Phil Garn - Ground Swell

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Phil G. Garn -  Ground Swell


Ground Swell

            In the late afternoon and behind schedule, we finished the post operational debrief on the ASDV, but everyone (SEALs, Boat Unit and  most of all SUBPAC) was generally pleased with the last couple of days of sub ops. (1)  I, then an Ensign (0-1) was really glad to get some topical steroids from the Diving Medical Officer for a rash on my forearms, most likely caused by the lanolin in my Wooly-pully sweater (2) before heading back to our Patrol Boat (PB) (3) with my POIC (4) EN1 Wylie. The brass and most of the SEALs were heading back to NAB (Naval Amphibious Base Coronado) by road helo (5) wafting at Oceanside Harbor leaving the ASDV and us to sail back on our own.

            The weather was making up rapidly, the sun was going down and our starboard engine was out (6). As soon as we hit the PB's deck and cast off, our bow was heading down the coast. It had been a long couple of days, no matter how hard EN -1 Wylie and EN 3 Towne tried, they just could not get the port engine back on line and all this hard work was happening while we were keeping the area clear of commercial and pleasure craft, so the SEAL's could practice locking in and out as well as deploying and recovering  CRRC's (combat rubber raiding craft). Heading south as fast as our two engines would carry us, maybe 20 knots, we felt bad for the guys in the flat bottomed ASDV who would be lucky to hit 12 knots with a full gale astern but were morel likely making 5 to 7 knots with the worsening weather. The seas built steadily which reduced our speed over ground, as well; and with darkness, there was not much in the way of that famous Southern California scenery to port.

            Wylie took the helm and was determined to take "his boat" all the way in. Though he had not had his formal qualification board yet, he considered the boat his, and I was there to just to satisfy regulations. In turn, my CO (O-5) had parked a Lieutenant (O-3) from SEAL Team-1 who we had been working with us onboard as senior line officer who had promptly fallen asleep as soon as the sun went down.

There was not a lot to do but watch the Loran Charlie(7)and plot our ever so slow progress. Wylie chain smoking (8) kept her dead on course, but we were a little too tired for banter and the clock just dragged. It was worse than third grade, watching the seconds slowly tick away all the while the wind and sea slowed us further. From time to time, I would go down below and check the engines. Port and centerline were fine but starboard was down hard for this trip. With the pitch and roll, diesel fumes and cigarette smoke below decks, the atmosphere was deadly, so I popped back up into the pilot house and poked my nose out into the reviving sea spray.

            It was monotonous calculation and recalculation as we literally inched our way down a storm darkened coast. Despite the chart, you couldn't see a single land mark: the Pacific Beach or Ocean Beach Piers, the Entrance to Mission Bay or the old weather station. I could only match the sweep on the scope to a few features on the chart which jibed with the latitude and longitude readings from the Loran Charlie. With the miniature computer, we thought the Loran Charlie was the cat's whiskers, and one of the few advantages the PB had over the Sea Fox (Special Warfare Craft Light). A few years in the future, SBU-12 would test out a rudimentary GPS who's round antenna was the size of a medium sided medicine ball, scope was as the size of our Furuno radar with a black box that was like a good sized Christmas present; now of course, they fit in the palm of your hand and have a lot more features. Dead on course, Wyle was an iron man at the helm all the way down.

            Finally, we could see the approach of Point Loma in the sweep of the scope but not the light in the dismal weather. Wylie and I were both silently recalculating how long until we hit the pier, then another hour of wash up before we ended this miserable op. Suddenly, we were swept high up and looking at the bottom of a very dark trough and the following swell was going to push us straight down and surely pitch us over.  Wylie said, "Mr. Garn, take it," catching me by complete surprise and stood aside.

            I took the wheel and backed off then reversed the throttles letting the massive roller move just ahead. "We've hit the ground swell," I told Wylie, which always magnified the sea conditions off Point Loma. Though this time it made the already big seas epic. I accelerated up the back of the wave and near the crest, again backed off letting an other gigantic roller break ahead. Running up the back, when I turned around I could see the white water at the lip behind us curling in a deadly snarl. We could barely see the dark outline of the Point and gradually the ground swell dissipated as we kept on the backs of the big rollers; but there were still white horses tails blowing off the white caps all around us even where the Point should have protected us.

