Thursday, February 10, 2011

Night Transit

I awoke very early this morning. The ship was really rocking and rolling, apparently a staff officer on shore had botched the ship's orders and exposed it to a lengthy surface transit in rough seas. The biggest factor, though, was that my body knew it was time to end this ride. I had packed the night before, so by 04:15 I was in the ward room drinking coffee. By the end of the week, my co-worker and I were spending a solid majority of our office/lounge time in the crew's mess rather than the ward room. The crew's mess was more spacious, but as important was the insularity of the officers. The enlisted men, while crude and unrestrained in the crew's mess, at least accepted our presence without question. But this morning, the coffee in the crew's mess was out, driving me to the haven of the officers.
The Captain entered, also for coffee. We chatted about weather (He was from Buffalo, NY, I from northern Michigan), about Hawaii, about his ship, about the places he's been. He was an aide to President George W. Bush. He told a few stories, at my request, that made the President much more human. Much more importantly, he suggested that I head to the bridge (up in the sail again) once the maneuvering watch was set and secured.
This endorsement gave me, for the only time as a guest on the ship, the courage to enforce my will. The executive officer (XO) had the conn (was in control of the ship) as we approached Oahu. I watched the ranges to the island decrease steadily, sitting in the corner of command and control, out of the way, patiently awaiting the XO's word that I was clear to climb to the bridge. Once we got within a few miles of shore, I recognized that this opportunity would slip away if I didn't act. When I saw a clear path open up in the crowded room between the XO and I, I took a few steps to the XO and asked if "now would be a good tim". He barely restrained an eye roll and said "sure, just check in with the pilot". I'll let his attitude slide, his wife gave birth less than 24 hours before, while he was at sea.
I let the pilot know what was going on, then took on the Grand Ladder (my phrase). The beauty of the use of a photonics mast in lieu of a periscope on the ship is that command and control can be deep inside the ship, instead of up top on the first deck like all past submarine designs. A lot of good things result from that, but the downside is a 30' ladder, on a rolling ship, to reach the top of the sail. Up I go, knees occasionally knocking steps as I clamber up. Even the now slight rolls of the ship are a curse, a slip will send me straight down into the bowels of the ship.
I reach the sail and realize it is still quite dark at about 6:30 in Hawaii. We are over Penguin Bank and about to enter Pearl Harbor itself. The lights of the city are stupefying once you try to train your eyes back to sea or into the dark regions of the ship. In fact, it is only after 5 or 10 minutes that I realize a fifth sailor is right behind me, crouched in a recessed cubby hole of the sail structure. Two officers and a radioman stand atop the flying bridge, while at my side is a second class who communicates to the rest of the ship below. "TM" I ask the man backed into a nook (I knew he was a torpedoman=TM) "what are you doing back there?"
He matter-of-factly replied "I'm the gunner".
"Going to be tough to get a good shot off from in there" I noted.
"Dat's what I said." he replied with a shrug. It is at this point I realize my arrival pushed him out of his usual station into the nook.
We are as secure as a submarine can be on the surface. Two small patrol boats flank us on our transit, and our ship carries a slew of small arms. That, naturally, is aside from the ship's high strength steel exoskeleton, suite of sensors, countermeasures, and whatever is available in the torpedo tubes. Additionally, we are not only entering one of the largest naval installations in the United States, but also one of the larges air fields, Hickham Air Base. Squads of airmen can be heard on shore doing morning PT, calling out the cadence with chants indecipherable from our distance. It sounded like a scene from Blues Brothers.
We were traveling slower than during my previous visit to the bridge. Gone was the throbbing power and roiling spray and brilliant sunshine of our outbound transit. We were gliding smoothly, the wave of water standing on the bow was tame, not even approaching the sail, and made of smooth, foamless water. The moon was very high in the sky directly to port. It was only a night or so to either side of a full moon, and its white light was firm and pure. The reflection of it on the river drew a smooth line right toward us. I said nothing, amid the constant chatter of the maneuvering party I would find no audience, regardless. The end of the lunar reign was soon announced by a lightening of the sky directly to starboard. By the time we entered the channel, the moon's influence had receded to the perimeter of its body, it was besieged by light blue sky. Soon the sun had fully risen and asserted its supremacy.
The Captain brought the ship to a bulge in the channel, then used the secondary motor to turn the ship around. He reached down, slapped my shoulder, and said I should go back down below and get my bag, since the Harrier ( the shuttle boat) would arrive within 10 minutes. We shook hands, and I ambled as quickly as one can amble back down below. It took me a while to get back to my bunk, because I had worked hard with the crew and wanted to thank those I bumped into on the way out. It is easy to bump into people in such tight spaces. While I always respected our submarine crews, I now have developed a new appreciation for their commitment to their ship and missions by sharing a week in their world. Earlier, I threw $20 into the crew's slush fund, and the way they reacted you would have thought it was $2,000.
I hastily turned in my dosimeter (measures how much radiation your body is exposed to) to the Doc and signed a form, grabbed my duffle bag, and headed to the lock out trunk (LOT). The LOT is intended for quickly deploying teams of Navy SEALS, but today it will transfer Navy civilian VIPs onboard for a day cruise and non-Navy civilian non-VIPs to the Harrier. In the blink of an eye we were topside, on the Harrier, and heading back towards solid ground.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Steel Beach

