At Captain’s Command

A kiss. A hug. I hate goodbyes!

Without a further word I turn around and walk back to the beach that now lonely lays in the dark. Playa Tortugas, turtle beach, here in Cancun, during daytime full of families and fun, is surrounded by a net, intended to protect its guests from sharks and other deep sea critters, I suppose. Purely symbolic I am sure, because it has holes as wide that the Great White could easily slip through. (But the families on the beach don’t know this.) It should keep power boats out, too. Therefore, it is marked with a row of red buoys that, in the dark, is hard to make out. 

My dinghy is tied to a pile that sticks out of the water maybe twenty meters outside the buoy line. My best guess is once upon a time this pile supported a pier that no longer exists. The water is about two meters deep there and it was easy to swim to the beach. The street behind the beach is well lid and provides some orientation. The way back, from the light into the dark, is a totally different story, though.

And there is one more caveat: I am scared of swimming in the dark.

I Am Afraid of Swimming in the Dark

It is not a fear of something real, something specific. I am not afraid that dolphins start playing with my dangling balls or that a shark bites me or a jellyfish stings me. It is way more abstract, way more vague. I cannot see what is below, I cannot even see what is above, just blackness and darkness everywhere, maybe like a child feels in a dark forest. 

Here is the problem: as a sailor and even more so as someone who lives aboard permanently and all by himself I cannot avoid to swim in the dark every now and then.

I may need to untangle a lobster trap from my rudder or cut a fishing net out of my propeller, or I cannot beach the dinghy and have to swim some to make it to shore.

Some things just cannot wait for daylight, and as a solo-sailor, lacking a crew, I cannot order someone else to do it, either. (Also it would make me a bad captain to order my crew to do what I am afraid of doing myself.)

I remember my days in the navy, many summers ago, when sometimes we had to do all sorts of things that I was afraid of. Jumping off the 12 m high command bridge of our destroyer in full combat gear for example. The impact hurt badly and it took forever to make it back to the surface. 

Everyone was afraid, no exceptions! Us tough seamen, young, proud, invincible, now that it is more than twenty years ago, I can finally admit: we all had our pants full to the rim. But when it was our turn we all jumped without hesitating a split second. We even pretended it was fun. It was simply a question of honor, so much more powerful than fear. And there weren’t even girls around to admire our courage!

But one specific situation has had a special effect on me until today:

My Ultimate Fearful Experience

It was my time off duty, we were transiting south through the Bay of Biscay. Our ship, destroyer Rommel, was part of NATO’s Standing Naval Forces Atlantic (SNFL), NATO’s powerful first response task force. The weather was slightly on the rough side, with four to five meters seas even our big ship would roll heavily. So much, that I had to buckle up on my berth. 

FGS Rommel in Hamburg
Destroyer Rommel on Iced Elbe in Hamburg

Six hours sleep after six hours watch, pheeww. Combat watch system it was called, starboard watch and port watch: six hours on, six hours off, six hours on, six hours off until the end of time. I was assigned to starboard watch and then, two hours into port watch – ALARM! The alarm bell rings and from its code I know what it means before the voice comes cracking through all the speakers:

“Fire onboard! Fire onboard! All hands man battle station! Obtain battle readiness!! Fire in the stern machinery compartment! Fire in the stern machinery compartment! This is no exercise! Fire on board!”

No drill, for real this time. Ok, I jump off my berth, put my clothes on in the same movement and set off towards my battle station. As a radar and radio operator my battle station was the CIC, the Combat Information Center, just behind the command bridge, towards the bow, all the way up. My berth, however, was located in the stern deck for listed men, at the stern of the ship one floor below water line. Quite a walking distance, 100 m maybe. To avoid confusion and jamming everyone moving forward and up was supposed to do this on starboard side, aft and down on port side.

So, I grab my gear and run. But when I reach the first ship’s safety checkpoint the technical officer on watch stops me and tells me that the way to my battle station is blocked by heavy smoke. The protocol is that I check in with him and he has me join the fire fighting crew. Not good! 

In a case of a fire, my assigned battle station was a good place to be: I would operate the tactical radio, inform the other ships in the task group of our situation and co-ordinate their support if necessary. Easy. Wouldn’t make my hands dirty. But now all of a sudden I happen to be in the first line of defense. Totally not good!

The dressing crew puts me and another guy as unfortunate as me into a layer of thick leather, then an aluminum cape, then the air bottles, similar of what they use for scuba diving, then masks, a helmet and gloves. 

Pheeww, I sweat like a pig, can hardly see a thing and breathing is a challenge, too. We are the second wave, we have twelve minutes to find and fight the fire. This is how long our air is supposed to last. 

The fire is in one of the machinery rooms. I think I have never been down there, in the ship’s catacombs, a place of everlasting heat where the sun never shines. As we are stopped dead in the water, the ship’s movements are really bad now and I feel seasickness coming up. We are waiting for the first wave to return, their mission was to find the fire, roll out the hose, mark the route to it with a guide line and, if necessary take injured sailors back to the checkpoint.

Waiting. Waiting is the worst. More waiting. I pity my two brothers of the first wave. If the fire would get too bad, the captain would just say, better two than three hundred, lock the hatches and flush the compartments with CO2. Then I realize the same could happen when it was our turn.

Then, finally, the round pressure hatch on the floor opens and the two guys come up, panting like marathon runners, visibly exhausted, black like chimney cleaners. Out of breath they report, nobody injured, no casualties as far as they could see, the fire is coming from the gear of starboard engine it seems, it’s extremely hot and visibility is zero, the hose is connected and rolled out, ready for second wave.

