Wednesday, October 7, 2009

First time at sea...

The Summer Olympics of 1976 ended and HMCS Fraser was set to sail back to her home port in Halifax, NS. I was both excited and nervous. Yes, I had been on ferries before and things of the like, but actually going to sea? Not so much... It was the 4th of August or thereabouts, when we sailed from Montreal. It would take us 3 days to sail back to Halifax. The watch system at the time was 1 in 4. Meaning that you stood watch every 4th one. The watches were divided as follows:

- Morning Watch: 0400-0800

- Forenoon Watch: 0800-1200

- Afternoon Watch: 1200-1600

- First Dog Watch: 1600-1800

- Last Dog Watch: 1800-2000

- First Watch: 2000-0000

- Middle Watch: 0000-0400

So as you can see, if you stood the afternoon watch, your next watch would be the Mids (Middle Watch). If you had the Last Dogs, you would have all night in your bunk. (Or "all-nighters-in", as we used to call it.) For special evolutions such as entering or leaving harbour, refuelling at sea, navigating restricted waters, or during operational deployments (whether exercise or war footing) the ship goes into a two watch rotation. Port and Starboard. When we left harbour, the Starboard Watch was closed up in the Operations Room. I was on the Port Watch and as such I was assigned with the Part Ship hands. Our job during this evolution was to handle the lines on the top part of ship, as we slipped and proceded to sea.

Once the lines were all stowed into the appropriate cable lockers, the sea boats were hoisted and into the gripes, with the boat lines properly coiled down on deck, we were free to remain on the upper decks and take in the scenery as we headed towards Qu├ębec City and the estuary. There was little motion as we made our way downstream and I revelled in the fresh air. I was in heaven. Had they not taught us from day one that: "A sailor's place is on a ship and a ship's place is at sea... and land is a navigational obstacle to be avoided at all costs!"

I visited the ship's canteen at the very first chance I had. I purchased 4 ship's t-shirts, which were emblazoned with Fraser's likeness. These we wore as part of our 'night clothing'. Which meant we were entitled to wear these in the Ops room while on watch, along with our work pants and jacket. I had also sewn on both ships' crests to my work jackets, to make it official. I belonged to the Fraser. I was a part of a ship's crew and I had never felt prouder. I also carried a Zippo lighter with the Fraser's crest on it. Zippos are amongst the most iconic pieces of military kit ever issued and I treasured mine.

Port watch had the afternoon watch. As I recall, I was closed up on the AN/SPA-4 radar display on then port side. I was ranged out to 10 nautical miles on the SPS-10 surface search radar, with the control order to continuously report all contacts to the ARL table. My seat was a regular-sized, free-standing stool. The radar display itself had handles built into the frame, so I did have something to hold onto, should it get rough out. The ARL plotting table was manned by a plotter and a the Surface Track Supervisor (Track Sup). It had an illuminated graticule which projected a 'spider web' on the glass plotting surface above. This was divided into 360 degrees and was also divided into range rings at a scale of 2nm: 1".

This graticule travelled on a mechanized carriage. This carriage was fed the ship's course and speed coordinates via the ship's gyro and speed log system. The plotter would plot the position of the reported track, initially with a 4-figure time and subsequently with a 2-figure time for every other report. Onboard a ship or military unit, everything operates on Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), which is referred to as 'Zulu' time. This is universal in it's application. From contact reports to messages, to voice transmissions, everything is in Zulu time. The Track Supervisor would filter the track, using a parallel ruler and a speed/time/distance ruler, calculate course, speed and CPA (Closest Point of Approach) and report these findings to the OOW (Officer of the Watch) on the bridge. A standard report would sound something like this:

- "Bridge... Ops".

- "Bridge...".

- "Roger, Sir... New contact... Skunk 'Alfa'... bearing 050... 5.6 nautical miles, over?"

- "Bridge, Roger... report Skunk 'A'...".

- "Bridge, Ops... Roger... Report Skunk 'A' ".

The pro-word 'Report' means to continue tracking the contact and to report back in 3 minutes with a rough course and speed. The Ops Room would then report again in 6 minutes, with a course, speed and rough CPA for the same contact.

- "Bridge...Ops".

- "Bridge...".

- "Roger, Sir... Skunk 'A'... now bearing 050... range 5 nautical miles. Appears to be parallelling our course of 070... speed 8 knots. We are slowly overtaking, Sir. CPA will be on our port beam at 2.5 nautical miles in 25 minutes. "

- "Roger, Ops... Keep an eye on him and advise when he's at CPA".

- "Ops, Roger... Report Skunk 'A' at CPA".

I was totally engrossed at my post. We weren't at the Ops Trainer back in Fleet School Halifax, anymore. This was the real deal. I was responsible for the safety of everyone onboard, and for the ship itself. I would attempt to fine tune my display as best I could, turning down everything, bringing the sweep up until I could just barely discern it, then increasing the video, so that every contact, no matter how minuscule, showed up sharp and crisp against the dark, fathomless background of the CRT tube. At the flick of a switch, I could select either our SPS-10 Surface Search Radar, our SPS-12 Air Search Radar or our Sperry Mk.II 'I'-Band Navigation Radar. I would also be standing the mids that night. I could feel the motion of the ship changing as we hit the wider section of the estuary. We were nearing the Gulf of St.Lawrence. Big water. Beyond that, the open sea. I still felt pretty good, although my appetite was off.

I scanned my display in a clockwise direction, reporting every contact I saw. I was still honing my skills at recognizing static objects, from moving ones. I found I was gaining experience with every report. By the time I had secured from my first watch, I felt I had done well. A feeling which was confirmed by my SHW (Senior Hand of the Watch). I was next on watch at midnight, but I couldn't get myself to sleep. I spent most of my time on the upper decks, taking in the view as we sailed along. I tried my hand at eating supper, but my stomach was not up to the game. I should have known better, but this is how we learn.

