Saturday, November 26, 2011

Be Careful What You Ask For

By Philip Gardocki

Refueling at sea is probably the second* most difficult and dangerous operation that is performed regularly by the navies of the West. It is performed far less often by other navies of the world and almost never by the old East Bloc navies. It is the reason why the West can force project everywhere in the world.

DDG cutting through the waves.
Note this is a normal clear day, and not
hurricane conditions described here.
It is easy to see why refueling at sea is so dangerous. You have two or three ships, over 500 feet long, moving in parallel courses around 120 feet from each other for extended periods of time over a surface that is moving them up and down, port and starboard. While the ships are working against their destruction because of the venturi principle, you have between them, high tension cables, communication lines and fuel hoses. On these platforms you have the men who are tending the cables, moving the goods and communicating the information through multiple layers of command. If it doesn’t work perfectly, supplies could get drenched, men could be lost overboard or, in the worse case, ships crash.

To prevent accidents, the US Navy practices refueling just about every other day when a ship is at sea. It becomes so completely routine and boring that you forget just how dangerous it is. At one point, my job in this evolution was serving as phone talker to the other ship. I would pass messages from the tanker to the our First Officer and to another phone talker who was hooked to our Engineering.

One Sunday**, we were waiting for our turn at the pumps. This was one of those days that writers of the sea love to describe, in their most overused and picturesque prose, as, "The sea was made of glass." I say this, because up until then I can’t say I ever saw such a flat surface on the ocean. Due to a mechanical problem with the oiler, we had been waiting for several hours. In a fit of pique, I went to the First Officer in charge of the forward operations, and asked him, "Where is the adventure?"

I had a reputation for being a wise-ass, and his eyes narrowed; he didn’t want to be made a fool of, but couldn’t see where I was coming from. "What?" was all he replied.

"The Navy promised me an adventure and I haven’t had it yet."

The lights went on. The current Navy recruiting slogan was "It’s not a job. It’s an adventure." As he made a faux backhand at me he retorted, "Get out of here."

Within three days, I ate those words. More accurately, I had them hurled back at me by the 90 mile per hour winds of a force 2 hurricane. The violent pitching and the yawing of the ship had made even the hardened sailors a bit queasy.  We were taking on white water on the O2 deck (Translation, the waves were breaking over the second level of the ship above the water line.), this is normally about 45 feet above sea level.  To increase the stability of the ship, it was decided to top off the tanks with an extra hundred tons of fuel. How we found a British oiler at night and in that hurricane, I’ll never know. The only way the First Officer could find me was to go the phone jack I was plugged into and then follow the wire, hand over hand.

"Were hooked up, tell them to start," He shouted over the wind!

I yelled into the microphone, "How much pressure can you give us?" On a normal day, I would expect an answer like 50 pounds per square inch, which would take us 25 minutes to refuel and hope for 75 pounds per square inch, which would then take only 15 minutes. This, however, was not a normal day.

"We can give you 150 pounds per square inch," replied the British-accented voice.

I paused a second, as I have never had a 3 digit number offered to me before.

"Are you sure?"

"Of course. Now, if number 4 wasn’t acting up, we would be giving you 175."  Thank God for interservice rivalry one-upmanship and showing off!

I screamed into the ears of the engineering phone talker, "Can we handle 150 pounds per square inch?"

Despite being only a foot away, I couldn’t see the shock on his face, but there was a significant pause before he repeated my request into his headset. After only a few seconds he screamed back, "Go!  Ahead!"

"Give us 150," I shouted into my headset.

Then, over the noise of the waves crashing into the ASROC launcher, and the hurricane force winds, was a new noise.  A humming sound that grew steadily louder and louder. It was the sound that oil makes, when 3,750 gallons per minute travels through a reinforced rubber hose that is suspended in air by a steel cable that is tensioned to 10,000 pounds per square inch. I peered into the dark at the barely illuminated hose and like everyone else, backed away, pondering the forces involved. The First Officer ordered all nonessential personnel indoors. For eight minutes we wondered if the hose would blow.

Thanks to excellent nautical engineering, coupled with monitored routine maintenance, it didn’t blow, but it did take sledge hammer to bust the hose loose, and the residual pressure of the fuel oil ruined several uniforms when it released.

The Captain ordered medicinal brandy to be issued but it was actually Jack Daniels whiskey. I don't really care for whiskey, but I never had a drink at sea before, and as this oppurtunity was not likely to ever happen again, I endulged.  Everyone in the refueling detail got one very carefully measured shot, issued by the corpsman. Who, in turn took advantage of the situation to get royally crocked, and subsequently found out why you don’t want to drink heavily in ship that is bobbing like a cork.

* The most dangerous is carrier air operations.

** You always refuel on Sunday.

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