Category Archives: Sea Stories

A Sea Story (actually clean with no profanity: who’d thunk?)

Way back many years ago, there was a Naval Academy midshipman who became famous for his ship handling talent.

When he went on his third class midshipman summer cruise, he demonstrated an uncanny ability to stop the ship on a dime, make incredible maneuvers, and always get to and stay on station like a dime.

After he graduated from the academy and was commissioned, his legend grew. On every ship, he was immediately recognized as a superb ship handler and given every opportunity to demonstrate his remarkable skills.

About the time he was a department head, one of his fellow officers noticed just before this super ship handler took the conn, he would return to his stateroom for just a moment. The other officer and the superstar had parallel careers and served on several ships together before they both made admiral. Even then, commanding officers would ask the star to take the conn to demonstrate his amazing talent.

On one joint exercise, the two admirals were on the same flagship. On several occasions, the ship’s captain would ask the ship handling flag to show off his talents. Each time, the admiral would retire to his stateroom briefly. His fellow admiral’s curiosity could not be contained and he secretly asked the boatswainmate of the watch to follow the admiral to see what was going on before he took the conn. The boatswainmate reported back the flag officer would go into his stateroom, open the top drawer of his clothes chest and stare down into the drawer before closing it and returning to the bridge.

His fellow flag officer’s curiosity grew.

Then one day, the great ship handler had a heart attack and died on the bridge. His fellow officer after paying his due respects ran back to his buddy’s stateroom, ran to the chest and opened the drawer. And there the ship handler’s incredible talent was revealed. On a large sheet of paper was written:

Starboard — Right

Port — Left 

The Morning Watch: Now i Know Why

As expressed in previous writings, my favorite bridge watch was the morning watch.

i was overjoyed when i was senior enough to fall off of the in port watch bill. In the capacity of a duty officer, i remained on duty on board my ship for 24 hours, more or less (another sea story for later). My first ship had three section duty sections, then four, and then when deployed and in refresher training at Guantanamo Bay, two, or port and starboard as we called it — but in “GITMO” it was only after returning from our daily training at sea around 1800 (four bells) and on Saturday and Sunday. At one time after qualifying for Command Duty Officer (CDO), i actually had the duty for ten days in a row as all of the newly reporting department heads were working toward qualification. Duty in port was a chore. On the ten ships i served upon, we found a lot of humor (more sea stories for later) to make it bearable. But it was still ashore, not at sea.

Unlike duty in port, i bemoaned my fate when i became too senior to stand bridge watches. They were one of the real joys of being a surface warfare officer. And the morning watch was often the best.

For Navy folks and sailors of all kinds, that watch became the four-to-eight, or 0400-0800; for landlubbers, that watch would be 4:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. even though the original “morning watch” was the only correct term because of the actual time.

When i was in, and Lord knows everything Navy appears to have changed since i was in, on and off from 1962 until 1989, the Navy “morning watch” was my favorite. It began around 0315 when the bridge messenger of the watch found his way to after officers country, walked down the passageway (no, we didn’t have halls), found the last stateroom on the port side (there were many other staterooms where i was berthed, but i remember this one better than most), found the forward rack next to the centerline, and tentatively spoke, “Mr. Jewell  (until i made commander, then it was “Commander Jewell”), wake up; it’s time to relieve the watch,” making sure i was awake before hastily exiting officers country as quietly as he could.

i would scramble up, and to the dim red light from battle lanterns used in “darken ship,” put on the working khakis i had laid out when i hit the rack the previous evening , dash my face with water from the metal sink in the stateroom i shared with two other junior officers (JO’s), and stumble forward to the ladder leading up to the O3 level and the bridge. My olive green hook-necked issue flashlight with its plastic filter on the lens guided me with its red beam (good for preserving night vision).

i would pass by combat and quickly get the picture of our operational status and “contacts” (other ships) information before reporting to the bridge. There i would walk to the standing OOD, salute and announce per protocol, “I’m ready to relieve you, sir.” The off-going OOD would salute and give me his interpretation of what was going on. Satisfied — and unlike many OOD’s, i would not spend a lot of time on this, especially on the morning watch — i would salute again and announce, “I relieve you, sir.”

