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Update: 4 April 2014


Seatime

A personal view of changes in the isolation at sea

Many years ago I made this page as a companion to Ambiance which has been up since 2005. On April 1, 2008 I took another look and decided it was time to go ahead and put up at least a second "draft" after a few updates and revisions. The trigger for that was Carl Friberg's comment in an e-mail that day: "It's that case again where there's lots of ships that sailed the blue, but seldom is there any mention of who sailed the damn things." Carl's web site can give you a much better idea of "who sailed the damn things" if you take the time to explore. Be sure to go on to Views from the Upper deck.


Radio, it was full of noise after about a day or so out and even the powerful shortwave stations faded, whistled, crackled and popped far out. The sound file playing is a tape clip of Far East Network out of Sasebo, 1967, with the voice and theme from a program I think was named "Music Till Dawn" that ran from midnight on. It is some very clear radio, probably taped during the first night transiting out, of a program I and many others fondly remember from all over the world. I've got tape snatches of that theme with AFRTS identifications recorded from the warm seas out of Japan to cold seas around Iceland. Just recently, with the aid of my iPhone's Shazam I've identified the theme music that has haunted me for over forty years. A little digging and I now know why I connect the AFRTS/FEN program with the American Airlines Music Till Dawn program that was broadcast from powerful Chicago stations even before I went to sea and that provided shipboard tapes we occasionally got to pass the hours. The theme is from a 1947 move While I Live and is titled The Dream Of Olwen. Whatever the merits of the tune critics might give or not give, I've now got it in my digital collection and ready to play from the cloud. To me it means "out there" with a link to land. Long nights either transiting out or in, getting in range and listening to an AFRTS program on deck or with a port open and antenna hanging out—even if the air had and Arctic chill. The voice is that of John Doremus. He was a pioneer of creating airline music programs. So, the voice, I also remember from the 707s I spent so much time on back then.

Computer and electronics developments have completely changed life at sea with the exception of vessels in the poorer nations and aboard private vessels whose owners have chosen to maintain older seagoing ways. Even for these there are changes. None of us experienced the privations of the days of sail or even early in the 20th Century. I do believe the changes from about 1980 to now are in many ways as radical as those that took place from the days of early steam to 1980 . In particular I believe this has had an effect on the distinct feeling of being separated from the affairs and activities of land.

When the photo above was taken the only contact with land was radio and the most common was long wave dot-dash Morse code. Many Navy ships had an additional isolation in sailing under emissions control (EMCON) for security. Even radar sweeps were kept to a minimum and in good weather never used. Chit chat with "home" never happened. Low power, high frequency radio was used when ships were in sight of each other, but even that was kept to a minimum.

Unlike the fleet, the special project and survey ships operated alone and almost always out of shipping lanes and were thus even more isolated than the individual commercial vessels. They at least were free to use the long wave and long range voice to talk with each other, the home office and home -- some of the commercial vessels even were home with family aboard. Once land dropped over the horizon the special project vessel's world became a globe of blue (or gray in higher latitudes) by day and black by night with nothing visible for weeks. An entire month could pass with nothing in sight except sea and sky. I recall people going up on deck just to see the vapor trail of an airliner. It was a sign there was something else and a reminder of another world where there were options.

Food was generally good, but you got what was on the menu or in your personal stash. No options. No "I feel like . . . tonight." If you felt like wine for dinner, forget it! The ships were dry. This dates from Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels' 1 June 1914 dictate. He was a fanatic of the times, eventually establishing "dry zones" extending five miles from the boundaries of any naval installation in 1918. It is maintained by political deference to the religious and other anti-alcohol groups in the public. It is less painful to simply ignore some real problems the policy creates than just let the old policy run. In my opinion, shared by many, it is part of the "drunken sailor" syndrome. It fosters secret and solitary drinking or binges ashore when the prohibited is suddenly freely available.

I noted a much healthier attitude aboard foreign ships. For example, I believe it is theoretically possible for an officer on duty in a Royal Navy ship to walk into the wardroom and order a whiskey pretty much at will. It would be as unacceptable as someone in an office or factory opening a flask at work. I understand it is career ruining. The issue of the young seaman, usually immediately cited by defenders of the policy in the U.S., seems to be under better control in those naval establishments with less than prohibition. The result is less secretive drinking and, I believe, somewhat lessened inclination to binge ashore. Some of that binge may not so much an alcoholic compulsion as an assertion of choice. Freedom! Freedom to order what one likes among those one works and lives with at sea. Freedom to have a steak with wine or a hamburger with beer.