            The wicked wind behind us gave us some extra knots as we curved around North Island. At the Carrier Piers, we called into the tower watch that our PB (I can't remember what her number was) had an engine out and we would definitely need some help on the pier (9). It was going to be tricky landing with the wind and our starboard engine out, so we had a pow-wow in the cockpit. The plan was pretty simple, I would line up on the pier and come in as slow as possible. Wylie would throw out the bow line at the pier head to the man on tower watch. As soon as the watch had the rope cleated, I would back down on port and centerline and get us along side. Towne would heave the stern line and get us along side. Once moored, we could walk her into position and tighten up the lines.

            We came in parallel and nearly neutral, the wind adding to our speed and the big sail area of the PB's pilot house reduced our ability to maneuver even more. Wylie was forward in the howling wind grabbing up the flaked down bow line as Towne scampered for the stern. We cold see the tower watchman bundled in green field coat catch the heavy bow line and begin to loop it around the black and yellow striped angled frame protecting the sand piper (10). What was this guy doing? This steel tube frame that protected the black pump head of the sand piper angled up to a gentile bend that paralleled the pier side. The bow line got no purchase and slipped right off the top of the frame.

            Despite the whipping weather, I heard Wylie howl curses as the line’s loop slipped off the sand piper's frame, while we rocketed toward the rip rap at the base of the pier. Wylie re-coiled the rope faster than any boatswains mate and tossed it back to Town, as he leapt for the pier. Town heaved it out to Wylie who pivoted and cleated it fast.  As soon as Wylie had a couple of turns, I backed down hard watching the spray light up the rip rap at the base of the pier. She slowly pushed against the wind and we swung snugly starboard side to. Towne scrambled aft and heaved the stern line which Wylie cleated in a flash.

            Before I had the engines in neutral, Wylie was ripping the pier watch, a seaman recruit just out of boot camp, a new one. I caught the part that he was just out of boot camp before I ran straight up to the duty shack at Squadron while our engines and Onan (generator) were still idling.  I burst in out of the storm and went directly off on the duty officer, a senior 0-3 from Squadron, what was he thinking. We called in with engine out and asked for help in plenty of time. Couldn't he see what a messy night it was? Why was a brand new guy on watch by himself? and I had come this close to putting her on the rocks, holding up a thumb and forefinger less than an inch apart. There wasn't anything more than a dumb look as the TV played in the back ground of the shack. I turned and headed back to the boat. We shut her down and grabbed our gear, the SEAL O-3 woke up and thanked us for the ride. The rest of the clean up could wait for tomorrow.

            The near tragedy at the pier always upset me more than the ground swell, because there I instantly knew what was happening and instinctively knew what to do having had numerous mentors at SBU-12 who showed me a thing or two (11); Wylie’s quick thinking and Towne’s fast action at the pier saved the day there. This team work is the very heart of the Boat Unit and SPECWAR, everyone helps each other to get the job done, in spite of the odds.  Wylie went on to pass his PBOIC board with flying colors and mentored many active and reserve crewmen. 

End Notes

1.  Submarine operations: SEAL operators would practice locking in and out of nuclear submarines at sea as well as deploying and recovering combat rubber raiding craft from submarines. During these training evolutions, the ASDV (a converted landing craft) with decompression chamber would stand by as primary safety platform while other Special Boat Unit [SBU] craft (65 foot Sea Specter Patrol Boats and 36 foot Sea foxes, Special Warfare Craft Light [SWCL]) would set up a perimeter and chase off any craft which came into the operational area. Like gun shoots (live fire exercises), there would often be a formal written warning in the Notice to Mariners, which no one ever seemed to read. 

Just a few months before this operation due to miscommunication, the ASDV had missed the rendezvous with the designated nuclear submarine, which sent a two star (0-8, Submarine Admiral) on the warpath threatening to cancel all of Naval Special Warfare (SEALs, Boats, SDV’s, the whole shooting match) which was then headed by a captain (0-6).

Fortunately cooler heads prevailed; however, there was a lot riding on this series of training evolutions. 

2. It was very common for Naval Special Warfare personnel to modify existing gear, buy or manufacture their own as well as wear a variety of high speed civilian gear. A number of SBU crewmen had British Woolly-pullys long before the US military adopted them. Gortex was another private purchase item, before it became issue. All manner of uniforms -South African- as well as web gear and harnesses (Israeli) were out there as well as Patagonia fleece sweaters.

