A Day in the Life at Sea  

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  You are an electronics technician on a US Navy Aircraft Carrier.    

This is a day in your life.  



The alarm goes off, and you slam your hand against the metal sheet of the rack immediately above your own, as you try and find the off switch to shut off the noise. You find the switch to your rack light and flip it on, and roll out onto your feet, onto the cold deck. The keys are where you stashed them last night, perhaps on the inside of your pillow, so no one will steal them, and after digging them out, you open the lid on your "coffin." The metal plate that your mattress rest on is hinged, so that it can swing up a few degrees, exposing a system of compartmentalized storage areas where your clothes and other worldly goods are stored. Grabbing your towel, your shower shoes, and your ditty bag, you head off for the shower, after locking your coffin again. (If any lockers are found left unlocked, security will take the lock and keys, and put their own lock on instead. And, returning from the shower, still dressed in nothing but your towel you get to walk all the way up to security to get your lock back and get them to take theirs off.)

In the shower you find a tiny stall that you bump into every time you move. There is a plastic curtain to hold the water in the stall, but the water only stays on as long as you push the button on the nozzle. So, you hold the button down, and spray yourself all over, making sure everything is good and wet. Next you take your soap and you soap up your entire body, getting all washed up. Then its time for the water one more time, as you hold the button down and rinse off. Congratulations you have taken your Navy shower for the day.

After drying off, you head for the sinks, where you break out your shaver, and other toiletry items, and blearily study the tired face looking back at you in the mirror. Next working your way through the crowd of other guys, who are also preparing for the day, you move past the lines of racks, stacked 3 high, and two deep, on either side of the aisle, until you return to your own private space.

You no longer think about it, but if you did, you would see that it is not much. No, it is just the length and width of the narrow mattress, and maybe 18 inches tall, and its cramped privacy is supplied only by a pull curtain. You have your own little light, mounted on the sheet of metal, serving double duty as your ceiling, and the next guy’s coffin bottom. When you crawl into your rack, that metal plate is all you can see, as you are lying there. You have dressed it up with some lovely pictures of your girl, and would kill anyone else who touches them.

Digging into your locker you grab your uniform, put it on, and take a quick look at yourself in the mirror to make sure you are squared away enough to avoid getting chewed out by your LPO, or chief, and head out of berthing for the day.

Running up a "ladder" (a stair-like metal structure that runs between decks, that has hand rails and usually a fairly sharp angle of rise) you hit a main passageway and head aft to the mess decks for some of that "great Navy chow." Smile The ship is over three football fields long and so it takes a few minutes to get back to the chow line.

This isn’t like walking along the sidewalk, because every 15 feet or so there are these unforgiving oval pass-through openings that you have to step through. We call these metal obstacles "knee knockers," because when you are running down these passageways you just might.

Descending several ladders, and moving aft, you reach the mess decks, where you find that the line is not too bad, it should only be a few minutes before you get to pick up your tray.

If you are lucky you have one of your friends with you so you can shoot the breeze while waiting, and make the time go by faster. As the line moves along and you finally can see the mess servers, (it would be inappropriate to mention what they are called at this point) it becomes obvious that they are having SOS this morning, the chipped beef on toast breakfast specialty. It is actually one of your favorite breakfast offerings, so you have some. Others are ordering up a cheese omelet, while some are going out to the table area and grabbing cold cereal. All the tables and benches are welded in place, so they can’t move around in heavy seas. You pick an empty spot at a table, sit down and dig in. There is juice, "bug juice" (don’t ask), coffee, and other beverages available.

After breakfast you put your tray in the scullery access, and head up for quarters. Now quarters is your "morning meeting" where all the sailors gather together in ranks, standing "at ease" while listening to the official ship’s orders for the day, commonly known as the POD (Plan of the Day). You hear one cynical seaman mumble, "It would have to be planned, nothing could be this screwed up by accident." And several guys start chuckling.