Choice. That was what was most definitely lacking. Flyer, from which the shot is taken, was 459 oa x 63 x 28. Think of that as one and a half football fields plus three feet long. She was sixty three feet wide at her widest part amidships (two first downs and a foot). Depending on load she had varying amount of hull under water, but was designed for twenty eight under (just shy of a first down). A little less than 1/6th of the main deck length (roughly the "oa") was taken up with the superstructure.

Essentially the central structure was four stories, or decks, tall. Main (ground floor), Boat, and Bridge decks, topped by the pilot house. Working spaces and quarters for the technical party were in #3 and #4 'Tween deck (between the open main deck and the deep cargo holds) spaces. "Public" spaces were the decks, passages, messes and lounges - officers or crew. Public spaces did not include much of the interior space as it was taken by quarters or working spaces. Our working spaces were definitely not public, with pretty strict access control.

There were various odd spaces that were possible to go to, but they were certainly not inviting. It was possible to go down into #3 hold, a deep cavern, dimly lit, sometimes with water at the bottom. The only resident was the stabilized transducer with its gyros. I'll never forget my first sight of an "improvement" only a short time before Flyer sailed to the scrap yard. A long ladder (stair) leading down to the dim bottom where previously access had been by a small hatch and vertical (real) ladder fixed to the bulkhead. Imagine looking down a long metal stair into a three story tall cavern roughly half the size of a basket ball court, lit by one or two little bulbs in dirty protective cages, and dark water in which stood a lonely green table with its little white pattern -- an unused Ping-Pong table.

Doors led out of the finished part of the #3 & #4 'Tween deck into storage areas. Supply cabinets were here and dirty laundry was kept in another. Toward the end of a trip that area smelled and had huge balls of linen in bags. Except for your room (spacious - downright huge, the size of many home bedrooms with two single level bunks - for technical people aboard Flyer), the lounge (cards and a few old magazines), the mess (eating, movies) there wasn't much choice. Flyer did have those great spacious decks for good weather and even some good for foul weather in a pinch. In really foul weather the main deck was unsafe and that option was cut off. For the something like eighty people aboard there wasn't much choice on change of view. No cabin fever trip to the mall, library, or just "out."

Neptune, pulling away, was 370 oa x 47 x 18 and at this time Navy crewed with something like three times the number of people aboard having even fewer choices. Enlisted had a bunk in a stack well over two high. Chiefs and officers had better quarters, but not by much. Even in her civilian days the officer/technical quarters (right) were small with two stacked bunks. There was a wash basin, mirror, towel rack, and the Navy desk/chest with fold down writing space, drawers for personal items and a little safe. Two bunk spaces typically shared a toilet and shower. The rooms in the modernized Neptune and Myer were much more stylish, but essentially the same.

Still, a bit of color, slightly larger or smaller size, an arm chair (the Kane, Bent, Wilkes, Wyman) in quarters with colors other than government green made little difference. They were caves of refuge, usually shared, and good mainly for sleeping and reading. Our group worked together so we at least didn't tend to have the problem of someone trying to sleep in one bunk while the other tried to occupy awake time. Then we rarely had any free time to try to occupy with 10-14 hour work days that sometimes ran into 72 hour ordeals. Work, eat, grab a movie (if the work load allowed - and we made a real effort to take that break) and sleep (what we'd sacrifice to make the movie) pretty much ran over and over for the typical 21 days at sea.

Navy ships stay out longer, refuel and reprovision at sea. They also spend long periods in port. The "project" ships typically spent 21 days out, 7 days in for nearly a year -- 11 sets of the 21/7 schedule. The season ended sometime just before Christmas and back out shortly after New Year. Once in a while yard periods would provide a longer break, but for the ship's crew it was generally a year or more of this routine and some had to stay over the month break.

Some in the technical party also made the entire season, but generally made 3-4 month legs and due to the nature of our particular work, our group (thankfully) made trips as short as one month though we paid for that in abrupt notices and broken family schedules. We made generally shorter trips, but were exempted from notice requirements. More than once a normal morning in the office was interrupted with "tomorrow you are going . . ." and whatever plans you had with the family were off for a month, or two or three. I think it was that choice between uncertainty or more certainty and two three month sure things that began to overcome my love of travel and the sea.

With that perspective I realize even more how unique the life of a real mariner must be and wonder how they take such a life. As an aside, I do not count the USN folks in this category. Even a "lifer" will not get the sea time in 20 years the civilian mariners got in half or less of that time. Sea duty is followed by long shore tours. I respect the people of the Navy who go to sea, but they are generally short timers compared to the real mariners. Of course the United States probably has practically none of those left and had few even "back then."

