We don’t write books or make movies about the men and women who drive ships any more. But maybe we should.
There’s nothing quite like it. There’s no peace like the peace you step into when you walk out onto the bridge wing to see a million stars, brighter than you’ve ever seen poking holes in the pitch black sky. And the only sound is the slow crash of the bow as it plunges through the rolling sea, casting off that eerie green glow. The smell of burnt coffee and the taste of Copenhagen seep into you as you wedge yourself in next to the empty captain’s chair to keep your eyes on the horizon for a while because you’ve got a thousand miles behind you and a thousand more to go on en route to places unknown, no course change for days.
That’s the beauty when it’s slow. And quiet.
When it’s not, it’s frantic. It’s living geometry. It’s the constant math of your speed and your heading and how long you have until your next decision. Because when you’re moving that unforgiving monster, wrong decisions are expensive. You only get to make them once. You’ve got one eye on the channel, one eye on the traffic, one eye on the aircrafts landing on you and one eye on the bottom of wherever you are. Because if you don’t keep enough space between you and anything else or enough water under you, it’s all over for someone. You’re standing on 9,000 tons of steel and machinery plowing through the water with the force of a couple hundred tractor trailers. Mastering it is the height of man’s mastery over physics.
It’s a hell of a task.
But that’s not the hardest part. The hardest part is the life. It’s living, forever, stuck one foot in two worlds. Bored or stressed. Nothing in between. It’s coming off the bridge of the ship at 7Am after five hours of watch and walking into the blinding light of the wardroom to eat and start your day. Because the ship and your team don’t care that you were up all night driving. The shaft is still turning and the war is still going. So you try to gut your way until noon and the fatigue starts to shut you down whether you like it or not. Then you grab what sleep you can, hope that nothing your team runs breaks and get ready to do it again on the mid-watch.
Six on, eighteen off. Six on. Twelve off. The days blur together. You talk on the radio in your sleep. And you run drills so often you can still remember the cadence of your tasking fifteen years later as you sit down to write a blog post about it.
I did three deployments in the ten years I served on active duty as a surface warfare officer in the Navy. Two attached to SEAL Team One. And one, on an Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer, the same class of ship as the USS Fitzgerald that collided with a Philippine flagged container ship off the coast of Japan a few days ago. Nothing about the two war time deployments I did in special operations took out of me what normal life on board that ship did. It’s gritty, brutal, thankless work. And it’s done by people who aren’t looking to cash in on a career of motivational speaking or book signing when they get done.
It’s done by hard men and women, often times with nowhere else in the world to turn.
It’s done by sailors.
I don’t have any idea what happened on the USS Fitzgerald when it collided with that massive merchant. But I have a pretty good idea what happened before it. And what happened after. Someone somewhere was putting up with a pace and a level of personal sacrifice few will ever know just to do the job of a sailor. And someone was running towards the rushing water and flooding compartments instead of away from them. Because they knew that’s the only way to keep the ship afloat.
That was their duty.
Ship. Shipmate. Self. The unfair code of the sailor.
Every time a ship of war pulls back into the harbor, it’s a celebration of the iron men and women who bring her in. It’s a damn hard life. Harder than you can imagine. The Fightin’ Fitz pulled in seven souls light this time. Honor them like fallen heroes. Because that’s exactly what they are.