We are all aware of how dangerous the sea can be, even for the most experienced sailors. These sailors reveal the most stressful situation they had to overcome while at sea. Content has been edited for clarity purposes.
They Had Bigger Problems Than The Language Barrier
“Most of my at-sea time was spent on a Leahy class guided-missile cruiser, USS Halsey, CG 23. There had been a lot of little incidents that were extremely dangerous, like the time we were in Bahrain in early March of 1992. We were tied up to Mina Suleman Pier, the main Naval pier in Bahrain. Now this place did not have shore power where we were at. So the ship either had to keep the boilers lit off to provide power to the ship or we would have a ‘power barge’ tied up outboard of us, so the power barge would supply power to the ship via the shore power connections. The power barge itself was just a very large floating fuel tank with a superstructure plopped on top, housing the generators. So there we were. We were tied up to the pier, and the barge was tied up to us on the opposite side from the pier, with us sandwiched in between.
Then one morning, the Bahrani crew of the barge started acting frantic crazy, running up to the brow that was leading across the top of the Barge structure over to our midship’s quarterdeck. They were scared, terrified, and not one was speaking English.
They just kept pointing back at the deck of the barge and making frantic gestures while yelling and screaming in Arabic. Something was obviously wrong, so the Master at Arms as well as the Damage Control Chief, Commanding Officer, and the Second-In-Command Officer were called to figure out what was going on. That was when the dense black smoke started rolling out of one of the vent openings on the barge superstructure.
The Barge, with tens of thousands of gallons of fuel oil, was on fire. We were trapped between it and the pier with nowhere to go.
While the first hose teams were snaking their lines across the brow between our ship and the barge, the DCC (Damage Control Chief) went ahead and investigated the situation. When he took an inclined ladder down to the main deck of the barge, the Bahrani crew were frantically pointing at the deck. He bent over, felt the deck, and immediately leaped for the ladder, yelling for them to open up a solid stream at the deck.
Two hoses opened up and the streams of water just flashed the instant they hit the deck. The fire was on top of the fuel tanks, just below the deck.
This was an all-hands situation. Everyone lent a hand no matter what. There was nowhere to run and nowhere to escape if this thing just decided to blow. I was just helping out running OBA (oxygen breathing apparatus) canisters from the repair lockers to the Quarterdeck where we were going through them at a prodigious rate. We had guys standing by with axes fore and aft ready to just cut the lines as soon as the tug showed.
The port authorities had a tug boat en route and were going to just tow it clear and let it burn out or blow in the middle of the harbor, clear of traffic. Our crew got the fire out and under control just as the tug boat was rounding the end of the pier and coming for us.”
Grampy’s Fishing Day Gone Wrong
“My paternal grandparents were big on saltwater fishing. One day, my granny spotted a human head floating in the bay. She got so upset, and my gramps called the coast guard to report it. They were obligated to stay where they were and keep an eye on the head, so the coast guard could recover it.
So they sat there, their boat bobbing on the waves in tune with the bobbing head. My granny could see indentations where the eyes and nose were, and she could see hair floating in the water. My grandparents sat and waited for over an hour, never taking their eyes off the head, waiting for the coast guard.
Finally, the coast guard boat arrived at their location. Granny pointed out the head bobbing in the water nearby. The coast guardsman grabbed a fishnet with a telescoping arm and reached out into the water and snagged the head in his net. He pulled it to the boat with a serious look on his face, as my grandparents watched intently. My granny finally squeezed her eyes shut when the man brought the net close to the boat, then into the boat. She squeezed her eyes shut as he reached out and grabbed the head with one hand. My grandpa sat and watched, and then the man began to laugh.
He moved his boat closer to my grandparent’s boat and said, ‘Here’s your head.’
Then he tossed the dark-colored head into their boat. My Granny screamed as the head hit the bottom of their boat with a dull thunk. It rolled in a circle and became still. My grandparents looked intensely at the head, then began laughing, and looking embarrassed.
The head was a coconut, just a plain old coconut staring at them from indentations that granny had thought were eyes. They took that coconut home and kept it at the bay house, and regaled people with their coconut head story for years.”
Uh Oh! Rookie Mistake
“On July 11th, 1994, my crew and I were just off the coast of Japan, heading to Yokosuka from San Diego. It was a pretty active typhoon season and the carrier was skirting the fringes of one storm after another, keeping out of the worst weather.
As an Electronic Warfare Tech, I had special access to a Sponson (what you civilians would call a balcony of the ship), that most others did not. Because the landing portion of the flight deck was at an angle, this put our sponson directly under the ramp at the back of the ship where the planes passed over to land. I could easily underhand a ball into the air and strike a landing jet, that was how close they were passing directly overhead. What an awesome location to watch landing aircraft from, right?
