When I was a kid, maybe younger than 8 years old, I went on my first passenger ships, the Cunard Lines SYLVANIA and QUEEN MARY. Traveling with my mom one summer from New York to England and then returning to New York City. I generally recall 3 memories of that time. Two were shipboard: being entertained with other kids by the staff while our parents were so seasick they were in their cabins, receiving a die cast model of the ship(s), and a random memory of being fascinated by men working on a pipe in the middle of the lane in front of my grandmother’s home in the Isle of Man. But the point of this all is that I don’t get seasick.
Rowboats, canoes, kayaks, harbor ferries and water taxis of various sizes and conditions, and three U.S. Navy warships have been how I went to sea in the intervening fifty years. Until this week, so many years ashore dulled my senses and passion for travel and the sea. The dining, getting to know some people, the excursions in our ports, and the shows we took in have been the highlight of cruising. The rocking even as slight as the large liner does pleasantly lulls us to restful sleep. For me it has again stirred my memory of the wind and wave.
This ship, however, is too big. Too many people. And although I am not, well, insensitive, I really do not want to travel with large groups of some tourists. I’ve been irritated by their cultural norm of pushing through around and over, mobbing really, at the brow coming on and off, (like at our travel stop in Cozumel). I imagine if you come from a place that has 2 billion residents you push to avoid being run over. Yet this ship has travelers and staff from all parts of the world. After several days, a vessel with six thousand passengers is too much like vacationing on Southern California highways during rush hour.
Give me a smaller, more personable ship and I’ll take the adventure anywhere. Nevertheless, I know my wife and I will make new friends, see some amazing sights, and enjoy more cruises in the future.
Usain Bolt and Harry Belafonte grew up in my parish – tour bus driver & guide
On a zip-line and rafting tour in Jamaica, the limes, bananas, coconuts, and sugar cane compete with mangroves, towering Hindu bamboo and brightly colored flowering plants for my attention. While zooming through trees up to 40 mph (there are big cushions at the downhill station if the brake and guide fail to stop me) fed my adrenaline-junkie, the afternoon spent on the river was a great way to take in the people and history of Jamaica. The rafting guide explained how various plants have health and medicinal properties – and though Americans sterotypically associated ‘ganja’ with Jamaica, nothing Reginald listed in the average diet included weed.
Patois is the native Jamaican dialect, and after a brief intro, we were all “ai’-ree” (doing well) and affirming questions with “ya, man”. Jamaicans have a deep pride in their country, and while it is very evident that the poorest Americans are richer than most of the population, I think even the “CJs” -Crazy Jamaicans, (self-named) locals who walk in front of moving trucks and buses – would find much of my complaining young countrymen more than foolish. Though this is my first trip in the Caribbean as a civilian, and a first ever to Jamaica, I can see why people return again and again. For me, the food, grog and Cuban cigars are pleasant but bouncing up and down a rocky and muddy road with a group of laughing fellow travelers and guides on the way to rafting is a lasting adventure.
“Put da lime in de coconut, stir it all up” -Jamaican health tip for lowering blood pressure
“I can imagine no more rewarding a career. And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: ‘I served in the United States Navy.” _John Fitzgerald Kennedy, PT-109 Commander, WWII; President of the United States
In the pre-dawn hours of Oct 3, 1977 I arrived at the Recruit Depot of Naval Training Center, San Diego, California. I had signed my life away the previous afternoon at the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS), Phoenix, Arizona. And despite the very attractive female Marine Sergeant at the MEPS, I did not on-the-spot decide to opt for the Marine Corps.
Marched as a gaggle – that would be rectified very shortly – to get haircuts, none of us really knew what was happening. Then lined up for clothing issue, and medical checks and barracks assignment. Nothing was fast enough, efficient enough nor military enough for the Recruiting Company Commanders that day. After a full day, we were assigned our bunks. And at O-dark Thirty, 0330 or 3:30AM, the loudest bang from a metal trash can thrown down the center of the barracks woke everybody. Welcome to Boot Camp, ladies.