Sunset occured and the pipe was made throughout the ship: "Darken ship... darken ship". Then shortly afterwards: "Hands to clean into night clothing". Upon the pipe of 'darken ship', all white lighting in passageways and on the upper decks is extinguished. Red lighting is then used throughout the ship, as this will not obliterate a person's night vision, as they make their way to stand their watch either on the bridge or on the upper decks. At about 2200hrs, I was starting to feel weary and decided I might lie down in my bunk for a spell, before going on watch. A sailor's bunk is called his cart, his rack, his pit... everything but a bed, I reckon. It is his best friend at sea and certainly, as I was to find out, in foreign ports. It was certainly very comfortable and the overhead ventilation provided a wonderful cooling breeze throughout the Mess. The bow was gently rising and falling as we headed into the gathering swell. Within minutes, I was rocked to sleep by the 'motion of the ocean'.

At 2300hrs I was awoken by a member of the on watch crew. He had been sent down to shake the watch, making sure we were all awake and getting ready to relieve them. When you are relieving a watch at sea, you don't want to get there spot on the hour. It's disrespectful and it takes you a little while to get a proper turnover from the person you are relieving. Showing up in the Ops Room 15 to 20 minutes ahead of time, ensures a proper turnaround time and allows your opposite number to go get his head down a little earlier. A favor he will return, when it comes time to relieving you...

I grabbed a coffee in the cafeteria before closing up in the Ops Room. I was groggy from lack of sleep and I could feel we were moving a lot more than I remembered. I was discovering that the higher up you went inside the ship, the more you felt the motion of the ship as it made it's way through the seas. We were well beyond the Gulf now and in open waters. The winds had shifted and were building the seas. Nothing terrifying, mind you, but enough to make me feel the beginnings of a long, long watch. We could feel the ship rise, then poise herself on the top of the swell, before dropping down the other side. The bow would hit the wall of the next swell, abruptly stopping the fall. The ship would shudder as it shook it's bow free from the tons of water which had crashed over it, then slowly begin it's rise again.

I was not feeling well at all, but I was bound and determined to stand my watch. I couldn't have anyone picking up the slack for me. What kind of sailor would I be, if I couldn't overcome my work milieu? What good would I be to anyone? No... I couldn't have that. I tried deep breathing, focusing on my radar display screen, even lighting up a smoke to have along with my coffee. Nothing seemed to be working for me. It actually felt like I was drunk. At about 0130hrs, I asked the Senior Hand of the Watch if I could make a trip to the head (bathroom). I didn't think I could contain myself any longer.

Mercifully, he said I could go, but to bring back a 'NATO-standard coffee' (cream and sugar) for him on my way back up. "And don't be long!", he cautioned me. I left by going forward, passing through the bridge and launching myself down the hatch that would lead me to the sea heads. This was simply a urinal, which was at the foot of the ladder leading from the bridge. I peered inside and thought better of it. I had to make it one deck lower and forward to the MS & Below's heads and washplace. I had yet to become proficient in taking ladders like a seasoned matelot, which consisted of grabbing both rails, lifting your feet and sliding all the way down in one, fluid motion. I finally made it to the bottom, stopping twice to dry-heave and ran as best I could to the sanctuary of the heads.

I found an empty stall and fell to my knees. I was even further forward than I had been in the Ops Room. In fact the forward heads, were right outside No. 2 Mess, just below No. 1 Mess. As I knelt there, the nausea hit me in waves. Problem is though, I hadn't had the foresight to eat. There wasn't a lot down there to come up in the first place, so I spent some hard time in front of the Porcelain Princess, talking to "Beuuuuuuu-lagghhh!!". In the midst of all this, my Divisional PO, Petty Officer 1st Class 'Pappy' Mills, came down to check up on me. The conversation, as I recall, went something like this:

"How you doin' in there, Prudhomme...?"

"Uuuunnnhhhh... Not so good, PO...".

"Seasick, huh?"

"Yes, PO... I believe so...".

"You think you'll be able to stand your watch, or should I get someone from the off-watch?"

"No... no. I'll be okay, PO... I don't need no one to stand my watch!"

"Well... Hey, Prudhomme....?"

"Uuunnhhh... Yes, PO...?"

"If you feel something round and furry in your mouth... hang onto it. It's probably your asshole...".

Up until that moment, if you had asked me if it were physically possible to blow chunks and laugh at the same time, I would have told you that it was impossible. Thanks to 'Pappy', I discovered otherwise. There is no sympathy in the military. There is simply no room for it. As I was told many times, the only place you'll find sympathy, is in the dictionary between 'shit' and 'syphilis'. After I regained my composure and cleaned up a little, I swung by the cafeteria to fetch a coffee for my senior hand. One of the cooks took a look at me and said: "Here, take a few packets of these crackers. They'll soak up your stomach acids and keep you from feeling so bad". I thanked him profusely and loaded up on crackers.

I arrived back in the Ops Room, delivered the coffee and resumed my post at the radar display. "You were gone quite awhile there, Prudhomme. You okay...?"

"Yeah, I'm fine now, thanks. I'll be okay for the rest of the watch, I'm pretty sure".

"That's good to hear... we need people that we can rely on. Lemme know if ya have to go to the heads again".

Well, there were a few other close calls that evening, but I stood my watch alright. It was to be my one and only brush with seasickness and I decided right there and then that I didn't like it. I would make sure I ate whenever we sailed, whether I felt like it or not. And I would work on developing my sea legs. It was an interesting start to my career and I learned much that evening. I knew I was surrounded by people who would become my family, who were tops at what they did, who had a sense of humour and who recognized when someone was doing their best and meeting the standard.

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