— Humor plays a big part of your life. You deal with leaving your family thousands and thousands of miles away, as you ride a steal monster across the seas to ports where the people think you look funny and think English is an alien tongue. As soon as you weigh anchor you go on "Port and Starboard," where you work for 12 hours (usually 0600 to 1800 or 1800 to 0600) seven days a week, until you finally drop anchor again and merely are in 3 section duty, meaning 24 hours out of every 3 days you are expected to be on the ship and on call, standing all required watches, in addition to working the normal working days. Life is not easy at sea, and humor is what gets the sailor by. They commonly say that "a complaining sailor is a happy sailor." (Not exactly in those words but that is the general meaning.) But what they mean is that a sailor who is venting his frustration in complaint, and cynical humor is not building up unhealthy amounts of anger. Laughter never feels so good as when things are darkest.

The LPO hands out the assignments for the day’s work and the chief chews on your ear about something or other he is unhappy about, and you head off to your space for work.


Ship’s Work

At this point in the day, as an electronics technician, you set about your routine duties, such as getting a Preventive Maintenance Action completed that is due this week. Today it is a radio transmitter, and so you clear it with the Radiomen that you are taking the transmitter down, round up the required tools and test equipment and set to the task. All at once, over the 1-MC (the shipboard PA system) you hear a loud bell ringing, sounding something like the triangle that is used in old westerns to call the hands to chow. Then comes the message, "Drill, drill, drill, fire, fire, fire. There is a Class Alpha fire in compartment 01-21-3-A..." and you know that the fire team is off and running, to simulate fighting a simulated fire.

Drills go on all the time. And there is something that passes through your mind, a touch of relief when you hear the words, "Drill, drill, drill.." When you know "this is a drill" you know it is a good thing, making you safer.

What you don’t like to hear is, "Fire, fire, fire, there is a class Alpha [Bravo, Charely depending on the type of fire] fire in compartment..." That is the real deal, and every sailor knows that it is the fire or him. Either that fire is put out or we go down. The entire resources of the ship are ready to aid in any part of Damage Control, and the entire crew is part of the fire fighting team. We all have been trained in fire-fighting techniques, and have donned the equipment. We have all put fires out in training classes, where huge vats of oil were set ablaze and we had to extinguish the fire in a group. But that was training and we are now several hundred miles from land, and that is a long swim. But today, there are going to be no real fires.

You set back to performing your maintenance action, and in the back of your mind you are waiting for the call, "Secure from drill," letting you know the drill is over. It is important to note that because drills are treated like the real thing. You do not want to get yourself caught being in the way of a stampeding herd of men off to kill a fire. There are certain drills that the marine detachment get involved in and if you want to make a marine happy, just step in his way when he is running one of his special drills. There is no love lost between the Navy and the Marines, and he would be overjoyed at the opportunity to run over a sailor in the line of duty. :evil

The transmitter checked out okay, and it is cleaned and ready to be returned to service. After giving the Radiomen a call, you head back to the shop, dropping down a couple of ladders to get there. Some sailors get really good at going down those ladders. They get up on the rails and slide down without hitting any of the steps, or they leap out and grab the hatch rim, swinging out and dropping beyond the end of the ladder. But you are not in that kind of hurry at the moment.

Back in the shop you pour a cup from the perpetually brewing coffee pot, and mark off the PM procedure you completed on the tracking board. The television is on and you see the local cable channel is showing the planes launching. There goes one now!

The thick steel blast shield has been hydraulically lifted in place behind the plane, to protect the flight deck crew from the jet blast. The engines flame on, and are increased to full power and suddenly it starts to move. This is not like any normal take off at an airport. The front of the plane is attached to a hydraulic piston that is steam driven down a track running out ahead of the plane. The planes engines are driving hard but the piston is pulling that plane along quickly bringing its speed up to takeoff velocity. All at once the catapult cuts loose of the plane, and the jet goes off the end of the ship. You see it dip slightly and then suddenly it is climbing like an eagle. You are very happy that it is one of ours.

The last time you were top side when a plane took off you got a taste of how loud the flight deck really is. With ear plugs and "mickey mouse ears" (heavy duty ear protection, in the shape of headphones but instead of speakers they have two protective, sealed cups, one that fits over each ear) over the top of them, it still is painfully loud when those jets take off!

You overhear a couple of guys talking about a card game they had the other night, and one of them lost his shirt. You shake your head. The same guys seem to always lose but they come back for more.

It is about time for lunch now and you grab a few of the guys, and you all head down together to the mess decks. If you were counting, you would have climbed 10 or 15 ladders by now so far. You are getting a lot of great exercise!



