The Junior Officer of the Deck walked to the port side chair, and with the OOD looking over her shoulder started her report, “Captain, JOOD, I have a contact report.”
“Captain, we’re on course 345 at 12 knots. I have a contact twenty degrees right of the bow at 24,000 yards. Contact has a target angle of five degrees left with a slight right to left drift. Closest point of approach is in 20 minutes at 1500 yards off the left beam. Recommend coming right to course 000 to open the CPA.”
The Captain considered this for a long moment with his eyes still closed before asking, “How long until the next launch?”
“Fifteen minutes, sir.”
“And where are the winds?”
“Um. 340, sir,” she replied, reddening slightly, grateful for the darkness. Altering course to starboard would only bring the contact back to the bow when the carrier turned into the wind for the launch.
A long pause: Reflection? Rebuke?
The JOOD walked to the bridge-to-bridge transceiver and gathered her thoughts briefly while grimacing in the darkness: The civilian mariners who ply the waters of the Arabian Gulf are not known for their disciplined use of BTB comms, she reflected, and many of them were inclined to make juvenile and even disgustingly suggestive replies to the sound of an American English-accented, female voice wafting through the ether. It was a feature of life here in the Gulf that the JOOD had accustomed herself to without ever truly forming an appreciation for – sexist pigs, she thought. She waved impatiently aside the momentary desire to pass the mic to the OOD and let him make the call – this was her task.
In his port side chair, the Captain reached his across his chest in the darkness with his right arm, away from prying eyes and pinched the skin above his own ribs hard between thumb and forefinger, trying to become more fully awake. It had been such a long day. Such a long, long series of days. He had become suddenly so very tired with the setting of the sun, a kind of fatigue that had been an almost physical blow – “Boats,” he croaked to the Boatswain’s Mate of the Watch,
“Get me a cup of coffee, will you?”
“Aye-aye, sir,” replied the bosun, marching off to the starboard side bridge wing.
He must be fully awake – these kinds of interactions occured every night, sometimes as many as a dozen times in a night, and any one of them could go wrong in the blinking of an eye. The ship herself would not be damaged in the least by a collision with one of these wisps of bark of course, but a dhow would be snapped to kindling by the merest brush of the carrier’s hull, taking her crew to the swirling bottom along with the Captain’s own career and the ship’s reputation, inextricably intertwined as the two were. Not for the first time the CO marveled at the apparent carelessness with which the local fishermen sailed these seas in utter darkness in much the same manner as they had for a thousand years or more; no radios, no radars, little in the way of lighting and nothing but the frailest of craft to protect them from the greedy, inrushing Sea. You’d think they’d want to get out of the way of a hundred thousand ton aircraft carrier bearing down on them out of the darkness, lights blazing, warning horn blaring its five short blasts of the hazard alarm, but every night the smaller contacts they would encounter maintained a kind of disinterested passivity, the local habit of fatalism summed up in a word, “inshallah.”
If it be God’s will…
He heard the JOOD speak into the bridge-to-bridge VHF, thought to himself, “She’s a fine officer, will do well,” and wondered briefly how his own daughter was doing back at home, back with her mother in Norfolk. In her middle adolescence, the relationship between the two of them had become strained and striving. He wondered how all of that would turn out, and what part he had to play in it: “Not much, from here.” Back to work.
“Unknown vessel 35 miles southwest of Bushehr, course 190, speed five, this is a United States Navy warship off your port bow for 11 miles. I am currently conducting flight operations and restricted in my ability to maneuver. Request you alter your course to the southeast to maintain a safe distance, over.”
The JOOD unkeyed the mike, awaiting the contact’s improbable reply – none of these little dhows seem to have radios and few that did spoke English – while steeling herself for the inevitable jeering from the bridges of those merchants large enough to have both VHF radios and English-speaking crewmen, or at least, those who spoke a kind of English. These latter were not long in coming, and even while they were the sort of routinely revolting displays of inanity to which she had become accustomed, they were yet the more frustrating given her pressing need to hear some sort of reply from the contact vessel as the range continues to close, to engage in a mutually advantageous contract to avoid a collision. An aircraft carrier is not a frigate, she thought to herself. We cannot turn this thing on a dime, nor stop it at will, and the launch is not so very far away. This ship must be into the wind at launch time. She leaned over the squawk box, selected the watch center of the CO’s Tactical Operations Plot, a darkened radar room just aft of the bridge and spoke into the box, saying, “COTOP, get me a lat/long for Skunk Bravo Echo.”
She selected a different pushbutton on the squawk box, “Lookouts, Bridge, what have you got on the bow, 005 relative? Should be just hull up.”
“Bridge, lookouts, single white light 005 relative,” and after a pause, “No bearing drift.”
Great: A dhow for sure, constant bearing, decreasing range – collision course. No radio, no radar, no clue and no care. Still there was a form to follow, and COTOP had called back with coordinates of the contact:
“Unknown vessel in vicinity of twenty-eight degrees, forty-two minutes north, fifty degrees, forty-five minutes east, course 190, speed 5 knots, this is a United States Navy warship ten miles off your port bow. I am engaged in flight operations and restricted in my ability to maneuver. Request you contact me on this frequency and alter your course to the southeast to maintain a safe distance, over.”
Unkeyed the mic: Catcalls, hoots, howls, jeers and obscene suggestions. She frowned, thinking, cast a furtive glance at the Captain in his chair. Ten minutes to launch.
Half an hour previously, the FA-18 squadron CO had wrapped up his brief, looking at his wingman, a troubled young aviator in the form of a lieutenant junior grade, one of many such as he had seen either sink or swim in the course of his long career. For the first time now, he was seeing one of these from the uniquely powerful, responsible – and yes, he thought: Accountable – vantage point of command. The squadron CO was in the position now, as his predecessors had been before him, of being quality control, the one man who could and would ultimately decide this young man’s fate. That is, the CO reflected, if he didn’t kill himself first behind the ship. With an encouraging smile on his face but cool evaluation in his eyes he’d said to the young man, “Just about walk time. Ready to get this done?”
The JG had lifted his chin a touch, almost defiantly, while smiling in return – a smile that somehow did not quite make it all the way to his own eyes – and replied, “Yes sir. Let’s do it!”
Now both sat in their turning fighters on the flight deck thinking their private thoughts. Their start, post-start and pre-taxi checklists were complete, and they’d each of them given the thumbs-up to their aircraft directors. The yellow shirts in turn stood patiently in front of the fighters on the cat track, lighted wands crossed in front of them, signaling, “Hold brakes,” and looking aft for the visual signal from the midships Fly-2 petty officer to send their charges aft, back to the waist catapults.
Of the drama playing itself out in slow motion on the bridge, they had no knowledge.