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Eleven knots. For weeks, that was our assignment. Cross the ocean at its widest part, on the surface, alone, at precisely eleven knots. That is to say, we were supposed to average eleven knots for almost three weeks.
We dared get no more than ten miles ahead of or behind our assigned position, and no more than five miles either side. Since we were relying on a hand-held sextant and dead reckoning as our only forms of navigation, we restricted ourselves to seven miles ahead or behind and two miles either side. In the best of circumstances, the sextant could help us find ourselves within two miles of our true location. And in the best of circumstances, we would have to travel for twelve hours between sextant fixes, so another mile of error could easily creep in.
The routine quickly grew dull. There was no wind for days. The ocean was flat. There were no other ships around. Only the military could dream up a reason to hang around this part of the ocean, much less to cross it. There are two common terms for this part of the ocean. Sailors call it the "horse latitudes," because the Spanish colonizers were sometimes becalmed here for so long that they had to toss their horses overboard due to a lack of water. Meteorologists use the more benign technical phrase, "the calms of Cancer."
At half past eleven, after the evening movie and a few hands of poker, I put on the red goggles in the wardroom. At about that time, the lookouts for the midwatch relieved their predecessors on the bridge. Once my eyes began to dilate, I went to the control room to begin reviewing the status of the boat. The control room was dark, as it had been since sunset, with only a few red lights on. The chief of the watch briefed me regarding the status of the boat, its people, and its major equipment. The list of non-functioning equipment was always short, and it always started with the active sonar, the radar, and the IFF. Those were the only pieces of equipment, other than the radio transmitters and the underwater telephone, that could give away our position, so the skipper always required us to remove the fuses and report the equipment as broken. Sometimes there was something else broken, but our crew was good at getting things repaired, so these items were seldom on the list for long.
Then I went to the conning tower to study our navigational progress. As dark as the control room had been, the conn was even blacker, illuminated only by the glow of the instrumentation around the small compartment. There were no other lights on at all. That way the quartermaster of the watch could rely on his eyesight if he were to look out the periscope at night. On a trip like this, the navigational information was quite simple, and dull.
When I got to the bridge, the lookouts for my watch were already into their routine. After a brief conversation with my predecessor as Officer of the Deck, in which he told me that there was nothing to tell me, I relieved him of the deck and the conn and he went below. These two lookouts were the same ones that had stood the previous watch with me, and the dozen watches before that, day and night. We no longer had anything to talk about. We stared at the horizon for a long time.
One engine would move us over this smooth water at ten knots. But we were assigned to transit at eleven knots. Our engines were most efficient at full throttle, so we ran on one engine until we were seven miles behind schedule. We then started a second engine to speed us up to fourteen knots or so. After five hours of running on two engines, we killed one engine and slowed to ten knots again. After twelve to fifteen hours, we had to restart the second engine.
One-third of the way through the four-hour watch, I ordered the starboard lookout to swap places with the helmsman. Later I required the port lookout to swap with the helmsman. That way the lookouts, at least, got some variety in their watch.
We had not seen another ship for days, nor had either of the other two groups of watchstanders. Our only news of the rest of the world consisted of the few radioteletype messages that only our skipper saw. The earth almost seemed to belong to us, alone. Our boat was the only evidence of humanity on the planet, and the three of us on the bridge were the only people we could see or relate to. Every couple of nights we saw one airplane pass far overhead, reminding us that we were not the only people remaining alive on the planet.
The lookouts and I had stood these four-hour watches together, twice a day, for more than a week on this same plodding trip across the ocean. By now we already knew each other's lies and each other's truths. We just stood there this night, looking at the empty horizon. With each exchange of lookout and helm, we managed to get a cup of coffee or tea delivered to the bridge, but that was the extent of the entertainment that we were permitted. There was no conversation at all for the entire four hours, except for the rituals of the watch or the coffee run. We just stared at the ocean, and we let our introspections run wild.
At half past three, two fresh lookouts came to the bridge, to relieve my companions. The energy displayed by the newcomers was grating. They finally figured out that I was still mesmerized by hours of the ocean, and by the horizon, at night. They stopped talking, but they were still fidgety. A quarter of an hour later my replacement arrived. He seemed alert, businesslike, intrusive. It was obvious that he was not going to respect the ocean as I had been doing for four hours.
With his prodding, I remembered the arithmetic and the rituals. He relieved me of the deck and the conn. I descended to the conning tower, and I reviewed the quartermaster's notebook entries for our watch. There were no entries, except to note who was the officer of the deck. As far as posterity would know, nothing happened during the watch. I countersigned this proof of nothingness, then I summarized it for the deck log.
The last official duty of my watch was to tour the boat, checking that there was a watchstander awake in each compartment, and that everything looked, sounded, and smelled right. After that, I wrote a one-line note for the skipper, to be read later at his wake-up call, telling him that nothing happened. Then to bed, an hour before sunrise.