The Stuffing Tube
…. and what memories it brings up..........See Photo at Kona
I went fishing with my friend Alfred for the first time a couple of years ago.  It was December.  The weather was nice, but the water was pretty cold, at least for the Gulf of Mexico.

When people get careless on the water on our part of the Gulf coast there is usually trouble, and lots of it.  Most of them are not prepared to end up in the water.  I don’t care if it is the Gulf of Mexico, 60 degree water can be fatal if you are dumped in it for several hours.

As we cruised out to the fishing area Alfred likes to work, about 30 miles out, I looked over his electronics.  I noticed that the depth / fish finder had the water temperature.  It was around 60 degrees.  I was not reassured with that figure, but what the heck, we were on a 25 foot Chris Craft, which is a pretty big boat for around here.

After fishing all day we were headed back in, trying to beat the sun going down.  I don’t like to go into any of these local harbors in the dark.  The water is very shallow and the bottom isn’t nice soft sand in many places.  It is razor sharp limestone bedrock.  Enough to tear out the bottom of your boat, or at least take off your propeller, or the bottom unit of an outdrive.

On this day the water was kind of rough.  Not huge seas, just  4 to 6 feet.  The water was shallow enough that the waves were close together.  My son Patrick had gotten sick a couple of times, but recovered quickly while we were fishing.

I was driving the boat.  A real treat for a former Officer of the Deck of a Navy Minesweeper and a large Navy Oiler.  We were still about 15 miles out when Alfred opened the engine compartment.  We were in for a surprise.  There was over 50 gallons of water in the bilges.  That is a lot of water.  Since we had trailered the boat down from home, we knew that the bilges had been dry when we started. 

The bilge pump had broken free from its mounting, so it had been useless in trying to keep the water pumped out.  I suggested that the problem might be the stuffing tube.  I don’t know what the civilian term for it is.  That is what the Navy called it.  It is where the propeller shaft from the inboard engine goes through the hull of the boat at the stern to the propeller.  The tube there is stuffed with a fiber material impregnated with a lubricant to keep the water out.

Alfred thought about it for a few seconds and then agreed that it might be worth looking into…. only we couldn’t do anything where we were.  When we finally arrived at the boat ramp, just after dark, we were a bit low in the stern.  Nothing to worry about, but still, it pays to be cautious.

A few months later we went out again.  The boat had been sitting under a large shed at Alfred’s house.  While we were several miles out, Alfred checked the bilges.  Water again.  Not a whole lot, but the pump, now secured in place, wasn’t  pumping any over the side.  We tried to check it out and realized that dirt daubers, wasps, had built nests in the bilge pump outflow.  Again, nothing we could do about it then.  At least the stuffing tube wasn’t leaking as bad as the first time we went out.

A few months after that, I read where a 35 foot cruiser, just off the coast, suddenly took on water.  They radioed for help and soon had another boat alongside to pick them up ….. just as their boat sank out from under them.  Sounded like a stuffing tube to me.

So how did I learn about stuffing tubes.  Well, back in 1972 I was assigned to a 650 foot fleet oiler out of Pearl Harbor.  A couple of months later the ship went on a dependent’s cruise to the Big Island.  Nobody there calls it Hawaii, they always refer to it as the “Big Island.” 

There are no accommodations for dependents on the ship, so it was a day-cruise.  Everyone who had family aboard had to have reservations at a hotel in Kailua Kona, on the west coast of the island.  As we approached the island from several miles out I kept looking for mountains ahead.  I thought I should have been able to see some by then.  I don’t know what made me do it, but I looked up above the clouds, and the sight surprised me.  I didn’t expect the mountains to be so high.

Since my wife (first wife) hadn’t arrived in Hawaii yet, I got assigned to Shore Patrol while the ship was in Kona for the three days.  My Fire Control Chief, Irv Carpenter, didn’t have his family along, so he was assigned with me.  The Navy put us both up in a room in one of the nice hotels on the beach and paid for our meals.  The trade off was that we would have to take care of all the crew members that ran afoul of the law.  As it turned out the Hawaiian gods were both benevolent to us and taketh away at the same time.  It seems our duties ashore were remarkably trouble free while I couldn’t say the same for my division officers back on the ship.

There isn’t a ship harbor at Kona, just a small boat harbor.  We had to anchor a mile or so offshore.  It wasn’t a protected anchorage, so we were subject to the open ocean swells.  The ship’s crew and the dependents had to be ferried back and forth with the ship’s boats.  I have to say the crew did not have much, if any experience with putting boats over the side in the open sea.  I’m not talking about the 26 foot motor whaleboat from the whelan davits, but hoisting the 50 foot utility boat and the 26 foot captain’s gig (speedboat) over the side with booms and steam deck winches.

When we first anchored, getting the boats over the side was fairly easy.  As the First Lieutenant, this was my area of responsibility.  Once ashore, and dressed in my tropical whites, I was a shore patrol officer, and my division officers had to take care of the deck details.

Kailua Kona isn’t that big of a place.  At least it wasn’t back then, 30 years ago.  The first night, and every night, Chief Carpenter and I walked from luxury hotel to luxury hotel.  We would sit down, conspicuous in our white uniforms and black “shore patrol” armbands.  We would both order a Mai Tai and sip it for a while, all the time enjoying the music or whatever the entertainment was.  I didn’t learn about Pina Coladas until 1978.  When we finished our drinks we would walk to the next hotel and repeat the process.  We would stop at every restaurant along the way and just walk through. 

I guess it looked like we were checking for trouble, but actually, we were enjoying the variety of eating places and just looking out of curiosity.  We didn’t actually get drunk.  We were just pleasantly happy.