He would return my salute and respond, “I stand relieved” while already heading to his rack for a few precious hours of sleep before reveille. The Boatswain Mate of the Watch would announce, “Mr. Jewell has the deck and the conn.”

There i would be in charge of metal carrying about 300 souls, mostly wearing dungarees, blue chambray shirts, and white dixie cup hats in nearly 400 hundred feet of length, 40 feet of breadth (beam we called it), and 14 feet of draft at near 3500 tons with 60,000 horsepower to the four-boiler, twin steam turbines and more firepower than most Middle Ages cities to wield its firepower to…well, not much really at that time of day.

You see, the morning watch was nearly always a quiet watch. Flag officers don’t get up that early to order formation changes. So if formation steaming was the situation, we usually just sat in place (relatively) for about three hours. i would have relieved close to 0345: bridge watches usually relieved a quarter hour before eight bells. Because of the morning mess, the morning watch was relieved by the forenoon watch early, around 0700 or six bells. This was to allow the off-going watch to eat breakfast before morning quarters at 0745.

But there was more. After i successfully shook off the rack monster to stand by the centerline gyrocompass, i could contemplate the world. i could stretch mentally and then get ready for the coming day. My next watch would be the first dog (1600-1800) after the workday. But on the morning watch, the ship and the world at sea would begin stirring. Around two bells (0500), i would wander over and through the hatch to the starboard bridge wing. The Boatswainmate of the Watch would bring me some coffee. i would hang over the gunwale (“gunnel” is the correct pronunciation), sipping my coffee, usually jawing with my junior officer of the deck (JOOD). The quartermasters around the chart table just inside the pilot house would begin preparations to shoot morning stars with the XO, the appointed navigator on the small boys.

Once on the starboard bridge wing, i could smell the coffee brewing in the galley, which was located on the first deck on the starboard side. Then the smell of bacon and fried eggs, usually scrambled because if it was more than a week at sea, the eggs would be powdered eggs, not too tasty but still great aromas around three bells (0530). It was a great way to start the day.

Somewhere in there, usually shortly after reveille, the captain would emerge from his sea cabin and ask what was going on. i would catch him up as he sat in his raised bridge chair on the starboard side. He would then ask if there had been radio messages that had come in during the night requiring immediate response. Again, i would brief him. After enjoying the view for a while, he would alight from the chair and head to his stateroom a deck below his sea cabin, and then on to mess in the wardroom — on larger ships, nearly always when the commanding officer was, in fact, a captain (O6), he had his own mess, and the XO was president of the wardroom mess.

Shortly afterwards, the relieving watch team would arrive. The relieving process would be repeated, and i would head to the wardroom for chow.

The most negative aspect of all of this is i love to sleep and being aroused at 0315 was not, for me back then, a good night’s sleep. So long about 1000 or four bells, i would begin to fade. When 1130  (seven bells) signaled “knock off ship’s work” for the noon mess, i would head straight to my stateroom. The rack monster was calling and it was time for a “NORP,” a previously told sea story but the acronym stands for “Naval Officer Rest Period.”

i’m sure i have many misperceptions and faulty memories around my bridge watches. After all, the last one was thirty-five years ago. Also, i am a hopeless romantic and tend to recall all the good things and not many of the bad. This romantic idea was with me even when i was the senior Naval officer at the Texas A&M NROTC Unit. It was a particularly dark time of my life, and one night, i recalled a leg-pulling sea story about how to simulate standing a “mid-watch” on the bridge. i remembered how those watches were so solitary and let me escape to the wonder world of the sea in the depths of blue, sea and sky. So i thought i would try to replicate a mid-watch in my new home, fit for a single man.

i set the alarm and awoke to it at 2315. i had a cup of soup and a cheese sandwich in the kitchen. When finished, i dug out my khaki combination cover and put it on. i tied two bricks to each end of a short cord and hung them around my neck. Then, i moved in front of the picture window in the living room, peering out on the street. It didn’t work. i was still miserable and Snooks, my Old English Sheepdog, was utterly befuddled.