So here I was, having spent all my time aboard as a cruiser, now a sailor carrier. That was literally my first time aboard as a carrier on this sponson located directly under the ramp, watching planes land right over my head in rough weather and a pitching deck. I was so utterly clueless.
It was late in the evening when I was still watching landing ops in probably the absolute worst place I could be. No one had a clue I was even out there. No one could even see my location from anywhere else on the ship and no one but us Electronic Warfare Techs had any reason to ever even go out on this deck. I had a watch to get up for and had not slept yet. I had to be on watch at 3:45 am.
Most of the planes had landed already and what was a plane a minute, was down to a plane or two every four to five minutes as the last few stragglers landed. I did not see the last plane still coming in as I turned and left the deck. Had I see it, I would have probably stuck around a few more seconds to watch this last plane. I had just closed the watertight door to the outside and had just opened the inner door of the light-locker, right next to the Hormel Hawg’s (VAW-114) Ready Room when I heard, ‘BOOM!’
There was a crash on the deck. An F-14 Tomcat from VF-51 (plane) struck the ramp and fire-balled across the flight deck, wiping out where I was just standing not ten seconds earlier. That was the scariest moment of my naval service. Fortunately for me, the only injuries I received were towards my pride and my underwear.
No one was killed in the accident. The RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) sprained his ankle when his chute came down on a parked aircraft on the flight deck. And the pilot suffered severe burns and was taken off the ship for treatment. He returned to flying sometime later after recovery.”
“One time when I was in the Navy, my ship was on patrol near the middle east and we got a distress call from a nearby Iranian fishing vessel marooned 30 plus miles from land in need of aid. Come to find out, their boat was attacked by pirates from Somalia for an unknown reason. As none of us spoke Arabic, we couldn’t understand their conversations. Needless to say, the attack on their boat injured the crew and killed the acting captain of the craft with a shot wound to the head.
Their crew was obviously stressed out and lacking the necessary supplies and equipment to deal with the situation. Their hull was pierced with bullet holes and they were taking on water in their cargo hold, which for some reason had a rather large shark in a basket inside. The bullets also ricocheted and pierced their diesel fuel tank, so fuel was profusely leaking into the water. Our crew rendered aid and helped control the damage along with a fellow Japanese patrol vessel that also received the distress call. However, all of this unfolded at around two in the morning.
No one was allowed outside without a glow stick or life jacket. There was also a small storm that had arrived where we were, which agitated the waves so it only made things worse in pitch black. One of our boat crews almost got lost out there because they drifted away and lost visual because of the mist and were out of radio contact range. Luckily everyone got through it in one piece.”
Six Hours Alone At Sea
“I sailed out past the breakwater to begin a long downwind ride across Lake Ontario. All morning, the weather stations had been reporting West winds at 30 to 40 knots and up to three-meter waves. This was playtime for ‘Humbly’, my 24 foot Shark sailboat. We had been out many times in these conditions and Humbly always surfed along downwind under main and storm jib at exhilarating speeds ahead of the crests. For about an hour Humbly went faster than she had ever gone before. She surfed down three-meter waves, and in the gusts, the pressures turned into humming in the hull and vibration on the tiller. There was tremendous pressure on the mast and rigging. The rudder was kicking up a rooster tail.
At about four pm, we were between six and eight miles from the South Shore. Then the mother of all waves picked Humbly up, turned her sideways, and heeled her almost 90 degrees. It bumped the bottom of the boat and boosted me off balance off of the seat. I felt like a volleyball set up for a spike.
The wave broke over the cockpit and slammed me over the leeward coaming. Somewhere in the tremendous rush of water, I took my left hand off the tiller and the next thing I remember is hanging in the water on the port side, reaching up and over the transom grasping the tiller with my right hand. Then the boat tilted to windward and I lost my grip and went underwater.
When I came back to the surface, the boat had righted herself and rounded up into the wind with her stern about six feet away. I swam for it and lunged for the motor but missed it by just six inches and went underwater again. I had missed my only chance.
Rage waved over me and I screamed, ‘You dumb country prick!’
Humbly sailed away towards the South shore. I started to think. I was alone. I was wearing a farmer John wetsuit bottoms and a Mustang floater coat. Inside the left sleeve pocket were three small aerial flares. There was a whistle, two small flashlights, and $2.75 in change in the side pockets. I was barefoot. The floater coat and wetsuit kept me buoyant so I thought that my biggest danger was hypothermia and I hooked up the beavertail attached to the floater coat to try to reduce heat loss.