After all this stage setting, how have electronics and computers changed things? More than anyone who was not aboard a state-of-the-art survey ship of the sixties, seventies, and even eighties can imagine. A direct change is the Global Positioning System (GPS). Most of our hard work on the particular project I spent much of my time with was survey navigation. The best LORAN "C" was not geodetically accurate. After analysis of the best NAVSAT passes the entire survey would be shifted, sometimes a mile or more, to this best calculated position on the Earth. Before NAVSAT? Well, there were all sorts of "best fits" but later we found some of those surveys well away from where presumed on the Earth's surface, though we could always get back with repeatability. One needs remember, entire islands were sometimes several miles away from where GPS later revealed them to actually be.

LORAN "C" gave relative position pretty well, we got repeatability to run one hundred yard line spacing days from land, until the Sunset Monster ushered in the Night Monsters who usually left with a Dawn Monster having a last laugh. Changes in the upper atmosphere with those events played havoc with the radio waves forming the lines of position and ships could "jump" in impossible ways. They could go backwards faster than they were actually going forward. Hours could be spent trying to decipher and recover lines run under these conditions. Vast effort was expended in getting the best out of whatever was available in navigation with specialized NAVAIDS people tending the equipment and monitoring the systems constantly. On other projects, those with long and even transoceanic survey lines, the problem was a bit simpler. A long line with minimum course and speed changes is much easier to deal with than a grid of lines only a few miles long with "U" turns at the end of each. Even then oceanic navigation was a major investment in equipment and time.

The person standing looking at Neptune at top had a single function. He stood a watch where someone would read the electromechanical dials of the LORAN set when the three minute (sometimes one, sometimes five depending on scale at which we were surveying) buzzer went off. The values were written onto a special sheet and called out to this individual who then used a variable scale (Gerber scale) to plot the two best lines of position. We could gather more, but the NAVAIDS specialist determined which of the most stable gave the best "cut," or intersection governing four directions (small angles gave lots of room for error). Every one, three or five minutes the person on navigation watch plotted the position, made notes, called up course corrections, and followed the survey lines planned in advance.

Cross check lines were vital. These are lines at right angle to the main survey lines run under the best navigation conditions. In some cases we didn't have a window of navigation quality in which all the cross tie lines could be run at one time. In those we'd sometimes run main lines that had to be discarded until a good net of cross check lines could be established. The observed depths for these lines then became a data check on the main lines. We knew there was a "bust" when we'd done all we could with a line, plotted soundings and found a huge discrepancy where it apparently crossed a cross check line. Then we had to untangle the result.

Each morning we came in and pulled the overlay to begin the process of analysis for the best actual position on the presumption that there was a statistical "good" somewhere in all the fixes. It wasn't always there. Sometimes those few "outliers" were the best fixes and the nice line of matching fixes wandered off in an impossible direction and speed under "monster" control. Worse, they formed a possible line that looked really good -- until we crossed another line that was good and found no match in depth. Then it was back to the table to work to find what really went on and a best fit. This process could consume most of the hours of the day. GPS makes even the best of these systems a nightmare. All that effort to place the observation on the Earth is now an almost trivial matter.

The majority of the actual effort in processing went into this navigation effort and in processing the echogram, the second most labor intensive job. Until the early seventies this was purely manual. As capable computers and digitizing tables became available those were used and one person could do the job in a quarter of the time it used to take two people, one reading the gram and another writing the result, to complete.

The echograms were created by a spark burning a trace onto the gram paper as seen in this Precision Depth Recorder (PDR) with echogram. They had a characteristic burnt carbon smell that filled the working spaces. There were several makes and models of these machines and the one at right is one of the older models. The common trait was that the paper was nominally eighteen inches and for survey the width represented 400 fathoms. These were "phases" so that at right, if the phase was 800-1200 fathoms the trace will begin appearing at the top (left) of the gram in the 1200-1600 phase. A scary, and among non-surveyors sometimes resulting in erroneous reports of "shoals" was loss of phase. That occurred most often when rapid phase changes caused people to lose track and assume a much shallower phase than actual. The rational solution was to switch to a larger range. That paper width could represent a number at the twist of a knob, so that the actual depth was better seen. In this case a switch to 0-4000 fathom (0-24,000 feet) range would show the trace well down the paper.

