Reporting for Duty!

31 07 2010

Chilula Decomissioning 1991

My first duty station out of Coast Guard basic training was aboard the Chilula-a 205 foot ocean-going tug based at Fort Macon, near Atlantic Beach, North Carolina-about a two and a half hour drive from my hometown, where I had left my wife while I went down to make living arrangements and report for duty. As for living arrangements, pickins’ were slim that time of year so I rented a trailer in a mobile home park until I was able to find something a little more permanent. It really wasn’t all that bad, located right on the beach, down Salterpath Road, about five miles from the ship. The place usually rented by the week to vacationers but the lady managing the park, sympathizing with my circumstances, agreed to rent it to me on a monthly basis until I could find more permanent quarters later. I told her I would be on call and would need to provide the ship with a phone number so they could notify me if the ship was getting under way. She lived there at the trailer park and said I could give them her number until the phone company could come out in a couple of days and get me hooked up. She, like I, was thinking the likelihood of being called out within the next few days was so remote that it wouldn’t be an inconvenience to her.

Welcome Aboard!

Temporary living arrangements secured, I went down to the ship to report in. Once aboard, I was escorted to the bridge where I met the captain and then was given the grand tour along with instructions for duty stations and other pertinent information. My tour even included the engine room where I saw a bronze plaque on the wall-excuse me-bulkhead- which indicated her keel was laid in 1945.

bunks

Not the Chilula, but similar berthing!

A ship of this vintage had beds-known as racks, to use the vernacular- constructed of one inch pipe bent into a rectangular frame and supported on one side by two stanchions and the other side, from which you would enter, by chains-one near the head and the other near the foot of the bed. A piece of canvas was stretched and lashed, along the edges, to the pipe frame. This is what supported the 2 inch thick mattress. Being the new guy aboard, I got the only rack available, which was on the very bottom, just above the deck. The guy above me was the ship’s corpsman, who was a big guy weighing about 280 pounds. The canvas in his rack was so loose that when he lay in it the canvas sagged to the point where he was about 3 inches above my face while I lay on my back. Being new to this type of sleeping arrangement, I assumed it was normal and didn’t say anything.

Reveille, Reveille!

My first day aboard complete, I returned to my newly acquired home in the trailer park five miles from the ship. Later that evening at around 0300 (that’s sailor-speak for 3:00 AM), I was awakened by a banging sound on the side of the trailer. I ran to the door to find my landlady standing at the foot of the steps with a scarf around her head and a raincoat over her shoulders. It was thundering and lightning, the wind was blowing in off the ocean and rain was coming down in torrents. It was, as they say, a frog strangler. When I opened the door she shouted through the rain, “I’m sorry but this isn’t going to work. Your ship called and you have to go!” I expressed my thanks and apologies to her then quickly dressed and drove to the ship. We were away from the dock and underway by 0400. Once we got underway I had no duties to attend to so I got in the bed. I had noticed earlier, during my tour, some of the more senior crew had newer, modern racks with solid bottoms instead of the roped canvas and slightly raised sides. They were also equipped with what appeared to be seat belts. I thought that was a strange place to have a seatbelt but didn’t give it much thought.

I crawled into my lower rack and it was then, with the doc already in bed, I discovered just how cozy these new digs were. I lay on my back and barely had breathing room. For the first time, I began to think this wasn’t right. I thought doc could probably tighten the roping on his rack and it should give me more room. I decided I would mention that to him later in the day rather than wake him.

Adventure on the High Sea

Chilula Sunset

Chilula at Sunset

It didn’t take long for us to clear the seawall, and the further we sailed, the rougher it got. Eventually, we found ourselves 75 miles off Cape Hatteras in 30 foot seas. I am here to say the Chilula, with her round hull, was not a solid platform in 30 foot seas. We were taking 45 degree rolls as we slid around on the cold, cobalt blue Atlantic surface. As I lay there, engineering a fix for this rack problem, It came to me, as the large steel garbage can came rolling by, why these newer racks had seatbelts. Guys around and above me were literally falling out of their racks onto the deck-but not the doc. He sank down so low into my personal space he would have to roll up and over the rail to fall out of bed. I, too, was having trouble staying in the rack until I came up with a solution. As the huge electric floor buffer slid by across the deck, I rolled onto my side, jamming my shoulder against the doc’s back. After that, I had no trouble staying in bed and decided not to ask doc to tighten his rack, after all.

Then, the rest of the story-we spent the next 4 days circling a barge laden with 210,000 gallons of sulfuric acid, which had broken loose from its tug and was now adrift, presenting a shipping hazard. I was awakened later that morning and told I had the watch. I was sick as a dog and hurled chunks all day. I was sick for the next four days until we returned to the comfort of the calm waters behind the seawall. As I recall, I lost about 10 pounds on that trip-10 pounds I did not have to spare. In fact, the only thing I ate for four days was an orange and a hand full of crackers as we steamed our way back home. Where have all the good times gone?

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