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"Captain . . . I Haven’t a Clue"

Michael Hillman

Unlike most of the officers I shared the wardroom with, I joined the Navy with no seafaring background. While they struggled with the complexes of running the submarine’s reactor, I found it child’s play. So much so, that for fun, at night, I would lie in my rack and mentally run through the mind boggling mathematical equations that described the operation of the reactor.

Unfortunately, my keen understanding of the workings of the submarine didn’t extend beyond her propulsion system. How one actually maneuvered a submarine was a complete mystery to me. Being a junior officer, most of my time was spent running the reactor. By the time I was ready to rotate to the ‘front’, the sub was in a shipyard, undergoing a three-year overhaul. By the time the overhaul was scheduled to be completed, my tour would be over, and I would once again be a civilian. So my lack of ‘seafaring skills’ didn’t matter. Or so I thought.

It was late summer, and I had only eight months left on my hitch, when I was handed orders to report to a sub headed out for a five-month deployment. Being a fully ‘qualified’ submariner, which implied I knew how to drive a sub, my new captain quickly inserted me into the ‘Officer of the Deck’ watch rotation. My sweat pumps went into overdrive.

The author (far right) and fellow junior officers await the serving of
Christmas dinner while submerged deep under the polar ice cap in 1979

As luck would have it, on my first watch I was tasked with driving the billion-dollar sub out of England’s narrow, crowded Portsmouth harbor. Desperate to brush up on what seafaring skills I had managed to pick up in spite of myself, the evening before we left port, I took the Navigator out to a local pub and picked his mind on nautical ‘Rules of the Road’.

"Ok Mike, there are only a few basic rules you have to understand, everything else is a variation on a theme. First, when approaching another ship head on, always pass it Port to Port." Said the Navigator.

"Port to Port." I repeated. "Got that . . . Um . . . um . . . is Port on the right or left side of the ship?"

The Navigator stared at me in disbelief. "You don’t know what side of a ship is Port?"

"Well yes ... I think.   It’s it on my right as I walk aft, and on my left as I walk forward, right?" I asked meekly.

Reaching for his drink, the Navigator took a deep breath. This was going to be harder then he first thought. "Ok, lets try this again. The conning tower has two lights on it. Right?"

‘Yes." I answered proudly. Having overseen their re-wiring while in the shipyard on my other sub, I grabbed a piece of paper. "Do you want me to draw out their wiring circuitry?"

"No! Just tell me which color is the Port light?" Asked the Navigator.

"Damn" I thought to myself, I never noticed that little detail. Thinking that this might be a trick question, I gave my answer considerable thought. "It all depends, if we’re tied up on the left-hand side of the ship, its green, if we’re tied up on the right-hand side, its red," I finally answered proudly.

Scratching his head in disbelief, the Navigator began to ask how I had ever managed to get qualified, but caught himself. Knowing I had an uncanny ability to logically follow patterns, he tried another tact.

"Do you like wine?" He asked.

"Sure" I replied.

The Navigator motioned to the bartender, and a few minutes later, we were sharing a bottle of Port.

"Here an easy way for you to remember the colors of the lights." He said. "Port wine is red, as is the Port light. Which means the Starboard light is green . . . " and so it went as the Navigator slowly, and methodically walked me through rules of passing another ship headed in the opposite direction

Once the Navigator felt confidant I had this aspect of ‘ship driving’ down, he turned his attention to explaining the rules governing ships crossing paths.

"OK, lets say you’re driving in a car up to an intersection, and another car is approaching from the right. If it’s drawing left, which of you will get through the intersection first?" He asked.

"The one without the stop sign of course!" I answered incredulously. "God what a stupid question," I thought.

"No! No! If they are on your right, and pointed in your direction, and moving from right to left, that mean they will pass in front of you. But if they are moving from left to right, you’ll pass in front of them! Get it!" He said, barely able to control the awe in his voice.

Up until then I had never noticed the blood vessels in the Navigator’s neck, but for some reason, at that instant, they seemed to be throbbing. As I struggled to understand the logic in his statement, I found myself yearning for the simplicity of the mathematical equations behind a nuclear chain reaction.

"Ok, so if the other guy is on my right, and ‘drawing’ to my right, I can pass him right?" I asked.

"It depends," the Navigator said, "if he’s pointed toward you, his Port side will be facing you, and you have to yield to him."

"Why?" I asked dumbfounded

"Because his red light is facing you! Remember Port wine is red! So the red light is on the Port! And the red light means stop! Remember!!!? Remember!!!?"

The Navigator starred deeply into his empty glass, and ordered another bottle of Port. I meanwhile, calculated how many days I had left in the navy...

Surprisingly, by the end of the evening, I was actually begun to get a handle on the ‘rules of the road’ thing, the prime word here being ‘beginning’.

" . . . well it you turn right," replied the Navigator, to my answer to the last scenario he had given me, "you’ll miss the tanker, but you'll ground the sub. . . but . . . on the bright side, you will not kill anyone . . . I think we should call it quits while your ahead . . .." We downed the last of our drinks and headed back to the sub just as the first rays of the sun broke over the horizon.

