There was a moment when I was on anchor detail, as we very slowly and carefully made our way into the Atlantic from the estuary of the Tagus River, that I discovered that I was a grown-up.
I was a submariner, a submarine officer, no less, and I was putting to sea on business, far from home, as a key member of the crew. It happened about five months after I finished submarine school and reported aboard the Odax.
There is a sandbar off the mouth of the Tagus River. It causes some odd patterns of swells. We were keeping the speed down to seven knots until we crossed the bar. And by regulation, we also had to keep the anchor manned and ready, so that one swing of a mallet would free the anchor and chain, in case of emergency such as an unexpected shoal.
There were three of us manning the anchor. Given the design of a submarine, we were on the forward deck, very close to the bow. The safety rails had all been stowed for sea, to give us a somewhat more streamlined hull to reduce the amount of noise as we moved through the water submerged. Without the safety rails we were vulnerable out on deck like that. So we wore parachute harnesses and chains. On the end of the chain was a C-shaped fitting that slid over the end of a rail that was embedded in the deck. These rigs kept us from being washed overboard.
I was the officer in charge of the anchor detail, so I went out on deck first. The torpedoman who actually handled the anchor (and huge mallet) was second. The seaman who assisted, and who was wearing the headphones, was third. The reason that I was the first out was so that I would have to be the last one back, since our chains all slid on a single track.
We got into position at the anchor. We tested the windlass and found it operating properly. We stowed the capstan head for sea. And we waited to cross the bar. It took a while to get from our berth out to the mouth of the river, so I had lots of time to think, once the checklist had been completed. Finally we passed the harbor entrance and approached the bar.
I turned to face the sea. I spread my legs for stability. The period of the seas matched the length of the hull in such a way that the swells were washing up over the deck, even though the weather was not very active.
I braced myself by leaning into my harness, pulling my chain tight against the stop at the forward end of the rail in the deck. I didn't realize what I was doing, exactly, but I was positioning myself as a figurehead, on the very bow of the submarine. But I wasn't thinking about striking a pose. I was thinking about all of the milestones I had just passed. I was out of school, finally. I was fully trained for what I was doing. I had done actual, essential navigation using a handheld sextant. I had qualified as diving officer, during full Nato exercises. I had toured the museums and bars of a foreign capital. I had gambled at a European casino. And now I was going to sea again, to take on more of Nato. And I was out there, up front, the first one aboard to actually feel the Atlantic as it washed up around my knees.