Autobiography: Underway Replenishment.

Here’s another new excerpt from my in-progress autobiography. This page contains information about how you can help me out financially with the project. Thanks, and I hope you enjoy this!

We were part of an aircraft carrier battle group, doing training exercises in the Pacific a few hundred miles east of Taiwan. Today, we were not doing a training exercise. Our cruiser approached the Navy tanker ship, or “oiler,” from astern, on its starboard side. The oiler had slowed to just five knots; we were doing seven knots to overtake it. I had the conn, but the captain was also on the bridge to supervise; I hadn’t done this many times before. The oiler had fuel and our ship needed fuel; an underway replenishment, or UNREP, was about to commence.

Down on the port side of the main deck, at about amidships, one of our gunner’s mates held a rifle. It wasn’t loaded with standard ammunition; it had a “monkey’s fist” attached to the tip of its barrel. A monkey’s fist is a tightly knotted ball of light rope; sometimes it has a ball bearing at its center. It’s good for throwing or, in this case, shooting.

On a signal from the bridge, the gunner’s mate aimed his rifle at the air above the oiler’s main deck and fired. The monkey’s fist arced over the churning sea between the two ships, dozens of yards of line trailing behind it like a streamer. This was the “shotline.” The ball hit the oiler’s deck and bounced; a dozen of the oiler’s seamen scrambled to catch it. In short order they did, and secured it to a bitt. Then several of them began to haul on the line while the boatswain’s mates at our end paid it out.

The shotline, which was light enough for ballistics but too light for anything else, was spliced into a heavier line, which was spliced into a still heavier line, until finally a heavy, load-bearing ropeMonkey's_fist with a pulley and winch apparatus connected our two ships and the real work began.

Once the connection was secure, the first item passed between the ships, supplied by the oiler, was the “P and D” or phone and distance line. As soon as we received our end, a seaman hustled it up to the bridge and delivered it to me.

The phone part of the term was a sound-powered telephone, a truly ingenious invention that the Navy has used for many decades. It works like a regular phone, except that, as the name implies, it’s powered by the pressure of the sound waves of each speaker’s voice. The waves are converted into electrical signals that travel across the wire to the other speaker’s headset, tin-can style; no external power is needed. I used this phone to communicate course and speed directly to the conning officer of the oiler, as well as to my own helmsman and lee helmsman.

The distance part of the P and D line is determined by the flags hanging from it, each 20 feet apart and color-coded in the order Green, Red, Yellow, Black, White, then starting over with Green again. The mnemonic for remembering the order is the relatively demure, by sailors’ standards, “Go Rub Your Balls With Grease,” but the order isn’t as important as remembering to keep the line taut with at least seven flags, or 140+ feet, between the ships. My captain told me that when he was a young ensign, the standard gap between ships was only 80 feet, but in the years since, the powers that be decided, as he put it, that “life didn’t need to be that interesting.”

My ship, like all U.S. Navy vessels, used UNREPs because it’s easier and cheaper to resupply a ship ata1800 sea than to send her into port every time she needs gas, food, ammunition, or anything else. And we didn’t stop for UNREPs because, dead in the water, we’d be at the mercy of wind and wave. So instead, as on this day, we pull alongside supply ships and match course and speed before the shotline is fired across.

It’s a dangerous operation. If we veered toward the oiler or vice versa, we’d collide before anyone could stop it. The danger of this occurring is compounded by something called the Bernoulli effect, a physical force in fluid dynamics that tugs on two ships steaming side by side, trying to draw their bows into each other. The helmsman, on orders from the conn, must always fight with the rudder to prevent this from happening.

However, if the opposite happened, perhaps through a hypercorrection or a steerage failure, and we turned away from each other, the cables and lines could snap and recoil with deadly speed. Fiber lines that part can kill, dismember, or decapitate any unlucky sailors in their paths. Wire ropes that part unravel their strands as they recoil, becoming metal propellers that shred anything they touch, including people.

Or, if the lines are strong enough not to part, they become the pivot points of a giant bola, sending the ships’ sterns crashing together.

If any of this happened during our refueling and gas hose parted along with the lines, it could spray fuel all over, starting fires or causing explosions on either ship’s deck. A hose malfunction could happen even if the ships behaved, which is why smoking and flammable materials are strictly forbidden on deck during a refueling exercise.

These dangers explain why I was in direct communication with the oiler’s conning officer, and why I was constantlyoiler calling out course and speed corrections to him. When I say “course corrections,” I mean one or two degrees at a time—three at the most. And when I say “speed corrections,” I don’t mean in knots; I mean in revolutions per minute of the ship’s main drive shafts. That’s how precisely in tune we had to be.

This day we were two weeks into a month-long exercise with the carrier group. We were the aft AAW picket, which meant we were stationed 100 miles behind the bird farm. No other ships were ever in sight, but thanks to radar and radios everyone always knew where everyone else was.

A thick fuel hose with an unfortunately phallic nozzle on the end was run out across the amidships cable from the oiler to our ship, where it slammed home and locked into a pipe with an unfortunately yonic receptacle for the hose on its end. A man stood by this junction with a sledgehammer; the apparatus was designed to break clean and seal itself in an emergency.

These refueling operations took up to an hour to complete. One or more of these oilers, and other supply ships, traveled with carrier battle groups, and their crews spent all day, every day, doing UNREPs like these. Sometimes they did two at once, with one ship on each side.

Throughout the operation, extra lookouts kept their eyes on the water dividing us, ready to spot any sailor unlucky enough to fall overboard. This patch of sea roiled and churned like rapids in a shallow river; the Bernoulli effect at work again. If a man fell overboard during this, he’d probably get sucked under a hull or into the spinning screws.

My ship was a guided-missile cruiser with the primary mission of anti-aircraft warfare. IUNREP_Refuel_probe didn’t serve during wartime, so all the “action” we saw was in the form of training exercises. In the Combat Information Center, we looked at a scope and pretended to fire a missile at an icon representing a fake blip on our radar. If the icon disappeared, the pretend missile had destroyed the pretend enemy aircraft. If the icon didn’t disappear, it meant we had pretend-missed the pretend-aircraft. Either way, someone would write up an after-action report. Yee haw.

Stressful and scary as UNREPs were, I looked forward to them as one of the few really exciting things we got to do as a matter of routine.

When our tanks were full, we began what’s called the “breakaway.” We cast off all lines and accelerated to twice our speed while the oiler held steady. When our stern drew even with the oiler’s bow, I ordered “right full rudder,” and we carved ocean away from the oiler in a long, majestic arc. Every ship traditionally plays “breakaway music” over its weather deck speakers to assert some personality and signal a thank-you to the replenishing ship. My captain, who loved classical and symphonic music, always had us play Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

It was exhilarating. I loved every moment of these operations. When we were clear of the oiler I turned to my helmsman, smiling ear to ear, and said, “On days like these you just want to give back your paycheck, right?”

His expression didn’t change. “Maybe you do, sir.”

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