Chapter 12: Encalminé

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: War and Military  |  House: Booksie Classic

Reads: 802


" Ok, listen up! As far as the Navy is concerned, under our rules and regulations, the only person solely responsible for a ship and her crew is her Captain! I say again, her Captain! Therefore, those of you who manage to qualify will be held responsible, for both boat and crew. Remember it, your decisions will decide their fates, so don’t go fucking things up! For there are no accidents in the military, only foul-ups: Got it? “

The Marine Craft Operators School, Naval Facility, Norfolk VA, 1966.


We were out where, as in the old song, the scattered waters rave and the tempests roar. However, that would be on a bad day for boating in the South China Sea, for such weather can produce vast rolling, and tormented waves. Better off ashore than out venturing forth over the bounding foaming main, on such a dismal day.

On the other hand, what we did have was a good day for boating, with a flat calm sea, and no wind blowing other than a gentle zephyr, with a burning sun blazing down, which turned our steel Mike Boat into a giant frying griddle. In fact she had already been used as such, by the engineer, who had rubbed a patch of shaft grease on the top of the flamethrower turret, and used it to fry eggs for breakfast, appropriately sunny side up.

As we had been detailed out to Phu Quoc Island, the Port Captain, in his wisdom, had saddled us with taking along one of his pet annoyances and dispose of it at sea by scuttling. After leaving the river estuary and out to sea we encountered a problem which made us in a way, becalmed. At least that was what an olden time sailor would have called it, if aboard a windjammer and its power source, the wind, gave out leaving it sitting there static, as in the tale of the ancient mariner, “as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean”, and there it would wait for the wind to return.

However, our Mike Boat was not a Sailboat, she was driven by diesel motors connected to shafts which in turn had propellers fastened to them, and those propellers had a problem, something was stopping them from turning. So, just like a windjammer without the wind to drive it, she was going nowhere in a hurry.

However, unlike the windjammer sitting peacefully in mid ocean where there is little or no current to be drifting along on, nor any dangerous lee shore to go fretting about, our Mike was in a War zone, which by their nature tend to be extremely unpredictable. In addition, she was securely fastened to a half rotten, end-of-life, wooden, coastal trade junk that had been converted into a type of dumb barge. This in turn was piled high with a cargo of unstable captured munitions.

The barge’s piled cargo was acting as a form of sail, and driving our Mike and her tethered charge slowly landward on a light breeze towards a mangrove tangled shoreline, which had the bad reputation of being VC Charlie’s back yard. In the military operational term of the day, that coastal area was designated “fucking red-hot”, the emphasis being more on red, as in Communist.

Our motorman was leaning on the aft .50 cal weapons quad, and puffing away on the stub of a fat cigar, whilst watching a big fish lazily swimming around close to the surface at the Mike's flat stern. The surface is the danger zone for fish, and especially for that one, for every so often our motorman, between cigar puffs, and in his boredom, would take a poorly aimed pot-shot at it with a colt 1911 automatic pistol. It was in no great danger of being hit, other than by chance. The fish would dart off under the boat’s hull in fright, but quickly reappear after regaining its nonchalant swimming posture, and continue on with its leisurely cruising pace.

Although obviously irritated by the intrusion into its watery domain by the fired pistol rounds, it never lost track of why it had been attracted to our boat in the first place, an easy meal that’s why, supplied by a large shoal of gaily colored smaller fish, who were greedily feasting on a cloud of debris coming from the propellers as two of our boat's crew hacked away with battle knifes at the seaborne trash, which had screwed itself tightly into a rock hard ball on each of the propellers.

Instead of smoking and pissing about by annoying the fish, the motorman should have been showing  a little more diligence when on shark watch for the guys working over the side. There had been the odd dorsal fin breaking the surface which belonged to small juvenile pigeye and blacktip sharks.The real predators, the human eaters, with certainty would have been out there somewhere, and our "divers" may never  have seen the denizen of the depths as it raced up from its domain in the deep blue sea to take a bite out of one, or both.

A Mike Boat had an air compressor, and it wasn’t advised to go about breathing the diesel fuel tainted, and foul smelling air it produced, not if you wanted to retain your lungs in good condition you didn’t. Therefore, our “divers” were forced to surface for fresh air every few minutes, as any air breathing, sea diving, mammal would, which didn’t have an alternative air supply allowing it to stay down in the briny sea for longer.

Squinting in the searing sunlight, I looked at the shoreline trying to gauge our drift value, and we were moving along faster than I had originally estimated. Just an hour before it was a mere shimmering line on the horizon, like a mirage in the desert, but now individual mangrove trees could be made out. If things weren’t bad enough, here was another unwelcome fucking complication added to the pile of problems needing dealt with!

The current was set northerly, as was the breeze, and I could not understand why I had missed such fundamental maritime calculations. The worst of the situation we found ourselves in, being that there were still two or so hours of daylight before night fell, and the relative safety of dark, even then, it was never really safe off that coastline. Charlie had been reported as running arms and men into the area using sea-going Junks.

