Thursday, June 18, 2009

Life Aboard a Ship

After the intense pace of the past two weeks in Colombia- seeing thousands of patients, transporting hundreds of us back and forth from the ship each day, and performing life changing surgeries aboard- things seems to have slowed down now that we are back sailing on the high seas.  We are underway (in transit) to El Salvador and the medical folks now have a lot of time on our hands.   So what do we do you ask?  How is life aboard a ship?  I thought I’d provide a glimpse into some of the quirky things that happen aboard a floating hospital ship of the United States Navy.

First thing’s first- the 1MC.  That’s what the ship’s loud intercom is called.  Several announcements occur each day at specific times, and they establish a structure of sorts.  One might even find themselves anticipating the announcement, or after hearing them so often find that they get in your head, like a mantra.  At 0600 (6am) overhead we hear “Reveille, reveille.  All persons out of their racks.   Breakfast for the crew”.  There is a particular southern accent and enthusiasm in the person’s voice that makes this announcement, and at breakfast you will hear people mimicking it.  The question is who actually does make this announcement?  No one seems to know.  We always look around at breakfast wondering what body that voice belongs to.   At 0900 (9am) and 1500(3pm), like clockwork, the “sweeper” voice comes on calling all enlisted assigned to a broom, “Sweepers, sweepers, man your brooms.  Give the ship a good sweep down fore and aft.  Now Sweepers!”   This proclamation is clearly stated by a different person and voice than the 0600 wake up call, but with an equal level of enthusiasm.  A few minutes before 2200 (10pm) heard over the 1MC is “Tattoo, Tattoo, standby for Evening Prayer”.  At this point the Chaplain gets on the horn and says some encouraging words about the day and the days to come.  At precisely 2200 the Tattoo voice says “TAPS, TAPS, lights out, all hands turn into their rack, no movement about the decks, TAaaaaaPS.”  I wish I could sound off what this sounds like but this is yet again another voice with a real southern drawl on the end.  No one seems to know who onboard does this announcement either.  I’m just waiting for the day I run into someone in the passageway and I say hi, and he says hi  back with that TAaaaps voice, and I say Ah ha!   Reveille, Tattoo, and TAPS are traditional calls that have occurred on Naval vessels for hundreds of years and have significant tradition.

My favorite thing about being out in the middle of the open ocean is the sky at night. There are not many places where you will see stars so bright.  When I was a kid I took a class in astronomy and used to recline my chair and stare up at the planetarium ceiling at the myriad of stars.   Last night I couldn’t sleep and ventured up to the top of the ship with a chair.  I took a seat and reclined.  It was like I was back in that planetarium again. With no ambient light from cities, and the ship’s lights for the most part off, it is total darkness, and there are thousands upon thousands of stars visible.  So peaceful.  This was the way to get away.   Cool ocean breeze, the sound of the ship’s generators mixed with the splashes of water being cut, this is one of the little things, along with the many others, that makes being out to sea with the U.S. Navy so special.

I had a hard time sleeping last night as we were rolling in the high seas- the worst we have had yet.  Side to side, side to side- it affects everything.  Try sleeping when you are being rolled from one side of the bed to the other- hey, at least it keeps me from snoring (or at least my roommates say).  During high seas some sailor always seems to get rolled out of his or her rack while he or she is sleeping, as happened this morning to a poor girl who now has quite the bump on her head.  Top bunk bump.  Things fall all over the ship.  The galley is the worst.  Pans and bowls toppling over, doors slamming, chairs sliding, coffee mugs containing hot joe swishing back and forth during breakfast and morning meetings.  Spill, ouch, that’s hot.   Running on the treadmill takes on an extra degree of difficulty.  Focus and spatial orientation to maintain position on the tread while running with the ship swaying is not easy, and a number of people have done faceplants while underway (myself included).  The other things that sway back and forth during rough seas are one's stomach and insides, and for some, this leads to the awful expulsion of food, acid, and bile out the wrong end.   Luckily that does not include me, but I must admit, even my tummy is feeling a bit out of sorts this morning.

The other thing that occurs like clockwork while we’re underway is LCDR Dave Bacon’s 10am spin class.   It is not publicly advertised, but is always packed thanks to a faithful following.  It is the toughest onboard, and although Dr. Dave had no formal spin instructor experience before this mission, he is a good motivator and dedicated to the hard music. It is undoubtedly that dedication that led him to getting his PhD in microbiology and the acclaimed work he did in Peru. Today’s spin class was tough, and I was glad.  The rocking of the ship didn’t matter that much on the bikes.  It just made it more fun.  By the end of class, I had a puddle under me from sweat.  I looked around and no one else had a puddle.  I was drenched.  Why the heck did I sweat so much?  Had I contracted Malaria?  I sure hope not.  I’ve always sweated a bunch.  Must just be the way God made me.

Food.   You can always count on four square meals a day when on ship.   Breakfast at 6, Lunch at 1130, Dinner at 0430 and “Midrats” (Midwatch Rations) at 11pm.   Now if you consume all of these meals in their entirety (which many do), you will get fat.  Where else in the world do you have such a controlled environment where you can count on all these meals each day?  Heck, back home I have a coffee&bagel for breakfast, turkey sandwich for lunch, and a big salad for dinner with some healthy stuff in between.   This is a smorgasbord comparatively. The good thing is that there are healthy and “semi-fresh” options every meal with protein, grains, vegetables, and fruit.  You need to appreciate the good things while out at sea, so the soft serve ice cream at night is always a big hit.  Now, if you have done Dave Bacon’s spin class it’s a green light for the soft serve.

Let’s talk about close quarters.  In our everyday lives we may run into someone at work once or twice throughout the day and say hello.  When on a ship, you run into people constantly.  
I’m not sure how others feel about this, but sometimes it can be awkward when you have a serious 10 minute conversation with someone in the morning, tell them you hope they have a great day, and then 30 seconds later run into them passing in the stairwell, or in the passageway, and you’re like “Well, hi again!”, and then 10 minutes later when you’re going to work out or do laundry you run into them again, and you just nod. A ship is like a big box with numerous compartments and levels, with mice scurrying around and only so many places to go.  A big social experiment of sorts.  It is this confined nature of a ship that leads to so many good friends being made on deployment.  In regular life folks have the option of getting away from people if they are introverted or just don’t feel like engaging people.  When you are on a floating box for four months you have no other choice.   You have to eat.  You have to interact.  You have roommates.  Most of us hardly knew anyone else aboard when we got on the ship (I only knew one person).  After months of confined and forced (sometimes) interaction together- working, sharing stories, laughing, and sometimes even arguing- you get to know people in a way that you don’t in the traditional work world.  You are working on a mission together.  You emerge with friends for life from all over the U.S. and the world- friends you will drop anything to help in the future, and vice-versa.


  1. I remember another "social experiment".....I'm sure this will add to your box of memories.

  2. I loved the part about being under the stars out in the open sea. What I would give to experience that right now....

  3. lol about the awkward thing....I have had that happen as well, too funny :)

  4. Funny!! I know first hand trying to run on a treadmill when the ship is a high seas. Spin class sounds fun!! Being able to sweat is a blessing in disguise, gets rid of toxins and it's invigorating-- agree?? Spinning is the greatest way to start the day!! Cheers to you and all your hard work -- have an excellent day!!

  5. Just wondering about the mental status of people confined to th ship for 28 days! with the same view all around and same people all the time..I am writing a research paper on mental of people who live in small communities or are togather for a short duration. Just wondering if you can give me more info!