Up To My Waist in Sea Water
Discharging Forepeak Ballast Tank
Winter trips across the Gulf of Alaska were often challenging. We had to keep the forepeak ballast tank pressed up until reaching Cook Inlet so the bow would not pound heavily in the unending head seas and swells. Then, approaching Cook Inlet, it was necessary to pump out the forepeak tank so the water would not freeze while going up the Inlet to Anchorage.
On this voyage it seemed head seas would persist through the night and into Cook Inlet where the temperatures were well below freezing. Pumping the forepeak during daylight would require going on the foc’sle head to open the eductor valve while the ship continued to pitch heavily. The Captain was resisting a speed reduction and further discussion with him seemed unproductive.
Rounding up the Bos’n and Day-man, the three of us headed forward where we took cover from the seas under the break of the foc’sle. Now the task was to make a 25-yard sprint across the foc’sle head to the anchor windlass, insert a square-headed valve wrench and make several round turns with the wrench to open the educator valve before a head sea of sufficient size arrived to bury the bow. Going on the theory that you shouldn’t ask someone to do something you’re not prepared to do yourself, the foredeck sprint fell to me.
At this point the bow was just recovering from a heavy dive and an opportunity for the “sprint” seemed about as good as it was going to get. My estimate of the elapsed time necessary to reach the valve, insert the wrench, make the necessary valve-turns, and return to safety seemed to correspond to the period between the heavier swells. As it turned out, my estimate was optimistic and the procedure took a bit longer than expected.
Suddenly, while turning the valve-wrench, a sense of zero gravity overtook me together with the roar of compressed air being driven through the hawse pipes as the bow dropped away into what was seeming like a bottomless abyss. My only chance now to avoid being swept overboard with the oncoming swell was to wrap my arms and legs around the windlass brake-wheel shaft and hope for the best. The compressed air had now converted to sea water exiting the hawse pipes like “Old Faithful” and raising the unhappy possibility of putting me completely underwater. Then, as the water was rising toward my waist and hope was fading, came those unmistakable vibrations of buoyancy converting “zero G” to a “multiple G” force and pinning me to the deck as the bow rose rapidly. As water began to recede from the foc’sle head, a return sprint to relative safety was now possible.
Later, the mate on watch on the bridge during that episode told me the Captain was freaking out when he saw the bow was going under. He had not heard anything from us and thought we all might have gone overboard.
It might be of interest that noted author, aviator and seafarer, Ernest Gann’s oldest son George was swept overboard from a Chevron Tanker near the entrance to Cook Inlet about the same time (and may have been the same storm). Ernest Gann’s novel and movie, “Twilight for the Gods” was dedicated to the Midshipmen of California Maritime Academy, the school from which his son had graduated in 1958.
You could say that both George Gann’s and my misadventures could be attributed to a similar problem. Although, George’s tragic outcome clearly eclipsed my experience.
George was Chief Mate in a new 70,000 DWT Class of Chevron Tanker of considerably greater length (798 feet) than other tankers of that era. After departing KPL Nikiski fully laden, they encountered storm force winds, seas and swells in Kennedy Entrance. Several oil drums managed to come adrift and were rolling around on the poop deck. There are several accounts of what happened next. The most consistent follows:
“The Chief Mate was in the officers dining room and, along with the Bos’n, ran out onto the open deck to secure the drums. Soon after the Master joined them. Somewhere during their efforts, the bow rose to a head sea of substantial height driving the stern completely underwater and carrying the Master and Chief Mate overboard and crushing the Bos’n who soon died. The Master and Chief Mate were never found. Had they been aware of the new vessels tendency to bury her stern in a heavy head sea they most likely would have approached the problem differently.
In both George’s and my situations, you could also say the better solution escaped us although for different reasons. The SW Alaska Pilot who brought Chevron Mississippi back into the anchorage told me the crew was not aware of the tendency of a vessel of that length to bury her stern when steaming into head seas as had happened.
In my “Sea-Land bow dunking episode”, it later occurred to me that the foc’sle head valve fitting was connected to the eductor valve with a reach-rod which could have been accessed from inside the foc’sle and turned with a pipe wrench. This solution would have eliminated the need for my foc’sle head sprint. My situation was more an example of the adage,
“good judgement comes from experience
and experience comes from poor judgement”
Enjoy the Journey!