Only once while I was aboard ship did we do a full panic "full astern" backdown from a phase error. We were in an area with charts showing almost no features yet were finding seamounts regularly, seamounts rising thousands of feet and into the 400-800 fathom phase. We stood "PDR watches" at the time and our watch stander lost phase as the trace went almost vertically through phase after phase for an uncharted mountain. He saw what he thought a very fast rise in the 0-400 range and the bridge went full astern. Then a phase check showed he was a phase or two out and some ribbing resulted. A few nights later the same thing happened and the bridge began the "oh sure" reaction until the senior person down there got on the box with "This is real!" Yep, we were in the 400-800 range coming up fast almost vertically and by the time we were stopped were showing a depth well into the 0-400 phase. We'd just discovered a big new mountain.

Now those jobs are done by computers recording GPS and depth over a wide area, swath systems, rather than along a single track. There are even release and leave Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV) that swim surveying by themselves to be recovered and deployed elsewhere. In later days, with just partial GPS coverage in a day, I was able to do all of this completely alone and spend only a few hours on navigation problems. Since the data was collected digitally there was no "plotting" of anything. All the old hand ink work was gone--and so were some beautiful, high quality charts that could almost be decorative.

Those are technical changes. The psychological ones are more important. Everyone gathering for the evening movie projected on a screen and provided by the Navy Motion Picture Service is gone. The evening movie was a social gathering as well as a movie. One benefit of such ship meetings as seen above was exchange of movies that had already been seen. These could be added to the list as double features. In the Pacific we had something of a tradition of all night movies on deck, sometimes with hot dogs and burgers, on long transits when work was done (ours often wasn't as the real job started as the last data came in). Some were nights to remember. VCRs make movies available pretty much on demand but I'd guess the social gatherings have decreased.

Isolation is less. It was years into my time before MSTS had an agreement to let the ships copy the wire services. Ashore my first stop was a place where I could buy news magazines, then the bar. The radio officer (another lost type) often mentioned major events he'd picked up scanning the air with the ship's main sets, but even the Navy sets in survey could rarely pick up clear stations from the distances at which we often worked.

First land dropped astern, then commercial radio, and eventually even the shortwave began to be faint, static filled and intermittent. Usually about two days out only the strongest AM stations were still "listenable," though we'd often hang on as they became intermittent. I've had mine on when the station was clear only about half the time. I've even got a recording of a wavering song I liked with the sound of the ship's bow wave in background. Then the AM band went silent and those without their own shortwave sets (Think bulky, six or more pounds and not cheap.) would be dependent on the big equipment. Only in my last five or so years did the nice little compact, digitally tuned shortwave sets come out and they were very expensive. Even with the big sets we'd listen to snatches of speech or music with pops, whistles, fades and the "Russian Woodpecker" hammering away. On several occasions a rumor would sweep the ship only to be found as a misunderstood snatch of news.

The world dropped astern and with it any link to family. It was possible, though a bit difficult, to send messages at expensive marine telegram rates from family. This was rarely done, never that I know of to people aboard a ship while I was present, and no reply was possible. People were sometimes notified of death in the immediate family by a short message and had no means of reply. On occasion there would be "Your wife (child, father, mother) died -- we will break off and head toward shore where in three days we will be in range of a helicopter or boat." Meanwhile wait. No phone calls, maybe in a day's run a break in EMCON to send a brief message by code.

This began to eat at some people. I've had more than one case myself of leaving home with one of the kids sick and having those lurking fears or even sleepless nights of "what is going on." No news was good news. I've seen people lose it and become convinced of a tragedy ashore and equally convinced it is being kept from them. I've known of a case where that got completely out of hand; the person was absolutely convinced of a death, cover-up, and conspiracy with the result he ran away once the ship hit shore and disappeared for enough time to get police involved. Long periods at sea could blend. Blue, blue, government green, gray, blue, blue, work, sleep, eat, work, eat and, unless there was some inner resource, people could get a bit crazy.

The survivors either had or found things to keep that from happening. I read, sometimes with two books going at a time and at a rate of a book a day. I'd thought marine biology would be my area, but as usual with military (even as a civilian) things changed, and I had the oceanography and zoological background to really enjoy observing weather, wave trains, and whatever life I could see (open ocean has less than most imagine). Once in a while I could be lured into a very occasional card game . I quit my old school favorite, bridge, after hearing for two more weeks how I shouldn't have bid three spades. I did have one pleasure at cards. One night a gang entered my room and demanded I fill out a poker game. I'd never been crazy about poker and was no good, having almost always lost my pennies on the long bus trips down to the research island in college days. Under no little threat of misery if I didn't invest $5 or maybe it was $10 in "chips" (coffee stirrers and little round Rapidograph pen point wrenches for the biggies) and join I had an absolutely amazing set of hands even I couldn't mess up. Four aces dealt and then filled in the space of maybe five hands. Kings over Queens. It went on and on as the deals rotated around the group. I cleaned them all out. I don't think I've ever played again. My presence was never demanded again. I could read in peace.