Finally, the “divers” managed to free the props, and brought up a sample of the offending fouling for my inspection. It was a seawater sodden bundle of Stars and Stripes newspapers. And I had a good idea as to how they came to be floating around in the South China Sea. A “Slick” helicopter had been reported as crashing into the sea after mechanical failure, its cargo being thousands of the Stars and Stripes newspaper destined for the grunts in Saigon, and the surrounding operational areas as moral boosting bullshit.

If you ever felt depressed, possibly just from the every day stress of trying to stay alive, or receiving a jody letter from your wife, or girlfriend, you didn’t go on an irritating visit to medic, who was busy enough treating the more deserving. The best self cure available, other than the life wrecking drugs option, was to read a copy of the Stars and Stripes. The jingoistic crap written within it would have you laughing for weeks. You had to choose carefully on which article to read, for some could throw you in the very opposite direction of what was intended, by making you even more depressed than when you stated off.

The sun was barely beginning to set, and the sky reddening a little with it, when I finally fired up the motors ready to tow our dangerous charge further out for scuttling, per my instructions from the Port Captain. I climbed up on the wheelhouse to increase my horizon a little, and as I looked towards seaward my heart gave a little panic flutter, for heading straight towards us, but still a good way out, was what looked like a large Junk with obviously no intention of standing off.

The impressive white moustache of a bow wave showing within the sparkles of the blue sea’s surface meant it was no ordinary Junk. She would have one, possibly two, high speed diesels racing away below her deck, driving her on. The smugglers and river pirates out of Hong Kong and China on the Pearl River Delta had similarly converted Junks, which could do in the region of eighteen knots or more. This meant that the one heading towards us could easily catch a Mike Boat even with it's hammer down, for at full throttle, with the wind on its stern and tide in favor, could make at the very most nine knots.

As she drew closer I could see figures on her deck, silhouetted against the sky, like a carelessly minded patrol sky-lining on a ridge, and far too much in number for any normal fishing Junk crew, even a high speed one. My mind cried out Fuck it's Charlie. I wanted no action with the Junk; in fact I was determined to avoid it, if at all possible, for if the munitions on the barge exploded it would dash all in proximity into fragments, us, them if too close, and both vessels. If the barge wasn’t hit by direct fire, it could still easily be if we were to be fired on first due to ricocheting rounds from our steel hull, for any hits on us could easily spark off. 

It was at that moment of pondering I decided to scuttle the barge, there and then. Regardless of the depth she would rest in as a watery grave. The Port Captain wanted one hundred fathoms or more, he would have to suffice with eight or probably less. I ordered the tethering lines that fastened the barge to our boat cut, spun the wheel and headed off at full throttle away from the damn thing. Once in the region of 600 yards out the quad .50 came into play, with the gunner “walking” his rounds in over the water to his target in the proper way, and raked the barges hull along the waterline.

Within five minutes the riddled barge’s deck was already near awash, she was settling very quickly, and much more speedily than I imagined she would. The quads 50 cal rounds had ripped great gaping holes in her rotten hull, and we could clearly hear over the idling note of our motors a loud sucking noise, as the sea eagerly invaded the barge's hull spaces through them. What stunned me more was the sudden appearance of the unknown Junk on the opposite side of the sinking barge, and people jumping on to it, who then began throwing boxes of ordnance on to the deck of the junk.

Before I could decide on a considered response, and in the blink of an eye, a millisecond, there was a great blinding flash, closely followed by an enormous, near eardrum bursting explosion, which instantly disintegrated the barge, above and below its waterline, into billions of fragments. The explosion took the junk, and its people, with it. The shockwave produced from the detonation made an obvious to see “dent” in the surface of the sea, and drove a twelve foot high mini tsunami outwards from the blasts epicenter.

Traveling at an unbelievable rate it struck our boat on the stern, lifting her high then dropping her down with a bone shaking shudder, as the explosion produced tsunami tore under us, heading for the mangroves, and leaving our Mike Boat lolling around in its foaming after-wash, like a playful porpoise. It then rained splinters of wood, none larger than an index finger. Our boat deck was covered with them, as was the surface of the sea.

Once the sea’s turmoil returned to near normality, we cruised around the immediate area of the blast. All that was left of the barge and its cargo, the Junk and its people, was a shredded Kapoc life preserver, a few scraps of clothing, and the odd floating sandal here or there. All were locked within a massive raft of wood splinters peacefully drifting shoreward to be deposited amongst the mangroves, driven on by the same current and breeze our boat, and the now disposed of barge, had recently been. Amid this raft of debris we could see the occasional splashing flurry, but those flurrys were not generated by some poor drowning sailorman’s last frantic attempt at clinging to life, they were produced by fish out for an easy meal.


Submitted: March 10, 2014

© Copyright 2021 Sergeant Walker. All rights reserved.


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