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May 2002

Navigating safely through perfect storm
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By Terri T. Cheng

Have you seen the movie or read the story "A Perfect Storm?" It's about a fishing boat in Maine that gets caught up in a huge storm. The drama is built upon the storm but centered on the crew. The characters represent an unspoken understanding of the stoic beauty of their job, humanity's charms, wills and shortcomings.

Recently, USNS Guadalupe attempted an underway replenishment with three Navy warships off the coast of San Diego, Calif. The sun was bright with patches of strato-cumulus clouds in the blue sky.

Radio electronics technicians have the job of tending the phone and distance lines on the forecastle. Although wind is a given factor, when we headed up to the forecastle that morning, we knew something was going to be different.

It's hard to imagine just by looking how much of an affect some wind has on sea conditions. Early in the morning, the seas were a bit choppy with white caps, but nothing too serious. As Guadalupe completed the underway replenishment for the first vessel, the weather began to pick up.

The ship began to pitch, and as the wind picked up and the clouds darkened and converged, I jokingly thought to myself, "Cool, it looks like the Hollywood set for 'A Perfect Storm'!"

By the time the second vessel came alongside to port, the weather had grown worse. Due to dangerous conditions on the forecastle, the RETS were moved down to the 0-1 deck level to tend the phone and distance lines. The underway replenishment teams braced themselves for a challenging day at their stations.

I had trouble just supporting myself against a 45-knot wind, the pitch and roll of the ship and the sea water, which periodically sprayed over the railings and onto the crew. As I stood braced against the bulkhead, I watched the ordinary seamen, able seamen and bosuns at work.

Even on a calm day, driving the saddle winches that ultimately control the height of the hoses above water requires finesse, alertness and quick reactions. Movement of the ships, the churning seas between them and the laws of physics affect whether the hose probes will remain connected to the receiver of the customer ship. Generally speaking, it takes plenty of experience and situational awareness to safely manage all that is happening at an underway replenishment station, from handling lines to taking care of each fuel probe. However, there is no controlling the weather.

On a rough day, underway replenishments are more dangerous. It takes a crew adhering to strict safety practices to make an underway replenishment happen without incident and a crew of knowledgeable and intense people to make it happen. On that day, Guadalupe had both.

From the medical services officer standing on deck, to the ordinary seaman pulling lines, to the officers on the bridge wing supervising deck operations, almost every Guadalupe crew member was working topside. I used the bulkhead to shelter myself from the ever mounting gusts of wind and pounding sea water, but other crew members on deck had to work in the midst of it all. Instead of huddling in a protective heap of rain and safety gear, they were driving winches, handling lines and the huge, swaying probes that could easily knock a grown man overboard in an instant.

As the waves increased in size, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer was pitching and rolling with great force. I had the smug feeling of being glad I wasn't on a smaller ship like the destroyer, but this feeling was quickly replaced by awe as a thick wall of water swept over their bow and onto the enlisted personnel on the forecastle. People were swept off their feet by the tremendous force. Thankfully, nobody was washed overboard.

The crews of both ships worked under these difficult conditions to accomplish the assigned task. Our job was to deliver fuel to these ships so they could continue pre-deployment training and maintain readiness levels. However, it became evident that sea conditions were fast making the underway replenishment untenable. We still had a third vessel to replenish but the weather simply would not cooperate.

It goes without saying that knowing when to cancel an underway replenishment is just as important as carrying one through. The safety of the crews and ships are the most important factors, period.

In the movie "The Perfect Storm," a crew of experienced mariners decided they knew how to handle the worst. They had been through tough weather before, so the challenge of pushing forward into and through the storm's drama was inviting. The crew in the movie felt they could weather the storm despite the warning signs, and for a moment, the audience understood the reasoning behind the crew's decision.

However, for Guadalupe to have continued with the underway replenishment that day would have been akin to the pride to which the characters in the movie fell prey. In believing themselves invincible, the characters made the mistake of continuing on when they should have turned back. As a result, lives were lost, families were terminally separated, and friends were scarred for life.

In our line of work, we can't make a mistake because there are no second chances to correct an error. If ships collide or if a crewmember is washed overboard, there's no erasing the consequences.

At the end of the week Guadalupe pulled back to port in the same condition as when she left, and most CIVMARS would agree we had a perfect week at sea, no matter how rough the weather may have been.