Monday, May 11, 2009

Last watch

Last week I stood my last watch in the Navy. To celebrate, I'm reminiscing over the most memorable watches I've stood in the Navy. I'm going to serialize this over five posts.

1) Toulon, France. I was exhausted from bringing stores and mail on board all day long and then I stood Officer of the Deck from 2200-0300, the worst watch. Very quickly I learned that it didn't matter whether you were liked by the watchbill coordinator--there were so many crummy watches and so few watchstanders that you got plenty of garbage no matter how much you kissed up. So, it was the middle of the night and, as usual, I was smokin' and jokin' with the rest of my watch team on the midships quarterdeck. Most of the crew had already returned from liberty, stinking drunk and stupid. Every time we hit port there was a predictable deevolution, but this night was special because there was a Russian corvette on the next pier that invited some of our wardroom over for drinks. They came back like fifth year seniors after prom. I was retelling lies with someone that should have been doing something else when my pier rover shouted "fire." I had my petty officer of the watch sound the alarm, which is an actual brass bell next to a microphone and a script printed on the wall.

The fire was actually on the yokohama, the massive rubber fenders between the ship and the pier. Before our last deployment, our ship had undergone an extensive overhaul in the shipyards and one of the modifications had been to shift the exhaust vent from the #3 generator from a vertical stack to a side vent. Not realizing this, the Officer of the Deck and harbor pilot during our mooring had positioned the fender directly covering this exhaust vent. During the night, our engineers switched to our #3 generator and set about superheating the yokohama.

The location of the fire is important because we have multiple fire lockers on board and our fire teams need to know where to report. The script on the wall is basically like a mad libs page and trying to put a noun in the verb spot in the middle of the night during a fire gets confusing. I coached my petty officer of the watch through it at the top of my lungs and ran out to the starboard deck, which faced the pier. The fire was massive; the flames were easily to the height of our top decks. The entire fender was ablaze. At the time, though, we didn't know it was the fender--it looked like it was coming from a low point on the ship.

You can imagine how quickly watch teams, even with good training, respond to confusing fire alarms in the middle of the night. So I had my watchstanders set down their weapons and pick up hoses. I brought out my internal and both my top-side rovers and put them on the starboard hose. Before anyone else got up there, we already had the hose charged and the stream on the fire and were well beating it back. We still had no idea of the source of the fire, but Engineering, learning of the location, as a precaution, shut down that aft generator. With the exhaust stopped, the fire went out quickly and the rest of my watch went by in a flash.

Of course, whenever there's excitement on a watch, it's complicated even more by me trying to hide all my food and books so that in case there is an investigation, I don't look like some daydreaming johnny. I shouldn't have bothered, though, because anyone who outranked me was, at that moment, probably dreaming their fingers were bananas.

We kept the water on the fender a while longer and amazingly it still worked fine. As soon as the skin of the ship had cooled down, we had boatswains mates out on the pier and in their little painting skiff covering up the burn scars. By the time the sun was up you couldn't even notice it--the French and the Russians would never have to know. We conducted our internal sweeps and found no real damage to the ship. By the time we turned over to the next duty section, it really was as if nothing had happened. It was just another anecdote for that night's 2200-0300 watch team.