Additionally, old uniforms were highly prized - CO's were known to break out their faded Vietnam era ERDL pattern camouflaged uniforms on exercises, tiger stripes and OD jungle uniforms with slanted pockets were highly prized by the guys coming back from PI detachments. Of course you never saw much of this pier side, where it was mostly blue & gold reversible t-shirts and UDT swim trunks much less  in the compound where it was greens (before cammies). 

3. The 65 foot Sea Specter Mk III Patrol Boat was always referred to as a PB (Pee - Bee)or the PB's. 

4. In the Special Boat Units, designations for the commander of a combatant craft were: Officer in Charge (OIC), Chief Petty Officer in Charge (CPOIC) or Petty Officer in Charge (POIC). OIC/CPOIC/POIC's ranged from Commanders (0-5, who were usually the CO’s or Commodores) to Third Class Petty Officers (E-4). For a craft to leave the pier, get underway, there was supposed to be a qualified OIC or POIC on board. Qualifications for POIC/OIC typically consisted of passing an oral board and an underway board conducted by the CO, XO and other OIC's/POIC's after a familiarization period with the craft or crafts. For some, the familiarization period was short and longer for others, while some never qualified. 

5.  Road Helo- a term for truck. This came from the BUD/S camp where when an actual helicopter was not available for an air extraction, the students would exfiltrate the exercise via road helo. 

6. It was not uncommon to loose an engine on PBs and continue on with training evolutions especially as they had three. It was less common for PCFs or SWCLs with two engines, but these boats would occasionally limp back from San Clemente, Pendleton or elsewhere on one. Occasionally, other major components would go down hard, from radar to radios, never-the-less the crews would often run and successfully complete missions despite these losses. ---You just had to get it done! 

7. Loran Charlie- this was an electronic navigation device that preceded GPS. The equipment used in the PB would give a digital latitude and longitude as well as speed over the ground. There were markings on the charts which cold be used ot fix positions (way points).

8. Smoking was still a part of the Navy in the 1980's and 1990's as was dip (smokeless tobacco). It was not uncommon to see ashtrays in the cabins of any Spec War boat. Below decks could be deadly, particularly in the PB. Senior men enjoyed torturing new guys, officers and enlisted alike, especially in big seas by smoking cigars or eating smoked oysters and occasionally dog food. Dog food came into SBU-12 when one of the guys mistakenly bought dog food thinking he was getting a bargain on stew at the Commissary for a trip out to San Clemente Island. For longer operations, crews bought coolers and lots of canned food: Dinty-Moore and Chef Boyardee were quite popular. Abalone and lobsters were always available at "the Island" (San Clemente). C rations though not providing a wide range were much more tasty than LRRP's or MRE's. Deployed, you always ate in the chow hall or in the mess when you could. 

9. The Duty Section rotated between Squadron (SBR-1), SBU-12 and SBU-13 personnel at NAB, Coronado. The duty section was responsible for collecting the message traffic, cleaning spaces, manning the phones and standing pier watch through out the duty day and night. Boats would call the tower located at the base of Pier's 12 and 13 when leaving and arriving. The tower watch kept a log and checked the moorings making sure boats did not get hung up, lines locked on a cleat or sink at their moorings. They were also supposed to help with mooring particularly if a boat was in trouble. However, crews took pride in handling their own boats and in the macho culture of Spec War asking for help was usually saved for extremis. 

10. Sand Piper: Sand Pipers were the nick names given to the bilge pump heads situated on the piers. Crews would attach hoses and pump out the oily bilges using these heads. Boats were not supposed to pump bilges pier side, in fact they were only supposed to do so off shore. Each head was protected by welded steel frames. These welded steel tubing that protected the pump heads was striped black and yellow. 

11. I only had one other instance, where a shipmate unexpectedly gave me the helm at an exciting time. This was several years later up at Pendleton doing high speed cast and recovery with Marine Recon. We were at the surf line running at full speed when a roller lifted us inside. I just blasted ahead and rocked us over the crest. There wasn’t enough time to check the fathometer. Needless to say the swimmers were not on line.