to “conn”, or drive ships. You have a
sense of power. Control of a ship at
sea. That is really why they call in
conning, or controlling a ship instead of driving.
Some ships are small and slow, like a
minesweeper. The all around view from
the bridge on one of these small ships helps make up for some of the
power. Coming to a stop is done easily.
A destroyer knifes
the water like a shark. You have all
that horsepower that provides a lot of speed. That
plus all the guns or missiles makes it exciting. The
view from a destroyer’ bridge is also
A fleet oiler plows
the water. It is a floating gas
station. More speed than a minesweeper
but a lot less than a destroyer. There is
a lot of momentum in the 37,000 tons in the ship I was on.
You are not going to come to a quick
stop. In fact it takes about two miles
to come to a stop from “all ahead full.” That
is why the ship’s standing orders say that you, the
Officer of the
Deck (OOD), who has the conn has very explicit directions to follow.
is to come no closer than five miles to another ship while steaming at
sea. A very wise order when you are
standing on about seven million gallons of volatile fuel.
The view from the bridge, at
least in Kawishiwi was a
problem. Directly in front of the bridge
were two gun mounts on either side. From
either wing of the bridge, directly over the side of the ship, you
could see to
either side, aft, and forward, but not to the opposite side. There were two sailors, with sound powered
phones, acting as lookouts on the 04 level above the bridge on the port
starboard side. This had to be
reassuring to the Officer of the Deck below them……. or maybe not.
As Officer of the
Deck, you have to watch
where you are going, just like the driver of an automobile. The difference is that you also have other
things going on that occupy your attention. There
is the chart and your plot to check, radio calls to
answer, and the radar scope to check. The
deck log has to be maintained, and there are many
other things that
take the OOD’s eyes away from the path of the ship.
Of course the OOD’s eyes are
not the only ones watching where we were going. Most
of the time I had a lieutenant, junior grade as
Junior Officer of
the Deck (JOOD) to help. In fact, when I
was the Officer of the Deck, I always had the JOOD take the conn and
ship. As OOD, I was responsible for the
ship at the time, but I could designate the JOOD to take the conn. If there were a course or speed change to be
made, I would give the order to the JOOD. He
would, in turn, tell the helmsman to come to the new
course or tell
the engine order telegraph operator to change speed.
Except in an emergency, only
the ship’s captain can order course and speed changes.
The key is to let the captain know in advance
when there is a need to change course or speed. Any
Officer of the Deck who waits until it is too late to
problem is courting trouble.
The ship also had radar to
help the OOD keep track of any ships or land that might pose a problem. Of course that depended on the size of the
ship and how low the land was. You could say that there were plenty of
watch out for the ship. On the other
hand, it did not pay to be overconfident. There
were always situations that were unforeseen.
In back of the bridge was
Combat Information Center (CIC). It was
a blacked out room, lit only by the glow from a radar set.
The watch in CIC had their eyes on that radar
all the time, not just occasionally, like on the bridge.
They were a help as long as the objects in
the water were large enough to show up on the radar.
During the day, there was
little chance of something in the water going unnoticed.
The lookouts would even let the OOD know when
there were sea snakes on the surface of the water.
They were supposed to report anything they
saw. At night, it was a different
matter. You didn’t always know what was
happening around you at night.
On one occasion, the ship
sailed around the southern tip of
The ship arrived on station
sometime after dark. The ship’s captain
gave the order to put the ship in a “racetrack station” for the night. We would sail ten miles north at five knots,
turn around, and sail ten miles south. Then
we would repeat the operation. Two hours
north, followed by two hours south, repeated all
I came on watch at . As I said we
were only twenty some miles from
Shortly after the sun came
up, we came to the southern most leg of our track.
I ordered a standard left rudder to turn
around and head back north. Half way
through the turn, the lookout on the stern called to the bridge saying
was something strange in the water.
Using my binoculars, I looked aft to where we had just made our turn. I saw a large boiling area of mud. It was half the size of a football field. Puzzled, I went to the chart table in the pilothouse and checked the chart. Somehow, when I came on watch, I didn’t notice that the water was very shallow there. I don’t remember the exact depth, but we weren’t in any danger of running aground.
When we put that huge rudder
over to make our turn, the wash of the port screw against the rudder
set up an
eddy that caused the mud on the bottom to be kicked up.
It was of interest because, if, for some
reason the ship were to sink to the bottom, I would not even get my
wet. I was high enough up in the ship to
prevent that. This was a case where me,
my JOOD, or the lookouts, could not have expected the bottom to be
the ship’s presence. The water usually
wasn’t that shallow, that far out. Of
course shallow water in the proximity to a coastal area means fishing
nets. More on that.
One night we were steaming
south from way up north, near the
Sometime during the middle
of the night a blip showed up on the radar. Walking
out to the starboard wing of the bridge I took a
the “big eyes.” That was the 20 power
binoculars mounted there on a swivel. Sure
enough, about seven miles away and about 15 degrees
off the bow,
there was a fishing boat. It was lit up
like a Christmas tree…… white lights only.
After plotting for a few
minutes I came to a decision just as CIC confirmed it.
Combat informed me that the contact was
“DIW,” or Dead in the Water. Either the
boat was anchored or drifting. In either
case, since it was off the starboard bow, it would not be a hazard to
us. Or so I thought.
