Old Sea Dog ...

... New Tricks

by: Kerry Myers
© 1998


U.S.Army Vessel Page - Between March of 1967 and May of 1969 I sailed aboard the USAV Page [See Dreadnought / Close Encounters!], a 338-foot freighter of 2,000 ton displacement, functionally similar to a Navy LST. Our job was to go into deepwater ports and load ammunition, iron bombs, napalm, or general cargo directly from ocean-going ships waiting to be unloaded; or to have similar cargoes loaded by forklifts from a beach landing point at place like Cam Ranh Bay. We would then deliver these loads to unimproved beaches up and down the coast at places like Chu Lai, Duc Pho, Tuy Hoa, Vung Ro, Nha Trang, Phan Rang and Phan Thiet.

USArmyVessel Page The Page was good duty. So good that I extended my tour twice. Unlike the ship's officers and senior enlisted men, I had no wife and kids leaning on me to hurry home. In my view, any assignment after the Page would be a step down from the peak of the pyramid. Back in the States, I had trained at Ft. Eustis in basic seamanship, then on to marine engineering school. After about six months aboard the Page, I wandered up to the bridge and asked the officer of the watch if I could take the helm. After a period of time when I was doing little more than "chasing the compass," I became a competent helmsman. So, in an effort to fight boredom, I would often go to the bridge and do a one hour and twenty minute "trick" on the wheel. It was great fun learning to factor in wind direction and to anticipate a course deviation when the ship was hit by a large wave at an angle to the bow.

All good things must come to an end; and so in May, 1969 I headed home. I returned to college, then on to grad school, and then into San Francisco's Financial District. I've done lots of sailboat racing in the intervening years, but never set foot on a power boat heavier than the Golden Gate Ferry. Twenty-nine years later I'm fifty years old, married with two kids. My wife decides that we should take a cruise this summer. She organizes the whole thing. I'm not giving it much thought at all. Instead, I'm thinking about taxes, project deadlines and stuff like that. The imminent reality gets a little clearer when we board an airplane on a Saturday morning headed for Honolulu. The reality of what is about to happen comes into crystal clear focus when I see the ship as we drive down Nimitz Boulevard, approaching the pier---a seven day cruise around the Hawaiian Islands aboard the S.S. Independence, a 682-foot, 30,000-ton ship built in 1951.

From the moment I put my bags down in my cabin, the memories of sailing on the Page came flooding back in an uncontrollable torrent. The first thing that hit me was the size of the stateroom. My wife, two kids and I had a cabin which seemed to be the size of the E-5 compartment (stbd. side fwd) on the Page. Moreover, it had its own head and shower. The Captain's cabin on the Page wasn't this big, and he had to share a head and shower with the Chief Engineer.

The next thing which came to mind was that the sanitary system on the Independence worked far better than the one on the Page. I remember developing a reflexive stand-up response whenever the compressed air valve opened because there was a good chance of getting some blow-back whenever a check valve failed to close properly. That did not happen even once on the Independence.

It was difficult for this old sea dog to kick back and be a passenger. Every time we made port, I had to go to the forward section of the sun deck and "supervise" the foredeck gang. They don't use manila line any more, it's all braided nylon. I was surprised on one crosswind departure when the skipper ordered the stern line in, leaving the spring line in place. It wasn't until I realized that he had a stern thruster to hold her in place that the move made sense.

One of the things that bugged me was that the ship had retractable canvas awnings port and starboard on one of the passenger decks which were secured by snipe's knots with frayed ends. If I had brought along some waxed thread I would have fixed them both on the spot.

Early in the cruise there was an evening Captain's reception. After shaking his hand, I asked "Do you have the discretion to allow passengers with prior experience to have a trick at the wheel?" He thought for a moment (must have been a highly unusual question) and said "Sure, I can do that. Just go to the Purser's Office. Tell the Purser we had this conversation. He and I will coordinate the timing for you." A couple of days passed and I figured that he had blown me off. We came back from a shore side

excursion and my daughter Tina collected the voicemail messages. She said "Someone named Captain Wirkala called and said you should be on the bridge Friday between 1815 and 1830, whatever that means." Man, I was bouncing off the bulkheads!

Friday came and we had a sail and snorkel expedition scheduled between noon and 4:00pm. I got to work the foredeck on the sailboat. When I hoisted the jib the way one would hoist a spinnaker, one of the passengers shouted "Hey, we got Dennis Conner on board!" We sailed back to the marina on a leisurely broad reach. So leisurely that we got back to the ship at 5:45. I hustled my ass into the shower, got dressed and made it to the bridge with a couple of minutes to spare.

The anchor had just come up when I reported to the Officer of the Watch who was the Second Mate. After a few seconds of small talk, I got serious and said "Ship's head?" He responded with "270." I said "Sir. Mr. Myers requests permission to take the helm steering course 270." He said, "Don't give me that Navy s@!%. Just walk over there and take the wheel from Romy." (an AB who had the wheel at that moment) I asked Romy where the midships mark was on the solid brass wheel. He indicated that there was none on the wheel itself, just an arrow which swung back and forth on a rudder position indicator mounted on the pedestal itself. So I took over for him.

