Water Hours

                 The availability of fresh water on Navy ships varies.  On today’s newer, bigger ships, water is probably not the issue it was when I was on active duty. 

                My first ship was a barracks ship in the Mekong Delta.  It was designed to house a lot of men.  In addition to about 300 of its crew, there were about a hundred or so boat crewmen, and a combined Army and Navy staff.  The bulk of the men aboard were Army troops, about six or seven hundred of them.  The breakdown isn’t important, but the total number of about eleven hundred is.  That is a lot of men.               

               The ship was designed to provide water for these men.  The Army troops were slogging around in the mud of the delta all day and some of the night.  We had fresh water for their showers when they returned from a patrol or operation.  The ship’s crew would go below to the troop quarters late at night after they had finished showering and find all the showers running.  The troops had not even bothered to turn the water off after they were finished. 

                Water was not a problem.  The ship made plenty of water.  It had boilers that distilled the polluted waters of the Mekong River.  I can’t tell you what that arrangement was because I hardly ever visited the engineering spaces below.  It was too darned hot down there. 

                  One space I did visit was the radio room just above the engineering area.  Back in those days the radios were huge things, floor to ceiling.  They put out a lot of heat.  It was hot in there, about 130 degrees or so.  They always had a “red devil” blower going in there.  A red devil blower is a fire fighting, high volume fan with twelve-inch collapsible hoses that could fit on both ends.  In this case they were sucking out that 130 degree air and blowing it down the passageway and then down a hatch to cool the engineering spaces.  So much for visiting the engine rooms. 

                  While we had plenty of water, the one thing we didn’t have was hot water.  Since we were in the tropics the cold water wasn’t frigid or anywhere near that, but shaving every day for a year in cold water was not fun. 

                My second ship was a small minesweeper, the size of a large yacht.  Funny, I don’t remember fresh water being an issue.  You think it would have been, what with its small size and limited spaces.  We weren’t at sea for any length of time so we must have carried our water and filled up when we got back. 

                  I spent two weeks on a destroyer.  Destroyers are the lean, mean, fighting machines that I described elsewhere.  Back in my active duty days, destroyers had a reputation for being short on water.  The ship is all propulsion, four boilers, and two turbine engines. All the fresh water was distilled from seawater.  There wasn’t much room for frills like a large fresh water distilling plant. For that reason the “destroyer shower” was invented. 

                  With a destroyer always short on fresh water, the crew would step into a shower, turn it one for a few seconds to wet themselves down, turn the water off, then lather up with soap.  Then the water would be turned on just long enough to rinse off the soap. 

                  I can’t tell you much about a destroyer’s water making capabilities because, again, I spent as little time down there in the boiler rooms as I could get away with.  I went down to spend part of a watch in front of the boilers and I thought I would pass out.  Standing in front of the boiler there is about a four-inch pipe above your head that blows fresh air on the person standing watch there.  Not my idea of a place to spend much time. 

                  My last ship was a big one, an oiler, the USS Kawishiwi.  She was 655 feet long and you needed 40 feet of water to float her.  While the biggest part of the ship was designed to carry fuel for other ships, the engineering spaces are very large.  From the keel, 40 feet below the waterline to the bottom of the smokestack had to have been about 80 or 90 feet, about seven stories. 

                  The two boilers were huge.  If you walked in the hatch up there below the smokestack, you couldn’t see very far.  The boilers took up a lot of space.  There were very few places in the boiler room where you could see more than a few feet.  The heat was oppressive. 

                  While I did spend more time in the engineering spaces of the oiler it wasn’t by choice.  Every day in port, after normal working hours I alternated with four others being the Command Duty Officer.  I had to make a tour of the ship each night and that included the engineering spaces.  Of course, in port, everything was shut down because we were on shore power. 

                  At sea, for quite a while, as the off-going Officer of the Deck, I had to take a complete tour of the ship.  This would take about 45 minutes or so.  I would always make the boiler room the last stop, for a good reason.  Walking in the hatch at the top of the boiler room was like walking into an oven.  The heat just seemed to consume you.  It sapped all the energy out of you. 

                  All the ladders aboard ship are really steep steps.  They were steep enough so that you had to use the hand rails.  The hand rails were steel and they were hot, too hot to hang onto.  I had to use the flat of my hands and pull myself up the ladders.  That was an area I did not care to work in.  The lighting down there was dim as it was.  If you go deep enough in the boiler room, all the way to the bilges above the keel, you can see the huge shafts turning and see where they disappear through the hull of the ship to where the propellers are. 

                  When I came out the hatch on the port side of the ship it was into the berthing area of one of the engineering divisions.  It was a shock as that cool air hit my lungs.  It was like my lungs had been dowsed with ice water.  I went through this routine twice a day for months. 

                  The ship’s captain finally made a change.  Instead of the Officer of the Deck getting relieved and going on the inspection tour, he could send his Junior Officer of the Deck around 45 minutes before the shift got relieved.  Boy, I was never so glad to hear anything in all my life. 

                  These are my excuses for not knowing what was going on in engineering.  I don’t know what the excuses were for those who were involved in what happened next. 

                  February of 1972 saw us headed for the South China Seas.  It was going to be a long cruise.  Not too long out of port, the news from the chief engineer did not cheer us.  He said that there was a problem with the fresh water distilling unit.  It just wasn’t putting out what it should.  For that reason the ship was put on water hours. 

                  We could drink all the water we wanted.  We just couldn’t take a shower when we wanted to and we had to use the water sparingly.  The ship’s crew could only shower for an hour in the evening.  Everyone was to take a “destroyer shower” to help conserve water. 

                Water hours wasn’t a critical issue and we learned to live with it.  The fresh water situation wasn’t even the topic of conversations.  The resolution, however did come as a surprise. 

               I don’t know how many sailors work in the boiler room.  There are two or three officers who are there on a regular basis.  How the situation could have lasted as long as it did was a mystery that no one had an answer to.  It was a source of embarrassment to the engineering department.  Somebody, down in the boiler room depths eventually found a virtual “Niagara Falls” of fresh water pouring from a ruptured pipe.  The ship was making plenty of water all this time.  It was just going to the bilges and then being pumped over the side by the bilge pumps.

 Tom Sparkman   September 12, 2002