Forty years later, I have been retired seven and a half years. I can look back on the best and most challenging times of my life: two periods on Active Duty from 1977 through 1980, and 1987 through 2000, and two periods in the Reserve, 1987 till I opted for Active Duty again; and from 2000 through 2010 when I retired. Eight years assigned to sea duty – most of which spent going to sea. Pacific, Atlantic, Mediterranean , Red Sea, and Caribbean deployments. Panama and Suez canal, Equator and Date Line crossings.
There is nothing more enticing, disenchanting, and enslaving than the life at sea. Joseph Conrad
In February 1992, at age 32, my personal life in shambles ( an estranged wife with mental illness, and crushing debt were the big issues), I received orders to the USS TEXAS (CGN-39), a nuclear powered guided missile cruiser homeported in Alameda, California – across the bay from San Francisco. I drove out from Florida by myself. Arriving at the bottom of the brow, I was ready and excited to begin my first period of “sea duty”. I was reporting as one of three technicians, supporting the communications and RF surveillance systems – which I had just spent half a year learning. Looking back today, the electronics and the computer control – running octal code! – were less complex than the average electronic toy today. But in 1992, few people owned a personal computer, and maybe the well-heeled might have a “car phone” — bulky device, with bag, battery and a cigarette lighter socket charger.
The duties I was assigned – as the newbie out of school – were general. I was already being called “grandpa” since I was nearly six or seven years older than the senior tech in our workcenter. As the new guy, I was put in a harness to go aloft. (The harness came with a “ball-buster”, so-called because of the mechanical brake used as a safety line for ascending and descending the mast — if you disconnected without thinking, a few pounds of metal would swing away and crash into your groin! )
For a guy that wasn’t all that fond of heights – I had been rappelling mountains in Virginia to end that timidity climbing a hundred feet up above the water pierside was my “welcome”. Of course, the lamp at the top of the mast, attached to our TACINTEL antenna had no need to be changed. But the gentle sway was calming, and height never troubled me after that. I spent a lot of time over the course of several years greasing fittings, cleaning away salt buildup, sanding and painting equipment. Since each communications shop : the CT and EW (electronic warfare or ELINT guys) were in my division; the Radiomen and the Combat Systems groups also had things to maintain aloft. The primary time to do these chores were in port for extended periods as we would have the rotating and radiating (radars especially) for our ship and neighboring ships “tagged out”. Nobody wanted to be sterilized or cooked (think of a microwave oven) from RF energy.
Between performance tests, maintenance, cleaning, and cross-training as an operator in our own center, we had training in security force ( rapid reaction team), firefighting, damage control and other collateral jobs. Because of the nature of the job, most of the crew knew us only as “spooks”, and Maintenance (CTMs) were not above getting strange looks from the hot and sweaty Engineering (Snipes) crew. You see, in a couple of our workspaces, the air conditioning (chilled water) system were overly efficient. Large, heat-generating equipment had been replaced with newer systems that were much less power consuming. The now much colder workcenter made it necessary for the techs to wear our winter coats or “foul weather jackets”; we might forget to remove them when we went to the Mess Deck to get some coffee. Some sweaty, greasy shipmates were a little irritated at some “topsiders” easy living.
Working behind the “Green Door” with its OZ Division sign (“Oh-Zee” meant we were part of the Operations Department) required special access and security protocols. We would get asked from time to time what we were doing. We would come up with all sorts of stories. “Actually, I could tell you, but then I would have to kill you” was our running joke. In the days when email and Internet were toddlers, when the AFRTS broadcast was still received and rebroadcast in the evening through the ship’s entertainment system, we might get sports scores or news before the rest of the ship.
While the underway schedule was tedious and I would sometimes spend up to eighteen hours working, cleaning, training or on watch, it was peaceful. All the noise at sea – equipment, machinery, buffers, alarms, announcing systems were less unnerving than the sudden “silence” – an equipment casualty occurring at that moment – followed by an alarm and a all-ship announcement through our 1MC intercom. I really felt at home on the TEXAS. Compared with the stress of the home I had left back in Florida, I was in a long-term relationship. That ship and crew were my family. I set out to learn everything I could about the ship as part of the Enlisted Surface Warfare qualification and earn my silver Surface Warfare pin.
