All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea whether it is to sail or to watch it we are going back from whence we came.
~John F. Kennedy , Newport dinner speech before America’s Cup Races, Sept. 1962
I have never learned to sail a wind-driven vessel, nor do I recall the difference between a sloop and a ketch. That said, it does not mean I have no familiarity with ships, storms, life aboard ship, or the special bond that seafaring men (or women) have as a crew at sea. For eight years out of a twenty-six year Navy career, I was a member of ships company, on a Virginia-class cruiser, a Spruance -class destroyer, and a converted amphibious transport dock-turned-command ship (for the U.S. THIRD Fleet). I have spent months at sea repetitively in the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans, Mediterranean, and Caribbean Seas. Perhaps the readers of this blog, merchantmen and military navymen (and women) have also looked upon Naples, Italy with Mount Vesuvius as a backdrop in the early morning. As a Petty Officer on a ship that was one of the very first Navy visitors after forty years of the Cold War, made port in Varna, Bulgaria. On deployment to enforce blockade of Saddam Hussein’s illicit oil trade after the Gulf War, transited the Suez Canal and made circles in the Red Sea. Like the apostles of Jesus two millennia ago, I walked the streets of old Jerusalem, visited Cyprus and Crete, Turkey and Greece. Gazed upon the ruins of ancient seafaring civilizations four thousand years old. I’ve ridden trains on a day’s liberty time as a Pacific Fleet sailor between Yokosuka and Tokyo, Japan, and as an Atlantic Fleet one from Marseilles to Paris, France.
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by, And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking, And a gray mist on the sea’s face, and a gray dawn breaking.
A man I have known casually for years at a place I have written about many times, Liberty Tobacco, a cigar lounge in San Diego, California, is another Old Salt. We both have long careers in the electronics industry and worked at some of the same places in San Diego. But tonight we learned that we have been to the same places underway on ships, and to shore stations around the country. Twenty-five or thirty years ago is a long time in an age where, in a social media-world, memories last minutes or perhaps hours till another attention-seeker replaces them.
We shared memories of the school buildings for our respective Navy trades being across from one another on the shore of Lake Michigan. We were assigned to electronics schools ( perhaps five years apart) at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center north of Chicago. And we both have been through the fire-fighting trainer in Norfolk, Virginia. This is a large complex of buildings built to resemble shipboard compartments where fuel-oil fires are set ablaze. Into the heat, dense smoke, and real danger, crews are trained to combat them, and to become familiar with all the tools and roles needed to fight and preserve a ship. At sea, there is only your shipmates to keep your vessel afloat.
Other memories of putting to sea on your first ship get dusted off and refreshed while talking. The times standing watch on the ship’s Quarterdeck in the middle of the night alongside the pier in Italy, you can chuckle about the garbage barge alongside – with something moving (not human) in the shadows. Or noting wharf rats the size of cats rooting around a dumpster in the dark at the head of the pier. And realizing what “rat guards” on your mooring lines are designed to block.
Memories of winter rain in Panama that will soak you to the skin in minutes. One of the wettest places on Earth, the year-round rain recharges the waters in the Canal Zone powering the locks on each end of the Isthmus. Swapping stories of liberty visits in ports ten time zones away from home that are extended to a month when a casualty occurs. For one it was the ship’s screw (the propeller, in civilian-speak). Without a shipyard and drydock, this enormous thing had to be replaced underwater by specially-trained teams. For the other, when a gas-turbine engine has to be flown from the USA and replaced in the Netherlands Antilles. Due to a prior transit in a freshwater river in the Northeast USA, killing the built-up marine growth – and then immediate transit to the Caribbean resulted in the cooling inlets for that turbine being choked by dead organisms and engine destroyed by overheating.
The sea speaks a language polite people never repeat. It is a colossal scavenger slang and has no respect.
While some of my friends have experienced sea-sickness on a harbor ferry in San Diego bay, and worn the medical patches when first putting to sea on cruise ships and small frigates, these aids may become unneeded when accustomed to life at sea for months at a time. With merchantmen and Navymen, the camaraderie of sharing shipboard stories, having weathered hurricanes and strong gales in the mid-Atlantic and off the western coast of Mexico transiting from the Panama Canal, the memories seem only days old instead of a quarter-century. My shipmates and I have marveled at the different colors of ocean water, the patterns of currents, bright sunshine and placid seas turn gray-black and stormy within hours. I’ve been concerned for brightly color birds alighting on our ship as we leave port and then been still there twenty miles to sea. Crossing the Equator and the International Date Line, as a Navyman I have been both Pollywog and seasoned Shellback during the traditional ceremonies of the “Shellback Initiation”.
And some of the other ‘initiations’ like standing a first watch on the bridge – learning to always check your binoculars handed to you, especially at night. Some salty Bosun’ mate (Boatswains mate) may have first smeared a little shoe polish in the eyecups. Or being especially vigilant while manning instruments and reporting conditions during underway replenishment. Any sailor will acknowledge the gait at sea is unique, an adaptation to simply performing your duties while the ship rolls in heavy seas. Huge waves breaking over the bow of your ship become commonplace. Watching a smaller vessel in your group seeming to disappear in the trough of the waves and then pop up as the waves crash by. While performing maintenance on deck, looking out and seeing a small sailboat, manned by an individual sailor, pass alongside hundreds of miles from shore.
The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever. Jacques Yves Cousteau (brainyquote.com)
For the many who are serving or have served honorably in uniform, we have a bond that few understand. For those who have spent several months, several years, or a working life, at sea, we have another strong bond that years and decades later we recall clearly. Perhaps it is indeed the stirring of the salt in our blood, the sea spray on our skin, and the experience of working together in times of routine, in danger and in emergencies when we all realize just how we are and will always be, Sailors.
[quotes, except where noted, via writebyte.net ]