I don’t want to go in there. I really don’t. I have never been down there, with the smoke and in the dark I will have zero orientation in the narrow aisles. It’ll be a three dimensional maze, blindfolded, in literally burning heat. No fun game. Taking the mask down means immediate disqualification, i.e. death by suffocation. The ship is rolling badly in the seas. I don’t know if I am nauseous from seasickness or from sheer fear. But I know I cannot hold it much longer.

“Second wave, get ready!”, the officer’s voice hardly makes it to my brains.

Fear! Yes, I am afraid! I admit to myself. But don’t panic, Maik, not now!! Don’t panic!! I take off my mask one more time and throw up into my bag that all of us carry for that purpose. Pheew, I already feel better. I hope that gets me through the next twelve minutes. The ship is rolling heftily.

I put my mask and my helmet back on and activate my air bottle. My partner and I shake hands, then we put on our over-dimensional gloves and we get ready by the floor hatch.

“Second wave, go!” and calmly but clearly audibly “Good luck, boys!”, it is the voice of the STO, the Ship’s Technical Officer, number three onboard, a big friendly father-type guy, nothing in the world would ever get him worried. He came down here. Wow!

An NCO opens the hatch and screams at us “Go, go, go! Faster!!” I promise to myself I will have a word with that asshole if and when I make it back up here, he is one of the newbies, just came from NCO training. I don’t give a damn if he is of a higher rank than me. Assholes come in all ranks, and here on Destroyer Rommel we don’t tolerate that. We are going to teach this guy the Rommel spirit, perhaps with a little physical emphasis, but first we have a fire to kill.

With difficulty we slip through that hatch and crawl down the ladder, I have that line in my hand that should guide us to the scene. I see how the hatch is closed and locked on top of us. These hatches are massive. And they are fire, water and air tight – good for everyone on the other side.

We arrive on the next floor, not too much smoke here yet, the red emergency lights throw a spooky light on our path. We open another door and climb down another companion way, open another hatch and we are swallowed by impermeable wades of hot smoke. We cannot see shit! We are getting broiled alive in our fire protection gear. My buddy closes the hatch behind us. Slowly, hand over hand we keep following our guide line into hell’s precipice. 

Finally we find the hose. We can see the flames now. It is not a big fire after all, but it produces so much smoke! Unbelievable!! We easily manage to extinguish it, at first we cannot believe it, are looking for more fire sources. Then our time is up we have to return. Still I am afraid that they wouldn’t open that hatch for some reason. 

‘Better two than three hundred’, echoes in my head. ‘Bad for you if you’re one of the two. Not your day, I guess.’

But as we return and knock on the hatch above our heads the same asshole that chased us in opens it and slowly we return back to the surface, back to life! We take the masks down, I report: 

“We killed one fire, we believe it was only one source. Plenty of smoke, extreme heat.” 

Then I hear “Third wave, go!”, and my partner and I hug in sheer relief:

“Happy birthday, happy birthday!”

I know, this was a long story that had little to do with Seefalke and its voyage, and I did not even mention that I was rewarded with two days extra vacation. But this is what I remember when I have to do something that I am afraid of, my ultimate frightening experience.

And here it comes: When I need to do something I am afraid of, it helps me getting an order. 

An Order Helps

Voluntarily I would have never gone into that fire. But with the order from my superior officer it was much easier, in fact, I didn’t have any other choice, right?! So, even though this little episode was more than twenty years ago, I still use the very same trick: I give myself an order from a superior level, even and especially when I am by myself.

So, when I stand at Playa Tortugas in Cancun and watch into the dark, where somewhere my dinghy is tied to a derelict pile in the ocean, I hear my captain:

“Get ready to swim to the dinghy and take it back to the mothership!”

And then:

“Second wave, go! Good luck, boys!”

“Aye, cap!”

The ocean is calm. I am still wearing my heavy military boots. I won’t take them off for the swim. On land you may think they are heavy and drag you down, but in fact their buoyancy is almost neutral. Once in the water, you hardly feel them but they protect you from bad cuts, especially when you swim around derelict piers and other structures that have barnacles as sharp as razor blades. 

I wade into the black mass until the water is hip deep. It’s warm. Not too bad. Then I start swimming into the direction in which I reckon my dinghy. Against the pitch black night sky I cannot see anything, I cannot even make out the horizon. Or anything that stands out, like a grey Zodiac for example. 

After an eternity I reach the buoys, but I still cannot see my dinghy. I stop and think for a short moment. I turn around. I see the street lamps, I try to remember which bearing I took when I first got here. Then I think I am too far left and head right, along the row of buoys. And yes, after a few more minutes of swimming I see the grey shape of my dinghy standing out against the black mass of water and sky. Exhausted but relieved I pull myself into the inflatable Zodiac. I take off my soaking wet clothes, crank the motor and head back to the mothership that is anchored a few hundred meters out there in the bay.

Back on board, I call my imaginary crew onto the stern deck and brief them:

“We’ll weigh anchor at first daylight tomorrow. We will cross the Gulf of Mexico to Mobile, Alabama. That will be a week’s passage. There is one tropical storm ahead of us in the north and one inbound further south. We will have good winds between the two and the Yukatan current is our trump, but timing is important.”

Then I give my orders:

“Clear the deck! Stowe the dinghy! Check the engine! Get the ship ready to set sail first thing tomorrow morning!”

Not that I am afraid of doing all that. I am just too damn tired to do it all by myself – without captain’s command. 

Seefalke Is Ready to Go