I had just made my way topside onto the weather deck of a sixty-five foot harbor tug. It was a blustery, chilly, late-March day. My shipmates and I rigged the ship for sea as my Commanding Officer stormed fore to aft, barking orders and cursing at us. I could feel the deck vibrating beneath my boots as the ship’s diesel engine began to rumble. I grabbed hold of the vessel’s forward mooring line, called out to the pier to disconnect all lines and heaved around as ordered. The ship’s whistle let out a booming, prolonged blast, reverberating throughout the harbor as it steamed away from its berth. I was underway on my maiden voyage aboard my first assigned unit, United States Coast Guard Cutter Chock. Our mission: Travel north to Washington, D.C. and set up a security zone during the Admiral’s change of command ceremony.
Immediately after stowing all mooring lines below the deck, I reported to the ship’s Leading Seaman, who clarified to me the roles and responsibilities of an underway watch stander. Alert and attentive, I listened, being careful to note each detail of the instructions for the task I would soon undertake. Moreover, it was explained to me that I would need to eat plenty of sustenance beforehand, for it was forbidden to break for food during watch hours. Having worked all morning long without eating and being a man with an enormous appetite, I immediately hurried to the mess deck after my briefing, opened the refrigerator door and commenced in making the worst mistake an unseasoned sailor could make before getting underway.
By this point, we were making way past the Naval Base in Norfolk, Virginia, and the seas were already foaming and breaking over the bow. In fact, we were getting jarred around so violently that it was deemed necessary to lock the refrigerator shut so the doors would not continue to swing open and spill everyone’s food onto the deck. Lucky for me, I had already taken out the supplies needed to make my snack. The Leading Seaman took an observation of my actions and warned me not to eat too much, for we were soon going to be experiencing heavy surf. “What’s the big deal?” I asked. I had spent an entire day on the open water once before and endured no troubles with sickness. There was no way that a few hours of waves could churn my stomach up. With every wave larger than the last and the ship rolling around like a gigantic football in breaking surf, it took quite an effort to make and gulp down my meal consisting of two peanut butter sandwiches and half a box of triscuit crackers. Several minutes later and stomach filled to its content, my digestive system now craved something else: anything that was wet! Having eaten such a dry blend of food, my mouth and throat were as parched as desert sand. It was essential that I find water. However, with the refrigerator door locked shut and the ship now facing the monstrous swells of the lower Chesapeake Bay the opportunity was lost.
“There’s another ten-footer!” I heard my Commanding Officer exclaim as he throttled the ship through the white wash like a mad man. By this point, the excitement I had once felt at taking to the open seas had been replaced by fear. Shortly thereafter, I began to feel a strange, creeping malaise working its way through my body from the deck up; first, making me weak in the knees. Then, creeping into the base of my stomach and onward into my head, the weakness flushed the color out of my face and turned me as pale as an apparition. As much as I found it embarrassing and weak of me to admit: I was seasick, and there was no turning back.
Miserable, I sat in the Mess Deck, feeling as if I were a small bug being shaken about inside of a glass jar. Up the ship went, scaling the crest of a wave. Down the ship went, crashing into the trough, throwing everyone and everything onboard forward into the bulkhead. I was trying with all my might to hold down the food I had eaten just moments ago, but I began to feel that my stomach’s undoing was inevitable. As the torture reigned on, The Leading Seaman came topside from the crew’s berthing compartment (crew living quarters) to remind me my watch section was due to check in with the outgoing section within the next thirty minutes. I felt so nervous and fearful that I would be incapable of performing my duties in accordance with the standards of my Commanding Officer, but I pressed on. I knew I could last throughout the raging seas if I just trained my eyesight to gaze off into something that was constant and motionless like the horizon. My self-assurance, however, was swiftly brought to a feeling that could be characterized as a mere whimper as the cutter became broadsided by a tremendous squall of water. The rogue wave broke free the fastened doors of the refrigerator and spilt a cornucopia of milk, pickle juice and random food items all over the Mess Deck. Being the lowest ranking member on board the Chock, I was ordered to clean up the mess. After a few short seconds of vacuuming, I felt my stomach gurgle and begin to purge itself of the weakness. Gagging, I ran down below into the head and let loose the most horrible substance ever spewed from my mouth. Clumps of peanut butter, bread and cracker mulch were painfully thrust outward, landing into the pot and splashing toilet water back onto my face. If ever I had seen a bowel movement come from the opposite end of the human body, this was it. By the time the Leading Seaman had caught back up with me to tell me I was late for watch, my pants were hanging down around my ankles and I was having an intense make-out session with the toilet seat. There was no way I could possibly stand a watch in such a pathetic state. In some strange way it was almost relieving to feel as if I was going to die. This, to me, actually seemed as if it could pass as a legitimate excuse for not having to stand an ostensibly endless watch under such meager circumstances. “Maybe, they’d let me sleep it off,” I thought to myself. “Maybe, I could fall asleep and wake up, and this nagging ailment would be over.” Although, my superiors were kind enough to allow me to rest up, to my dismay, attempting to sleep it off only made it worse.
The absolute worst place to be on a ship when the seas are rough is in the forward compartment. The crew’s berthing area is in this exact space. It is true that you feel somewhat alleviated after an episode of vomiting, but when the seas are tossing you around hour after hour you cannot catch relief to save your life, especially if located at the bow of a ship. After an endless hour of gagging and heaving I finally gathered enough strength to head for my rack in the forward berthing compartment. Just as soon as I arrived to my rack, the ship took another violent plunge into the waves pushing my churned stomach beyond the threshold once again. Being three racks up from the deck and knowing that I would not be able to make it to the head in time, I proceeded in rapping my head up inside my sleeping bag and giving in to another puking session. I knew that by doing this, I would end up in serious turmoil with the rest of the crew, for no one likes a berthing area that smells of vomit, but it was the only reasonable option I had. I was so far gone by this point that I laid my weary head down in my own puke and rested until the crew caught wind on what was stinking up the place.
Sure enough, the crew was upset with me for throwing up in the berthing compartment, and without a doubt, after the seasickness had subsided I had to scrub down the entire boat from bow to stern, detailing every nook and crevice. The seas lasted for the entirety of the first day of being underway. After two days of steaming, we finally reached our destination in D.C. When we arrived I reflected upon my experience, and I thought to myself that I could not possibly feel any worse than I had felt on the days, preceding. Ironically, later that week, when we were pumping sewage from our ship, the connection from the sewage hose to our discharge pump failed, spewing fecal matter upon my front side, covering me from boot to ball cap … vestiges of my harrowing happenstance aboard the Cutter Chock.
Before this journey, I was green and full of myself. I thought I could master any challenge. The sea takes no mercy, and just when you think you have found your way out of despair, things can get worse than they were before. What I learned from this incident is always be prepared, be constantly aware of the environment, and never eat peanut butter sandwiches and crackers if you’re not experienced with the overwhelming power of the sea.
This post appears courtesy of our sister site, Beaufort County NOW, with their expressed permission.