Tempest in a Tea Pot [November 2005]   ©Mark Zen

Being a military sailor, I more often heard like a cork in a toilet bowl. Referring to the idea, no matter how big the vessel, the ocean is larger. You will bob mercilessly in a major storm, no matter how large the ship.

Hurricane Hugo pounded this message home to those aboard the USS Coral Sea, August 1989. The flight deck of the aircraft carrier was ninety feet above a calm sea. During this tempest, blue water waves crashed over the bow of our powerful ship.

My third and final ocean crossing was also the final voyage of our carrier, being one of the last oil burning carriers. We needed to be refueled every three days, no matter how rough the seas.

At times, salty sailors had fun with the greenhorns. A shipmate set up a camera on a tripod, and used a bubble level to make sure the camera was perpendicular to the deck, then took pictures of people walking along. Once developed, the sailors in the pictures looked like they were walking leaning to one side or the other.

As a ship of war and a floating airport we had to be ready for major repairs to the ship or the planes. We stored spare engines in many places, including open weather decks. Engines are stored in huge metal canisters, weighing six to eight thousand pounds. It took heavy duty forklifts, and winches or hoists to lift them into and out of storage spaces. They were held in place by stainless steel hooks and chains. On an exterior deck or sponson1, we would store those steel containers stacked two high.

No matter what the weather, we continuously checked tied down items to make sure none had shifted, and all the tie downs were in place and still tight. These inspections were left to the duty watch standers, who made rounds every hour, except some places at night, due to the high risk and imminent danger.

The first watch stander of the day would check the stacked engines, to make sure they were still ok. As he worked his way between the mountains of engines, the ship hit another big wave. Each pile of engines shifted just a few inches, enough to kill the eighteen year old sailor instantly. He didn’t check in to the duty station every half hour as he should have, and when he missed the second, his department started the search, hoping they would not have to call man overboard during this terrible storm. The rescue party quickly found the deceased sailor, but it was too late to do anything for him.

This was a killer storm along the eastern coast of the United States, and it still found ways to take lives in the middle of the north Atlantic. One sailor, in the wrong place and time, reminded us that we are no match for Mother Nature. A hurricane is NOT a tempest in a tea pot, it is a sailors worst nightmare.


1 spon·son   (spnsn) n.
    Any of several structures that project from the side of a boat or ship, especially a gun platform.
Photos of Sponsons and waves generated during Hurricane Hugo


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