Thursday, March 5, 2015

Boat Life

Life aboard an aircraft carrier can be exhilarating, while at the same time- somewhat boring and monotonous.  And there are times when it can be quite lonely, even though you're surrounded by 5000 of your closest friends.   

The first month on deployment is intense.  Everyone is full of energy and everything feels new, even though the crew just spent the last six months or so on workups.  The newness comes from the culmination of that training, and actually sailing in harms way.  You're proud to go, but you know you're leaving family behind to fend for themselves.  There's excitement, but you still feel some unease in both the mission ahead, and maybe even your ability to do that job well, at least at first. And having 6, 8, or even 10 months ahead of you can be a little depressing.

It starts with CQ- the boat sits off the coast of San Diego and the squadrons each take their turns qualifying.  It's two or three days back at the beach for some folks, while the rest of the crew has already left on deployment.  The S-3 Viking, being one of the larger aircraft, (especially with the wings spread) would often stay ashore to free up room for other jets.  The cleaner deck allows for easier movement from the landing area to the bow catapults, which are the preferred cats during CQ.  While the carrier regularly operates with 80 aircraft aboard during normal flight ops, there's only about 10-20 birds up at one time, and the pilots are only getting one trap.  CQ is a lot busier than that. Although there are fewer aircraft on deck (not everyone has qualified yet,) each pilot needs up to possibly 6 traps, depending on when they last hit the boat.

Crusaders on the Forrestal, lined up for CQ in 1961                 USN Photo

There's also a lot of crew swaps during CQ, with one jet qualifying in the day, then swapping out pilots and NFOs for others to get their quals, then repeating the drill at night.

USN Photo- PHAN Chris Molinari
The lucky ones get to swap out for the last night qual, heading back to the beach for either another night at home, or a free night off the boat that you weren't really expecting.  There is a downside to that though.  You've already said goodbye to your wife and kids, and the worried anticipation of you leaving has finally come to pass.  She's ready for you to be gone, maybe almost relieved that the deployment clock is ticking, and she almost definitely doesn't want to have to say goodbye again.  Then you call to ask her to come pick you up, probably disturbing the new normal that your family has just started to settle into.

That never happened during my first tour- either because we were in Japan and being Gaijin living out on the economy, there was always a level of isolation she faced, or because we were newlyweds and she was always glad to see me.  Or maybe I'm deluding myself.

There was one CQ fly-on when I was on the very last jet to fly out to the boat.  As we lifted off, I noticed two AV-8B Harriers in the break. The Marine Pilots were probably heading for the club to see what lonely "West-Pac Widows" they could meet that night.  Not very good OPSEC if the Marines from Iwakuni knew when our wives would be alone.

Once you're in the routine of deployment, it's like Groundhog Day- the movie, not the rodent superstition.  Although, if you don't get outside to see some sunlight daily, it feels like there's 6 more months of cruise.

There's something to that last part- I really had to see daylight so I wouldn't go stir-crazy.  When I was on the boat during my flying tours, it was almost a given that you'd get outside the skin of the ship to get some fresh air and feel some sunlight on your face- going to the roof for your flight was part of the job.  Even when the weather around the boat was lousy, there was a good chance we could punch through the layer and see some beautiful sun-filled sky above it.  It's a little hard to describe, but it was like I got a reprieve from cruise, or a couple hours of leave off the boat when I had a good flight and was able to escape either the bad weather around the boat, or the drudgery inside it.

We joke about it being like the movie Groundhog day, but no day is like any other.  The missions vary, you might sit up front for one day, then in back on the next, and the crews get changed up all the time.  It was rare to go up with the same 3 guys more than once over a 2-3 week span.  I'm sure it happened, but it wasn't so often that you noticed it.  And if it did, the NFOs might be in different seats or you'd be doing some other type of mission.  

The food?  That didn't vary much at all though.  I think the ship had about 2 weeks of menus and the rotation got very boring.  "Mystery Meat in Sauce Over Rice" seemed like the go-to meal far-too-often for the guys and gals back in the galley.  We ate pretty well though, and if we didn't like what was on the line, we could always order a grilled chicken sandwich or burger.  I know the mess decks didn't have made-to-order stuff, but I guess that's a perk of joining a wardroom (not that we had a choice). Mid-rats were outstanding on the Indy-   It wouldn't pass muster with Michelle Obama, but homemade pizza every night, or the culinary magnificence that is a One-Eyed Jack* helped make Wardroom One a very popular late-night hangout.

USS CARL VINSON CDC, with your humble scribe training a TAO.

