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Location: TUCSON, Arizona, United States

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Through the Scuttles

Wednesday, September 19, 2007
USS Cole – Cape Wrath Orkney Islands 58°40N 05°13W

The ship was heading up into the 40kt winds this morning, standing at flight quarters to receive a pair of Royal Marine gunnery specialists, coming aboard to coordinate firing practice later today off Cape Wrath. Helicopter landings on heaving decks in buffeting winds are apparently routine for these pilots. Looks hard to me, not to mention risky. Though not more so than attempting to unship or retrieve small boats. Winds and seas yesterday scrubbed just such an attempt. Exposed as the ship is now to unimpeded winds over the North Sea, movement of the hull last night was extreme. But since we’re scheduled to be on station for this exercise most of the day, the routine may be less onerous. Perhaps I’ll have some students able to concentrate for the class meetings and somewhat less sleep-deprived.

Seas never look as rough as they feel. The North Sea has been rolling and pitching the hull through 15° and more, but when you’re on the weather deck the waves scud blandly past with only spindrift to indicate their force and direction. Part of the ship’s motion is induced by the mast, of course, a massive tripod jutting more that 60ft above the waterline and studded with multiple arrays of radar and other equipment. When the ship is underway the regulation is “condition modified Zebra,” which means that hatches at and below the waterline—six of the total of ten decks—are closed and dogged with only the “scuttle” left open. The scuttle is a smaller circular hatch with its own to allow it to be quickly sealed. This is a daily reminder of the fact that flooding, one of the two dangers aboard ship—the other is fire—is an ever-present possibility. My classroom is on the 2 deck, so to reach it I have to descend through the scuttle at least twice a day. Sometimes more, because the laundry is one deck further below and aft. I effect that descent cautiously every time, catching every handhold available, especially the short bar welded above the final few steps on the ladder. With my big feet I’ve frequently found myself hanging from that bar when I’ve lost my footing.

If flooding does occur, the ship—already compartmentalized by the many airtight hatches along the p-ways—can quickly be made safer by isolating sections of the hull. When this has to be done, safety is provided by “escape shuttles:” ladderways with their own scuttles to allow you to climb to higher decks from many points fore and aft. In the navy they say “every sailor is a firefighter.” The p-ways are hung with heavy suits and gear at the ready and practice sessions are frequent.

So there’s plenty to be concerned about at sea, apart from any action or attack that might require the use of the plentiful weapons aboard. On a warship the officers and crew talk and think almost entirely about the prospect of attack. Having weapons, I’ve noticed, turns everything around you into a possible threat.


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