AN EXPLOSION ON THE BERING STRAITS

By Tom Opilla

 

It was the loudest explosion ever heard. Again an Ensign is at the bottom of it!

It was a beautiful clear night in the summer of '68, the 311 foot cutter BERING STRAIT had just been relieved on Ocean Station Victor and I and fellow SN Larry Van Fossen were settling in on the foc'sle. The cutter's engines roared as she began the voyage home to Honolulu with a speed run, reaching flank speed easily in the nearly calm seas. The view from the gun mount was impressive, but Van had other plans for the night.

 

CGC BERING STRAITS

He and I served together for nearly two years and we were both avid rock and roll fans; we even formed, "The Worms" an instrumental rock band during the cutter's deployment to Vietnam the year before. We had been out in the middle of the North Pacific for a month now and were the first aboard to be determined to hear the latest top 40 from Hawaii. Van had acquired a big multi-channel portable (more like luggable) radio and we thought we had a way figured out to augment it's receiving power.

In no time we unreeled 50 feet of zip cord, attached one end to the radio and began to loop and string the wire over the gun barrel and over, and around, and over and around, and through both port and starboard lifelines. When he was done it looked like a giant spider web had taken over the foc'sle.

We sat down on the capstan to await the first sounds from hawaii.

Suddenly the BERING STRAIT gave a shudder as though we had hit a big wave. We shrugged and went back to our listening.

Then we realized that the deck which had angled upward because of the ship's speed had become level. We also noticed the bow wake no longer flowed evenly along the cutter's sides; it was fanned out, "We're pushin' somethin'," Van said. We worked our way through the maze of cord to the jackstaff and looked down to see 40 feet of sperm whale impaled on the forefoot.

The whale had been hit amidships and it was partially on it's back with it's head to port and flukes to starboard. The flukes were moving slowly and we didn't know if it was dead or alive. The stink of half digested squid filled the air.

While I stood there mesmerized, Van made his way back to the gun mount and shouted up to the bridge, "WE'RE PUSHIN' A WHALE." "WHAT" either the messenger or the lookout called unbelievingly. Van went up the ladder to the 01 deck and shouted, "WE'RE PUSHIN' A WHALE" again.

The OOD -- an Ensign on his first patrol yelled out, "ALL STOP!!"

And then both Van and I realized that in a few minutes most of the ship's company would be running to the foc'sle and the foc'sle was laced with antenna cord.

Somehow the two of us managed to get the stuff to out of the way enough so that the thundering herd didn't notice the cord when they got there. It seem to take the better part of a mile for the cutter to finally glide to a stop. And then the jabbering voices of the spectators fell silent as the magnificent animal, no linger pinned by the mass of a 2,600 ton ship travelling at 21 knots, slipped noiselessly into the depths.

Then from the bridge there came the sound of an EXPLOSION -- Of the engineering officer!!! I learned later from the engineering types that taking diesel engines from a good while at flank speed to all stop is not a good idea; some of the guys around here were muttering the horror.

"MISTER ____! DON"T YOU EVER ….. I DON"T CARE WHAT …. !" The detonations went on for some time. I don't know if the engineer ran out of steam, the Old Man intervened, or what.

Finally it was time to restart the engines and a lot of the crew held their collective breaths. How embarrassing it would be to have to call the Coast Guard to come and get us.

Have you ever seen movies of those old Civil War era locomotives belching smoke and sparks from their stacks? That's what we on the BERING STRAIT saw when we tried to get moving again. It was pretty damned scary for a few minutes. Slowly she pulled herself together, the pyrotechnics faded away and we resumed our voyage home.

 

Damn! We never did pick up Hawaii with our radio that night.

 

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