Since this country has a strong naval, maritime, and commercial fishing background, I thought I’d spend a few words acquainting those of you who haven’t had the opportunity of spending long periods of time on the water with sea stories.
Sea stories are very much like fairy tales. The main difference is that a fairy tale always begins with “Once upon a time,” whereas a sea story always begins with, “Now this is no fooling.”
Actually, “fooling” is not the term normally used. This is, however, a community newspaper. You’ll just have to stretch your imagination a bit.
Thus forewarned, I think I’ll tell you about the time I avoided a collision with the planet Venus.
I’d love to start with the line, “It was a dark and stormy night,” but, in fact, it was just the opposite. Still, this is no fooling.
It was mid-January and we were operating east of St. Augustine, Florida. I was the officer of the deck on the 0400 – 0800 watch and dawn was approaching.
The night had been cold. There were no clouds and the visibility was excellent. Aviators refer to such conditions as “severe clear.”
I’d just checked the radar and the surface picture out to twenty-four miles was clear. No contacts. Plenty of sea room. Scads of visibility. Nothing to worry about. In short, the perfect environment in which to be embarrassed.
Just before sunrise, I grabbed a pair of binoculars and wandered out onto the bridge wing to make a visual sweep of the area.
As I was looking, I saw a very bright (think really bright) white light right on the horizon. Knowing that a ship’s masthead light is high above the water and might be the first thing I’d see on an approaching vessel, I made a guess that there was someone else in the area.
I went back to the radar and found…nothing.
Back outside, the light was brighter and, now, I was also seeing an occasional flash of red.
Definitely weird. Running lights on vessels are green and red, but they’re usually well below the masthead lights.
Back to the radar. Nothing.
I asked the lookout if he saw it and he said yes, but he couldn’t make out what it was either.
I didn’t want to wake the Captain before I knew more about what I was dealing with so I put out a radio call (in front of everyone on the bridge).
“Unidentified vessel on my bow, this is a Navy warship. I am approximately 45 miles due east of St. Augustine, Florida. Request you say your course and speed.”
I tried again with the same result.
Then, as young officers are prone to do, I jumped in with both feet. I altered course to give the light some room and called the Captain. He said he’d be right up.
About this time, I looked through my binoculars again and could now see that the light was a bit above the horizon. That was when my brain finally processed what I was seeing.
“Venus,” said the Captain who was now standing next to me. “I reckon we’ll miss it by a few million miles plus whatever room your maneuver gives us. Good work, Larry. Call me if Jupiter gets in our way.”
The rest of the cruise passed with numerous comments being made at the wardroom table as to how the crew could sleep well knowing that I’d never allow a planet to hit our ship.
In my own defense, however, I’d like to say that whenever it is that we explore Venus, none of the scars or craters on its surface can ever be attributed to me.
And I’m proud of that.
Sea stories. There’s a bit of truth in all of them and, when sailors get together, there’s no end to them. Just ask our wives.
P.S. What brought this column to print was that fellow sailor and friend, Arnold Hoffman, recently gave me a copy of the book “Scurvy Dogs, Green Water and Gunsmoke - Fifty Years in U.S. Navy Destroyers.” For any of you who ever served on destroyers, this may be the book for you. All royalties are being donated to the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society. Warning: some of the stories (and the language used) are a bit salty.