Thursday, May 22, 2003

Onen of the procedures that the US Navy is most proud of is the Underway Replenishment, or UnRep. An emergency measure that was started in WWII to deal with a lack of bases in the Pacific Theater, UnRep is nothing more than having a tanker/supply ship rendezvous with a warship in the open ocean and pass over some fuel and supplies. Sounds boring, right? What if I told you that it's indescribably dangerous?

What I mean by that is that, should something go wrong, someone is almost certainly going to be killed or maimed for life. One of the two ships involved might even be lost. It's that serious.

The way this works is that a tanker ship pulls up next to the warship.

Notice the cranes on the tanker. They are for passing over the hoses needed to pump thousands of gallons of fuel over to the McFaul's tanks. Here's a better look at the hollow rubber octopus arms.

This is one of the dangers that come with this maneuver. Two ships, on the hight seas, bobbing and rolling around on the waves, both of them moving forward so the helmsman can steer. If they drift together then they're going to run into each other. If they drift apart the hoses connecting the two ships, the pipeline that's pumping hundreds of gallons of fuel, will pull loose. If that happens then there's going to be hundreds of gallons of fuel splashing across the deck, and if there's a spark....

Okay, so a constant distance has to be maintained no matter what the waves and the wind and the helmsman on the other ship does. Has to! So how do they gauge that sort of thing? By eye?

Kinda. They attach two lines to the tanker and toss them across the warship's deck. Little flags tied to the lines every few feet allow the guys on the Bridge to intsantly see how far apart the ships are. How do they keep tension on the line so it's always taught and the flags are easy to see? They put crew members out on the deck to hold on to the rope.

This is the really dangerous part. A sudden yank on the line and someone could be flying into a bulkhead, or even pulled overboard in a heartbeat. So notice how they're dressed. Hard hats. Non-slip boots. Life vests. They even have an enormous activated glo-stick attached to the vest, just in case.

Also notice what they're doing. The guy in back is checking the slack, making sure that feet don't get tangled in the free end. See the guy in the yellow hard hat and the blue life vest? He's a medic, waiting in the cold wind, just in case. Standing next to him is MCDM Kastler, who's the highest ranking enlisted person on the ship. Notice the white cord leading off her headphones. She's in direct communication with the Bridge, just in case.

The UnRep takes hours, so they have extra crews for the line detail. Some of them work, some of them were dozing on the deck away from the action (No pics of that. Didn't want the flash to wake anyone).

I've mentioned that this procedure is indescribably dangerous, and it is. But it's also not very risky. The safety checks that are followed make it routine. When deployed US warships go through an UnRep once or twice a week, and they're very proud of their safety record. No other navy in the world does this as often, as safely or as efficiently as the US Navy. This allows our warships to be deployed anywhere, and for longer periods of time.

There's a reason why they performed an UnRep on the last day I was on board, and it didn't have anything to do with showing off for the Tigers. Ever since 9/11 all US warships have to have a minimum of 80% capacity of fuel in their tanks when they put into port. If an attack is launched on the base they'll simply slip their moorings and steam for the open sea, ready to defend against other attacks or conduct rescue operations.

It's easy to think that we're at peace if you're a civilian. These guys can't ever forget that we're really at war.

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Most people have heard about MRE's, those pre-packaged wonders that the military uses to feed the soldiers in the field. And why not? They're technological wonders that will keep for years under practically any conditions, as well as being so ergonomoically designed that they include toilet paper. But MRE's aren't served every meal, or even most meals. On board ship they're pretty much never served at all. Instead the crew eats what's called "A Rations". This is pretty much your standard bulk food service meals. But what about quality?

The Navy realizes that a major factor in morale is the quality of the food offered but they're also concerned with waste, cost and the time it takes to prepare the meals. I found an old PDF file that details an experiment with pre-packaged entrees (which the Navy referred to as "Advanced Foods". Go figure). The conclusions of the study was that the "Advanced Foods" reduced waste and prep time, but it added salt and fat to the diet while cutting back on variety. If the Navy has followed up on this then about 1/2 of the meals on board American warships are bulk pre-packaged food service entrees.

I've discussed the food served on board the McFaul here before. My sponsor for the Tiger Cruise, Kathryn Woods, was kind enough to send me an Email along with a picture of what happens to cornbread when the seas are rough.

Okay, enough backstory. How was the chow?

It wasn't bad at all! In fact I'd have to say that it was some of the best cafeteria food I've ever had. It was at least as good as the stuff you can get at one of those buffet restaurants, and it was better than most of them. I talked to one of my fellow Tigers who had been invited to spend some time on a US nuclear submarine, and he said that the entrees were better on the boomer mainly because the ingredients were better. Prime rib instead of meat loaf, lobster tails instead of frozen fish patties smothered in butter. But he also mentioned that the side dishes and desserts were identical.

So the food wasn't bad but the crew would endlessly complain. Listen to them and you'd think that we were still back in the days of Napoleonic wooden hulls, with hard tack and salt pork every single meal. I have to admit that it would become tedious after a while if they only served the same two entrees all the time (which happens every so often on deployment). Otherwise I'd have to say that there was room for improvement but I've certainly had to live on much worse.

Just as an aside, I noticed that the crew would be very concerned with their meals. They'd complain, sure, but they'd also arrange their whole day around when they'd get to eat. This is due to the fact that meal times are one of the few times they're actually allowed to take a break from the job, and food is a great stress reliever. As soon as they get off the ship food loses most of it's importance. Having the choice to eat what you want when you want, which is a freedom that they don't have while on board, might have something to do with it.