But i don’t think my romantic tendencies mess up my recollection of the morning watch, at least not too much. One example is the views i got to see. Watching the sea, especially in deep open ocean, go through the transition from darkest of night to first light to dawn to daylight is a beautiful experience no matter the weather. It can be howling seas with rolling, white crested waves and screaming winds with ocean water and spray crashing over the bow. It can be gloomiest of mornings with thousands of shades of gray. It can be a cloudless star-clustered sky receding to a recognition of light on the eastern horizon to the sun slowly claiming the day and the sea turning deep blue with flecks of white spume. But my favorite would be the morning watch when the old sailor’s weather prognostication was in full view: “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky at morning, sailors take warning.”

This morning when i walked out to get the newspaper on the driveway, it was one of those warning moments at first light. My photo doesn’t do it justice: 

But i think it serves well enough (that’s a waning crescent moon with Venus below; the light at tree line is the just emerging sun). i wanted to go get my binoculars (i got some since A&M) and stand out there with them around my shoulder until it faded in coming daylight. But i figured the neighbors might talk.

Besides there was no ship deck below my feet. But for a moment, just a brief moment, i was back at sea on the bridge of an old steam destroyer, cutting through the sea. Alive, oh so alive.

A Near Collision…Not

With this post, i  have added a new category. i am going to try, i emphasize try to work on putting my posts in the correct category.

“Willie Nod” will continue to be children’s poems and poetry, which i now intend to self-publish within the year. i hope to continue to add to this category as time passes. Although my grandson Sam has almost outgrown such children things, i have six grand nieces and nephews i hope will enjoy them.

“Jewell in the Rough” is the wonderful phrase for a category Walker Hicks created as the title for this website. i am considering making this category about golf, my thoughts and golf stories.

“Notes from the Southwest Corner” was initially used to rerun my weekly Lebanon Democrat columns before the paper’s website made my columns more accessible. i have plans to revisit them and post columns from that era, which i intend to collate and edit into a book, primarily for folks back home.

“Steel Decks and Glass Ceilings” is a category i am thinking about adding later as my work on the book of that title gets some purchase. My idea is to publish chapters here after i conclude the first draft. In case you missed it, this is my take on the USS Anchorage (AD 19) deployment in 1983, the first for a US Navy ship to spend extended out of port time with women as part of the crew and wardroom,

And of course, the “Pocket of Resistance” category is for all things jim jewell with his rather bent, contrarian point of view.

i plan to go through previous posts with sea stories and move them to this “Sea Stories” category.

It was late summer 1975. The USS Anchorage (LSD 36) had just completed an unplanned month-long maintenance period in India Basin at the US Naval Base, Sasebo, Japan due to a stern gate mechanical failure. i had enjoyed Sasebo for that month almost as much as i enjoyed it when it was the re-supply port for the USNS Upshur (T-AP 198) and USNS Geiger (T-AP 197) when i was the executive officer of MSC, nee MSTS Transport Unit One, carrying ROK troops to Vietnam and back. We  spent roughly six days a month there throughout 1970.

But now, the Anchorage was underway again. It felt good.

My job as first lieutenant was the best job i ever had. Period. The first lieutenant on a landing ship dock is involved in almost everything. He is in charge of the deck department, which is responsible for most of the ship’s decks and spaces. The two ship boats, a motor whale boat doubling as the captain’s gig, and an LCVP, a small landing craft are also the first lieutenant’s. Add the two 60-ton cranes, the four 3-inch/50 caliber gun mounts (removed in 1980 after i was long gone) to the list as well as the well deck, the mezzanine deck, the magazines, and troops spaces for 600 marines. Any embarked craft such as LCM8’s and LCU, the embarked Beach Group  unit, and embarked UDT were under my responsibility, and i was in charge of all amphibious operations, including the well-deck loads, unloads, ballasting and deballasting and troop embarkation and debarkation. Oh yes, i was one of four Officers of the Deck (OOD) underway, the sea detail, and general quarters OOD, and because of previous Chief Engineer experience, filled in for ours when he was not available. Our CO, Art Wright, once declared the reason the operations officer billet was for a lieutenant commander is to ensure he was the senior watch officer so the first lieutenant wouldn’t have that job as well.

