Big Ass Waves and Green Water

From “Striking Eight Bells: A Vietnam Memoir.”

“Bound for Vietnam and the Western Pacific Typhoon.”

“Another story on what most Americans don’t know about the Navy’s role in the Vietnam War.”

My ship’s passage, USS Rich (DD 820) from Norfolk, Virginia to Vietnam was making progress as we arrived early morning in Apra Harbor, Guam on November 15, 1972. The ship had departed Rodman Naval Station in the Panama Canal Zone on October 22. We had a two day port visit in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii to refuel and resupply, departing Pearl Harbor on November 5. On the morning of November 8, the ship had made a four hour stop at Midway Atoll for refueling and now we were making another refueling stop in Guam.

USS Rich (DD 820) a Gearing class (FRAM I) destroyer. [Public domain]

During our passage from Midway to Guam, as the ship got to less than 1,000 nautical miles from Guam, there was a distinct change in direction of the sea swells. They had increased in size and were more frequent. This change in the seas was explained that night when we received a weather message with tropical storm warnings with the storm center located northeast of Guam.

After refueling the ship, we got underway from Apra Harbor at 1400 that afternoon and steamed back out to sea. Once the ship was in open water, a westerly course was set to the San Bernardino Strait in the Philippine Islands. The passage plan distance was 1,655 nautical miles from Guam to Subic Bay on Luzon via the San Bernardino Strait. The passage would take just under three days of steaming through the Western Pacific Ocean waters. The planned overall speed of advance (SOA) was 23 knots versus the normal transit speed of 16 knots.

The next day, November 16, we began to experience an increase in winds and the seas caused by Typhoon Ruby. By today’s standards, Ruby would be a Category 3 Typhoon on the Saffir-Simpson Scale. The Saffir-Simpson Scale provides some indication of the potential damage and flooding a hurricane will cause at landfall, so it’s meaningless to a mariner at sea. The winds in this typhoon were forecast to reach up to 110 knots (126 mph).

Approximation of Typhoon Ruby’s Track.

The ship began to experience ever-increasing waves, and the wind had veered around to the west and southwest. Each hour, both the wave size and wind speed continued to incrementally increase. By the afternoon, the ship appeared to be in the midst of a powerful Pacific tropical storm. The good news was that we were fairly certain the ship’s position was on the left side of the Typhoon Ruby’s track, also called the navigable semicircle. We also knew we were in a position well ahead and south of the storm’s westerly track where it was highly probable that we could just outrun the storm.

Destroyers were fast ships, but because of their propensity to excessively pitch, roll, and yaw, big waves could cause the ship’s stern and propellers to come clear of the water’s surface. When that happened, the propeller might experience over-cavitation, possibly causing damage to the propeller or propeller shafting. Generally, when maneuvering destroyers in big sea states, propeller shaft revolutions are set to not exceed 12 knots, which is considered prudent in avoiding damage to the propulsion system.

The other issue was with speed. When the ship’s hull was pounding into the seas, it could put too much stress and strain on the ship’s hull structure and strength members. Many ships have experienced hull failure in big sea conditions where the result was a quick foundering and sinking of the ship.

Satellite image of Typhoon Ruby, November 1972.*

On November 16, my first watch for the day was the mid-watch standing quartermaster of the watch (QMOW). The pass down from the prior 2000 to 2400 watch included information that the captain and XO had decided to keep the ship’s true course of 275 degrees (5 degrees north of west) and had ordered speed of 23 knots throughout the night to see if we could get farther ahead of the typhoon. The idea was that carrying out a storm avoidance maneuver would take us too far south away from our intended passage. Since we believed our ship was ahead of the storm track, the decision was made to make best speed possible and proceed with our intended route in accordance with the passage plan.

The “Night Orders” from the captain included instructions to closely monitor the barometric pressure, wind, and sea state and inform him if there were significant changes, particularly a steep drop in barometric pressure. Throughout the watch, the wind and the size of the sea waves continued to build.

By the afternoon watch (1200 to 1600), the fetch[1] had done its job. This was my first tropical storm experience on a ship underway in open-ocean. The winds and seas had become dangerous. We began to record true wind gusts in excess of 90 knots (104 mph), but the waves were approaching 40 feet in height, slamming in one after the other just off the port bow. Except for wind gusts, the sustained true wind speed consistently ranged between about 65 to 75 knots (74 to 86 mph). On what was known as the Beaufort wind force scale, we were in maximum force 12 conditions where the air was filled with foam and spray; the sea was completely white with driving spray; sea wave height was 45 feet; plus, visibility was very seriously affected. For mariner purposes, we stopped trying to estimate the height of the waves at 50 feet, and from that point on it was just called 50 feet plus.