It was a shame that the ship’s schedule was a few months deployment s, before it was to go into the shipyard for a couple of years in order to replace the nuclear fuel and receive upgraded systems. My first underway period occurred in the late Spring of that year, and it was not long afterward that I was able to add Panama and Ecuador to foreign places I had visited. Transiting the Panama Canal was one of the highlights of my Navy career. And becoming a member of the honored Shellbacks – first, as pollywogs, we had to be properly indoctrinated in a raucous smelly, greasy, traditional welcome. And being hosed down with salt water in the pre-dawn of the equatorial waters near the Galapagos Islands, is a memory I cherish. My years of spanish from school, living in southern Arizona, traveling in Mexico, paid huge dividends in Central and South America. Where some Panamanians or Ecuadorians were bemused or put off by American Sailors, I was able to share jokes, catch deals on local crafts, negotiate fantastic deals on a hotel room for shipmates and even trade wits with a streetwise New York-born kid visiting relatives.
On our return to Alameda, a segment of the crew was able to take change of station, house-hunting leave for our pending move to Bremerton, Washington. In June, I was soon after to realize, that the weather was perfect though temporary. For the remaining 11 months until the following June, it was cloudy, misty, rainy, snowy or sleeting. Prior to going into dry dock, the TEXAS made a trip across the Puget Sound for Esquimalt , British Columbia, Canada. Killer whales in a pod accompanied us for part of the trip. Between maintenance assignments and duty rotation, I was briefly able to take in the view outside the skin of the ship. The view of the Olympic Range (the Olympic peninsula is the large portion of the state west of Seattle) to the south is amazing – when the fog or mist lifts long enough to see the snowy mountains. The Canadian naval base is next to Victoria, a city that looks every bit as if it was lifted out of England and deposited there. For the couple of days that we were visiting, I had my first experience with craft beer. My present infatuation with micro-breweries, got started there.
I still think about going back to hike in British Columbia, visit the tea shops and markets, and maybe enjoy scones and english marmalade.
In the coming year, the ship, now in dry dock, was cut open, all the decks were covered with plywood, giant tarps hung over the side of the ship while sandblasting away the paint, barnacles, and growth of many years at sea.
With my equipment shutdown or removed for maintenance, I was left to clean, to document maintenance – I worked fairly closely with the Maintenance Material Management System or (3M) Coordinator by that time. For a couple of months I was assigned off the ship to help coordinate the maintenance of the Bachelor Officers Quarters which at the time was being transitioned to a civilian who had been running large hotels. Officers had it pretty cushy. Enlisted sailors in base quarters in Bremerton didn’t have it too rough either. At the time the Navy made its decision to halt the refueling and scrap the TEXAS, I had moved off base to renting a home not far from the shoreline. Seattle was visible across the bay.
I was enjoying the little town of Manchester. Then my estranged wife showed up, long enough to take most of my valued possessions and several firearms. And leave with her boyfriend. I was ready to transfer to my next ship, a destroyer in Norfolk, Virginia, the USS PETERSON (DD-969).
Ships are known to the men who go to sea in them as “she”. Temperamental, attractive, frustrating, consuming, difficult, requiring a lot of commitment and hard work. And romantic. All at the same time. But like a woman you are with, you can be successfully only in one relationship at a time — and a ship is jealous for your time.
In the steamy opening week of August, I have been daydreaming of exotic hikes. Bloggers have been posting about hikes in Nepal, or Kyrgyzstan, or Zion National Park in what I’ve read this week. My thoughts run to a vacation in Kauai, my wife and I last took in 2013.
Waimea Canyon, the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”, was spectacular.
I think I should learn to sail before I die. In a sailboat. Perhaps on the ocean. After all, I spent a seventh of my life on the ocean, in vessels that patrolled the world. Of course, none of these used wind power and fabric for propulsion. But as crew aboard a warship crossing the Pacific and at other times crossing the Atlantic, I recall seeing adventurers on their tiny cork
For inspiration, I was reading about a couple adventurers, beginning with Robin Knox-Johnson who was first to sail solo and non-stop around the world in 1968 ( it took him 10 months to complete) and latest, Thomas Colville, whose fifth attempt at breaking the 2008 record of 57 days accomplished circumnavigation in only 49 days.
Or maybe I will just take lessons this summer on a smallboy at the Navy MWR marina and sail in San Diego Bay.