While standing in the chow line, waiting for lunch, you and your friends joke about the latest nonsense from the chain of command, and how stupid the latest changes to the ship’s routine from on high are. Someone brings up the fact that Joe Seaman, from the next division over, went to Captain’s Mast for his drunk escapades in the last liberty port, and he got bread and water for 3 days in the brig. "Well, it wouldn’t have been so bad," you laugh, "except that guy he took a swing at kicked his butt besides." They all shake their heads and smile. When things go wrong for a drunk sailor they just seem to go all the way wrong.

The line of sailors has moved to where you can finally see what is being served. You sarcastically think, "Oh boy, it’s roast beef again. What a surprise!" The green beans have pieces of ham mixed in with them, and the potatoes are mashed and ready to go. You have the mess cook pour gravy all over the potatoes and roast beef and head out to collect your beverage, before hunting down an empty table to eat at. One of the beverages that is available on the mess decks is endearingly called "bug juice." It looks like lemon aid in the dispensing machine, and it makes a great cleaning agent. It may be the high sugar content but the standard line is, "Don’t drink the bug juice." There are soda drinks available and milk. Of course there is coffee and tea aplenty. You find some bread and butter for your plate and head off for the table where the other guys are already sitting down.

Table conversation is varied, moving from shipboard mishaps, to childhood experiences, and the girls back home. The guys recall the outrageous things that happened in high school, and crazy things they did there, or did in the last liberty port. You believe less than half of what you hear, but it is fun to listen.

The tall tales all fall into the category of "sea stories." There is an official definition for a sea story but alas it could not be put here.

After lunch you all dump off your trays and head back up to the shop. When you get there the chief tells you that the Radio Room is having trouble with one of your transmitters. You head back to the transmitter room, up a couple of ladders, and from there call up the radiomen. From what they say it might be something that is affecting more than one transmitter. Wonderful! You patch in transmitter # 1 to antenna #1. It doesn’t work at all. Then you patch in transmitter #2 to antenna #1. Still no good. Patching in both transmitters #1 and #2 to antenna #2 shows both transmitters to be working fine. After a few more checks you realize that the problem is out at the antenna coupler, a small coffin shaped box mounted on the exterior of the ship near the antenna. You grab some tools and head out topside for a look see.

The hatch pushes open with a clang, and you step out on the cat walk. The walking surface here is meshed and you can see right through it to the ocean directly below you, where the water splashes white as the ship cuts through it. You can still remember your heart missing a beat the first time you stepped out on this nearly transparent walk way, but you hardly think of it as you face into the wind.

Until this very moment, you were nearly totally ignorant of what the weather was like outside, because you are living in a windowless world, where day and night, together with fair weather and foul all seem the same. A carrier is so huge that it takes some serious weather to make it rock and roll around much. So, normally, whether it is raining in the middle of the night, or sunny at noon, it doesn’t impact your life.

Today, the weather is sunny but breezy, and the ocean is covered with little waves, whose tops are captured at the last moment by the wind and flipped into a white spray. You pull your hat down to make sure that it does not get taken away by the wind, and head up the ladder to the next deck, where your antennas and couplers are located. When you get close you can see the problem already. Some deck hand obviously dropped something heavy on the control cable going into the coupler and you must make repairs. An hour or so later, you have the cable, with its many conducting wires spliced back together, and insulated with shrink tubing. You pack the entire splice in waterproof compound and hook the cable back up. Looking around, you take a deep breath of the clean sea air, look out at the horizon fading into the blue sky, visually take in the beautiful sea white caps, and then you head back down inside the ship, to check out your repairs.



As you open the door into your transmitter room, the 1-MC crackles to life, and you hear, "This is a drill, this is a drill, General Quarters, General Quarters, man your General Quarters station!"

"Oh great," you mumble to yourself. You are so glad that you stopped off at the head on the way to your space, because it may be hours before you can get there again. You were lucky because your GQ station is right here in your transmitter space. Your task is to stay on the communications loop, letting them know that you and your space are fine, and to be available to repair any of the transmitters should they go down during the battle conditions.