The mess crew are the great unsung heroes of the Navy. Everything including morale revolves arounf their efforts. And they do have what can be a daunting job. Look at the picture below, where the food for a single day has been moved out of the large storage freezers and is about to be taken into the kitchen.

That's over 900 pounds of food for more than 300 people. And they do it every single day, four meals with sides and fresh fruit and a stocked salad bar, for months at a time while on deployment.

I'm glad I don't have to scrub all of those pots and pans.

Monday, May 19, 2003

There's two places where people take thier meals on the McFaul. One is the Enlisted Mess (or maybe they call it the "Enlisted Galley". Never could get that right.). This is what it looks like.

Notice that the ship was rocking around a little when I took the pic, hence the tilt.

It's a clean, pleasant place to eat a meal. Right behind that wooden screen visible to the extreme left is a closed circuit television where the crew can view their favorite DVD's or videos. There's usually something playing on the TV.

I counted the seats, and about 60 people can sit down at any one time. They handle the great number of people who pass through every single meal by staggering the times that they can take a break from their job and grab some chow. It works pretty well.

The place where the officers eat is called the Wardroom.

The first thing I noticed was how the place resembled a conference room at a mid-sized business. That's pretty much it's secondary function. Planning sessions and meetings are conducted there all the time, sometimes in the middle of the night.

Whereas the enlisted members of the crew can eat what they want with no charge, the officers have to actually pay for their meals. It's a reflection of their better pay. At every meal they're offered a menu card where they circle what they want, and the cards are kept so they can settle up later. One compensation is that the officers are actually waited on at meals.

To take this picture I simply wandered up to the Wardroom and, after asking the kid Tiger playing video games if he'd mind if I included him in the picture, I let fly. I probably broke some protocol by walking into the Wardroom without an escort, but that's the advantage of being an ignorant civilian.

Most people grow up watching war movies that are about the naval battles fought during World War II. And why not? It was the last time there were large-scale sea battles, with naval gunfire actually doing some good. Exciting stuff.

So people can be forgiven if they should happen to see some barrel shaped objects on a modern destroyer and think "Oh, those must be the depth charges. For attacking submarines, dontchya know?"

I know I did. But that just shows how much of a lubber I am.

Modern attack subs dive way too deep and they move way too fast for big cans of explosive to be of any use. By the time the depth charge had fallen all the way down to where the sub is lurking it would literally be miles away.

Instead those are giant inflatable life rafts. Should the unthinkable happen and the McFaul sinks, those barrels would be automatically released from the rack when it was ten feet down or so. Then the barrels pop open, the orange life raft inflates, and a nifty life-saving device heads back up to the surface.

I was told that they're stocked with enough food and water per raft to sustain thirty people for a week. The rafts in those six barrels alone could save more than half the crew, and there's more placed at strategic places around the superstructure. Another part of the design is that the rafts themselves are plenty large, easy to see from a search aircraft.

I just hope no one ever has to use them.

Sunday, May 18, 2003

SH2 Gorrell mentioned that one of his most important jobs is keeping the snacks well stocked in the Ship's Store. That's pretty apparent if one should glance inside the store itself.

Notice the items visible on the shelves. Snacks snacks snacks. Down towards the bottom they even have big boxes of Saltines and cans of Cheeze Whiz for sale so the budget-conscious Navy snacker can assemble their own crunchy refreshment. To the right is a smaller shelf that holds personal toiletries (soap, shampoo, towels, deoderant, shaving materials, feminine hygiene products). Nestled into the corner by the door is a refrigerator containing candy bars.

All in all, I'd have to say that about 2/3 of the shelf space is devoted to snacks, the rest to less tasty fare. What's really remarkable about this is that there's a cluster of vending machines bolted to the deck just a few steps away. Two Pepsi machines and a snack machine laden with the same items available in the Store, just packaged in smaller and more costly amounts.

I've also mentioned that there's always stuff to eat in the Enlisted Mess. Fresh fruit is just left there for anyone to grab, if nothing else. But the snacks that the crew have to pay for are very popular, much more so than they are in the civilian world. Added to that is the way that everyone would insist that morale would suffer if the snack supply would run out.

It took a few days for me to puzzle out, but I think that it's a way to cope with stress.

Most of us have a job so we can pay for our real life. We go home every day, devote some time to the family and our hobbies to relax and recharge, and then we sleep so we can get up and go do it again.

This isn't the way things happen on board ship. The stress is not insignificant, mainly because the job never ends and you can't get away from it. Personality conflicts will arise whenever more than two people get together, but there isn't any way to get away from someone who rubs you the wrong way. Sometimes they sleep just a few feet away from you, so even going to bed isn't a relief. And the crew is denied the most important of relationships, the support that family and loved ones provide, for months at a time. Considering all this, I'm not surprised that the crunchy snacks are brisk sellers.

I wonder if I have any Cheeze Whiz in my pantry?

Sorry to interrupt my scheduled postings about my trip on the USS McFaul but this is just too funny to let pass.

According to, a US submarine named the Connecticut (SSN 22) surfaced on the North Polar Ice Floe. While she was there a polar bear attacked the ship. These remarkable photos were taken of the bear attack.

I bet I know what was going through the bruin's mind. "With a seal this big I'm gonna eat like a king!"

My sponsor for the Tiger Cruise, Esperanto blogger Kathryn Woods, has just sent me a link to the US Naval Institute's graphic of an Arleigh Burke class destroyer. This should help you locate the places on the ship that I mention in my posts.

And it's really kewl!