Before the advent of Cyber warfare, when a ruler wanted to extend his (or her) sovereignty beyond the geographic boundaries of mountains or the sea, sailors were called upon. Three thousand years BCE, from their largest settlements on Crete, the Minoans had extensive trade with Egypt and the Syrian people of eastern shores of the Mediterranean. They were wiped out from the sea– literally. But the Philistines, whom Ramses III battled (his monuments bear witness to his Philistine captives) were likely either Minoan or proto- Roman Etruscan immigrants. So once again sailors were prominent in history.
The Homeric tales of Greek mythology reflected actual battles of the Mycenaeans (Greeks) with the Trojans about 1100 years BCE in present-day Turkey. Scholars think these wars were probably for access to the Black Sea through the Dardanelles. Sailors as soldiers of fortune again made history. Troy, whether or not fooled by a wooden horse at the time, was laid waste, and likely sailors had some role. About 500 years BCE, the Mycenaeans battled and eventually repulsed invasion of the Persian Xerxes empire (attacking from the sea). And as Greek seapower grew, sailors extended their reach and culture all through the eastern Mediterranean.
Alexander the Great, the Macedonian, about 300 BCE, created a Greek empire from Europe east to India and south into Egypt. And the Romans about that time started to extend their reach by land and the sea. For hundreds of years, sailors extended the Roman influence from Britain to Egypt and North Africa.
Since the age of Christ, European sailors have extended empires and trade to and from all corners of the globe. While squabbles between armies and navies are now over football games, I think each is beholden to the other. Sailors may have a tradition of rowdiness in ports around the world, but also gained a reputation for “girl in every port”. From sailors, over the thousands of years of our known history, we all potentially have some DNA of people they encountered: Assyrians, India, Egyptians, Carthaginians, Mongols, Polynesians, Chinese or aboriginal (native american or australian). If not for Sailors of Fortune, the dust of time would perhaps cover us.
When I last saw Hurghada, Egypt, it was at the end of a nineteen- hour series of flights from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My orders had me wait in this port city on the Red Sea until my ship arrived. This was 1993 and our East Coast ships patrolled the Mediterranean, Red Sea and the Gulf of Arabia (Persian Gulf).
While recent images online show a fancy beach resort (!) in Hurghada, I recall then only sand, heat, scorpions, and prickly pear cactus. Hotels were still in a state of construction – apparently as their proprietors were not taxed until construction had complete. To this day I recall the port worker and a shopkeeper who both spoke english. I got to learn a little about the culture and the European visitors. I don’t think americans generally visited along the Red Sea as the ancient Egypt they come to see is along the Nile and in Cairo museums. Back then Hurghada main clientele were German tourists vacationing on the beach. Egypt is also where I presumed America’s contribution to the world must have been the car horn. It certainly was not the turn signal. Perhaps because one hand on the horn and the other gesturing angrily at a pedestrian leaves no hand free?
Egyptian cabbies have a penchant for three things – their vehicles travel at a high rate of speed, they constantly are honk the horn, and at night, headlamps are strictly of optional use. You have to realize how crazy riding in a cab at night is: camels, donkeys, street vendors, and folk fill the streets. None seem ever involved in an accident with these mad drivers. From visits to our New York City on several occasions, I now know where these Egyptians learned to drive. And Turks. And Africans.
Having a cigar called Post-Embargo reminds me of a deployment in the Caribbean. In the 1995, the USS PETERSON made a summer counter-narcotics sweep through the Caribbean Sea. Unexpectedly, ship and crew made an extended port visit to the Dutch Antilles island of Curacao. We had one of our gas turbine engines fail. Waiting for shipment of a new engine from the United States allowed me, as a “topsider”, extra liberty. We passed time sampling the locally brewed Carlsberg beer, enjoying Cuban cigars, sightseeing and taking in a tropical Netherlands. For “snipes” (Engineering personnel) however, they spent long hours to remove and replace a major ship system. As we learned later, the casualty to the engine cooling system was a symptom of an unexpected honor on Memorial Day weekend: representing the Navy at the re-opening of the Philadelphia Maritime Museum (as the Independence Seaport Museum) .
Two life lessons we learned that summer. First, some thanked while others cursed the bureaucrats who sent an ocean-dwelling warship into freshwater (the Philadelphia river) for public relations. The engine cooling system was fouled by dead marine life. And second, inexpensive boxes of quality Cuban cigars during deployment were worth spending a month in the tropics. For those who enjoyed cigars, the remaining month at sea was “smoke ’em if you got ’em”; they were contraband at home.
