THE SEASICK PILOT

By Dave Moyer

(Plankowner of the USCGC Alert WMEC 630)

 

The Cutter Alert was the last of the 210 foot medium endurance cutters built. To me she was the most beautiful thing I ever laid eyes on. She was brand new, clean and sleek complete with thick foam mattresses, full sized lockers and, believe it or not, a head in each berthing area. (Now many may be saying, “Well, so what.” Ah yes…..pity the poor sailor who never experienced wedging himself into a canvas rack or the mayhem in the communal head one hour before liberty call.)  The bridge was huge compared to the Owasco, replete with brand new gear. Something strange caught my eye however. In addition to the Captains Chair another similar chair fitted with a seat belt was directly in front of the helm. “Geez,” I thought, “this must really be the new Coast Guard.”  

CGC ACTIVE

The shakedown cruise went fairly well. We returned to Curtis Bay for a few minor adjustments before getting underway to Norfolk to pick up ammunitions. A quick trip up the Chesapeake, through the C & D canal then down the Delaware Bay to dock at our new homeport at Cape May. The commissioning ceremonies were held and we were official.

Our Third District patrols began. It wasn’t until our second patrol when an early fall storm was brewing on the East coast that I learned just why that chair was there. Up until that point it was simply turned around and the helmsmen leaned against it. It was at this same time that I learned that the 255’s weren’t the worst riding ships in the Guard. This ship didn’t roll in a beam sea, it whipped. Even a strong wind off the beam would heel her. I did have a pair of sea-legs back then but it still took some getting used to. For the many crewmembers who hadn’t been to sea before or for those that had shore billets for the past year or two that first storm wasn’t pleasant.   Everyone deals with that queasy feeling in a different way. The strangest was one HH-52 pilot during one of our NASA recovery ops.

One of the occasional  duties assigned to the Alert was rocket recovery. NASA had a small launch sight located on Wallops Island, Virginia doing atmospheric research. Once launched these floating projectiles would return to earth a few miles out to sea. We’d launch the helo, recover the rocket and take it back to Cape May where a flat-bed semi would be waiting to take the whole thing back to Wallops. Unfortunately for the pilots, we’d land the helo and lash it down once we cleared Cape May on the way to Virginia. When the rocket was recovered, the helo would fly back for the return trip. This meant that the pilot and crew would have to ride the ship for a day or two until we arrived at the recovery area. Some pilots didn’t have sea-legs.

  On this occasion the seas weren’t all that good. We had the HH-52 lashed to the flight deck heading south to the recovery area. Expected ETA was around 0800 the next morning. That evening while standing the four to eight watch I glanced out of the rear bridge window and noticed the flight suited helo pilot strapped into his seat with his hand on the stick. I mentioned it to the conning officer who took his own glance down to the flight deck. He shrugged his shoulders and said that he was probably checking out the bird. Two hours later he was still there. Thinking there may be a problem we sent the watch boatswain down to check things out. He returned and reported that the pilot told him that everything was okay. When I came up to stand my 0400-0800 watch, the pilot was still strapped into the bird, still in his flight suit and his hand still on the stick. Both the conning officer and I thought he may now be doing some pre-flight something or other and figured it was a “pilot” thing.

I learned the real reason at morning chow. There sitting at my table was one of the enlisted flight crew. After a bit of normal conversation I mentioned that I had seen his pilot strapped in last night. Between bites of breakfast he nonchalantly mentioned that he’d been there all night. “Something wrong with the helo?” I asked. His reply was simple yet confusing. “Nope, he gets seasick.”  “Okay, I can understand that, but why was he in the helo all night?”  The flier gave me a sort of perturbed look and simply repeated, “He gets seasick!”  “But the damned thing is lashed to the flight deck,” I replied. I really wasn’t prepared for his answer. “Yea, but flying doesn’t bother him so if he suits up, straps in and grabs the stick it’s just like he’s flying.”  “I gotta remember that,” I said, “next time we cast off all lines maybe we should request clearance and permission to taxi.”  He didn’t think that was funny.

 

       

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