I don't remember being much of a mid-rats devotee after my first tour.  During my DH tour on Nimitz, sleep was much desired over extra calories.  Before that on Vinson, I always had the 0700 watch in CDC- the Combat Direction Center- where I stood TAO (Tactical Actions Officer).

The Disassociated Sea Tour is a strange one- you're a qualified aviator, but you don't fit in with the Airwing guys very well.  They just see us as another "Ship Guy."  I wouldn't call it arrogance, but we just had different jobs, and mine wasn't flying.  That sea tour is definitely a ship-guy appreciation tour for an aviator, and you learn a lot.

During that tour, I had to really make an effort to get outside.  Walking through the hangar bay was sometimes as close as I could get.  FOD walk-downs were always an opportunity to see daylight however- assuming my watch schedule, and General Quarters drills, and mandatory training, and training future TAOs, and sitting on qualification boards, and Intel briefs, etc., allowed for it.

While I truly enjoyed my TAO tour on Vinson, it was easier to feel like it was groundhog day.  I wasn't flying, wasn't in a squadron with the camaraderie that goes with it, the workload was pretty intense, and the regular watch rotation was very monotonous.  When I had turned over the watch to my relief, it was just back to the stateroom since ship guys don't have a ready-room.  Sure, there's the lounge attached to Wardroom 2, but nobody used it like a squadron uses their ready room. This tour was a bit lonely too.  I had two kids by now, my son had become harder to handle for my wife, and she had to put down our dog who was her best friend before I came along.  She didn't complain, but I knew it was hard on her.  I remember standing in the hangar bay like in the picture above- just watching the ocean go by, missing my family.

The exhilarating part of boat life is obviously the flying.  While ops in the Arabian Gulf or Northern Arabian Sea can be intense and the pace is unparalleled in any other theater, the most fun I had in flight would probably be a four way tie.  There was one ASW training mission off the Northern Coast of Japan where my SENSO  picked up the scent of a submarine that no one expected to be there.  We tracked it for an hour until we were told to break contact for reasons I can't really go into other than to say the Cavalry had arrived.  Another was over Iraq during OIF when I was flying in a special surveillance version of the Viking and we watched some SOF guys do their thing.  The best sight-seeing was during an exercise on the coast of western Australia.  We were tasked to locate a gunboat that was hiding up a river so we essentially did a 2 hour low-level mission following the river's course trying to find the "enemy" boat.  The landscape in that part of Australia was lush and green and beautiful and the flight was an absolute joy.  However, you almost can't beat the opportunity for a BAGEX.  That's when the ship is just steaming (or is it Nuking?) around in circles and the Air Wing gets to just bag traps.  It's a day flight with weather that's clear and a million, no pressure, lots of gas, and you just launch, turn downwind, land, repeat- over and over and over.  The most I ever got was about 12 traps in one day, but I'd have to check my log-book.  It's like riding the best roller coaster in the world, and it's not over in 2 minutes because they just launch you again!

I did a deployment on the mighty (I tend to use "mighty" with a little tongue-in-cheek if you didn't notice) USS Pelelieu (LHA-5) towards the end of my career.  The TACRON was in charge of the air space around the ARG (Amphibious Ready Group), checking Marine helos and Harriers in and out of the area. We also wrote the airplan and the ATO inputs.  That was another interesting tour- Amphib Navy and USMC Aviation appreciation time.  We were fortunate to have a relatively modest 6 month deployment on PEL, where all other big-deck amphibs following us had cruises extended to 7-8 due to extended maintenance periods of other ships.  While the carrier is mostly limited to ports in large cities for a whole host of reasons, the Amphib Navy isn't.  On that deployment alone, we hit 13 ports.  Bahrain was 5 of those, but any day off the boat is a good one.

The Treasury in Petra Jordan during a port vision on PEL to Aqaba Jordan.

If you've followed some of my past work here on the Chant, I often post pictures of sunsets.  It's my favorite time of the day, when the defiant daytime sky glows its soft, yet fiery orange and reddish hues to express its refusal to accept the impending darkness.  I remember the first time I truly appreciated the beauty of a sunset.  It was during a FOD walk-down on Indy just before a night tanker hop.  The line of aircrew and maintainers, interspersed with a few ships company folks who stood out with their blue coveralls or long-sleeved khaki shirts, had just broken up and everyone was about to head to their jets or down below.  The Airboss came on the 5MC and instead of his usual announcement, he said something quite different.  "I want everyone to stop, turn around, and take a minute to look at that amazing sunset." We all followed his direction and stood there for a moment, looking at the horizon.

