Sea Stories by Brad Williamson
Editing photos for “Up Scope!” the other day, I was working my way through “The Seventies” post-processing and writing captions for twenty-or-so galleries of images submitted by Neal Degner for the years 1974-1977. I stumbled across a photo of an unusual ship, a haze gray catamaran with the Military Sealift Command (MSC) stripes on her stacks. Curious, I decided a little research was in order, partly because those twin-hulled catamarans were as rare as the Pegusus class hydrofoils during the 70’s and 80’s.
Thank you internet. A few clicks later, and the ship was identified as the USNS Hayes (T-AGOR-16). Named after Dr. Harvey C. Hayes, a pioneer in underwater acoustics and the former head of the U.S. Navy Sound Division of the Naval Research Laboratory, the “Hayes” class oceanographic research vessel was re-purposed in the mid-80’s as an acoustic research ship...
December 8, 2010.
Thirty years since the murder of famed Beatle John Lennon, on the sidewalk in front of his New York City apartment. Like the assassination of Kennedy, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the attack on and subsequent collapse of the two towers of the World Trade Center, there are a few events that were significant enough that people remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when the event occurred.
Now, I wasn't a big fan of John Lennon, and for the most part don't consider celebrities of being worthy of remembering where I was when they joined the choir eternal. Many famed musicians have shuffled off this mortal coil since I was born...Jim Morrison, Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Buddy Holly, Jiles Richardson, Michael Jackson...the list goes on. Of those, for some reason, I only remember where I was when I learned of the passing of two of them: The King, and John Lennon.
Great sea stories have many things in common. They are all based (at least loosely) on some real event. They all hold the listener's attention (not usually too hard to do on day 58 of the 'Sea of None of Your Business' hostage crisis). They all generally start with the expression, "This is a no-sh___er."
The title 'Sea Story' can be deceptive. That name comes from the fact that they are usually shared at sea, when time, distance from friends and family, and general boredom coalesce into a fertile ground for the emergence of the shared community experience we called a 'sea story'.
Not every sea story, however, starts at sea.
This is one of those stories. And it's a no-sh___er!
Duty in Subic Bay. Just another day on the Bates. In fact, just another night on the Bates. Sometimes you just wanted to scream.
I wasn't a big fan of the night life in the 'Po, but stuck on the boat was stuck on the boat. I'd rather be sipping an icy San Migoo' and buying skewers of mystery meat from a street vendor's grill by the metric ton. Or a bucket of shrimp fried rice.
But I took my turn like everybody else. I was the Engineering Duty Petty Officer, and it was after midnight. I'd been back aft on a casual tour, and engineering, like most of the boat, was deserted. I shared coffee and stories with the Shutdown Reactor Operator, found a lighter for the Roving Watch, and then wandered up topside.
This is a story about a cow, a cow that walked on water, the Jesus cow. And I'm not making this up. This is a no-s______!
It takes place just off the coast of South Korea...
You really have to love South Korea. I've been there many times since I left the Navy, and every visit has been exciting and interesting. Looking out over the night time brilliance of the Seoul city lights from the observation deck of the Seoul Tower, rivaling the Seattle Space Needle for majestic views. Scurrying along, crab like, 500 feet underground in the cramped invasion tunnels the North Koreans dug under the DMZ. Enjoying magnificent traditional Korean fare in restaurants hundreds of years old.
I've really come to love the place.
But all that was in the future back in 1985, when our Westpac adventures took us to the port of Chin Hae.
Sonar had been fighting some self-originated noise for days, if not weeks. It was killing our capability for the Spec Op, and the crew was feeling the pain. We scoured the boat for sound shorts. Days had been spent crawling around outboard everything, under the deck plates, and in the overhead, looking for this elusive noise problem.
Anybody been sailing in San Francisco Bay lately? I don't mean Sunday afternoon, lazing under the sun, draped around the cockpit of your 47 foot Carver. I don't even mean scudding before a stiff breeze on your 14 foot Hobie Cat hanging on a lanyard with only one hull in the water.
I'm talking about the serious, no holds barred, get dirty, get wet, darn near get drowned kind of sailing, best done in a 300 foot pleasure liner with more shaft horsepower than you can talk about and a power plant you only refuel once every twelve years, if you get my drift. I'm talking about taking the Bates into Alameda and Mare Island Naval Shipyard. Serious sailing.
Every sailor knows that the approach to San Francisco Bay is one of the most dangerous in the world. The coastline and the wave action combine to produce truly horrendous sea states, with hard to predict wave action and treacherous currents. Rocks and shoals abound and eye your boat with salacious greed, ready to grind you up for a single mistake. Bridge crew have been lost here. Shipping traffic is nearly equal to the straits of Malacca, and the seascape and Golden Gate bridge combine to produce a relatively narrow channel. And that's when the weather is good!
Fall of 1982, and we have navigated the island strewn channel into the harbor at Sasebo, Japan. As we make our final turn into the port, we see our target, the USS TUSCALOOSA (LST 1187), anchored out, awaiting our arrival. The wind is brisk, but not too cold, and line handlers are mustering topside in preparation for mooring.
Communication on deck is difficult. Eight or ten news helicopters orbit the boat like a swarm of angry bees, the whine of their turbines adding to the noise level and the metaphor.