I could see the far shore when the larger waves lifted me and even though the boat was still only a few hundred feet away I started cheering her on. Humbly was headed south on her course. I imagined that when she hit the rocks along the shoreline, there would be a movie-style explosion with flame and smoke that would attract attention and help. Until then, my choices were to either curl up and float to conserve heat or to swim towards shore.
I still had two flares, so I decided to swim. My fragile game plan was to swim towards the shore. When Humbly’s sails disappeared I would know that Humbly had hit the shore. The search would start and then I could fire off the last two flares and then rescuers would come out and get me. Simple, right?
First I had to learn how to swim. Other than swimming back to my windsurfer after a fall, I had not been swimming for over twenty years. The floater coat kept my head above water but would not allow a normal swim stroke, and the neoprene wetsuit bottoms kept trying to flip my legs up and put my face in the water. I found that the best compromise was in a combination of breaststroke and pedal kick which kept me moving forward very slowly and somewhat upright.
The next couple of hours became a series of stroke, stroke, watch Humbly stagger towards the shore, stroke, try and remember anything to do with survival, stroke, sputter, and stroke. The boat moved further away but the shoreline did not seem any closer. I was drifting East in mountainous waves and swimming South. After about an hour, I noticed a seagull floating effortlessly above me.
It struck me that this was not fair and I yelled to the gull, ‘Hey, gull! Go and tell them where I am and I’ll give you a fish.’
He floated there for a minute and then wafted away. I told myself that he could see that I had no fish.
The sun sank lower to the West and I realized for the first time that I would be out there after dark. I could still see Humbly in the distance and it was alarming how far the boat was going and how small the sails were getting while the shore didn’t seem to be getting any closer.
The sun went down and I started getting cold. Now that it was completely dark, waves were sneaking up from behind and clobbering me, leaving me sputtering and indignant. Then a blue flashing light caught my eye off to the left.
I waited for the next wave to pick me up for another look and saw the light on top of a large yellow vessel with a black hull floating about a hundred yards away to the southeast. I saw it again and reached for the flares in the sleeve pocket of my floater coat. It seemed to take forever to very carefully get the flares out of the pocket and out of the plastic bag, put one back in the bag, replace the bag in the sleeve pocket, unscrew the end of the flare, point the business end up, and pull the chain. I had never fired flares before and was scared witless that I might drop either one. The flare arced up, over, and doused downwind. I was both disappointed at how quickly the light show was over. I waited a few long seconds. Suddenly the boat accelerated to the West.
They had not seen me. As fast as I could, I pulled out the other flare and fired it in an arc in front of the boat. It did not reach the boat, but it did arc nicely and doused off its starboard quarter. I kept watching the boat’s direction. No change. The boat kept on going and disappeared to the West. I yelled, screamed, called it names, and cursed its wake. When I calmed down, I realized that I was upset that I now had a long way to swim.
I said, ‘Ok self, you have no more flares and there is a blind madman in a forty-foot rescue boat driving up and down the shoreline at high speed. Just my luck, he’ll come back and nail me in the head.’
I settled down into a slow routine of stroking. I was about twenty yards from the breakwater when the panic set in. I was now close enough to the rocks to use them as reference points and I didn’t seem to be getting any closer. How could I come this far to get pushed away from the rocks by a current? I ran out of breath and rested, collected my wits, and went back to the slow stroke game plan that had been successful for so long. A few minutes later, a wave picked me up and deposited me gently on a large flat rock.
I considered it a last gift from the Lake. I was in the water for about six hours. Once on shore, I called 911 and got taken to the hospital. After that, I went out drinking and got Humbly from the beach she eventually washed on. No real damage.”
What Was Underneath Them?
“While on a ship, sailors come across wild sea animals like dolphins and whales regularly but there was one instance when I saw something that incited me so much that I even called up Captain to wake up at two in the morning to have a look outside.
So the ship was westbound in the Persian Gulf and we had already crossed the Hormuz strait and was bound for Ras Laffan. Let’s say 10 nautical miles after Hormuz, water around the ship started shimmering brightly. And when I say bright, the brightness and shimmering were not just constrained near the ship, it was expanded in an area of say three to four nautical miles (approximately 12–15 kilometers) around the ship. The light was bright as if something huge was coming out of the water and the ship was floating over it.
My watchkeeper and I were thinking, ‘What’s going on?’
One of the ships around even called up our ship on VHF radio (Very High-Frequency radio) to know what was going on there. I was thinking as if I were in one of the pirate’s movies where the spaceship came out of the water.