All over the ship you know sailors are scrambling at full speed to get from where they were (many who work the night shift were in their racks) to where their GQ station is, in just a few minutes, because after a certain number of minutes pass the zebra hatches begin to close and are dogged down tight.

A ship is constructed as a huge number of separate chambers, called "watertight compartments." Interconnecting these compartments are watertight hatches, through which all foot traffic must pass. These hatches are opened or closed based upon the "condition" of the ship. There are X hatches or fittings which are called "X-Ray" fittings. X-Ray fittings are left closed during all conditions, unless actually in use. Y or "Yoke" fittings are closed for wartime cruising, or in an unprotected port, decreasing the number of hatches that need to be closed when going to GQ battle stations. Last are the Z or "Zebra" fittings. When GQ is set, these hatches will actually seal the separate compartments into watertight units, so if a hit is taken by the ship and part of it is flooded, the remaining compartments can keep her afloat.

When the zebra hatches are closed, it is hard to move around in the ship. Permission is required to temporarily open any zebra fitting, and it is closed right behind you when you pass through. Also, many of the zebra fittings are actually little tiny circular hatches built into a much larger yoke fitting. Many ladders onboard lead up to a yoke fitting, which when opened gives a huge amount of room to pass through. You do not even notice it when it is opened. But when it is closed, the only way through is a little zebra hatch that you have to negotiate from that same ladder. So, it is much easier to get to your GQ station before those hatches start slamming shut!

Today the chief drops into your space and says your space is going to be used for a Damage Control drill. You are going to be a simulated causality. So he has you lie down on the deck and puts a sign on you that states what your medical condition is: dead. He tapes a piece of paper on the wall that says, "12 inch hole." He puts another on the deck, between where you are lying and the entryway to the space. This one says, 3 foot hole. He has a number of wires and cables that he is carrying with him, and he drapes one of them over you and runs the other end under some equipment, and he hangs the remaining cables from the overhead, dangling them where they will be struck if not dealt with properly. With one last finishing touch, the throwing of the light switch, the drill is ready.

The phone circuit that you had been on and responding to, runs a loop check and they realize that you are not responding any longer. That initiates a emergency team deployment to your space to check the battle damage. You, in the meantime are quite comfortable, lying there and playing dead, happy to have a change of pace from monitoring the phones and waiting all alone. If the emergency crew didn’t show up soon, you just might fall asleep in the dark.

But all at once the door cracks open just a bit, and the emergency party evaluation has begun. Several sailors are in the emergency party, and tested on how they enter the room (e.g. one of the chief’s cables hanging down is placed where the metal door will hit it if it is not moved) safely clearing the cables, avoiding the hole in the deck, and evaluating your medical condition, after getting the "hot" cable off your body. The test is designed to make them think about, and be aware of, the types of things a torpedo, a shell, a bomb or a missile strike might do to an electronics space. The test is run without humor. This is serious business.

Once the emergency party has called in to have your body taken away, and the hazards are neutralized, the test comes to a close. The party goes back to their central location, the chief collects his signs and cables, and you left alone again with your phone loop. But the GQ drill is nearly finished.


McDonalds and Mail

Finally they sound "Secure from General Quarters," and the ship returns to normal. All the hatches that were closed for GQ are now opened back up. You put the phones away, and make sure your space is completely cleaned up from the drill.

It is getting close to time for chow again, and you head to the forward mess decks this time. On the forward mess decks they are running a fast food line where you can get a burger that is known by all sailor as a "slider" because is slides right through you. You can get some fries and hotdogs too. Add a soft drink and some mustard and relish and you are ready to go. It isn’t McDonalds, but hey nothing is within a radius of a thousand miles.

The burger was so "good," or maybe it was all the running up and down ladders today that added to your appetite, but you go back for seconds. And then head back up three ladders to the shop.

Things are laid back about this time, as long as equipment is up, and no drills are running, they often let the guys sit in the shop for an hour or so at the end of the shift and turn on the television.

Shipboard television is a world in itself. The latest movies are often broadcast over the closed circuit shipboard system. The television shows have AFRTS (Armed Forces Radio and Television Service) commercials in between them, where actors try to convince you that it is the absolutely smartest thing in the world to reenlist at the first opportunity. Like all commercials they are unashamed propaganda, and everyone gets a laugh out of them. Many guys, who have favorite television shows on TV back home, that are not on the AFRTS schedule, have their wives, girlfriends, mothers or anyone else they can coerce into doing it for them, sending them VCR tapes of the shows each week. It is amazing what you miss at sea.

