Chicken of the Sea

Shortly before reporting for duty on my first ship in 1963, she was involved in a collision in San Francisco Bay. According to my shipmates, the captain (a well politically connected naval reserve commander) was heard to say to the exec as collision was imminent,”Well, John, there goes my fourth stripe”. As the Navy cliché goes, a collision can ruin your day. To make matters worse, the captain had just taken command, and this was his first voyage, from Adak, Alaska to San Franscisco.

I reported to the USS Aeolus (ARC-3) as a boot ensign, fresh from 90-day wonder school (Naval OCS) in March 1963. In a few months time, I qualified as OOD.

As an Officer of the Deck, one basically drives the ship on a watch, typically four hours. Obviously, the CO has to sleep (for example), or has other things to do. As OOD we were required to keep the captain informed of any threats to the ship’s well being, threats such as another ship which might collide with us on the open ocean, or worsening weather. On this particular night, my standing orders were to notify (awaken) the skipper if another ship was projected to pass within three miles or so, or the barometer had fallen by a certain amount. Both of these circumstances occurred. I called down the voice tube to his stateroom to report them.

Shortly aferward, the captain appeared on the bridge. I briefed him on the other ship in the vicinity; he appeared not to be listening. The better part of a minute went by with silence. Then, he said to me in a shaky voice, “Mr. Canaff. Right full rudder”. I barked the order to the helmsman, and the ship began to turn. After what seemed a long time, he said, “Steady on 180” which was, basically, returning to port in Kittery, Maine. His short explanation? The drop in barometer portended a hurricaine!

The captain, who had spent most of his career in the (relatively calm) Pacific, was deathly afraid of the climate in the North Atlantic. To prepare himself, he had enrolled in a correspondence course on weather, and had learned that a sudden drop in air pressure often portended a tropical storm, nor’easter, or worse. He wanted no part of that!

After a couple of other instances of aborting missions because of (not so) foul weather, the type commander relieved him, and he was given command of a naval training center in the Midwest, safely far from salt water. Not before, however, the crew labelled him King Tuna, Chicken of the Sea.

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