In the last few years, the end to the Cuban embargo has not meant much to me. With Cuban seed planted for decades in Central America, obtaining a post-embargo “Cuban” is off my “bucket list”.
I am looking forward to going back to sea. But this time I will not be standing in a dress uniform, “manning the rail”, as we deploy but rather a festive cruise line. Even the company, Royal Caribbean Oasis of the Seas, sounds like a festive destination rather than a vessel to get from Point A to Point B. The scheduled departure is still months in the future, but it is something to look forward in anticipation. I still have some hesitation about putting to sea. “Underway. Shift Colors!”, is a phrase all deployed U.S. Navy Sailors know as the moment the ship leaves the mooring and begins to put to sea. While today’s Sailors may have six or seven- or even nine- month deployments away from their home, the routine of everyday blurs the calendar. Menus define the day of the week – sliders (hamburgers) Wednesday, spaghetti ( with crumbled sliders for meat sauce) Thursdays, and so on.
A cruise line does not operate that way. From what I have been told, there’s food, drink, and entertainment twenty-four hours a day, if you pay for it. (Well, in the Chiefs’ Mess, we were able to fund some pretty wonderful food, snacks and even ice cream during deployment ). But today’s cruise liners make the last cruise ship I was on, the former Cunard Lines , Queen Mary seem tame in comparison. As a child accompanying my mother, I sailed on the RMS Queen Mary and the RMS Sylvania between Liverpool and New York in the 1960s. And in 2016, my wife and I stayed aboard the now-hotel Queen Mary in the city of Long Beach, California. Cruise lines, prior to the heyday of jumbo jets and routine flights to and from Europe, was a great form of travel. Both movie star Cary Grant and the vacationing nurse traveled in style albeit at substantially different accommodations and traveling companions.
Although manning a Navy ship does not give you many opportunities to enjoy the sea air, wind or waves, it is still something incredible when looking at the vast ocean. That is what I will look forward to seeing again. Along the east coast of North America, the Gulf Stream is a great conduit for whales, dolphins, game fish, and adventurous sailors in sailboats and other craft. I also know that the sea could be like glass or the gray-black of a squall on the horizon. But I imagine, instead of chow lines, field day, and drills, it will be cocktails, suntan lotion and enthusiastic support for my wife’s plans for ashore zip-lines and water slides.
A lot changes in forty years. In May, 1977, prior to my departure for Boot Camp at Naval Training Center, San Diego in October, I was graduating high school. Jimmy Carter was President, a fact that I thought, being a former naval submariner officer, would make him an excellent leader. People didn’t want Gerald Ford as he had pardoned ‘criminal’ Richard Nixon, but I remember him for sending in Marines to retrieve the Mayaguez, which had been seized by the Khmer Rouge a month after the last battle involving U.S. troops of the Vietnam War.
In those last two years of the Seventies, the Zumwalt-era of loosened grooming standards – longer hair, mustaches and beards worn by Sailors were okay. Dungarees (bell-bottom style) and dixie cups, were the working uniform. Pot was a problem on military bases including San Diego. A community that now is marked by the upwardly-mobile, well-heeled beach crowd, Ocean Beach, was then a place where druggies and ex-military, tattoo parlors and bars were less restrictive than up the coast near the UCSD campus.
A visit over the Coronado Bridge to the Naval Station Coronado, where carriers were berthed was my first view of a ship – the USS Recruit was a wood and metal reproduction on the Recruit Training Command, to introduce us to naming convention, etc – so did not count. The ‘aroma’ of the interior of the USS Kitty Hawk was the first ‘knock out’ that I will never forget. Jet fuel, grease, human sweat, urinals and generally, the stink of at times, 3500 men (no women then) wafted fresh new sailors who had more recently been accustomed to PINE SOL clean scent.
At the time, I was a student learning to work on complex electronics and mechanical maintenance of teletypes. Where I now cannot see without at least one or two orders of magnitude, I was able then to discern two from three centimeters adjustments. The instructor was quite ADAMANT about that ability before graduation. We had Iranian military students – this was prior to the Iranian Revolution – and when they were recalled by their government, we were relieved. Suffice it to say that American and Iranian hygiene were on different tracks.