The sporting events, like the Super Bowl and so on, lose a bit of the fun, because you are watching them a week or two after they happen, and everybody already knows the final score before the taped broadcast even begins. (No betting occurs on the broadcast game except in the Neanderthal berthing spaces).

Before you get yourself situated in a chair with a cup of coffee, you can feel the excitement build in the room as you hear the word that a COD landed today! That means mail call! It has been a couple of days and everyone is looking forward to receiving some word from home. It is one of the real thrills that come to a sailor at sea.

You lean over and ask Jones, "When did the plane land?"

"Oh about 1500."

It shouldn’t be too much longer then!

The show that comes on is hardly halfway done before, "Mail Call!" is sounded and your mail runner heads down to the post office to collect the mail for the division. In a few minutes he comes back with a fist full of letters, and the heart rate goes up in every chest in the room.

The mail PO calls out the names from each envelope, and you feel anticipation and disappoint before and after each name is called. Finally, the letters are gone, but your hand is still empty.

Now you are not going to get all teary eyed and weepy in front of the guys just because you feel left out, but there is an empty spot in your chest, which aches just a bit.

"Oh, you wouldn’t believe what my fool brother did," yelled out Harrison. "He went and joined the marines." Everyone in the room groans, and laughs. There are a few "jar-head" jokes passed around before, you notice your friend Paul looking empty eyed and not seeing or hearing anything going on around him.

"Hey Paul," you say, as you slide into a chair next to him. "Are you okay man?"

"No, I’m not," his voice sounds as dead as his eyes. "My wife just sent me divorce papers and said that she has found someone else while I have been away." His eyes are wet, and he looks like a trapped animal, searching for a path of escape. This is not good. You still have months left on this cruise, and there is no way anyone should have to deal with this at sea.

Tommy is passing around pictures of his girl, that he got in a letter, wearing a thong bikini and everybody is cheering. The little guy everybody calls "Squirrel" is smiling at what he is reading in his letter but he isn’t sharing.

You say to Paul, "Hey you want to go somewhere and talk about?" Paul shakes his head, he was always a quiet man anyway, and he would keep this inside as long as he could around the shop. "Maybe I should go and talk with the Chaplin," he mumbles more to himself than you. "Yeah!" you reply. "He could help you figure out what to do." Chaplain McDevit is an okay guy and he has the ear of the entire chain of command when necessary.

Paul gets up and heads out the door, on his way to the chaplain’s office, just as Tommy says, "Okay guys, you have had enough the picture is being put away as of now, for my eyes only!"

You decide that you need to take a walk. You would have loved to have gotten a letter from home today, but you are glad you didn’t get one like Paul did.


Fantail and Drill

The sun is on the way down as you wander onto the fantail, deep in thought. Out behind the ship stretches a wake, almost to the horizon. The sun is hanging low on the horizon -- red, huge and beautiful. Its reflection hits and skips across the water, cut by the waves only to reappear on the other the side of each of them, all the way nearly to the hull of the ship. You think to yourself, such a sight is something from paradise, not meant for the civilized creatures who built this technologically advanced, and tremendously powerful vessel. But deep in your soul, you know it is meant just for you.

Above you, the flight deck extends out a few feet, forming a canopy over your head. The fantail, unlike on other Navy ships, is a cubby hole, a box that is closed in on all sides except for the one on the aft side. The ship’s four screws are churning the water behind into a white and angry froth, extending all the way across the width of the ship. When planes are landing and taking off, you are not allowed on the fantail, for safety reasons. But right now, with this view, there is nowhere else you would rather be.

You think of home, and your loved ones so far away, and of how much you wish you could be with them right now. As you sink deeper into your reveries, the sun sinks down into the sea, as if it were having a swim. The light leaves the sky very quickly and suddenly you see the pin points of light in the darkening sky, jumping into view one at a time. Soon they are an army in numbers too great to count, and they are reaching down to your darkened ship with hands of warm and friendly light.

