In 1966 I was aboard the old aircraft carrier USS Wasp. My squadron had deployed on the Wasp for anti-submarine warfare exercises, and we were frequently at battle stations. One night the ship was buttoned up and secure for night ops but, flying was out due to the severe storm system we were in.
Sometime after midnight, I was told to head forward with a message to another area of the ship. For whatever reason, the best, or only available, route there was on the exterior of the vessel along an exposed port side catwalk.
I’ve never had great night vision, and the red lights we used barely allowed me to get around within the ship. Once outside on the catwalk, I would be effectively half blind. Knowing that if I protested, I’d get the equivalent of “grumble you may, but go you shall” I went out onto the catwalk. I stood there frozen for a moment looking at the waves, and spume being thrown up, but mostly noticing how fricking dark my whole route was. I started forward just in time to be heaved onto a stanchion as the Wasp lurched to port. I held on for dear life and realized that it’d be the change of the mid watch before anyone missed me. I’d have less than an hour in the water before I died from exposure; If I could tread water that long. After the watch missed me, it would take more time than that for the ship to return on its course and search for me.
I remained frozen in place for a moment before lurching along the catwalk towards my destination. Pride wouldn’t allow me to go back and admit that I couldn’t do it. Each time the Wasp settled in the waves, or shifted port to starboard, my footing would slip. The spray further reduced my limited vision. That night every stanchion, every link of the chain, and every section of wire rope seemed suspect and inadequate. I just lurched my way along holding on for dear life, and more than half blind as the wind howled and spume soaked me. I made it forward and dared not make a big thing about my journey. I just smiled my best cocky nineteen-year-old smile, delivered my message, and made my way back – through the ship to my squadron.
Years later ( 1975) in Maine, my father in law had arranged for one of his friends to take me on as sternman on his lobster boat. I was less than cheerful about getting up at three am to stuff bait bags and haul traps, but the Cap’n felt that his son in law needed a better occupation than an anthropologist.
Next Monday, I stepped onto the float In my brand new sea boots to smiles from the local gang. Luther, who I’d be working for, checked me out, smiled, and asked me: “ Wes, will you be wearing the boots with your pants tucked in’im, or out?” The tone of voice took me back to the Navy. Either answer would be wrong. Best to claim ignorance. “ I don’t know.”
“Well,” says Luther “ tucked in you have extra flotation when you go in the water. So, you float longer before freezing to death”.
Buster, his cousin, then chimed in: “of course you can wear them outside. You sink quicker – and drown before you freeze!”.
I asked “ Why not swim back to the boat, and get out of the water? This last comment drew stares. “Swim?”
I learned later that the older men in the harbor gang didn’t know how to swim. Before and just after World War Two, there had been no pools in town. So, many older men never learned. Since the late fifties, the younger men had learned at Y’s and private pools. Only Summer Complaints – summer people, actually swam off the town’s one cold, rocky beach. My father in law also pointed out that “ you might notice that nobody wears life vests. They get in the way”.
After a couple of days, I realized the idiocy of my comment about swimming back to the boat. If you fell overboard while the boat was underway, it left you to tread water. Even if the boat was not underway the current could make it impossible to return to it. Not as easy to do as to say.
A few years later I started solo sailing in small boats. I was lucky enough to survive the moment when the sheet whistles through your hand because no one tied a figure eight in the bitter end ( the skipper). Also, that moment when a capsize is imminent, and nothing you can do will correct it. And, that time when you realize that the person at the helm is paying more attention to his girlfriend than to the tow boat with a barge on a long hawser -while you about to pass between the two.
Most Blue Water sailors have at least one defining instant when they realize that their sense of control on the water is illusory. Enjoy the feeling of control. Just don’t trust and depend upon it.