The light was beneath the ship for more than 10 to 20 minutes. Then I called up Captain to come onto the bridge and have a look. He too was amazed. After five minutes, he went down to bring his camera but by that time he returned, it was already over.
What was that? It appeared to be a huge chunk of bioluminescent organisms/ plankton, which came upon the surface and was stuck at the bootle neck of the Persian Gulf.”
A Trip With A Murderer
“In 1985, I was a teenager helping my dad take this guy from jail who was doing time for murder to a land trial which had precipitated to another payback murder in North Tarawa. We left Betio Island for North Tarawa Central Pacific at dawn in an open tinnie.
About a few hours in, out of nowhere, the water went grey, the waves picked up, and we fell behind time. Then all of a sudden, a huge storm came in. Water was coming over the bow and the rain was filling the boat. Soon the spare tank was floating in the boat.
Luckily, we had Tsimos on the boat who was a great seaman. He knew we were close to North Tarawa atoll. And since the prisoner was a local, he was now un-cuffed and took charge of directions from the prow.
When the engine cut, Tsimos had real trouble getting the fresh tank rigged and then getting the motor started. Keeping his balance was hard enough as every now and again, a big wave would blindside us or leave us in a dirty trough. Everyone was getting dings and bruises from the tossing.
Time was passing slowly and we were getting tired as the adrenaline was wearing off. Then we heard waves breaking, so we knew there was a reef nearby. We circled, listened, circled again, and waited for a gap in the weather to move again towards the sound. Then we saw the waves changing, being bent by a reef. We agreed that even though it was dangerous we should go towards the reef, so we kept on moving.
When we came close to the reef, Tsimos and the prisoner made the call on where to cross. I went with the prisoner in the prow, so we could lean out to try to trap some of the waves and ride it into the lagoon as far as possible. We needed to tilt the engine in case it struck the reef because one touch and out you go.
Eventually made it through. We pulled the boat up and sat in the pandanus until the storm passed. The tide went out so we walked for an hour or so to a village which was our destination. When the day cleared, there was a huge donut-shaped cloud and even with the naked eye you could see the edges of it growing; it was the center of a tropical low a baby cyclone being born and the sky in the donut was crystal blue.
My Dad, Tsimos, and the prisoner went to court while I went back down the beach with some locals to get the boat on the afternoon tide. Afterward, we cleaned the fuel lines, decanted the fuel to reduce any water content, and went back over the horizon with the sun behind us. I was nervous about the motor cutting out and never gladder than having to walk home as Dad gave Tsimos a lift home on his motorbike.”
“Waves Were Approaching 20 Meters High”
“One day, my father who had been a seaman for 45 years, was sailing on the North Atlantic in the winter somewhere in the ’70s. He was the captain on a 4500 tonnes heavy lift vessel. The weather was really severe and the waves were approaching 20 meters high.
In the middle of the night, he was steering the vessel by hand, with low speed and the waves on the bow. The chief officer’s wife and also the chief engineer’s wife, who joined the vessel on their voyage that time, were on the bridge as well. Both were scared. As the wind was howling around the bridge and the waves, which broke on the vessel’s bow, slammed against the accommodation. At a certain moment, a huge wave approached from a different angle than before. My dad claimed he felt the wave coming. The vessel lifted to more than 40 degrees.
My father was cursing and yelling to the vessel to rise up again at the wheel. According to my father, it was like the vessel was thinking what to do, rise up again, or turn over. Right at that moment, a small wave hit the vessel on the right spot, and the ship slowly went upwards again.
Later, when the storm passed, as well the chief officer’s, as well as the chief engineer’s wife, mentioned that my father was the bravest man they have ever met, as he did not show any fear. He told them that he was more scared than both of them together, as he felt the huge wave coming.
Till the day my father died, on the nights from first to second of February, he never slept at all.”
The Captain Knew Better Not To Touch It
“In 2017, I was on vacation in Cabo, Mexico. A few friends and I chartered a boat to do some fishing off the coast. A couple of hours after sun-up, one of my friends noticed something floating a short distance away. We pointed it out to the deck-hand and he advised the captain who promptly turned to investigate. As we got closer, it became clear that this was a large black rectangle that appeared to be wrapped in heavy black plastic and duct tape. Looked just like the big bundles of dope we had only seen on TV.
We came to believe it was in fact illegal substances of some sort since once the captain got within 50 yards or so, he rather quickly turned and went the opposite direction in a hurry. Neither the captain nor deck-hand would admit to what it was, but we felt it was pretty clear by their reaction and denial.”