Swim Call

          In the olden, golden days of sail, it was a brave man who went to sea.  In addition to a fear of sea serpents there was a very real danger of drowning.  You see, up until the last hundred years or so, sailors generally did not know how to swim.  If his ship were sunk in a battle, or by a storm, the sailor’s only hope was to hang onto a spar or cask.  Then he had to hope that another ship would pick him up.  History is filled with the names of ships which disappeared without a trace, taking their crews with them. 

All modern Navy men know how to swim.  Some better than others.  For quite a few men, the act of jumping from a tower into a swimming pool at Boot Camp was memorable.  To those sailors stationed on ships in such home ports as Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, swimming became one of the favorite pastimes. 

In 1972, my ship, USS Kawishiwi,  was sailing across the Pacific Ocean from Pearl Harbor to the South China Sea.  We were destined to spend, what we thought, was a six month cruise off the coast of Vietnam.  We weren’t to know until later that the cruise was going to be extended to eight long months. 

She was a big ship, 37,000 tons or so.  She was 650 feet long and it took 40 feet of water to float her.  She also carried about eight million gallons of fuel for cargo and ship’s use.  The fuel was transferred to other ships by seven inch hoses that were passed over to other ships.  We knew that our routine would be to have a ship or ships come out to where we waited offshore every few days and fuel up from us.  When that happened we would be extremely busy.  There would also be an occasional aircraft carrier and her destroyer escorts to refuel, which would take hours to “gas up.” 

We were steaming to the west, all by ourselves in that vast ocean.  A couple of the senior enlisted men, chief petty officers in fact, came to me and said that the crew was wondering if we would be able to stop and have swim call on some of those days when we were not busy and would just be steaming back and forth.  There isn’t much recreation aboard a ship at sea.  You go to work.  You eat.  You go back to your bunk.  That is all there is.  Swim call sounded like a good idea so I went to the Executive Officer, the “XO.” 

I found the XO on the bridge talking to the captain, who was in his chair observing the crew on watch handle the ship.  I motioned to him that I wanted to talk.  The XO, second in command, is the one who is in charge of “personnel” matters regarding the crew.  While the captain has overall responsibility for the ship, the XO handles the internal goings on within the ship, the day to day routine. 

I told the XO about the crew’s concern about swim call once we were at our station off the coast of Vietnam.  He gave me a sly smile and told me that there was a ship’s instruction on swim call and that I should read it.  

You would think that a naval officer would know all the ship’s instructions.  Let me tell you that the binder that holds all those instructions weighs a ton.  Keeping up with all those instructions is a chore.  More than a few of them always needed reviewing and changing.  There is an instruction for just about everything.  Some years later, when I was a Lieutenant Commander, I was aboard a new LST (Landing Ship Tank) USS Dubuque out of San Diego.  I spent much of those two weeks updating the ship’s instructions.  All my previous experience dates back to the swim call incident.  I shouldn’t have been surprised that swim call was one of the hundreds that made up that binder which governs much that goes on in a ship.  What did surprise me was the extent of the instruction. 

I had been expecting a couple of pages of instructions.  What I found was several pages.  I couldn’t believe all the assignments given to men beyond what was needed for the regular watch that would be on duty.  There was a boat crew, extra lookouts, rifle marksmen in case of sharks, men to man the boarding net, and many others that I thought questionable.  By the time you manned all these stations, most of the 300 crew would be left out of swim call. 

I went back to the XO and asked about the extensive instruction on swim call.  At first he frowned as he thought about whether or not to explain it to me.  He finally gave me another one of those sly smiles, then told the story. 

It seems the subject of swim call had arisen the last time the ship made a deployment to the sunny climes of the South China Seas.  This was before the instruction was written.  In fact, it caused the instruction to be written.  The captain had given the ok for the swim call on a day when there were no operations pending.  What happened next was a skipper’s nightmare.  I guess you could blame it on the wood chips. 

Let me explain here about wood chips aboard a Navy ship.  When a ship is pulling up to a pier, the captain can gauge the ship’s speed and whether or not she is stopped by looking at the pier.  When you are at sea all you have is the waves moving by, and that is not a good judge of motion to go by.  At sea, or in a harbor, when you want to anchor a ship, you want the ship to not only be stopped, but to actually be backing down.  This is to set the anchor properly.  If you drop the anchor while going ahead, the chances are that you will not only not get the anchor to set properly, but the ship will run over the anchor chain and scrape all that nice gray paint from the bow. I know of one experience when this situation got out of hand. 

I am going to stop my story long enough to relate another story.  A friend told me that his ship, a lean, mean destroyer, was about to enter the harbor at Guam.  The entrance is a bit tricky so you have to be going fast enough to overcome the currents at the entrance to the harbor.  As always, when entering harbor, the Special Sea and Anchor Detail was set.  That is, the deck crew was on the bow, or forecastle, getting the anchor ready.  In case of an emergency, such as losing ship’s power, and before you let the ship hit another ship, or pier, or go aground, or go on the rocks, you can let the anchor go and stop the ship.  Of course the Special Sea and Anchor Detail is not supposed to cause the emergency. 