What a rush! It was easier to steer than the Page. It seemed to track better. The Page had a better helm response, but the Independence seemed to require much less helm input. The other difference was the gyro repeater. Gone was the vertical card which clicked every half-degree. In its place was a digital readout which read in degrees and tenths. To the right of the digital readout was a five-dot pattern which rotated in the direction the ship was turning. Thus, it was a no brainer to relate the rising or falling numbers to a change in heading. It was easy to make small corrections early.

About the time I had it dialed in, the mate called for a course change. "Right to course 311." "Right to 311, Sir." A few moments later, "Ship's head 300 en route to 311, Sir." "Very well." A few seconds later, "Steady on 311, Sir." "Very well." I continued on 311 for a few more minutes when the Second Mate came over and said "We're going to maintain this heading for eleven more hours, so why don't you let Romy show you how to set the autopilot. That way we can talk for a while." An autopilot? That was completely foreign to my experience on the Page. I'm certain the Page never had one. Romy came over and said "What we're going to do when you're ready is flip this lever. That transfers control to the autopilot pedestal. You'll walk over there, take that wheel (actually it was a yoke like you'd see on an airplane) and steady the ship on 311. When she settles again, flip that switch on the autopilot and you're done. That's exactly what we did.

The Second Mate proceeded to answer my questions as we walked around a bridge which is larger than my living room and sun room combined. The Page's bridge seemed like a phone booth by comparison. My first question was "Why doesn't this radar unit show a sweep beam?" He chuckled softly and said "A lot of things have changed since 1969. First of all, the radar is connected to a computer, which in turn controls the display you're seeing. The computer filters out the sweep beam and keeps all the targets painted. See that ship on our starboard quarter? On the radar you remember, its image would fade and disappear until the beam came around again. Now, watch this. The radar has a track ball which is analogous to the mouse on your computer. I can move the cursor over to that target, push this button and it will give me the bearing to the target.

I can then push this button and the computer will tell me whether we are on a collision course or whether we will pass ahead or astern. (My mind is totally boggled at this point.) The radar-computer combination will track up to 20 targets at the same time although the machine gets noticeably slow when you load it up with 15 or so. Now, let me show you this trick. We have only one contact on our starboard quarter. We have concluded that she poses no threat. Wouldn't it be nice if we could see further ahead? We can. I just position the cursor on the center of the screen, click and move it to the bottom of the screen, click again and, voila! double the distance in the forward direction." (Sheesh! What will they think of next?) The Second Mate then says, "Your computer has memory built in doesn't it? This one does, too. We can store approach and departure tracks for every port of call. We just push a button, call up the desired file and the radar loads the file and shows us where we are relative to our desired track. (Now my head is really spinning.)

Next, he says "Come over here and look at this one. This is our upgraded system." The display looks just like the other one to this old guy who is almost disoriented by the technological power of the "old" radar of the starboard side of the bridge. "When you're sailing close to land, as we are now, drift caused by wind, current or both are critical things to know. What we can do is pick a point on land, click the cursor and draw a line parallel to our course. This is called a parallel index line. If that line shifts at any time, it means we're drifting off course." At this point I am just about overwhelmed by the technological advances. I need a break.

I said to the Second Mate, "Can we talk about something else for a moment? I think you have a people problem."

"What do you mean?", he asked me.

"While I was on the wheel, you asked your cadet if he got the 1830 fix. He answered in the affirmative. I never saw him with a sextant in his hand, grabbing a sun line or shooting bearings with the pelorus. If he logged it, I think you have him by the balls." Once again, my ignorance got the best of me. The mate chuckled and said, "Let me show you something." We walked into an adjoining room which turned out to be the chart room. Positioned on a movable arm over the chart was a Leica GPS. "We don't use sextants any more. All the cadet was required to do was read the Lat/Lon and plot it on the chart, which he did right here." I immediately got red-faced and retracted the accusation and apologized. The mate let me down easily by saying "No harm done. Based on what you knew at the time, your observations led to a logical conclusion. It just happened to be wrong."

About that time my fourteen year old daughter appeared outside the chart room (visible from the bridge deck) and waved at me. I identified her to the Second Mate and he invited her aboard. She, in turn, brought a half-dozen of her shipboard friends in tow. The Second Mate consented to have all aboard for a few minutes. I introduced her to Mr. Malo, the Second Mate, and right off the bat she said, "So how did my Dad do at the wheel?" He told her, "It's as if he never left." (YES!!) For the first time in my life my daughter is impressed with something her Dad has done. A few more pleasantries were exchanged and it was time for us to leave the bridge. I herded the whole mob of teenagers off the bridge. I then came face to face with Mr. Malo for the last time.

"It was a pleasure having you at the helm, Mr. Myers." He extended his hand. I gave him a salute. I held it until he returned it. I then shook his hand. I said, "We're going ashore in Honolulu tomorrow. If I get run over by a cement truck the minute I step off the curb I will die a happy man." He laughed and said, "I hope to see you about the ship."

[Newly refurbished in 1994, American Hawaii Cruises' S.S.Independence is the only remaining oceanliner to operate under the American flag. The S.S. Independence is known for its roomy cabins and spacious public areas, reminiscent of the glory days of trans-Atlantic oceanliners. Although it was built in the years following World War II, 1951, and was intended for use as a trans-Atlantic passenger liner, the ship was constructed with the capability for quick transformation into a troop ship -- should the need arise -- with the capacity for more than 7,500 soldiers, extra hull plating, divided engine rooms and extensive fireproofing.]

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