Underway as Before

By Don Opedal


Cape Small


I don’t claim to be a sailor. I joined the Coast Guard with the intent of not going to sea. Go figure. I figured I could go to a loran station rather than going to sea. Instead, I had two shipboard tours before going to a loran station.

In February 1972 I report to the CAPE SMALL, a 95-foot patrol boat operating out of Hilo, Hawaii as an ET2. (I believe I was the only ET on a 95 at the time, ostensibly because the CAPE SMALL was so far from any other electronics support. 

The first time we got underway I was told to take the helm. The BM1 who was the OOD told me. “In seas like this you shouldn’t vary more than 5 degrees to either side.”  He gave orders, I followed them. I immediately decided which job I wanted!  I let it be known I wanted to be an OOD (was expected of me anyway) and started learning navigation, log keeping, communications, etc. I was quickly assigned as an import OOD. Eventually I was allowed to take the bridge during the day while everyone was up and available. Then the CO stood one watch with him as the “deck” and me as the “con”. After that, I was in the full rotation. By then there were four of us in the rotation:  the CO, the QMC (XO), and the BMC. Guess where I as an ET2/ET1 stood!  But, I was the OOD and gave orders to the helmsman and supervised the night lookout so life was good. And I told every new helmsman, regardless of the sea state, “In seas like this you shouldn’t vary more than 5 degrees to either side”.

Normally we operated close to the island and didn’t experience anything too rough. But going to Honolulu meant crossing the Alenuihaha Channel between the islands of Hawaii and Maui which seemed to expose us to the full force of the Pacific Ocean. As can be expected some trips were rough while others were smooth (FACTTR – Flat Ass Calm, Teeny Tiny Ripples).

At lunch before one trip that was expected to be rough the cook put out a bottle of Dramamine. I figured Dramamine was like aspirin and took two. Slept it off in the afternoon. After that I took one or a half of a pill. Unfortunately, I experienced my share of seasickness. The bridge of the Cape Small was configured such that the OOD could sit on the chart table, holding on to an overhead rail, and see the radar, helm, and deck. I literally hung from that rail. Every half-hour I would get up, throw up over the bridge wing, take a fix, relieve the helmsman so HE could throw up, and then do it all over again.

Eventually I “got my sea legs” and did better. Rough seas were still interesting. One time they waves broke so high it chipped paint off the radar. We generally had one door of the bridge open for ventilation so there was often some water sloshing back and forth. It was amusing to watch our mascot, Whitey the dog, try to stand while the ship was rolling and pitching. One night someone stepped on him and he yelped until we figured out who it was. Another time we even found fish on deck after mooring. 

All of our underway message traffic was via voice. Everything was written down in a log book (ye old green cloth-covered book). Honolulu Radio would sometimes call with routine traffic when the seas were rough. We’d ask the nature of the traffic and if it didn’t seem important we’d report their signal was becoming weak and unreadable. Holding the microphone several inches away from your mouth helped to prove the point. When it was necessary to take the traffic (e.g., a Priority message), I devised a way to secure myself and copy the message. The radar receiver/transmitter was mounted near amidships against the aft bulkhead of the bridge. I would wrap my legs around the radar; place my right arm holding the microphone in the curve of the wave-guide; and write with my left hand in the book on top of the radar. I was tightly secured and had all the tools I needed to do the job. (And yes, I did father a child later in life.)

On one trip Honolulu Radio contacted the CAPE CORWIN, who was also underway, and us with an encrypted message. Encrypted messages consisted of groups of five letters that had to be decrypted to make any sense. They were harder to copy because rather the writing a familiar word such as “ocean” you had to copy the five letters such as “SUEMG” exactly. We each acknowledged the traffic and I began to copy as the radioman read the groups, letter by letter: “SIERRA UNIFORM ECHO MIKE GOLF …”. I had learned to listen to the transmissions and detect the brief periods when the radioman was stop transmitting and listen. At that point if I had a question I would transmit “break” and radioman would acknowledge the “break” and listen. Thus if there was any question it could be handled on the spot. I copied the entire message, “rogered” for it (i.e., acknowledged receipt). The radioman then called the CAPE CORWIN who responded, “Ready to copy the traffic” and the radioman had to go through the entire process again. Have no idea what the CAPE CORWIN was doing the first time around!