On numerous operations, i stayed on deck for 24 hours or more, the most being the 43 straight hours during the on-load of marine vehicles and equipment at Numazu before “Frequent Wind,” the evacuation of Vietnam off Vung Tau.

There were all sorts of weird assignments and loads. And you know what? i loved every minute of it.

But back to the story: the ship left Sasebo and headed north. i don’t remember why but as she closed on the Straits of Shimonoseki, between the islands of Kyushu and Honshu, i was relieving the OOD to stand the mid (0000-0400) watch, the operations officer, the OOD i was relieving who was damn near catatonic.

“She’s got all her lights on. All of them,” he almost screamed.

We were standing on the port bridge wing, and the lieutenant commander (who shall remain nameless here) was frantically pointing aft.

“She could hit us, she could hit us!” he declared in a higher pitched tone than normal, “Should i call the captain? What do you think?”

“i relieve you,” i said, “You don’t have to sweat it.”

i took a bearing on the ship, a very large cruise or party ship, from the gyro compass repeater on the bridge wing.

“I stand relieved,” the off-going OOD almost sighed.

“Mr. Jewell has the deck,” the boatswainmate of the watch announced.

i called the captain, told him i had the watch, that there was a ship aft not observing the Rules of the Road and looked like a party ship with all of the lights shining. i stated we were the “privileged vessel” and she was “burdened.” i explained this meant i should maintain course and speed and anticipated she would pass on the port side fairly close. i told him i would call him again after i took another bearing but combat (CIC) had already reported a slight right bearing drift with a CPA (closest point of approach) within 1000 yards. i asked him if he would like to come to the bridge.

“Ordinarily, I would come up,” Commander Wright replied, “I was getting dressed to come up as John Doe (the anonymous operations officer) called me three times and seemed distressed.” He continued, “I won’t come up now unless you need me or the situation changes. I trust you.”

“Aye, sir,” i replied dutifully and headed back to the port wing gyro compass. i took another bearing.

The bearing had increased about a half degree. i remembered one close call in the Mediterranean on the USS Stephen B. Luce (DLG 7) when a “burdened” freighter crossed our bow (Luce was “privileged) within about fifty yards. That’s when CDR Richard Butts, the CO whom i had called to the bridge, said, “See, you are not going to collide if you have bearing drift.” He and i had taken bearings alternately for the past two miles of closing with the freighter and we saw  less than half a degree of bearing drift at about 100 yards (obviously, it increased rapidly as she moved closer and passed just ahead of our bow. . He was correct, but man, was it too close for me.

i explained this to the off-going OOD who i discovered was standing behind me.

We stood on the port wing together and watched the party ship as she passed just over 500 yards from our port side (500 yards at sea is close, very close, and usually dangerous, but not as dangerous in a passing situation). John Doe, obviously relieved in two ways went below.

i could hear the Japanese music and the shouts and laughters of those embarked. They were having a good time and the ship was doing about ten knots faster than we were. i continued to watch as she moved past our bow and slowly begin to pull ahead of us. About an hour later, she disappeared over the horizon.

My point is near collisions at sea happen. They all could and should be avoided. That lieutenant commander, although senior to me and better schooled in many ways, had not spent the time at sea i had. Nearly all of my training for driving steam ships at sea was from, guess what, driving ships at sea under experienced senior officers, especially the very best CO’s: Art Wright, Richard Butts, and Max Lasell at the time. i also learned what not to do from one or two bad CO’s, obviously not to be mentioned here. I did not have very much school house training for driving ships.

Ashore training is good, very good and should be with all of the technical tools we have now. But nothing, nothing can replace being at sea and OJT learning from capable and responsible seniors. All of this posturing about too much time at sea and not enough time spent with the family is hooey. When i joined the Navy in the 1960’s, there was the saying, “If the Navy had wanted you to have a wife, we would have issued you one with your seabag. If you are a mariner, you love being at sea. You and your spouse should work that out. Hard? Yes, it’s difficult, but a Surface Warfare Officer’s duty is to be at sea.

And not sweat the small stuff…just the close calls.