Whales. I mean, 30'-50' long, black, tail slapping, spout blowing whales. Of all the things on this voyage I didn't expect to see, but experienced nonetheless, this one takes the cake. Somewhere between Maui and Lanai we surfaced and came to a stop. The Captain (actually a Commander in rank, but it is his ship) announced over the communication system that the seas were a little rough, so men could go topside in a few minutes and make cell phone calls, but swimming was not allowed until the ship's divers made an assessment. I never doubted for a moment that the swim call was going to happen, and it did after about 5 minutes. While I did have some shorts, I took one look at the frenzied sailors thrashing in the water, trying to play King of the Submarine and throw each other off the boat, and figured it would be best to play the well-mannered engineer. Hurting or getting hurt by sailors, accidental or not, is not good for relations between the Navy and its contractors. Accordingly, I soaked in some sun and called Wifey. So good to hear her voice and get a positive report of happenings back home!
That's when the whales arrived (it was only well after my return to shore that I determined they were humpback whales). They lazily breached the surface, occasionally spouting off air, to the starboard side of the ship at least 200 yards away. This while I was on the phone, so I got to describe it to my wife as it happened. After I hung up, the whales circled the boat a few times, spiraling nearer. Their curved black bodies slowly arched over the water's surface, with only the sight of the stubby dorsal fin indicating that there would ever be an end to the beast. There was a pair of the brutes, and they easily came within 30 yards as the took turns spouting, now circling to the port side of the ship. The shouting, swimming, and general horseplay of the sailors did not disturb the whales in the slightest, which was remarkable. Many of the crew were trying to photograph or video the event, and the whales seemed to make great sport of surfacing when everybody had just lowered and turned off their camera. After 25-30 minutes, the whales slowly began moving away, lumbering off to the port side of the ship. As a final display, when they had reached a distance of 200-300 yards, the whales began to finish each breach of the surface with a mighty tail slap. I said to myself "I think you're gonna need a bigger boat."
Even if there were no whales, the scene would have been breathtaking. The nearest island (Maui, I reckon) was lush and green with soaring slopes rising nearly straight up from the ocean. The mountains rippled with valleys, and even richer land nestled in these nooks Along a thin strip of flat coast a few small towns clung precariously, unable to build any meaningful distance up the slopes, yet unwilling to surrender to the ocean below. A small island nearby (Kahoolawe or Lanai, not sure) consisted of a single peak, and it was perfectly wreathed by cloud. Only the highest and lowest elevations were in view, the clouds obscured the mighty waist of the hill.
The water was blue. And, sweet sassy molassey, was it ever still. It was obvious to me that the Captain was just messing with the crew, building the suspense for them, making the swim call an even more special event through sweet anticipation. As a 32 year old parent, I also spotted an example of this earlier in the week. The crew had been doing drills for days, preparing for a very major inspection. On Thursday, there were a crushing 5 major drills scheduled (they take about an hour apiece, plus there is a meeting afterward). After completing the fourth drill, the fifth was abruptly cancelled for reasons of great performance and exhaustion on the part of the sailors. I knew darn well the Cap'n never intended to conduct the fifth drill, just like I don't intend to actually implement The Worst Case Scenario with my children. This is one way a man can motivate 120 young men going on four hours of sleep nightly. In the same way, it was determined that a $2.5 billion warship can spare an hour to keep its crew in peak operating condition.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Blessed Release of Sleep

For the record, it just took me 4 minutes to figure out how to arrange the freshly filled coffee thermos (with pump action handle!) and the coffee maker without spilling coffee or coffee grains everywhere. That's two minutes for each of my engineering degrees. My effort was complicated by the rocking of the ship, which has been going on all morning because we've been pretty shallow. The incessant rocking has a surprisingly sedative effect. Twice now at mid-morning (different days), I have had to lay down and nap because the steady motion made me so groggy. This was compounded by not sleeping very well the first few nights. The berthing accommodations are great, far exceeding my expectations, so I do not lack for comfort. The crew, though , has been so eager to show me the bad (as well as good) things about their ship that we are looking at installations, discussing upgrades, and commiserating about the Navy logistic and design infrastructure well into the dark watches of the night. Combine that with waking up at 4:30 or 5:30 each morning, and the nap does not seem like a luxury.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Flank Speed Ahead