Sometimes it was so rough during a SAR event I doubt we would have found the search target if we ran right into it. Bouncing around you use almost all of your energy just to keep your balance. Water is coming over the bridge and in the door reducing visibility even more. 

But those smooth trips with FACTTR seas could be a real pleasure!  Sometimes we’d be able to set up a TV on the fantail while underway. At night the phosphorescence in the water would light up our wake. One night it was so clear and the radar was working so well (remember who the ET was!) both the XO and I believed we were closer to shore than we actually were. Several fixes ensured we were on track but we both had an uneasy feeling.

We made one trip the island of Kauai to escort a 40-footer back to Honolulu arriving in the afternoon and leaving the following morning. I had stayed aboard that night and the only other OODs were the CO and the XO. As usual I had the first watch (remember the pecking order). It was rough and I was looking forward to getting relieved by the XO. However, when I sent someone to get him the reply was a request to take his watch and he would take my duty in Honolulu. (My family lived there so I liked to go home.)  No!  It was rough and I wanted to hit the rack myself. I went down to plead with him but he won out and I settled in for another two-hour stint (we stood two hour watches on the CAPE SMALL). Some time later the 40-footer had engine trouble and I called the CO to tell him. He responded with a “Very well” or something similar and I realized HE wasn’t coming to the bridge either!

I settled in for a long watch. I had crackers and popsicles to eat and managed to overcome by discomfort. We held contests with the helmsmen to see how many times they could ring the bell with the shop rolling. Finally after 10 hours the 40-footer’s engine gave out and needed to be towed. At that point the CO emerged and took over.  


In June 1975 I reported to the WESTWIND as a Deck Watch Officer (DWO) and as the Electronics Maintenance Officer (EMO) as an Ensign fresh out of Officer Candidate School (OCS). Having been an OOD before I was able to quickly qualify on the WESTWIND. (A couple short cruises during the summer on the Great Lakes while the other officers wanted to be doing other things didn’t hurt my chances.)

The WESTWIND was based in Milwaukee, WI to support the extended winter navigation season (i.e., ice breaking) on the Great Lakes. Some readers may think that being on the Great Lakes means no big waves. Wrong!  Consider the sinking of the EDMUND FITZGERALD, a 729-foot ore carrier immortalized in the song by Gordon Lightfoot. She was sunk in heavy seas in Lake Superior in 1975.

That same year WESTWIND was returning from the yards in Baltimore and crossing Lake Erie from East to West. Like Lake Superior, Lake Erie runs East-West but is very shallow. There were high winds creating high waves. Some of the larger ships were seeking shelter in the lee of the land but we proceeded on course, homeward bound!

My roommate and I were playing chess in the wardroom (holding the board in one hand to keep it level). We kept hearing a strange noise and learned the telescoping hangar had broken loose and was moving back and forth. It was secured and we also sought some shelter. A davit on the fo’c’sle was also damaged in the process.

Following our Arctic East trip in 1976 we headed to Bristol, England for some R&R. Crossing the North Atlantic we saw BIG waves. I don’t recall how big we logged them but we saw a lot of green water over the bow and took 45-degree rolls. At one point I was off watch and rather than try to sleep I sat on the bridge to watch the fun. After one particularly violent roll we heard crashes from below and learned the silverware cabinet on the mess deck had come loose.

Our return from Bristol was also rough. We were eating dinner about 12 hours after leaving when one of the engineers came and got the Engineering Officer. A few minutes later the CO announced on the 1-MC that there was a stowaway on board and we were returning to Bristol. As we sat stunned the ship turned, took a heavy roll, and you could hear the crashes of things hitting the deck.

It turned out this young lady wanted to go to the United States and some of the crew thought they could hide her in the Arctic Survey Boat (a 39-foot boat we carried) until we reached home. Only 12 hours out she was so sick they gave up.

Standing watches on rough seas was tiring!  You were using muscles just to maintain your balance and to keep from being thrown about. However, once you got into a rhythm you could use the motion of the ship to aid your movements. You could set something down and know how long before you had to retrieve it. We used a soft rubber “mat” on the mess tables so things didn’t slide. The movie project could be tied down. Good planners designed storage so things were secure when the announcement “Secure for heavy seas” was made. Bad planners had to go secure things, tie things down, etc.

But there were also the warm, calm days when it was good to be underway!


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