Diesel Fuel, Sadness, and Sportfishing

Had a packed schedule this weekend. It began Saturday morning in Norfolk, at Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, where members of Langley Yacht Club were treated to a tour of the USS Whidbey Island. The ship’s captain, in addition to running 17,000-ton warships, is also a mean Sunfish racer, and so he became connected with our club.

The Whidbey’s designation is “LSD-41,” and it is classified as a “Dock Landing Ship.” So why isn’t it designated “DLS-41?” Ask the Navy.

The captain, CDR Rule, says the LSDs are the most versatile platforms in the Navy. They have a huge roll-on cargo hold (apologies if that is not the proper Navy term for the area) that is specifically designed to carry a particular type of amphibious assault craft but which can carry all manner of cargo. They have flight decks capable of handling Osprey. And their 23mm automated guns plus Rolling Airframe Missile systems provide a significant defense capability. Rule compares them to pickup trucks. “You can do anything you want with them, depending upon how you load them,” he says.

While CDR Rule was off doing captain stuff, ENS Neece showed us around. If the Navy knows what’s good for it, it will put ENS Neece in its recruitment materials. Fresh out of Georgia Tech, she is sunshine in blue coveralls. We asked lots and lots of questions, and ENS Neece patiently answered all that she could, smiling all the while. We visited the onboard medical facilities, the mess, the flight deck, and at one point we saw the cargo/launching deck (in the place where all the big stuff is carried).

Lt Pagan led the tour of the big-stuff area, including the truck-sized turntable where vehicles are re-directed when driving via ramps between the upper deck and the lower. He gets excited when talking about the ship’s primary mission of launching amphibious assault craft and suggests you look up “AAV launch” on YouTube. I did. It’s pretty cool. The assault craft get up as much speed as they can muster to clear the end of the tailgate without bumping their rear ends. The ride in the water is not so much fun, Pagan says, because the vessels are entirely enclosed, and they move rather slowly to shore, bobbing along the way. Inside, he says, “It smells like diesel fuel and sadness.” It didn’t sound like something I wanted to try. The few times I’ve been seasick have mostly coincided with times I was inside a vessel. Out on deck, with the horizon as a reference and fresh air to be had, I’m usually okay.

Pics from the USS Whidbey Island tour can be found here (click on the picture below):

After the ship tour, I dropped off the kids at Camp Grandma, then drove up to Gloucester to pick up a piece of electronic equipment I’ll probably discuss in some later post. Although that was already a fair bit of driving for one day, I then packed and headed down to the Outer Banks for a guy’s weekend outing to which my friend Sean had invited me some months ago. It was to be an offshore fishing trip, my first in something like ten years, and my first ever on a big boat–We were going out on a 55-foot Hatteras-style sportfisherman, the Obsession.

I made it down to Nags Head and met Sean and his buddies, Tony and Dave, at a cottage owned by Dave’s family. Tony is the most experienced offshore fisherman of the bunch and has been going out on Obsession for 20 years. He and the captain, Jeff Russ, are friends. Later, Chris and Jeff would arrive. These five guys, all fellow employees of a prominent area business, had all made this same trip last year, and I was invited this year because another coworker had been forced to drop out. Six is apparently just the right group size for this boat. Works for me–They are a good bunch.

We dedicated Saturday evening and all of Sunday to manly battle preparation rituals. We meditated at the beach. We ate seafood, symbolically mastering our adversary. We shared tales of past exploits (aka “lies”). We purchased provisions (fried chicken, beer). We stole nervous glances at the weather reports on our phones (there was a bit of a breeze building). We consumed Meclizine, beer, and, in Dave’s case, Bloody Marys. He is very partial to all things spicy and, in addition to being a part-time restaurateur on the side, he also sells his own line of powdered peppers. Busy fellow.

Monday morning, we were ready. We made our show time at the dock, just after 0400. We met Joe, the mate. We loaded our gear aboard the boat. Without speaking a word about it, we were all ignoring the weather reports our phones were giving us. And then the captain, Jeff, came down from the flying bridge and gave us a bit of a talk.

“Fellas,” he said, “What do you want to do? There’s a gale warning. Technically, we’re not supposed to go out.”

Well, hell. There it was. Out in the open. We all turned to look at Tony, our old salt.

“What the hell are y’all looking at me for?” he said.

We asked Jeff what spots he had remaining for the rest of the summer season (he fishes out of Mexico during the winter). He had none. That didn’t really matter, since it was unlikely the six of us would be able to find another weekend that we all had free and clear without months of advance notice.

