Greetings Boat Dudes!
Iím QM1 (SW/CC) Howie Nash. I served in Harbor Patrol Unit (HPU), Combat Craft Division, Republic of Panama in the mid 80ís and SBU-26 of the same locale, in the early 90ís.
HPU was started in 1978, primarily to provide High Value Transit (HVT) capabilities for US Navy vessels of sensitive nature transiting the canal. Most of these vessels where submarines due to their lack of defensive capabilities when surfaced and in highly restricted waterways. High profile ships, such as the Battleships, where also escorted through. Civilian ships carrying sensitive materials were occasionally escorted as where any nuclear powered surface ships, such as cruisers.
The nature of the confines of the canal required this type of attention. Small craft attack was the primary danger. Operations could and were often practiced from the many islands that dot Gatun Lake, the largest part of the transit, or from the lock walls from where one could simply lob ordinance into a relatively small area. At times, HPU Crewman or US Army assets would be positioned on or near the lock walls.
The escort element consisted of one PCF and two PBRís. All boats and weapons were fully loaded with live rounds. The Navy and SOUTHCOM took HVTís extremely seriously.
Life in the Locks
Imagine, and old steel helmet, Vietnam era flak jacket, full uniform (No T-shirts allowed), pulling on, or easing out lock lines (150 ft mooring lines), in the hot tropical sun. All the while, gazing at the top of the lock wall for trouble. The Locks, for lack of a better word, in fact, sucked.
Maneuvering in the locks was perilous at best, down-right life threatening at worst. Only once had I ever locked with just our craft. All others were with at ship. If the HVT started on the Caribbean side, we locked from Rodman with civilian vessels sharing the lock. Millions of gallons of fresh water are required to lock just one vessel through the canal. Not justified for 3 small boats.
When locking up, the boats took position astern of the primary vessel. The boats always positioned on the outer wall of the lock. The PCF was first against the wall and when lock lines were secured around the bollards by canal workers, the first PBR would moor to the PCF, the last PBR moored to the other PBR.
The outboard PBR was not a prized position as you will soon discover. The PBRís sent one crewman over to the PCF to assist taking in the slack from the lock line as the water level rose. There was a bit of a delay after the level in one lock was balancing with the one forward. Here comes the fun part! After the PBR guys returned to the boats, the outboard PBR cast off. During this, the Ship ahead of you, your transiting with, has begun to turn her screw(s). There may be as little as 100 feet between the stern of the ship, and the lock doors behind you. I have seen many a PBR captain spin out of control and at worst one guy, who shall be nameless (K-Dog) was slammed into the lock doors.
Why not wait for the ship to move ahead sufficient space you ask? Well the canal is a business and time is money. In addition the first boat cast of in one lock is the last nested in the next. You got to let that PCF get out and in front as soon as possible. I myself fore went the glamour of spinning around like a Boatswainís Mate (Ooops, Did I say that?!) and I bee lined for the opposite wall, having my Forward Gunner, Tom Craig, Toss an eye over the closest bollard, and take a couple turns until the other boats got ahead. No embarrassment for Nasty.
Down locking was equally as fun. Here you were in front of the primary vessel, say, a PANAMAX (name speaks for itself. Those bad boys juuuuuust squeak by the lock walls. Now youíre in front of a ship that canít pass a wake down its sides while moving into position. All the water displaces forward. That means the PCF guy better be good and quick or the second, and mostly, third boat are hung out to dry. Twice, as you guessed it, as mister outboard, I had to steer to the stern of the PCF and have the boys walk me around because the PCF Captain didnít hit the sweet spot the first time.
In the Lake, it is important that you understand that the axis of the canal runs along the old Chagres River, bed. The Lake is manmade so, all the islands you see are actually hilltops. Outside the bouy lines are up to 70 ft tree stumps of the nice tropical hardwood typed. Our boats could pass over most areas with ease, especially the PBRís but certainly not the ships.
When not in the locks, the idea was to not let any vessel except the pilot and shipís husbandry boats between you and the package. The PCF was usually ahead of the package checking out the coves and inlets into the Lake as well as do the best it could to corral other boats away from the package. Ultimately, it was the PBRís that bore the responsibility, positioning their boats between the ship and other watercraft. Civilians get so awestruck, looking at a Boomer, they forget what they are dealing with. Mostly Europeans and Americans transiting on their sailboats.
The Mighty Ohio
Let me tell you how fast an Ohio-Class can go. The sub skipper wanted to get though the Lake quick so, BMC Pete Armstrong in PCF-4, decided the better part of valor was to take up the portside of the sub, EN1 Wyatt ĒGritĒ Hart took up the starboard side. Pete told me to take position astern, as this was my first HVT as Boat Captain of PBR-3, and if I fell behind, they would wait for me at Gatun Locks. I thought, ďFall Behind? Get Real!Ē well of course I did, but I wasnít so Far behind that I didnít miss seeing the entire bottom of Gritís PBR-1. The sub moved so fast that Grit had to ride his bow wake. Waaaay different than a surface shipís wake well he did the smart thing and spun out of the wake just before he was sucked under. All I saw was red bottom paint on a sideways boat. The canopy nearly collapsed and the whole boat was douched but, no harm, no foul. Except GMG1 Mike Wysocki. He was sitting on the forward part of the cabin. He didnít budge during the whole affair. He was white knuckling the canopy frame where it joins the cabin. I know everybody on that boat pissed their pants, you just couldnít tell as they were all soaked.
Iíll tell some more history of HPU, especially itís coming of age from just an escort service to the transition to SBU-26, soon.