We do need to talk about black balls — don’t worry guys, not that kind! This is a “sea story” and like sea shanties, such stories are often full of fantasy … but this one is true.
The setting is 1968, sometime roughly around the time of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, and we’re on Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin. Yankee Station is merely a dot on a chart in the Gulf, some 35 miles in diameter and marked into three equal pie-shaped operating areas for aircraft carriers. We’re aboard the Super Carrier, U.S.S. Kitty Hawk — the last of the conventionally powered carriers, and which was decommissioned in 2008 after 49 years of service. (details on the ‘Hawk here)
It’s a sunny afternoon with a totally clear, deep blue sky. Many of the days here are like that. The Captain is not on the bridge so as the Officer of the Deck I have full tactical command of the ship. To understand the full import of this story you need to know something about the ‘Hawk. While some of the published statistics vary, here is what I remember 41 years later.
She’s 1,085 feet long and almost 200 feet wide at the beam. In full battle dress — that’s with all hands (about 5,000) aboard, around 100 airplanes, 3,000,000 gallons of Navy special fuel oil (remember, not nuclear powered), ammunition and stores, etc — she displaces nearly 90,000,000 tons. She draws 36 feet of water and is propelled by four propellers, each 35 feet in diameter. The tactical turning diameter is about 2,000 yards. Maneuvering this behemoth can be “interesting.”
As I take over the deck watch I note that we are not scheduled for aircraft operations and are simply steaming about (i.e. cruising) at 10 knots while remaining in our assigned “pie” share of Yankee Station. Engineering is already blowing tubes on a couple of the eight boilers — that’s essentially sweeping the chimney by blasting steam up the stacks to break loose the accumulated soot. So we are not on full power. Each of the four “screws” is powered by what’s termed a “main machinery room” in each of which are two oil-fired boilers producing steam to drive a steam turbine which turns the propeller shaft.
Now engineering needs to do some other maintenance and requests permission to take down additional boilers, promising this will take just a few minutes. No problem, permission granted. I’m now informed by my Junior Officer of the Deck (“JOOD”) that he has a surface contact on the radar; and now the signals bridge is telling me they have spotted the Missouri with the “big eyes.” Those are binoculars that are about three feet long on a huge tripod — and you can see a long way.
Now this is important. First of all I’m told that the Missouri is headed generally our direction. Further, while we have an embarked Flag, a 3-star admiral, Commander Attack Carrier Air Wing Seventh Fleet, Missouri carries HIS boss — Commander 7th Fleet. Look sharp now, I think. Wonder where’s the Captain ….
Now it starts. The 1MC sound-powered intercom crackles to life
Engineering: “Bridge – Engineering, we’re losing steam in main machinery room number 3”
Me: “Bridge Aye, keep me informed”
JOOD: “Sir, the radar is down … and so is the radiotelephone”
Engineering: “Bridge – Engineering, we’ve lost the generators, will keep you informed”
That terse message comes over the sound-powered intercom system — good thing, since we have no electricity. Then I’m hearing what no OOD ever wants to hear:
Helmsman (that’s the very skilled sailor who turns the “wheel”): “Sir, I’ve lost command of my rudder.”
The phrase rattles around in my head. What does that mean? I’ve “lost command” of my rudder. Oh, crap! We can’t steer.
“Man after-steering” I say, finally converting my senses into action. After-steering is usually a very lonely position because that sailor just sits way back in a corner at the stern of the ship where, in an emergency, the rudders can be turned by a hand-operated hydraulic pump … albeit very, very slowly! Weeks and months go by with absolutely nothing to do. But there’s a reason he is there and boy am I glad!
Oh my. The Missouri is still out there — even closer now — and where IS the Captain? We can’t radio her, no power. We can’t sending flashing light signals, no power. We have minimal propulsion and can scarcely turn the rudders. Panic. LTjg Jones, who is considering a career in the Navy, is seeing that possibility slip away. “Quartermaster, keep looking for the Captain.”
To be an underway OOD in the Navy you go to a very intensive school and there, among all of the other information crammed into your head is a firm understanding of the International Rules of the Road for ships at sea. All ships understand and follow these rules, even Super Carriers of the United States Navy, no matter how embarrassing compliance might seem.
Me: “Signals – Bridge, hoist the signal for not under command”
Signals: “Sigs aye”
Damn, this is bad, where IS the Captain? Now how close is Missouri?
Signals: “Bridge – Sigs, the signal is hoisted”
Me: “Bridge aye”
I’m thinking of what else needs to be done. Status report from Engineering. Life is going by ever so slowly with every thought and motion measured, deliberate, mentally rehearsed. It seems as if hours have gone by but in reality it’s been about a minute and I’m hearing a sound like “flip-flop, flip-flop, flip-flop.” What the hell is going wrong now?
Quartermaster: “Captain’s on the bridge”
Relieved to be able to now report these recent events, I turn to greet the Captain and there he is, resplendent in his finest …
… bathing suit and flip-flops. He’s been on the signal bridge, the one place nobody looked, sun-bathing. I now learn that he was lying on his back enjoying the warm, sunny afternoon, lazily gazing up toward the yard-arm … the very yard-arm upon which that “Not Under Command” signal had only moments before been hoisted.
Two giant black balls.
Even before I can explain the full situation Engineering informs me that they are getting steam back up, the helmsman reports he has command of his rudder again and I secure after-steering. Signals is already communicating by flashing light with the Missouri doing the obligatory exchange required as two Naval vessels get in range — exchanging lists of movies for trade! Soon Air-ops is asking permission to launch a helo … you guessed it … to do the movie exchange.
The Missouri apparently has not noticed our signal, we can steer again, and we have fresh movies. The Captain commends me on my handling of the situation. All’s well that ends well.