I begin my 4 am day with slim coffee and a quick look at the television weatherman whose frightening red hair is deliciously shaped into a pompadour that looks like a fist in the making. Ever since serving as a navigator on Navy ships in the Western Pacific, I have considered weather reporting as a kind of religion with enough tropes and doctrine to make the heart sing. Talk to me in that lusty Gaelic voice, saying an occluded front is on the way, the horse latitudes are fresh as the dew, and the windless, soulless doldrums properly capture my state of mind. Tell me about the gradient winds blowing off invisible isobars, the meandering jet streams that stink of war, and the trade winds that regularly bring the supper I sing for. Speak to me in the language of the sea and sky gods and I will worship at that altar.
Sadly, at 4 am I get local, zip code, rhyming prattle that tells me the rain in Spain is mainly on the wane, the wind won’t blow away my day, and, in an act of intense personalization, the red sky tonight will indeed be a sailor’s archetypal delight. The man with the red hair threatening to become a fist now attacks the screen on his eye-high Microsoft Surface bringing up kindred weather spirits in the Greater New York area, who seem to say in chorus that this year fall will be a ball as the leaves turn from green to brown in every insufferable little town.
Then the red haired man drifts behind a curtain of his own making and I climb down from my high horse, staring in wonder and remorse at the flotsam and jetsam that flows across the television screen. These are images of pieces of metal found off the Bahamas and thought to be from the cargo vessel Le Faro that likely sank in 18,000 feet of water. I hear some chatter commercial about whether this ship was too old to sail in such weather or whether it should have left port at all. An ex-crew member remembers holes in the deck and water seeping in through the bulkheads below. This rust bucket should have been retired years ago. All will be well when we find the Voyage Data Recorder.
Then a Coast Guard Captain steps up to the microphone and remembers the men and one woman who served aboard this ship, some of whom were his friends. He spoke about the risks and dangers in going down to the sea in ships. He hinted at the horror these poor souls faced as they lost power right in the path of a dangerous hurricane. His words were personal and epic in a way, reminding us that sea duty is a dangerous and unpredictable affair, no matter the technologies at hand.
I reflected on the horror the crew must have faced abandoning ship into waves that surely had been breaking over the vessel’s superstructure and into wind blowing at least 140 mph. In a storm of these dimensions, reference points are lost and the compass is useless. The air and the sky are all foam, power and the punishing weight of a thunderous sea.
I remember our ship losing power in the middle of a typhoon in the South China Sea with winds clocked in at 180 mph. We were ordered out of Hong Kong because ships are generally safer at sea than in port. We had a vast array of electronics that would keep us away from the typhoon, but storms are fickle and we found ourselves right in the middle of it.
A Navy ship has some advantages over a merchant vessel. It is generally sleeker and more compact. With a well-trained crew of three hundred men, we could tie down the booms, guns, lifeboats and the like quickly in advance of a storm. Nonetheless, we lost power and therefore lost our way and direction. We lost all electronic communication. As an ammunition ship, we had an advantage of five holds filled with 2,000 pound bombs, projectiles and the like. We thought that this weight and ballast would see us through.
Unfortunately, the typhoon was so powerful and our bow to stern heaving and side-to-side movements of the ship so severe that the bombs broke loose in the holds. I will never forget the sounds of airborne 2,000 pound bombs careening from side to side, crashing against the bulkheads. The sea and the typhoon were in charge. I was part of the team engaged in a last-ditch, feeble effort to slow down the bombs by throwing our bedding on top of the rolling bombs. This action had little effect. Before something hit me in the head, the last thing I remembered was the captain saying something that sounded like the Lord’s Prayer over the IMC. This familiar refrain had to compete with the below deck sounds of a ship coming apart at the seams starting at the keel. Some of us had already said our goodbyes.
I survived to see the sun come up the next morning. Years later, I wrote about this and other experiences in the USS Bunker Kills: A Sea Story http://ow.ly/Teupo.
Every time I see some catastrophe at sea, I remember fondly all those who have gone down to their ships to serve and especially those who have never come back.