It was really a foregone conclusion. My friend Carey, of whom I’ve spoken several times, once did a stint in the Army, which may or may not have been court-ordered (one of those life details he liked to leave shrouded in mystery). During his Army stint, Carey had occasion to jump out of perfectly good airplanes. In persuading young men to engage in such lunacy, he said the Army took advantage of a well-known small group dynamic, which was this: A small group is braver than an individual, and it is braver than a large group. So you send small groups of men to do stupid things.

My reasoning on this phenomenon is as follows: An individual will calculate risks and rewards and do what is rational. In a large group, individuals are somewhat free to act as individuals because they feel anonymous within the crowd; they therefore make the similarly self-interested calculations and voice them without shame. In a small group of men, however, the matter of “face” becomes paramount. Small groups of men will talk themselves into doing very stupid things, simply out of fear of losing face among their peers. The Army knows this fact and uses it to its advantage.

Slightly off-topic–This is why you never want foreign policy to be dreamed up in any sort of tight-knit cabal which, unfortunately, is where foreign policy is most often formed.

Even further off-topic, we could delve into Sparta’s encouragement of homosexual bonding.

Back to the matter at hand, we said, “We’ll go if you’ll go.”

Captain Jeff came up with the following plan: Since he was docked in Manteo, inside the Albermarle Sound a few miles north of the Oregon Inlet, which leads out upon the big blue ocean, he usually left the dock a little earlier than the other captains. He proposed to drive the boat down to the inlet and, by the time he got there, he would know if any other captains were going out. If none were, he would turn back around. You see, the captains look out for each other out on the water, and none of them ever wanted to be out there alone (never mind that the captains have their own little small group dynamic working). If all we got was a boat ride to the inlet and back, he would ask only a small amount of money for fuel. If we headed to the Gulf Stream, however, our entire charter fee was forfeit, no matter how long we were able to stay out there. As the mate Joe said, the fuel by then was already burned.

So we pulled away from the dock and began the relatively pleasant trip, inside the sound of course, down to the inlet, still wondering if we were going to make it out to sea. We had to sit inside the cabin when the boat was at speed, because them’s the rules, but the big sliding doors leading out to the cockpit were left open, and that was a mercy. After about twenty minutes of tooling down the sound, the boat banked left, and we saw the Bonner Bridge go by overhead. We were through the inlet and out in the ocean. Captain Jeff had found some buddies to go with him. We were committed.

And that’s when the rockin’ and rollin’ started. Although it was still pitch black out, there were lights along the shoreline, so I used those as a reference to keep my eyes on the horizon. I managed to hold it together, but a few in the party began passing the plastic garbage bag around. It was then that it struck me.

That smell? It was diesel fuel and sadness.

The trip out to the Gulf Stream at 20-odd knots is about an hour and a half this time of year. I actually slept part of it, but I was awake during enough of it to be amazed by the way Joe, the mate, danced around outside on deck, wielding a wickedly sharp Dexter fillet knife to cut a bonito into bait chunks. He then rigged up a bunch of ballyhoo for trolling, still skipping around on that heaving deck. At various points in my life I have had pretty good sea legs, but I don’t think they’ve ever been THAT good. Joe, it turns out, has been fishing 17 years, to include not only sport fishing but commercial fishing as well. We’re talking Grand Banks, Perfect Storm stuff, and he has the stories to go with it, including the time he had basically decided to make his peace, donning a survival suit in the midst of 18-foot swells, all of the glass in the bridge blown out, having crested one wave only to plow through the next and expecting to pitch-pole before it was over…yeah, so today wasn’t all that special to him. But I was suitably impressed.

Well, we made it. We arrived at the Gulf Stream, and Jeff began paralleling the sea grass that collects on the edge of the stream. We all got our sea legs under us, and our afflicted members recovered from their seasickness. And by God we fished. Successfully, too–we put 21 mahi mahi on the boat. All different sizes, from a big honker that Jeff and Chris hooked simultaneously down to a couple of little ones that Dave and I caught. Together they weighed in at more than 200 pounds of fish, before cleaning. It was not a bad day at all. We did cut the day slightly shorter than Jeff would normally do, but it was only because he heard the winds south had gone from 20-25 knots up to 25-30 knots, so it was the right call. Back at the dock, he thanked us for talking him into doing something stupid. If only all such decisions turned out so well.

Pics from the fishing trip can be found here (click on the picture below):