Throughout the day, our departure time continued to be delayed for one reason or another, which suited me fine, as it gave me more time to prepare. But as morning became afternoon, and afternoon evening, my relief soon turned to fear. By the time we finally did get the word to shove off, the sun was setting, and with it, any hopes that I might escape humiliation.

I nimbly maneuvered the sub out into the channel and joined a long line of ships following the well-marked channel toward the open sea. Everything went smoothly at first, for all I had to do was keep a safe distance from the ship in front of me, and turn where they had turned. But once clear of the channel, everyone went there own way. It was as chaotic a scene as one sees during a super "blue light special" at K-Mart. And, as if to add insult to injury, twilight came to an end and the horizon went coal black, with the exception of hundreds of red and green lights going in every direction imaginable.

To help keep track of ships one encounters while at sea, a letter number designation is give to them. If sighted visually, they are given a number like ‘Victor 23'. ‘Victor’ of course stands for ‘V’ for visual. If first noticed by radar, they are called ‘Romeo’. And ‘Sierra,’ if first spotted by sonar.

"Bridge to Conn: We have a new radar contact bearing 230, drawing right, range 5 miles. Designate this contact Romeo 14." Cracked the microphone.

"Conn, Bridge aye." I replied. My mind raced. "Lets see, I’m headed due south . . . that means my course is 180 . . . if Romeo 14 is at 230 . . . that would be over there . . ." pointing my arm off to my right, "and if he’s drawing right, that means… what?"

Remembering what the Navigator had told me, I grabbed the binoculars and peered into the dankness and quickly made out a green light low on the horizon, in the direction of Romeo 14.

I spotted a green light, which meant that Romeo 14's bow was pointed away from me and I was going to pass behind him. I let out a sigh of relief.

I had no sooner reported the presence of Romeo 14 to the captain, and my conclusion that no course change was necessary, when the MC once again broke silence.

"Bridge to Conn, we have multiple radar contacts. Romeo 15 bearing 260 . . . Romeo 16 bearing 118 . . . Romeo 23 bearing 345 . . . We also have two new sonar contacts: Sierra 23 bearing 085, distance 1 mile, believe this to also be Romeo 19 . . ." And on it went for five minutes." My luck had run out. We had driven straight into the heart of the local fishing fleet and where surrounded with fishing boats of all shapes and sizes.

Reports of new contacts came in fast and furious. Had I had access to a supercomputer, I might have had a chance to keep up, but my mind had gone blank after Romeo 15. Had I more experience, I could have tried to ‘fly’ by the seat of my pants. But I was clueless as to what to do. Of course, given that I was in the worst of predicaments, what a better time for the captain to call and ask how everything was going.

"Mr. Hillman, way haven’t you reported Romeo 16 to me yet?" Asked the Captain.

"Ah . . . Captain, I’m still trying to figure out where he’s going." I replied.

"Well what about Romeo 21?!" Crackled his voice of the MC.

"Romeo who?" I relied.

"Romeo 21, he’s off your Port bow." Replied the voice, slowly rising in pitch.

By now I was so flustered, I had to lean over the side of the conning tower to find out what color light was on the Port side. As I did so, I noticed the lookouts tightening the belts on their life preservers. "Um, Captain, I think he’s drawing to the right." I replied.

"You think!?" Shouted the captain, whose voice clearly could be heard echoing from the bridge two decks below. "You think!? . . . What direction is Romeo 24 drawing?! . . ."

And so it went for five minutes. The captain asked questions on Romeo this or Victor that, and I answered all with "I think . . .," All but the last.

"Mr. Hillman!!! Where is Romeo 12?!!!"

"Captain," I replied, "I haven’t a clue..."

Unbeknownst to me, the exchange between the captain and me was taking place over the sub’s general announcing system, much to the amusement of everyone on board. And everyone knew what was coming next. The Captain ascended the conning tower, and after letting me know in no uncertain terms what he thought of my seafaring skills, disqualified me as an Officer of the Deck, and banished me to the engine compartment for the rest of our trip back to the states.

After leaving the navy, I pursued my passion for riding horses and had pretty much forgotten the incident until one day, while walking a show jumping course, my coach, in explaining how to jump a line of fences, said: "As you approach the first fence, continue to turn until the centers of the all fences line up, as if you were lining up a ship using range markers in a channel."

Suddenly, everything the Navigator had tried to teach me that night, made sense. As I entered the warm-up area, overflowing with horses going in every direction imaginable, I found myself back in the conning tower in the middle of that fishing fleet, albeit this time, I could see where each vessel was going and what course I had to steer to maneuver safely.

It was an epiphany! Too bad it had come twenty years too late. Then again, I’m glad it did. For I far prefer the feel of a horse beneath me, the warmth of the sun on my face, and the fresh smell of a grassy field to the smell of stale air inside a cold steel sub, hundreds of feet below stormy seas.

Read other humor stories by Michael Hillman