View from the bridge of a Gearing class destroyer in heavy seas.*

The ship was experiencing heavy rolling and pitching, and we could see as the waves broke over the bow that the forward gun, mount 51, was submerging with each breaking wave. Above the helm station, mounted from the overhead, was a clinometer used for measuring the angle of roll. During some of the more severe rolls, the helmsman would call out the angle of roll from the clinometer. On many rolls, the helmsman would wait until the ship was at the end of a roll and call out the angle of the roll. He began to report roll angles of 40 or more degrees. At the same time, to reduce pounding, the ship’s ordered speed was slowed from 23 knots down to 15 knots.

Everyone on the watch kept doing their respective jobs in spite of the ship’s extreme motions. Each person did their best in trying to hang onto anything that could prevent them from being thrown around the bridge. Suddenly, the officer of the deck (OOD) and I saw something coming at the same time through the bridge windows. The OOD yelled to everyone, “Hang on.”

For our ship, the height from the waterline to the bridge level depending upon our draft, was usually about 40 feet. What the OOD and I had seen was a huge mountainous wave towering above the ship coming in fast, just off the port bow. From my position on the starboard side of the bridge near the chart table, I had to bend over and look up to see the crest of this wave. As the wave slammed into the ship, we rolled heavily and fast to starboard, and the helmsman yelled out the angles from the clinometer: 40 degrees, and finally 50 degrees. I was watching out the window of the starboard bridge door, and it looked as if the starboard bridge wing was about to dip into the water. The ship seemed to hang at that angle forever, then finally the ship began to shudder. Groaning noises sounded as it slowly began to roll back upright.

Just as the ship came upright and began to roll to port into the wave trough, another monster wave, just as huge as the last one, slammed into the ship. The ship was heeled over about 25 degrees to port when this wave hit the ship. This time the ship acted differently from before. The ship went into “green water.” The green water in this case meant that both the entire ship’s hull and superstructure submerged into the breaking wave. As the ship went underwater, the helmsman yelled out the clinometer reading of 40 degrees to port.

Naval frigate about to go into “Green Water.”*

Looking out the bridge windows kind of reminded me of being in an aquarium; the entire bridge was submerged. For several moments, it seemed the ship would just stay underwater, but once again the shuddering and groaning noises began as the ship recovered from the roll. Within several seconds we once again could see the seas and sky through the bridge windows. What we had just experienced was not just one, but two successive rogue waves.

At that time, the term was not used. Many scientists considered rogue waves to be just a myth and were not real. Well, I can tell you, the damn science was wrong. Back then we just described those waves for what they really were: big ass waves.

Fortunately for us, U.S. Navy Gearing class destroyers possessed very good seakeeping capabilities and with onboard weight distribution well managed by the crew, they also demonstrated excellent Vessel Stability[2].

That afternoon the ship took green water several more times; all of the waves were just big ass waves, period. Several hours after being relieved of the watch at 1600, the severity and forcefulness of the ship’s rolling and pitching seemed somewhat reduced as compared to what it had been earlier in the day. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast; many in the crew had also not eaten that day, as it had just been too rough. Those who had them got by eating saltine crackers. I put in a wake-up call on the bridge for 2300 and hit my rack to try to get some sleep before the mid-watch….To read “Striking Eight Bells,” use one of these links to booksellers: Books, Barnes and Noble Booksellers, BAM –Books A Million and eBooks.

©2018 George Trowbridge

1. Fetch – An area of the sea surface over which seas are generated by a wind having a constant direction and speed.

2. Vessel Stability – the term implies the tendency of a floating vessel to return to its original upright position of equilibrium after being inclined (rolling) from an upright position by the forces of wind and seas.

The stories in these posts and the book; “Striking Eight Bells: A Vietnam Memoir,” reflect the author’s recollection of events. Some names, locations, and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect the privacy of those depicted. Dialogue has been recreated from memory. Dates, times, and locations were recreated from declassified U.S. Navy records and others. Photographs used are either public domain or owned by the author. Illustrations and maps used were either created by the author or in the public domain. The stories in these posts and the book are solely the opinion of the author and not the publisher, Richter Publishing, LLC.
*Image was found in public domain or it could not be established after reasonable search, that any claim existed to the image. Image used for illustrative purposes only and is not the property of the author. Where ever possible credit for the image is indicated in the caption.

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