and winds. Not calm, just calmer. And that made all the difference. The ship came alive as the swells died down and the howling winds subsided. Sailors rolled out of their racks and hit the mess decks searching for coffee and breakfast. The cooks had already got up the minute they were able and began prepping for the morning onslaught of hungry, weather-beaten sailors. But, they were sailors who were coming home! So close, they could literally smell it on the seaward breezes. And there was nothing more exciting that a ship arriving home after a long time at sea. The families were probably already gathering on the pier, his as well as all the others. The BMOW piped the Call to Quarters and his relief showed up early. After a long, harrowing night, the eight hours of watch were finally coming to an end. The sun had come out in all of its post-storm glory. He gave the order to reduce speed as they approached land. As he watched his relief walking around checking everything out first, he felt the usual sense of nostalgia as they approached the Philippines. The tops of the hills could be seen even now off in the distance. Finally, his relief came over and stated “Officer of the Deck, I am ready to relieve you!”.