In the same instant, the wave hit the bow, filling my vision with white. It crashes over me, forcing me onto the deck like Silly Putty pitched at a brick wall.
I’m at sea for the first time on USS Shoup.
We are practicing underway replenishment.
That’s where we sail alongside another ship to take on fuel and supplies.
In operations like this, with 50,000 tons of Navy steel worth over $3B tax dollars, within yards of crashing into one another, one carrying over a million gallons of fuel, it’s a delicate dance to have on an unpredictable ocean.
We have to work in perfect harmony with our team, each of us dedicated to our role to succeed as part of the whole.
If anyone loses focus, we may not get our fuel because it may end up in the water or we may not get our food. Worst case, somebody gets hurt or somebody dies.
It’s silly that something so seemingly simple as line handling can be so serious, but it’s true.
We are forced to watch the cautionary safety videos again and again: Missed piping connections, fuel spewing all over the water and the crew, sailors chopped in half by lines tearing under tension.
At the absolute minimum, everyone has to pay attention to detail, and when challenges arise, as they always do, we have to fall back on our endless pre-dawn hours of training.
It’s the sort of rigid flexibility that’s paramount to life in the military.
Right now, it’s my first time in a real-life scenario.
There are 40-knot winds across the bow; I have to learn how to handle the lines that tie our ship to the other ship.
The waters are choppy, swells are 20 feet high at times, tossing the bow up and down and around, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to work well with Mother Nature, yet there’s no room for error.
It’s hard enough not to be thrown off the deck of the ship in all the rough weather, much less answer to the part of me that wants to earn the right to be a part of the hand-picked, maiden crew.
I’m in a constant squint to see past the sea spray, and I’m kneeling close to the deck, moving like a crab in the tide.
I’m two car lengths from the tip of the bow, and although it feels like only an instant since I confirmed my last order with my team lead, when I look back toward the navigation bridge and wipe the water from my eyes, everyone is gone.
I see them in the port break, the covered area under the navigation bridge to the right, just before you get to the main door we use to get inside the skin of the ship.
They are screaming, but I can’t hear them.
Clinching the ship’s bell, my team leader is being picked up by the wind, his whole body moving in unison with the ship, sometimes in mid-air.
I can’t hear him, but I see his lips form my name.
“Ryan!!” And then, in the same sentence, but after what feels like five minutes, “Insiiiiiiide!!”
My heart pounds in my ears as I pump my arms with everything that I have.
The bow moves up, blocking my path.
It moves back down with the wave.
I manage a few airborne sprints, jarring my knees each time I land on the steel deck, before I push off with my right foot and send myself flying toward the bulkhead in front of my team.
I throw my arms out, hands grasping, hoping to reach something, anything.
The bow swings up and I slam into the ship’s bell, hugging it.
In the same instant, the wave hits the bow, filling my vision with white.
It crashes over me, forcing me onto the deck like Silly Putty pitched at a brick wall.
I am soaked. Exhausted. Face down on the steel deck.
Eyes sealed shut with salt, I wonder if I’m alive.
My team leader rushes over to me, lifts me up and carries me into the break where everyone gathers around me to make sure I’m ok, that I’m warm.
They wash the shame away before it takes over.
It could’ve ended a lot worse that day because I wasn’t paying attention to what my team needed from me.
I was only focusing on myself.
It was the same self-centeredness that pulled me into an endless cycle of depression when I was 13.