Someone’s nudging me awake. Did I miss my alarm? I swear I just fell asleep, squeezing in a few hours of rest before my watch at 2 a.m., when I will stand on the bridge for five hours in pitch darkness and drive the ship along an imaginary line.
I hate night watches.
The sea is frightening in the dark—I can never shake off the feeling I’m going to run the ship aground or just disappear into oblivion altogether.
“You awake?” one of the other junior officers holds my curtains open and leans his head into my rack, which, on a warship, feels more like a coffin than a bed. “The navigator is on the phone for you,” he whispers. “Seems important.”
It takes some practice to extricate oneself from a Navy rack, but after months on deployment, I manage it in one effortless movement. I weave through the tight corridors of my berthing, my path marked only by the dim red lights that illuminate a naval vessel at night, and reluctantly put the phone to my ear: “I need you up on the bridge,” Mike, our navigator, tells me. “We’re putting the RHIB in the water, and you got chosen to be the boat officer. Congrats.” “RHIB” stands for rigid-hull inflatable boat, a seven-meter powerboat that gets people to shore more quickly than mooring an 8,000-ton warship.
I’m quickly jolted out of my half-awakened state. We don’t drive the boat in the middle of the night unless there’s an emergency, and, last time I looked at the chart, we were sailing in circles in the middle of the eastern Mediterranean. “OK,” I answer. “I’ll be right there.”
The ascent to the bridge from “the Jungle,” even after tracing the route hundreds of times, has always been my least-favorite part of going on watch. Our berthing is aft of the ship—below the waterline, so low that we can hear the sea crash into the hull as we sleep.
It’s almost comforting.
It’s not natural for human beings to live on ships, after all, and no amount of modern comfort can make going out to sea for that long not fundamentally suck.
I scramble to the bridge, nearly at the other end of the ship and five decks up, in a matter of minutes. The bridge is completely darkened and I recognize its features only by the dim glow of its instrument panels. I’ve also spent close to a thousand hours up here, so I know this space intimately. Outside, there’s a large black landmass in front of us a few miles away.
I see Mike’s bulky frame hunched over the chart table as he motions for me to join him. “We’re closing in on Cyprus, and we’ll lower the RHIB about a mile from land,” he says. He points to my destination, a small harbor, on the chart. “You’re going here.” I find some blank paper and draw a crude chart of my own. The captain stands only a feet from us; he turns around and leans over the chart table with us.
“We’ve had a medical emergency,” he tells me. “When you get to land, there’ll be an ambulance waiting. Just get the boat there safely. You know what you’re doing?”
“Yes, sir,” I nod and grab a handheld radio before leaving the bridge.
When I reach the weather deck, a dozen sailors have already manned their stations to lower the RHIB. I’m expecting a horrifying scene, someone passed out or bloody, someone lying in a stretcher and clinging to life. Instead, I see one of our cooks, the one who works in the wardroom’s galley and makes the officers’ meals, dressed in civilian clothes. He appears composed, not looking at all like someone suffering a medical emergency. One of our corpsmen, the Navy term for a medic, stands besides him. I don’t ask questions. My job is to get him to shore. I can figure out the rest later.
The chief boatswain’s mate, meanwhile, is wrangling his small crew: “Tighten that lifejacket, there. Put on your chin strap. Tuck in your pant legs, shipmate.” He’s a large, intimidating man with a reputation for exactness and for always putting his sailors first. He likes to chide junior officers, too—respectfully, of course.
“Been waiting for you, sir!” he tells me as he tosses a lifejacket and a helmet into my arms. I ask him who else is going into the boat and if he knows what’s going on with our cook. He doesn’t.
I’m the only officer on the boat deck and I’ll take charge of the RHIB, but until it goes in the water, there’s no question that Chief Boats, as he is affectionately called, is in charge. Finally the officer of the deck on the bridge above orders us to unstrap the RHIB and swing it toward the ship’s gunwales so we can embark.