Some built things. I remember one watchstander building a tiny Chinese junk out of walrus ivory. He sawed each tiny plank and drove tiny wire as nails. In several years of occasional joint trips it was never finished. I finally understood where the patience came from for the ships in bottles and scrimshaw of the old days.

People could become quiet and withdrawn. Living with no where to escape led to quiet time whenever possible. Under those circumstances you'd better become comfortable inside your mind. Sometimes there would be little parties and some groups would do a lot of talking, but there was a great deal of simply being quiet watching the sun set, maybe in hopes of seeing the green flash, or the albatrosses glide or the waves forming patterns.

If you couldn't provide your own entertainment then things could get bad. For some it did. Sometimes folded clothes would be found on deck and someone would be gone. One crew member fell in love with a Gooney (Laysan albatross) and tried to bring it aboard. He began talking to those following the ship--he was sure his "Gertrude" was among them. Later he was caught with a leg over the rail at the stern about to join them. We first knew of that incident when all the officers disappeared to guard him. He was a mild little AB, always with a shy smile as they walked him under escort on deck for exercise.

Others just became "strange." I recall one who would not leave the ship. He was vastly overweight and had terror of being seen ashore by MSTS port types and taken from his ship. He'd hide in a place on deck that wasn't easily seen from shore, perched on and completely enveloping a chair listening to his shortwave radio. He was a good worker and was apparently tolerated. I don't recall him ever speaking, just sitting partly hidden, listening to whatever radio station that he favored in a port, peering out at life on the piers of the world.

The opposite was also true. Some of the best, most interesting and self contained people I've known were aboard those ships. Several were WW II DPs, one of whom worked with me to help me pass German by correspondence. It had been the bane of my life, but for a small fee this officer got me to where I could do the lessons and also pass the test when I got home. Along with the language I got a cultural view of what was then far eastern Germany and the last days of the war. Another was a captain, a Norwegian, great ship handler, had been in the war and came down to breakfast in slippers robe to eat his fish and other "special" things. Not a sharp dresser and wasn't much for a spotless ship but he was good in a storm.

Another gave such striking life advice that twenty years later our entire group remembered. He'd told all us young folks that no matter what we thought, we weren't independent until we could walk away from any job if it became intolerable. To do that one needed six months pay in liquid form to live on when walking and not to be driven to the first offer. More than twenty years later this came up on a slow afternoon among the remnants of the old group and it turned out we'd all heeded Dave's advice. With one exception we'd immediately begun building the fund. Our original boss was led to comment "That is why all of you were so damn independent!" as two of us mentioned the remembering session to him on the way to lunch.

I fear my counterparts today, and even the Navy people aboard the USS hulls outside the subs, are missing those opportunities for developing internal resources in isolation. The Navy has dedicated satellite channels so people can go down and call home. We played early computer games on the rare cases where we had something capable of hosting one. Some even wrote the software for sophisticated games, but people today have a veritable arcade. Would they hear of the moon landing the next day and see details in two weeks? No, they'd watch on the satellite TV links.

Is it better? I don't know. We were not seasoned in the way of the sailors with canvas and wood gone years with rotten food (thank goodness, though I have knocked weevils out of bread). Still, we were forced to develop resources not dependent on electronic links to the world. I'd hate to lose my Internet, TV is optional, phone is nice -- but I'd survive the losses and remain sane and even relatively content. I wonder if that would be true if I were writing this thirty years from now after time on a fully linked ship.

As a closing I also deliver a bit of caution. Now even shortwave is going. I bought a small one, the nice digitally tuned Sony is still pricey at almost $200, for a trip to Brasil in August 2007 and found there was relatively little of interest. Many national flag stations, once so familiar by their identification tunes (Remember the song Midnight in Moscow? Probably not, but that was radio Moscow.), are web "broadcasting" now. Remember New Orleans and Katrina? Probably. All those dead cell phones and line-of-sight police and fire radios dependent on transponders? We are going to be in a world of hurt when good old, dependable shortwave is gone and something happens to "broadband"!

Down goes the fiber or cable and nearby radio is also dead because power is out so remember what shortwave once provided. We have fine technology--too often in the sense of on a fine edge. Non robust technology can be a fatal trap. If the Gulf Coast police and fire had still had those old CB type radios as backup there would have been communications. Our old five watt Johnsons could punch out from shore to a ship still invisible running off internal batteries or hooked to the car battery.

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Copyright © 2008/2014 by Ramon Jackson
All photographs are reduced resolution and/or reduced coverage of my originals.