Night Steaming

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

Between exercises or heading to or from station, we'd run on the surface.

Best sleeping anywhere was getting rocked to sleep during night steaming. Light swell… Just drifting along with the surface state. Advances in technology took that away from boatsailors along with sunrises and sunsets. Again, I'm glad I served when and where I did.

I remember laying in my rack feeling the slow roll and the gentle rise and fall of the bow… The sound of the water rushing through our limber holes, sloshing around above us in the superstructure, and cascading out and over the tank tops.

When someone passing fore or aft, opened the Forward Engine Room watertight door you got a brief span of Fairbanks roar then 'slam-click' and it was quiet again.

As crewmen passed through the air lock door in the forward end of the compartment, you got a brief moment of conversation, laughter, clatter of dishes, ring of silverware or movie dialog… The late night sounds of the messdeck.

There was also the intermittent bits and pieces of head conversations and passageway conversation.

Sometimes the Below Decks Watch would come through to 'tap out' the ongoing watch…

"Hey Jack… Time to roll out for your watch."

"Screw you and the horse you rode in on."

"No babe… It's time… Don't make me have to drag your worthless, good fer nuthin' butt outta that rack."

"I'm up … I'm up…"

And you would hear feet hitting the deck and some poor half-awake bastard hunting his sea boots and foul weather jacket with the light from his Zippo.

"Hey you goofy sonuvabitch, people are trying to get some gahdam sleep."

"Yeah, yeah, and some people are trying to go to work."

"You don't have to sound like gahdam elephant sex to round up your gear."

To the uninitiated, this would sound like hostility. To any raghat who rode smokeboats, it will bring back memories of the friendly exchange of nighttime pleasantries… The pointless bullshit that passes for a late night, "Howdy-Doo"

Your sleep was interrupted by junk falling that was stored, make that stuffed, above the overhead lines… Film cans, books, shoes, boots, all kind of loose crap.

Guys making head calls and waking you up to bum a pack of smokes or get something out of a sidelocker.

And every now and then, one of the resident migratory roaches would take a shortcut across your face or homesteaded in an ear or nostril.

And there were the smells… Stale cigarette smoke, mildew from condensate… Accumulated dirty laundry… Fresh coffee, brewing in the crews' mess… Night baking smells… No.2 inboard venting… And eau de diesel that permeated everything.


And you would hear the vents open.

As the boat slid below the surface with the sound of rushing air leaving the tanks, it got quiet… . except for the cycling of the vents in series and pockets of trapped air gurgling their way to the upper part of the Main Ballast Tanks… and Negative being blown to check decent when the desired depth was reached.

And of course there was walrus snoring and the sounds made by 15 guys earning Chinese coolie wages plus sub, sea and foreign duty pay… Dreaming of barmaids, car payments and wondering how the family, their ball clubs and bird dogs were doing… And the single guys falling off to sleep wondering who in the hell knew where they were, what they were doing and gave a damn… And who was unbuttoning the blouse of their high school sweetheart at the drive-in these days.

That was night steaming back in the Cro-Magnon era of smokeboat sailoring.