I step off the ship and directly onto the small boat, along with a coxswain, an engineer, a rescue swimmer, a corpsman, and the cook himself. For now we are still suspended about 20 feet over the sea’s black surface, held up by a wire and a few steadying lines. The ship moves slowly, about five knots, but I hear the infinite mass of water rushing against her.
I signal a thumbs-up to the chief boatswain’s mate, who directs, with his booming voice, his sailors to lower the boat into the water. The wire holding us above the darkness below unravels from its pulley, and we commence a slow descent, each of us firmly gripping the rails on the boat’s center console. After a few seconds, the boat’s rigid hull makes contact with the water. We untie the boat’s steadying lines, unhook the wire, and the coxswain throttles forward toward a strange, dark land.
The warship, visible by her green and white navigation lights on her starboard side, rapidly shrinks. Normally I love leaving the ship on deployment; this time, enveloped in darkness and powering through the water, it’s somewhat unsettling. Nobody speaks; the cook is despondent and appears ashamed, the way a child looks who’s just been scolded. “You all right?” I ask. He nods and manages a meek smile. About a mile away is a small harbor, clearly visible under the city’s lights. I don’t know what city it is. I don’t even know what language they speak in Cyprus, to be honest. I’m looking for a green buoy, one of the markers I drew on my paper chart, and soon I see its flashing green light come into view.
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We keep it on our starboard side and continue toward the rock piles that make up the breakwater; we find the opening between the rocks and enter the small harbor. Suddenly the water is still; the harbor’s lights dance on its surface. At one end there is a long wooden pier, and beyond that, in the parking lot, an ambulance waits as promised. After we tie the boat alongside the pier, the corpsman takes the cook by the arm, and together they hurry toward the ambulance. I follow closely behind; I’m responsible to the captain that his sailors make it safely to a hospital. That’s when I overhear their conversation and the mystery is broken.
The cook, earlier that night, had forced down nearly a bottle’s worth of aspirin in an apparent suicide attempt. Quickly wishing to reverse his decision, he rushed to the medical office and told the corpsman on duty. The ship’s entire medical team, alerted of the emergency, did their best to induce at least some of the poisonous stuff out of the patient’s stomach. With access to only limited equipment, however, the chief corpsman, and our captain, believed it prudent to send the cook to the nearest hospital to pump out the rest.
As I look on dumbfounded, the cook and the corpsman climb into the ambulance and drive away. With our now-diminished crew we return to the boat and steer a reciprocal course until three navigation lights, one green and two white, come into view, then the black form of a destroyer. After we are hoisted back up onto the ship, I realize it’s just before 0200; time to head back to the bridge and stand a five-hour watch.
Hopefully someone made coffee.
Onboard Navy ships, there exists a term for those who express fake suicidal thoughts to get out of deployment. We call it “pulling the crazy card.” Abandoning your crew when a ship is deployed is tantamount to walking away from your post in a war zone. I do not know if the cook was “pulling the crazy card” that night or if he really did intend to kill himself, but he returned to the ship months later and resumed his duties, which fueled suspicion among the crew that he had staged the whole incident because he couldn’t hack life at sea anymore.
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The Navy has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to sailors expressing thoughts of suicide. They are quickly sent to a Navy hospital and do not remain aboard deployed ships. Over two deployments, I had seen two other sailors depart the crew after explaining such thoughts to our medical staff. One had been in my own division, a seaman with only a few months of service to his name. “This guy is full of shit,” one of the other sailors in the division confided in me, “He’s lazy, he complains, and all he talks about is getting out of the Navy. It’s textbook crazy card.”
As an officer it was not my place to encourage the conversation.
What I do know is that being deployed on a Navy ship, staring at the endless ocean and the same steel bulkheads and passageways for months at a time, takes its toll on everyone. It’s not natural for human beings to live on ships, after all, and no amount of modern comfort can make going out to sea for that long not fundamentally suck. How someone reaches their breaking point, or why they feel they must abandon their crew because of it, are questions none of us on that deployment could answer. The sea can take us to dark places, and some of us have a hard time getting out.
So we did the best we could to take care of one another, even if that meant waking up in the middle of the night to get a shipmate some help.