‘Steaming to Djibouti’ colorfully captures life on bygone supply ship

USNS Supply
USNS Supply
USNS Supply (T-AOE 6) delivers pallets to the guided-missile destroyer USS Roosevelt during a patrol in the Atlantic Ocean in May. Regardless of a ship’s class, commissioning date or technological capability, underway replenishment remains a dangerous job that is not for the faint-hearted.

On my third day on board USNS Shinnecock (T-AOK 1) we rendezvoused with the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, better known by its moniker “Big John,” for a major UNREP. Underway replenishment, or UNREP in the vernacular of the specialty, is a critical necessity required to keep the combatant ships ready and in the fight. Moreover, it is also one of the most dangerous, if not the most dangerous operation, for ships at sea.

UNREP is not for the faint of heart. You will routinely find up to a combined 165,000 tons of three large moving masses operating less than 200 feet from each other, high-tension wires overhead carrying tons of cargo, the movement of petroleum at rates up to 15,000 gallons per minute through flexible rubber hoses, and crewmen working on deck and/or under the fuselage of specialized aircraft with their spinning rotors feet from their heads. Even more amazing is the fact that the massive amount of total tonnage, in the form of up to three vessels, is physically connected by wires. In the end, the ultimate goal of UNREP is the safe and efficient transfer of the maximum amount of liquid and/or solid cargo in the least amount of time, while not interfering with the combatant vessel’s mission and enabling the Navy ship to remain on station indefinitely.

After the rigs are across (connecting the ships), the UNREP stations must put their wires in tension. That is yet another critical point. As Shinnecock rams down on each station’s hydraulic ram tensioner, the helmsman can actually feel the ships being pulled together! That’s correct, the 100,000-ton John C. Stennis and the 50,000-ton Shinnecock are being pulled together by these powerful wires under unbelievable tons of tension. The UNREP teams on both sides are at great risk of injury and even death if one of these wires should part. But there is nothing that can be done; it is inherent to the job.


Directly centerline on the bridge, Shinnecock had a true telemotor ship’s wheel. This was a beast, at 5 feet in diameter with the top damn near as high as I am tall. Steering with this, one would feel like he was on an old clipper ship sailing across the Atlantic. Now a telemotor helm uses hydraulic fluid and pumping action within the helm to send the fluid all the way down to the six-way valve in the steering engine room, which sat atop the rudderstock and operated the huge hydraulic rams, which in turn would move the rudder. So every time the helmsman would turn the telemotor ship’s wheel, he would actually be pumping hydraulic fluid all the way down to the rams which move the rudder. As you can imagine, there are limitations such as the viscosity of the hydraulic fluid, the speed or rate of the turn of the helm corresponding with that of the actual rudder stock.

Adjacent to starboard of the telemotor helm was the hand electric helm console. This consisted of a stand with a small ship’s wheel the size of a car steering wheel, as well as some controls for automatic steering. This was called the “iron mike” or just “the mike.” This wheel was much, much smaller because it was not a pump moving hydraulic fluid to the six-valve to move the rams. Rather, the hand electric would send an electric signal down to the six-way valve, which would then direct the hydraulic rams to move the rudder. The hand electric with automatic controls was considered state of the art.

Nevertheless, old Jabba the Hutt (the captain) was too, I don’t know, what’s the word … foolish, idiotic, moronic, what have you, to ever use the damn thing. No, not this genius. He had these poor helmsmen toil away on the telemotor, physically moving the hydraulic fluid manually via the ship’s wheel. It’s not an exaggeration to have a helmsman drenched in sweat after an hour and a half on the wheel in any type of sea. I guess I neglected to mention, at this time in history, captains were judge, jury and executioner on board — the last true autocracy remaining. This, of course, would change within the next 15 years with the advent of the internet, email and satellite phones. But when I signed aboard Shinnecock, the captain’s word was gospel and once the ship was out of sight of land, there was no recourse.


After I met my watch team, I went about my watch duties, one of them being the logbook. At the time, MSC (Military Sealift Command) kept a running logbook on 8-by-14-inch lined sheets with carbon paper sandwiched between a white page and a yellow page. This was far different from the typical U.S. merchant marine commercial required logbook, also known as a rough log, which, kept by the watch officers, was bound and had just a small section for writing pertinent notes of the watch. In addition, the master kept a similar logbook, called the smooth log. The logbook was sacred and pages could never be ripped out of the binding or, God forbid, rewritten over and over to the satisfaction of the master. This was not the case with the MSC logbooks at the time. The daily running log could continue in perpetuity. As long as events continued within that particular 24 hours, the recording would continue page upon page, all the while written in script, or what is now called cursive — and neatness counted!

Interestingly enough, if any of the watch officers made too many mistakes or didn’t write neatly enough, that particular watch officer would actually have to rewrite the entire log for that day. In addition, that one officer would even have to rewrite the sections written by the other officers that had no errors, then hunt them down to get them to sign their name. This was mind-boggling. I couldn’t fathom it — rewriting logbooks? It was drilled into our heads at Fort Schuyler that no logs can be altered or tampered with, or gasp … rewritten. This apparently did not apply to MSC; in fact, rewriting was so common it was often the butt of jokes. For those new third officers like myself, it took a while to learn the art of MSC logbook writing, and in my case, I was known as “the king of the rewrites.” Further, it was the second officer who made the determination if a rewrite was necessary. Ultimately, the master would approve the logs, but the second officer wouldn’t let anything but perfect logs make it to the captain’s desk.

At the end of the voyage, the second officer would separate the copies from the originals, then apply a two-hole punch to the top and metal tabs to bind all the pages together. The original would go to MSC and the copy would remain on the ship — certainly not how I was trained in the art of logbook keeping.            

Capt. Sean P. Tortora, a master mariner with 25 years of experience at sea, conducted more than 2,000 underway replenishment evolutions during his career. He is now an associate professor in the Department of Marine Transportation at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. “Steaming to Djibouti” is available at Red Penguin Books (www.redpenguinbooks.com).

By Professional Mariner Staff