Communications between the bridge where the ship is controlled and the forecastle where the anchor detail is assigned is a sound powered phone.  A man on the bridge has a headset with a plate on his chest held by a strap around his neck.  On the plate is a microphone that sticks up right in front of his mouth.  Kind of like an old style switchboard operator.  You push a button on the microphone to talk. 

On this day, steaming towards the opening in the surf that led to the harbor, the captain looked down at the crew on the forecastle.  The port anchor (on the left) was the one they were going to use.  The phone talker, dressed in whites, was on the starboard side facing the anchor chain.  Forward of him, closer to the bow, were two chief petty officers dressed in khaki talking to each other.  Near them were two other petty officers dressed in whites.  In the middle of the forecastle was a seaman dressed in dungarees and wearing a white hat.  He was standing between the two anchor chains, facing to port, with his back to the phone talker and the chiefs.  He was looking down at the stopper which was holding the anchor chain on deck.  When ordered, he would knock loose the stopper and release the anchor.  He was leaning on the handle of a ten pound sledge hammer. 

The captain told the phone talker to ask the forecastle if the anchor was ready for letting go.  The phone talker said, “Bridge to forecastle, is the anchor ready for letting go?”  From his vantage point on the bridge, looking down on the forecastle ahead of them in the bows of the ship, the captain distinctly heard the phone talker, who apparently was only half paying attention, say, “Let go the anchor.” 

The ship was steaming at about eight knots.  Before the captain on the bridge, or the chief bosun on the forecastle could say a word, the seaman standing in front of the anchor chain, swung that ten pound sledge hammer and freed the stopper that was holding the chain.  The stopper flew free as a collective cry of noooooooo came from the chiefs and the captain.  As the entire anchor detail screamed at him the seaman knew, too late, that he had messed up, ……..but good. 

The anchor dropped.  It hit the water and was swept away by the motion of the ship.  The entire forecastle crew raced for the safety of the superstructure under the bridge.  An anchor chain usually goes from the chainpipe in the deck straight to the fairlead in the bow, and down to the water.  There was over six hundred feet of chain in the chain locker below their feet.  With the speed of the ship and the drag of the anchor, now below and behind the ship, the anchor chain flew up in the air in a large arc about ten feet above the deck before disappearing through the fairlead and into the water. It sounded like a monstrous buzz saw. 

............The captain yelled frantically for the ship to “stop all engines,” but it was way too late.  Even a ship the size of a destroyer has momentum and the captain was not going to be able to save the situation.  Anchor chains are painted black.  The last shot of chain is painted red.  When you see that red shot of chain you know that is all there is to let out.  In this case there was only a blur of red that flashed briefly just before the bitter end of the chain was reached.  When the end of the chain was reached the shackle it was attached to tore the eye out of the bulkhead in the chain locker.  It then blew out the chain pipe and disappeared through the fairlead in the bow of the ship, like the tail of an escaping dragon, and leaving a cloud of rust that blew back onto the ship’s bridge.  It is a miracle that no one was killed.           

Back to the wood chips and the swim call.  As I have said, this ship was big, and big means a lot of momentum.  From full speed ahead, about 18 knots (20 miles an hour), to a complete stop takes two, count them, two miles.  On the day in question the ship slowed down, all engines stopped.  The captain threw a wood chip down from high on the bridge of the ship.  He then threw another, and then another, until he was satisfied that the ship was stopped.  Then “swim call” was announced over the public address system on the ship.  The majority of the crew, happy for the break in the daily routine, dove, jumped, and belly flopped over the side.  The happiness didn’t last long, at least not for the captain. 

            A quarter of a mile later, the ship really came to a stop.  All that momentum, you see.  The majority of the crew were treading water a quarter of a mile astern of the ship.  The captain was frantic.  The ship had to get underway and go get the crew.            

............Remember all that momentum.  The ship had to get steam back up to get moving.  Not something that can be done quickly on a ship that big.  Then there is the problem of maneuverability.  That ship, when going slowly, has all the maneuverability of an office building laid on its side.  It took about an hour to get the ship underway, make a large circling turn, maneuver back to where the crew was, and pick them all up.  Evidently the sharks were snoozing while this was going on.  The lengthy instruction on swim call was written shortly afterwards.           

............I went back to the ship’s office, made a copy of the swim call instruction, and went looking for the chiefs who originally came to me with the idea.  I explained the problem to them without going into the story as related to me by the XO.  It had happened before any of them had come to the ship.  After a few weeks, we were on station in the South China Sea.  There was some murmuring going on amongst the crew about swim call again.  The murmurings were about to come to a screeching halt.           

............I was officer of the deck one day on the bridge.  We were steaming south, parallel to the Vietnam coast.  I was standing out on the port wing of the bridge where I could see all down the port side, and ahead.  One of the lookouts said there was an object in the water ahead, on the port side.  There were a couple of the chief petty officers on the bridge at the time and they came over to stand where they could look over the front windbreak of the bridge.          

Nobody said a word as we stared down at the object that passed close down the port side.  There, lazily sunning itself on the surface of the calm sea, was a sea snake, a poisonous sea snake.  After that, I never heard another peep from the crew about swim call.  You see, sailors still have a fear of sea serpents.

Tom Sparkman
September 6, 2002