We were steaming along in a
leisurely manner, about ten knots. That
we would pass the fishing boat in about 45 minutes.
Then I looked at the chart. Oh,
oh, the water shoaled ahead. The track
laid out by the navigator had us
making a slight turn to starboard to follow deeper water, slightly
About ten minutes later we
made a course adjustment to starboard. That
I did not like because that fishing boat was then on
our port bow. Somehow I felt like a heat
tracking a heat or light source….. like that fishing boat.
I looked at the chart
again. No way. We
had another course change coming up. Sure
enough we were to make a turn to port. From
where we were, and in the time
available, I couldn’t tell for sure how it would affect the fishing
there, but it was going to be interesting.
Sure enough, the time came
to make that turn to port. When we
steadied up that boat, then only about two miles away was not quite
ahead. I rang the captain up on the
phone and advised him that our new course would
take us within about half a mile from an anchored
fishing boat. Big ship, small boat (DIW)
no action was
necessary. As we passed the fishing boat
I looked in the big eyes again. With
those big binoculars I could have counted the fishermen’s fillings in
teeth had it been daylight.
I mention this incident
because it routine and required no action and went just like all
should go. Unfortunately, this was the
only routine contact we had on that deployment.
Most of the time that we
were operating off the eastern coast of
For some reason there were
two of us lieutenants on watch that night. If
there had been a lieutenant and a lieutenant-junior
grade as JOOD we
probably would not have gotten into the mess that we did.
northerly course, for once the lookouts reported lights.
There were a lot of lights out there ahead of
us, way out to starboard (to the right). I
remember that it was just after . The
just started in the officer’s
wardroom aft (lounge and eating area). The
captain had gone there to watch the evening movie with
the rest of
the ship’s officers.
I stepped to the starboard
compass and took a bearing on the mass of dim lights up ahead. I made a mental note of the bearing. I then leaned on the forward windbreak and
looked out ahead of the ship while I talked to the other lieutenant. About 10 minutes later I stepped over to the
compass again and took another sighting on the fishing boats.
I fully expected the boats
to have a change in bearing to the right to indicate that we were
from them. To my utter surprise, the
bearing was the same. We were also
closer to them. An OOD’s worse nightmare
is the phrase “constant bearing, decreasing range.”
Anything that applies to that phrase is going
to collide with your ship if nothing changes.
I had heard that Vietnamese
fishing boats like to cross the bow of a large ship.
It has something to do with passing their bad
luck onto the ship they run ahead of. I
was fully alarmed. Surely these small
fishing boats ……. all of them, couldn’t’ be trying that “crossing the
routine on us. There had to be forty
fishing boats out there.
If we were going to call the
captain, that was the time to do it. If
either one of had been senior, we would have called him out of the
movie. As it was, we talked each other out
it. Surely we were mistaken.
The boats were so small they didn’t show up
on radar. We didn’t know exactly how far
away they were.
For a while it looked like
we were gaining on them. Our relief was
short lived. On checking again, the
bearing was drawing to the left. Oh,
oh. That meant they would cross our
bows. By that time it was too late to
call the captain without getting our butts chewed out for waiting so
It was a race. We
said our prayers and hoped to beat the
fishing boats and prevent them from crossing our bows.
What we really dreaded was having one or more
of them going under our bow and being driven under by our massive size. We were also looking aft towards the after
deckhouse. “Please Lord, don’t let the
captain step outside for a smoke.”
I don’t know what
happened. Perhaps they were concerned
about using up too much fuel or they weren’t sure about their ability
to get to
us in time. Either way, they stopped
to reach us and cross our bow. It was
also fortunate that the captain stayed inside during the whole episode.
On another night, I was on
the port (left) wing of the bridge and suddenly, I saw a light. I am not supposed to see any lights before
the lookout reports it. It was a very
weak light, only a few hundred yards to the left of the ship, just
us. I could not make out anything in the
water with my binoculars except that faint light. As
we passed abeam of the light, it
disappeared. Now what could that be, I
thought. I picked up a sound powered
phone and had a talk with the lookouts about being more attentive to
duties. Apparently I was talking to deaf
An hour or so later I saw
another light off to the side, a few hundred yards away.
This time I ran to the other side of the
bridge and checked the area out there with my binoculars.
Sure enough there was another faint light.
Again as I watched as the light
disappeared. Then it dawned on me. The lights were on floats that marked the
ends of fishing nets. We were cruising
along plowing up fishing nets. Those
darned lookouts. There was worse to
I walked out on the
starboard wing of the bridge. The
starboard lookout was on the deck above me. I
just happened to look down. What I saw
startled me. There,
just below the bridge, about 15 feet out from the side of the ship was
fishing boat, a small one, too small for our radar to pick up. It was anchored. We
had missed it by only a dozen feet. A
fisherman in the stern was looking up at
me. There was a light on the boat. It was so dim that a lit cigarette would have
seemed like a spotlight in comparison. I
was shaken, to say the least.
I started to think of all
the nights we had been cruising up and down the coast in the past few
months. Our lookouts only seemed to see
large objects or those well lighted. How
could they have missed the lights on the fishing nets?
How could they have missed the light on the
boat we just passed? Then I started
wondering how many fishing boats we might have run over at night. With our size and mass, we wouldn’t even
notice running over one of these small boats. It
would be just a bump in the night.