On this Veteran’s Day, I want to share a sea story.
I was on the USS Gridley (CG-21) in the Persian Gulf at the end of Desert Storm (early 92). The combat part was over, but we still kept a Tomahawk shooter in the Northern Persian Gulf. The job of the USS Gridley was to defend the Tomahawk shooter (typically a Spruance class destroyer) from air attack. Leahy-Class cruisers and Aegis cruisers have the AAW (anti-air warfare) mission and have something like 100 long-range anti-aircraft missiles onboard.
Anyway, defending a Spruance destroyer is a pretty boring job. We would basically be assigned a 8 nautical mile box and lazily steam back and forth in it, all while dodging fishing boats, oil rigs, and tankers. One morning, the Middle East commander ordered us to investigate a distress signal in the Arabian Sea. We left the Northern Persian Gulf and headed through the Straits of Hormuz.
We eventually found the ship that made the call. It was a Somali cargo ship with a ton of people on it. We couldn’t communicate with the ship, so we sent a couple of engineers in a small boat to take a look at it and see if they could fix it. The seas were really rough, and doing loops around the ship while we waited for the verdict from the engineers was a pain. I was the OOD (Officer of the Deck), and the Captain was on the bridge with me. The engineers reported back that the diesel engine had somehow lost its oil and it was ruined. Unfixable. We reported back to the ME Commander who ordered us to tow the thing back to Somalia.
So, we start getting things ready. We pull the towline on deck, bring out the Underway Replenishment Team, and pass close by. To pass a rope between ships, you fire a shot line (basically an orange bobbin with strong thread) from a rifle, then attach a 1 inch rope to that (called the messenger line) and then attach the towline (which is 5 inches in diameter and heavy as hell). We pass by the ship, and our guy on deck pulls out the rifle and shoots the line over. Everyone on the deck of the Somali ship watches the line fly over their head. Then they look back at us with a “What the hell are you weird Americans doing?” look on their faces. We yell back “PULL! PULL!” They don’t speak English and they don’t get that they are supposed to pull on the orange line. By this time, we have moved enough that the orange line has slipped off the Somali ship and we have to make another pass. Remember, these are ships, not Ferraris and getting close for a loop around in rough seas takes a while.
So this time, we pass by slowly, shoot the line over, and pantomime pulling. Somehow the light bulb goes off on the other ship and they start pulling on the shot line. They pull the shot line up, grab the 1 inch messenger line and tie it to the bow and signal they are ready to go. They don’t realize there is another rope tied to the 1 inch rope. Towing a 8,000 ton ship with a 1 inch line isn’t going to cut it. We pantomime pulling again. They don’t get it. We finally get them on the radio. We pass the word on the ship for anyone with foreign language skills to report to the bridge. That covers Spanish and Tagalog. No dice. We call up to the SIGINT spooks. Get an Arabic speaker, but the Somalis don’t understand. They just don’t get it.
We finally give up and decide to try and tow the ship with the messenger line. We go slowly (like 1.5 knots) and take them back to Mogadishu. It took us forever to get back. When we finally got them to port, we asked the Port Manager where he wanted these guys. He didn’t want them and told us to take the ship somewhere else. We didn’t want a diplomatic incident, so we called up the Commander of the Middle Ease and told him the story. We were told to just leave them anyway. We told Mogadishu”the Adele II is your headache now.” The Adele II dropped anchor, and we headed back to the Persian Gulf.
In our wrap-up report to the Commander Middle East, we included a “lesson learned” – translate “Heave Around” in every known language.
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