During the day we took a tour of the island.  As the bus wound its way up the side of the island from Kona, I couldn’t help notice that we were driving on a fairly new road built on a recent lava field.  There was grass just beginning to show, like new plantings, all along that slope, for as far as you could see.  There was also not a tree insight in any direction.

A curious thing about Hawaii.  You can’t buy land, at least not on most of the islands.  The natives own the islands.  There is a trust that holds the land in their name.  You can build a half million dollar house on a lot, but you don’t own the lot.  The exception is the Big Island.  You can actually buy land there….. by the square foot.  I don’t remember how much it cost, but looking at miles and miles of new grass just peeking through that lava flow from where we were up on the mountain down to the coast, I couldn’t help but suppress a laugh. 

If you bought that land on the Big Island, what you bought was last year’s lava flow.  If you built a house on it, it was subject to next year’s lava flow, or the one twenty years from now.  What is that kind of land worth?  Probably nothing.

On the other side of the island, one road we were on ended in a still cooling lava flow that covered the road to a depth of about 4 feet.  And this was a time when the Kiluea volcano was not active.  Hmmm, made you think.  When we finally got off the bus at the Kiluea crater, I was a bit disappointed.  Kiluea is a shield volcano.  That means that it is not a high cone.  It is a “flat’ volcano, or opening on a shallow slope.

As we walked to the edge of the volcano, we had to walk on fractured lava for about 50 yards.  There was steam blowing from the fissures under our feet.  Did not give us much confidence in our safety.  One of the officers bent down and put his hand towards one of the steam vents.  He pulled it away in a hurry.  We could have cooked a meal right there on any one of a thousand vents within a hundred yards.

The wide crater itself was quiet.  There was only steam rising from the bottom.  It didn’t make for very good picture taking with all that steam.  It was still worth the time riding the bus.  I did notice that, while there are some beautiful places on the island, there were darned few trees on a larger portion of the island.  Lava flows have a tendency to inhibit the growth of trees.

The day to leave Kona came.  Chief Carpenter and I were really surprised at two things.  For one, the crew had not gotten into any trouble.   The chief and I just got pleasantly plastered each night as we wandered from hotel to hotel.  The other surprise was what had happened back at the ship.

It was reported to me at breakfast in the hotel ashore that there had been trouble aboard ship.  It seems that the security watch aboard the ship, while making his rounds in the wee hours of the morning, had gone to port quarter (left side, towards the stern) and discovered that the captain’s 26 foot speedboat was gone.  He notified the duty officer, who in turn got the chief boatswain’s mate alerted. 

The boatswain’s mate’s reaction was, “Oh no, not again.”  It seems that during the last cruise to the war zone in Vietnam, the ship had made a stop in Hong Kong.  Because the ship carried hazardous material, fuel oil, they had to anchor a few miles outside of the harbor.

During the night the security watch had noticed the captain’s gig “missing.”  When the boat crew turned out they found the bow line, the one that tied the bow of the ship to the boat boom, hanging straight down in the water.

When the boat crew climbed out to the bow line, they discovered that the boat had sunk and was hanging by that single rope.  I don’t have the details, but they managed to retrieve the boat.  They discovered that the stuffing tube had somehow failed.  In a matter of hours the boat had filled with water through the stuffing tube and had sunk.  Once back aboard ship in its cradle, the engine had to be removed and dismantled for cleaning since it had become filled with corrosive sea water.

That was the same thing that happened off the coast of Kona.  The stuffing tube had again leaked and allowed the boat to fill with water and hang suspended by the bow line.  Worse was yet to come.

When they finally got the gig raised and around to the starboard side of the ship, the crew hoisted the 26 foot boat aboard.  There was only a slight sea running, but that was too much.  The petty officer in charge of the operation did not have enough men on the steadying lines when the boat was swung aboard.

As the boat was hoisted inboard and lowered towards its cradle the ship took a slight roll.  There weren’t enough men on the line steadying the stern of the boat.  The boat swung forward, dragging the men along the deck.  The captain’s boat smashed into the kingston post and caved in about two feet of the fiberglass bow.  It then swung back as the man on the winch frantically tried to lower the boat to the cradle.  The swinging boat then crashed into the 40 foot utility boat in the cradle next to the speedboat’s cradle, causing considerable damage.  All this happened while I was ashore oblivious to what was happening a mile away.

Back in Pearl Harbor, the captain put in a request to the squadron office to have both boats repaired.  I think the damage was over $12,000.  The reply of the commodore, the captain’s boss, in not too friendly terms, was, “Fix it yourself.”  I guess that showed his opinion of our crew’s ship handling abilities.  It was months before our crew got the job done.  Fortunately we did not have any need of those boats during that time.  We still had a 50 foot utility boat and two motor whale boats.

Anyway, that is how I learned about stuffing tubes.  I don’t often get a chance to “go to sea” much anymore.  I go whenever the opportunity arises.  I just never know when something will come up that will remind me of the “good old days” at sea with the blue water Navy.Tom Sparkman


November 16, 2002


Jon Bernard comments:
And for the "small world" department, let me add this to Tom Sparkman's story. After getting orders to the
Kawishiwi, I was assigned to an LPA (amphibious attack personnel transport) for 3 months, with the intent on
rendezvousing with Kawishiwi at Hong Kong. When that occasion rolled around, the LPA anchored in Hong Kong harbor & early the next morning they delivered me by small boat my new duty assignment. We pulled up to the quarterdeck/gangway. As I ascended to the watch officer, I saluted the ensign and told them "You'd better check your small boat" which was tied up immediately aft of the gangway. I could see it hanging from a single line, bow about 10' underwater - straight down! The watch did not have a clue that the Captain's Gig was sunk. What a way for an new Ensign to be introduced to his ship! Especially so since the repair tied up the enginemen of A Division (to which I was then assigned as Division Officer) for quite a while.