Ship Handling 101

By Chuck Kircher


The tension was thick that summer afternoon at ERS, Sand Island. Several freshly minted 3rd Class ETs were awaiting assignments and one had just come up – a weather cutter that was due to leave balmy Oahu within the next few days for the Pacific and Ocean Station Victor. None of us really wanted to go to sea. At ET school the instructors had filled our impressionable minds with tales of Loran stations on beautiful, isolated islands throughout the Pacific. No one had mentioned ships or Ocean Stations.

Our Chief decided the fairest way to decide the issue was to pick a name from a hat. We all dutifully wrote our names on a slip of paper and tossed them into the Chief’s cap. Then a civilian worker made the fateful selection. Even before the slip was unfolded, I knew it was mine. A ship for goodness sake – I knew nothing about ships. The sum total of my shipboard experience was paddling a canoe on Belmont Lake during summers on Long Island. I should have paid more attention when we covered radar and sonar at ET school.

Needless to say with a bit of trepidation I packed my seabag and headed for the gangway of the cutter Winnebago. She looked awfully small to me to be heading out for the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean. I reported aboard not knowing that the next two years would hold experiences I would never forget.

The next couple of days were a hotbed of activity, as the Winnie was made ready for patrol. Sam Burke, the senior ET, gave me a tour of the ship and introduced me to the equipment that was our responsibility. My big question was, “What was Ocean Station all about?’ Sam gave me a quick but accurate thumbnail sketch. I didn’t have too much time for concern as we slipped our lines within a couple of days and headed out of Honolulu Harbor. Not knowing whether I was susceptible to seasickness or not, I had started taking seasick pills the day before and kept it up for the next few days. Never knew whether I truly needed them or not, but it was a practice I religiously followed whenever we were due to leave port. And it always worked.

Steaming towards Midway, I found the experience exhilarating. The ocean was beautiful; sunrise and sunsets overwhelming. It was a whole new perspective for me. Within a few days we neared Midway to refuel before heading out to Ocean Station Victor. I had never seen a ship dock and I was quite curious as to how it was done. I climbed up to the Fire Control Radar on the flying bridge where I had a full view of all the proceedings.

The Engineering Officer was due to take a turn at docking the Winnie that day. As we approached the fueling dock, the EO scurried back and forth on the bridge, barking out orders. I watched the activity on deck with keen anticipation. As the Winnie lined up with the pier, we got closer and closer. I thought we were going a bit fast but what did I know. Suddenly we were right next to the pilings and whacked into them broadside. The Winnie shuddered and shook as she proceeded to scrape the pilings, leaving a big, black, creosote stripe on the starboard side. Splinters showered through the open portholes surprising a few crewmembers on the mess deck. 

Finally, reverse prop slowed the forward momentum and we came to a stop. Lines were thrown; hawsers passed and we were docked. Overall I was a bit surprised. If that was the way it was done, I thought it a bit rough on the ole gal. Later I heard some disparaging remarks from the more seasoned crewmembers but I was still in the dark. 

Fuel Dock – Midway – August 1959

  A month later when we finished the first half of our patrol and proceeded to Yokosuka, Japan, I saw the proper way to dock a ship at the hands of a master. Captain George Walker brought the Winnie in with just a final, tender kiss to the pier as lines were secured. Now, that was a whole lot better!


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