Some nights you have come out here and seen the moonlight skimming across the waves, like a white carpet extending an invitation for you to walk out and visit. Other evenings you walk out on the cat walk and watch the bow of the ship cut the waves it is passing through. You have seen dolphins hopping out of the water, forming a long line stretching out as far as the eye can see. The mammal sea creatures enjoying swimming beside the ship, as much as the crew enjoys watching them.

Finally you head back inside the metal structure of your carrier and head to your transmitter room. There is a place where you can have some privacy and write that letter home that you feel you need to write so very much right about now.

Just as you are finishing your letter, before you can get it into an envelope to take down to the post office, the 1-MC announces a "Man Overboard Drill." That means you have to get to your shop right now, so they can count your face among those who are still onboard and not overboard. In such a drill the officer in charge of the drill, perhaps the captain, will grab a sailor who is walking down a passageway, and keep him in hiding for the duration of the drill. No one else knows that the guy is now "overboard." Then the drill is called, and everyone must muster with their division immediately to find out who is missing.

You look out of the door of your space, and see the way is clear. You are on the port side of the ship, and that means you must move in an afterward and/or downward direction until you can take a cross passageway to the starboard side of the ship. The first time you had one of these drills, the other sailors quickly set you straight on the rules, and they didn’t waste any time being polite about it either. If you go against the traffic you will not get very far.

Once you thought about it, it made perfect sense. All ladders would become points of congestion if there were guys trying to go up and down at the same time. By making all portside ladders down ladders, and all starboard side ladders up ladders, everyone on a ladder will be going the same way. Also, with the small passageways, with all the traffic going in the same direction everybody will get there much quicker. Even the wasted time taken to move over to the correct side of the ship to go the way you want to go, is more than made up for in the long run.

So, you cut across at the first opportunity to the starboard side, and join the rapid moving line of men heading forward. Before long you have worked your way to your shop and have been officially mustered. The shop is filling up fast with all the guys in your division. Now you all get to wait for the end of the drill.

After a few minutes of waiting with the guys joking and shooting the breeze, the drill is called off and you can all go about your business once again.

Finally, back in the transmitter room, you can finish getting that letter ready to mail. After, you lick the envelope and place the stamp on its face you head down to the post office on the main deck.

On the way you pass the Ship’s Store. There is the room that is the only place at sea to get tooth paste, cigarettes, magazines, greeting cards and an unbelievable assortment of other items, considering the small size of the room. Of course, as with everything onboard ship, the ship’s store is not like stores back home. In this establishment there are only a certain number of guys allowed in at once, usually around 8 to 10. When that many guys are inside, no one else can come in until one of them leaves. On payday the line waiting to get into the Ship’s Store stretches back 30 or 40 feet, while on the day before payday, you can walk right in with no wait. (Sailors just can’t budget their money and so very few of them still have money to spend the day before payday.)

With the letter finally tucked into the mailbox, you decide it is time to lay down and read for a while in your rack before calling it a day.


Sleeping Through the Cats’ Worst

After getting undressed, and putting your uniform in your locker, you swing up into your rack, and pull the curtain around you. You now are lying in a little closed in space, with your own little rack light. You open your book and start to read, and suddenly you realize that flight ops have just started. How do you know?

Your rack is located in the forward part of the ship, positioned strategically right between the forward two launching catapults. So, whenever a plane takes off, you hear the piston running noisily down its track and then you hear and feel the entire ship shudder as the piston hits the end of the track and releases the plane into the air. Just after you have more or less settled down from that, the other catapult goes and releases another plane. Back and forth, left and right, the noise and vibration are enough to wake the dead. But you must go to sleep with that going on. Now that is an adventure.

The first night at sea on this ship, you laid down thinking you would go to sleep. When the planes started launching, you tried earplugs, and holding your ears but it didn’t matter. Even if you couldn’t hear it, you couldn’t miss feeling that huge shudder of the entire ship. Alas, the only thing you could do is get used to it. And now, after years of sleeping in this very rack, you have done just that. After you finish reading, you turn off your light, after spending some time looking at the pictures you have taped on the coffin bottom above you, and setting your alarm for the morning. You lie back, letting the catapults’ motions and sounds drift over your consciousness, caressing it into a much needed and well-earned sleep.

So ends a day in the life of an American sailor.