These sailors move fast Fast is perhaps the wrong word, efficiently better describes it. Up and down ladders and stairways, rounding corners, through hatches, these men are moving with a purpose. I am, too, as I try to follow them to whatever they want to show me about their ship. But I keep falling behind like I'm trying to chase Forrest Gump or Carl Lewis. It takes a lot of experience to do something by reflex, and that is exactly how the crew moves around the ship. Thousands of repetitions, some doubtless in the dark, have conditioned each man to move around their work areas on muscle memory. And I lurch and stagger in pursuit, collecting bruises, like one of the burglars from Home Alone.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

My Darkest Hour

It is not easy to completely shake the sensation of being completely surrounded by water, lots of water, to the point of little or no sunlight reaching the depths It's not scary, there is no creaking or groaning of the ship's hull. Sometimes, though, the boat rolls slightly, and I remember that could not have been a wave because there is a whole lot of overhead water insulating us from the swells.
The darkness that surrounds the hull permeates areas of the ship, as well. There are so many computer monitors on modern submarines that work station lights are dimmed intentionally. The command and control room is blacked out, yet still glows from over a dozen screens. Nothing competes with the blackness of the crew's berthing area. Exposed to full light for only an hour daily to allow cleaning, these areas are always dark to allow various shifts ("watches") of sailors to sleep comfortably at all times. There is a light in each individual bunk area ("rack"), but once that is off it is darker than the inside of a cow. This is the sort of dark where your eyes capitulate and don't bother to squint, but just relax. Think of being wrapped in a blanket wrapped in a curtain wrapped in steel wrapped in the ocean. Glad I brought an LED flashlight.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Shallow Impressions

(I only wish this picture was mine, this is from the Wikipedia Commons... but I stood where the sailor in the photo is standing)

After almost 3 days, the sun has come out and the clouds are in rapid retreat. The island of Oahu is passing to the north at my left hand, and the light breeze is being amplified by the steady speed of the warship I am riding. I am untethered, so I remain safely in the sheltered bridge while younger, trained men crouch alertly atop the sail in harnesses. There is only a railing around their perch to define their post as the "flying bridge". The photonics mast, one of the feathers in this ship's cap, stands overwatch several feet above their heads. I ask the young lieutenant with binoculars whether he or the remotely controlled cyclops locates contacts first. "Sometimes I get it first" he says casually, modestly, not hiding that "sometimes" are to be enjoyed with pride. Motivation and enthusiasm have run high so far.
None can match my enthusiasm, though. I have been permitted a rare opportunity; riding in the bridge of a submarine. I am over 20' above the water, and the only things obscuring my view of the horizon are a small radar mast and Oahu's volcanoes. The sea continually surges up the bow, then is sundered by it. The ship is indifferent to the small swells accosting it, but even the thousands of tons of steel I stand on shudder occasionally under the beating. Each wave eventually exhausts itself into a protesting foam scattered into a defeated wedge in the ship's wake. The colors of the water are amazing: blue, green, and white with no mixing somehow. It is stupefying that a machine so complex can only be described in the simplest of terms. Awesome.

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Shuttle Endeavor

Being appropriately intense and uptight and engineerish, we arrived at the boat launch in Naval Station Pearl Harbor an hour early to catch the shuttle (similar to the vessel above). Of course, late is left in the military, so this is the smart approach. We board the shuttle, followed by sailors and a few dozen boxes of supplies for the ship. Lines are cast off, and we begin chugging towards our rendezvous. We pass ton after ton of floating American Might (see below). Nimble frigates, angular and menacing destroyers, towering cruisers, and sleek submarines line the piers, with very few berths empty. This is no coastal patrol force, these ships carry a strong musk of power projection. At the top of that food chain was an SSGN we puttered by. It's long, humped back gave it a whalish appearance, apt for its payload of over 100 lethal cruise missiles and dozens of even more lethal special operations soldiers.

But we left the whale behind for the dolphin that waited. We rounded a bend and there, patiently, sat the USS Texas. Fast, flexible, and smart-smart-smart as one of the Navy's newest ships. We walked across a portable gang plank that the shuttle boat lowered, along the narrow deck just above the water, and down the nearest hatch. It all went very smoothly, but well-trained men spoke a language I barely understood. That is, I would barely understand if the spoke slowly, and they were not, so it seemed like bedlam to me. Well, if they won't be speaking slowly, this engineer is going to need to ask an awful lot of questions.