In May of 1982, with several of my fellow Russian Language students and the professor – I was able to travel to Russia – prior to the end of the USSR (1989) – visiting cities – St Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev and Tbilisi. If only for all but one – a socialist- the trip was very informative and probably saved them and their future families from the ‘snowflake’ sensibilities, the mantra of “coexistence” and “socialism’s great”. The people may have been interesting and interested, but the economy was a shambles. Ambition was reserved for the underground economy — some of whom are today’s Russian millionaires and billionaires.
In May of 1984, I had been out of the Navy four years, attending the university in Tucson, Arizona. Four three of those four years I had been actively involved in the Veteran students organization on campus, and while peers were pursuing commissioning programs, I was looking toward a government job after graduation. Strangely, in my second year after graduation, when my graduate school plans went unfunded – I re-enlisted in the Navy -Reserve – that is. The entreaties of one of my friends finally had me join his unit, only to see him quit!
After petitioning to resume an Active Duty career in 1987, the next major May milestone I recall was May of 1997 when I was transferred from Norfolk, Virginia to San Diego, California. 1970 Dodge Chargers, if you could find one in decent shape were then ten thousand dollars or more, homes which had been an unheard of, eighty thousand dollars – for an ocean view, were nearly eight hundred thousand, and NTC was closed but for a few administrative medical functions.
And in the twenty years since that time, friends and mentors went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Soviets became Russian trade partners, the Chinese became the world’s second-most powerful economy, the Islamic world tried to separate the economic need for the non-Islamic world – from the ideology that wants to reduce infidels to ashes, and we are again at some form of odds over military preparedness against the adversaries that were no longer adversaries?
15 Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. – Jonah 1:15 (NIV)
At sea, even on a Navy warship, when the storm is raging, you feel very small and vulnerable. In eight years, on three different ships, I have been through squalls, gales, and hurricanes. It is truly awe-inspiring – and foolhardy – to venture out on the upper weatherdeck when a destroyer is rolling 30 – 35 degrees port and starboard. The churning, foamy grey and black sea is so different from the steel blue calm water of several hours earlier. The power of the sea to bash in metal plates is also that same ocean that can leave sailboats without a breath of wind to move them. In either condition, I never want to be at the mercy of the ocean.
If one is to be stranded at sea, there are some more preferable spots than others. Shipping lanes are well-traveled and charted, like marked highways around the globe. And then there are those when outside those lanes, who if they become stranded, rely on the grace of God, or Neptune, or whales, dolphins or whatnot will send help their way. The ocean, out of sight of land is a very lonely place, even in a part of the ocean that is well-traveled.
I was aboard the TEXAS, one of the last great nuclear-powered cruisers about eight hours southwest of the Panama Canal on a bright, sunny day. I was performing some routine maintenance near the forecastle ( pronounced foc’sill”) when an announcement over the ship’s 1MC, its intercom, that we were rendering aid to a small boat off our starboard bow.
“Boat” was an approximation as I recall. It was more like a dugout, with two Panamanian men, and a couple of chickens – roosters, actually, in small cages in between the two men. In the first minutes, I was the only person on the deck who spoke Spanish and the deck officer asked me to translate some questions and directions for them to be brought aboard. Apparently, they were traveling from one of the islands off Panama to another – the birds were to be in a contest – and the motor started to have problems. In starting to work on it – the motor clamp dislodged and motor and all fell into the depths. They had been drifting with the currents for a day.
We were fortunate to be at that place and time to rescue the men and return them to Panama with only a delay in our schedule. Oh, as for schedules, sometimes they can be a pain in the neck with military precision. At the moment we had the small boat along side, and were preparing to bring them aboard, they happened to be under a bilge valve. Yes. Engineering began pumping waste overboard at that exact moment. Furious calls over the radio, straining on ropes and a few dozen choice expletives succeeded in halting the pumps, getting the men – and roosters, and their boat on board.
I wonder if those men recall the day the “americanos” rescued them. And do they tell their children, when you are going to a cock-fight, be sure to bring a lot of rope for lashing, maybe have all your shots updated, and most importantly, get a bigger boat.