US Navy Photo

And for that brief period, I almost forgot I was on a boat, away from my wife, and surrounded by 5000 of my closest friends.  The instant was broken with his regular spiel, one that only changed with the number of aircraft...
Now is the time for all unnecessary personnel to leave the flight deck, those remaining shift into a complete flight deck uniform- Helmets on and fastened, goggles down, visors down, sleeves rolled down.  Float coats checked and fastened.  Check chocks, tie-downs, and loose gear about the deck, check for FOD about the deck.  Check to ensure jet blast does not impinge on adjoining aircraft or weapons. Stand clear of all prop arcs, jet intakes and exhausts.  We've got 14 to launch and 13 to recover- let's start 'em up!  
I'm sure there's more boat life to be written about, but lemme go see what's in the fridge first.

 *Burger patty on toast with cheese and a fried egg on top.


  1. Well said sir, you've captured the best and worst parts of life on the boat!

  2. Well said sir, you've captured the best and worst parts of life on the boat!

  3. Replies
    1. Ha-ha-ha! When things got really bad and you were thinking about munching on some paint chips, you could always decompress by referring to the ship as a boat in the presence of a "real" sailor. You could also call an engine a motor, line a rope, mess deck the cafeteria, berthing area the dorm, ladder the stairs, etc. Spent many happy hours watching forehead veins throb...

    2. It is boat to the crew, but only the crew.
      As in "we gotta get back to the boat".

  4. it appears that I've gotten under the skin of another SWO. My work here is done.

    1. As I read through the post, I wondered who'd comment on that.

    2. Always happy to set nasal radiators straight on maritime and naval matters. Before anyone goes there a "Vessel" (as a VERY crusty Commodore once snarled at me) is something you pee in.

  5. Great narrative, thanks. Helps me understand a little what was going on. I was on the "Bonnie Dick" for a ride from Sasebo to Okinawa in 1963. Watched the traps and so forth. Got a shot and a trap in a "Stoof with a roof". There were Crusaders and F3Hs, as I recall. Learned there might be whiskey aboard in an officer's private locker.

    1. I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of alcohol aboard US naval warships. Although, we did have a cruise box we loaded up in port, locked up and stored in the CO's cabin for the Squadron Admin in the overseas liberty port. We had to turn in the key before we carried it aboard, and couldn't get it until the box was off the ship. I think the PC navy has abandoned that practice.

    2. Well, actually up until 1969 or so, we had "medicinal" alcohol (usually brandy and bourbon) aboard, which could be issued for the "right" reasons (e.g. getting really wet from going overboard, boat duty etc.). Since that was a real morale booster, the same nit wit docs that came up with the running PFT banned it.

  6. I knew guys who spent the entire deployment in four compartments only -- workstation, berthing, mess deck, head. Some of the nuke snipes never even went on liberty.

    1. I was one who seldom saw more than those four compartments when underway.
      That happens when the ship carries the division flag and both the division and the ship are undermanned.

  7. I have seen some Sunrises that a pretty spectacular.
    I may even have a picture of one somewhere.
    The only problem is, when most folks see it, they say, "What a beautiful Sunset."

  8. When My Dad was in the Navy, during Korea, he served on an aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Mindoro. He said much the same about the need to get up on deck and see the sun as often as possible. I was always amazed at his stories about that time in his life; how huge the Mindoro was, like a small city unto itself.

    1. Winters during my time in the Pentagon were kinda like that. Arrival was before Sunrise and departure after sunset Since I worked in the basement, if I didn't make a conscious effort to get out of the building, if asked, could not have testified that the sun had come up at all that day. I was cranky to say the least.

  9. As I was on the "road" (so to speak) when this post hit the wires, I just now got to check it out again, in all it's published glory.

    Well done Tuna, well done.

    My daughters have often had that boat versus ship conversation as regards the mighty aircraft carrier.. The oldest, being a SWO Nuke insists that it's a "ship", the youngest, being an NFO, calls it a "boat." Her husband, a Naval Aviator, also calls it a "boat."

    Personally, I prefer the terms "flattop" and "bird farm." Then again, I was Air Force, what do I know?

  10. You forget that for some, we call them "targets".

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  12. Independence, Ranger, Kitty Hawk................Six Deployments plus them bloody damned work ups.................Married, Divorced and Remarried in the first ten years........
    Charter Member Sea Op Det Lemoore on a five week work up on Nimitz..........
    Shakedown on George Washington almost 23 years ago.................the last time I went to sea..................
    The Faces change, sometimes the Faces do not change..............
    We called it the Boat........................

  13. Boat-Anything under 95 feet bow to stern-Coast Guardsmen's Manual.

  14. Boat-Anything under 95 feet bow to stern-Coast Guardsmen's Manual.


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