Sea story: Man overboard! (1970)

1970-bainbridge heavy seasGranted, it’s a hackneyed line, “it was a dark and stormy night.” But it was. For almost a week, USS Lawrence (DDG-4) had been making her way across the northern part of the Atlantic on a great circle route from Europe. Although not a small ship, she was taking green water over the bow regularly, as she crashed into each massive roller before rising up and over the crest. Visibility was a philosophical concept, and daylight was something vague in the mist and wind.

In addition to standing bridge watches conning the ship, I was responsible for the main propulsion plant, which kept the screws turning, the lights and equipment on, and put fresh water in the galley and the laundry. Between watches, I spent most of my time moving among the four big spaces that housed the boilers, the engines, and the evaporators. Weeks of living like this do not help keep one’s common sense keen or one’s judgment sharp.

At mealtimes, the chow line in the crew’s mess decks ran down the entire central passageway of the ship. Like most others, I often would use either side of the main deck outside to go around the chow line. Except for the constant motion, the world inside the ship did not change, so it was easy to forget what the weather was like.

With my pipe in my mouth, my hat on my head, and my attention on a problem in the after engine room, I stepped out on the port side, which was usually protected by the wings of the bridge structure. Just then, a wall of green water as high as the bridge, rose up the port side and began running down the deck. It caught me up, and I found myself carried easily over the side, swirling in the twisting current of water.

I was overboard, free of the ship, loose in the ocean.

But it was not my turn. Not yet.

As the water swung me around and around, my hand caught a lifeline, and grabbed hard. Suddenly, I felt the power of the current where there had only been gentle motion before. The water threw me back over the lifeline, and slammed me to the deck, just forward of the fantail, where the after lookout was huddled beneath the missile deck overhang. Had I continued to float away, he never would have seen a thing, and there would have been no alarm until the next muster, or when I did not show up for my bridge watch. The wave slid back away from the ship and continued away into the mist.

I checked myself as the water receded. My hat, my pipe and my class ring had all been removed, but nothing was broken, and nothing hurt. I got up, and quickly entered the watertight door near the after engine room, which was where I was going in the first place.

Life is busy on a working warship. It did not hit me for another three weeks that I had been washed overboard in the North Atlantic. That was the beginning of my realization that no one dies before it is time. No one.

Enough rough weather. Until next time,

Smooth winds and following seas,


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