Underway Drills

By Don Opedal



Now this is a drill, this is a drill!  For most readers that will bring memories of some exercise to test our emergency capabilities. The rest of you will think it is the blue light special at Sears’ Tool Country. 

I spent a total of 3.5 years on sea duty; 18 months on the Cape Small in Hilo, Hawaii as an Electronics Technician (ET) and two years on the WESTWIND in Milwaukee, Wisconsin as a Deck Watch Officer (DWO)/Electronics Maintenance Officer (EMO). Saw a lot of drills. My emergency billet for both tours was the same; maintain the damage control plot on the bridge. So I was usually on the bridge for drills and usually on the sound powered phones as the talker so I could hear what was going on. Also nice to be in the open air and not locked down in a hold somewhere.

The only thing I disliked about the drills was putting the lifejacket on. I could never get those straps to fold over and go through the rings for a quick release as they were supposed to. Seems like the drill would be well underway and I’d still be hunched over trying to fasten my straps. Other than that, I enjoyed the drills. We were also supposed to be in "battle dress", i.e. having to wear long sleeve shirts, button collars, and pull socks over pant legs to protect skin as much as possible.

As the bridge talker on the Cape Small I was in the thick of the action. I was also an underway OOD so I was on the bridge for other drills such as precision anchoring taking fixes. One time we were raising the anchor and the CO passed “house the anchor” (i.e., secure it) to the fo’c’s’le. I repeated the command. The talker at the other end asked me to repeat it. I was new and thought the intent was to ascertain the condition of the anchor (e.g., was it fouled, did it have seaweed on it) and repeated, “How is the anchor.” That got some laughs.

Another time we were preparing for a precision anchoring drill. The idea is to see how close you can anchor to a certain spot by navigating to it (e.g., using radar, soundings, bearings). No GPS at that time or Loran-C on board. We went out and found a spot that lined up nicely with a couple natural ranges (i.e., buildings or towers that formed a straight line) on the shore and marked the spot on the chart. When the inspectors were on board we showed them the spot and suggested using that for the target and they agreed. Easy.

While navigating in the harbor we were using the buoys (which you aren’t supposed to do) but told the inspector we were familiar with them and trusted their positions. He reminded us of a message we had recently sent saying we suspected a buoy was off station. Oops!

Drills typically consisted of some fictitious event (e.g., fire in the engine room, hole in the side) and the crew responded to it. During one inspection we started with something simple and started fighting it successfully. The inspectors kept increasing the damage and the CO kept fighting it (i.e., shored more bulkheads, moved zones, etc). Finally he gave up and ordered abandon ship. The inspector later mentioned that is what he wanted to happen but the CO kept fighting the damage.

The only “surprise” drill we got on the Cape Small was a Search and Rescue Exercise (SAREX). A C-130 from Air Station Barbers Point would fly down (about an hour flying time), typically after liberty hours and drop a flare. We were then alerted to an incident and expected to execute a recall, get underway, and locate the flare. Typically the C-130 would have already departed the area to return to the air station “a half hour after their liberty expired” rather than wait to support the search. More often than not we would see the C-130 flying around off the harbor. We’d crank up the UHF radio, contact them, and ask if they were just conducting flight operations or here for a SAREX. If a SAREX, we would inform the CO and start a recall. Thus, we were ahead of the game when notified of the “incident.”

One time while acting as the B-2 (1/2 hour recall) ship in Honolulu we were subjected to a SAREX. There we couldn’t see, and didn’t expect, the plane so it was a surprise. Typically when in Honolulu we used the time to get a lot of work done on the ship. We were at the Coast Guard Base so we had more resources available and since we were away from home everyone (except me, my family lived nearby so I went home) stayed on board. This day we were doing some work on the bridge (possibly painting). We had the wheel off and things in general disarray. May have had the radar disconnected too. Bam, we get the SAREX notification and get underway. Run out to sea, find the flare, and return to the base. We are barely back when we get a call about a boat explosion. We head back out again, siren sounding, making preparations for casualties. When we get back out the only thing we find in the vicinity is the SAREX flare. Apparently someone thought it was a boat fire. We report to the Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) who then tells us to start towards the other side of the island for another incident. At that point the CO says maybe we ought to put the bridge back together. Nothing materialized from the third event and we returned to the base. I went home for the night. Returning the next morning driving my mother’s car I comment that I’m not sure I want come back on board. I jump on to the deck and the key ring in my hand comes apart spilling all of the keys. One goes in the drink; the ignition key. Fortunately, the car was a Volkswagen beetle and easily hot-wired (I had practiced as a kid) so I was able to get it home that night.

The man overboard drill was rarely a surprise. After several drills there would be a lull in the action as the damage control parties put away gear, hatches were re-opened, etc. It would seem like the inspectors were just standing around but everyone on the bridge would know what was coming. In fact, we would have lookouts briefed and waiting to see Oscar (the dummy used to simulate a man overboard) take his dive. One time on the WESTWIND we were able to stop the ship with Oscar still alongside. The inspectors were not amused and still had us do our turns and approach Oscar.

One night while towing a Coast Guard tugboat through ice in northern Lake Michigan the alarm for General Quarters sounded. My first thought was someone had hit it by accident, as we occasionally had to sound the Collision Alarm while breaking ice. (Sometimes the ice would stop us and the ship behind us could not stop or the ice would shift and the two ships would make contact. Such collisions were not uncommon in the tight confines breaking ice.)  However, after the alarm stopped came the announcement “Fire in the forward hold, this is not a drill!”  Threw on clothes (no socks) and reported to my station on the bridge. Apparently someone had been smoking (I don’t know what) in a forward hold and some rags had caught fire. The fire was extinguished without any damage and we never even informed our tow it was happening.  I did make one observation. Here we were fighting a REAL fire but nobody I could see was wearing a lifejacket or had buttoned their collars, pulled socks over their pants, etc. as we did in drills. I mentioned this to the CO and got one of those “shut up” looks.

On the WESTWIND, the import OOD was sometimes expected to conduct a fire drill in the evening. This was usually a lifeless, useless walkthrough of the event with the watch barely responding to the “drill”. Typically an announcement of  “This is a drill, this is a drill. Fire in the …” would be made followed by the General Alarm. Anyone else on board would ignore it but the duty watch standers were expected to respond; which they usually did slowly. One night I decided to liven it a little by sounding the alarm first and then making the announcement. Unfortunately, I had the QMOW make the announcement while the alarm was sounding without realizing the alarm overrode the voice announcement. (I later checked the 1-MC manual and verified that; makes sense.)  So, only the QMOW and I knew it was only a drill so EVERYONE on board came to the Quarterdeck  …. including the CO!   Ah well.

My last underway trip as permanent crew was for drills. My relief was on board so I was really “excess” to the evolutions. During the abandon ship drill I got to go around and check lifejackets and didn’t have to put one on. Still couldn’t.


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