Carr: “Chief, We Have a Problem”

Photo: Michael Carr

By Michael Carr – “Chief, we have a problem” came the message from the Bos’n.

We always had problems before getting underway, the “Pre-Sail Checklist” was extensive, taking days to complete, and there were always issues.

There was always some piece of equipment that was not working. Nothing was ever 100%. Something was missing, or had expired, medications were missing from sickbay, no spare batteries for the emergency VHF radios, etc.

For each item we checked off as “good to go” there seemed to be more, which had question marks next to them. Some issues could be fixed through emergency purchases, or taking gear off another vessel. We “borrowed” charts, Coast Pilots, and Nautical Almanacs from other vessels.

But this issue was bigger and more difficult.

“Chief, we can’t get the Inmarsat to work, and we can’t figure out where the issue lies, maybe it’s our account, or it could be the software, it just won’t log-on to the satellites.”

This is a big issue, not easily bypassed. We needed the Inmarsat for many functions; sending receiving emails and daily position reports, obtaining weather and high seas alerts, and sending a distress message if that was required. We had to have Inmarsat, or so it seemed, as I stood looking at the terminal, willing it to work.

We were on a tight timeline. We needed to sail in the next 48 hours to meet our mission’s requirements. Not sailing would impact other units. A reminder of our mission’s importance was sitting on our cargo deck.

We had agreed, months ago, to support US Navy Underwater Construction Team diving operations in Key West FL. We had convinced the US Navy of our reliability and dependability, and so the Little Creek Underwater Construction Team trucked their surface supplied and scuba dive gear, recompression chambers, generators, compressors and medical gear to our 174 ft. LCU in Morehead City NC. Our cargo deck was full of dive gear. Our mission was to transport their gear to Key West and then serve as a dive platform.

We were scheduled to link up with the Underwater Construction Team in Key West in five days. We had all their gear. They had two weeks of dive training planned, and we had to be in Key West ready to go when they arrived.

Here I was standing in the LCU’s bridge, looking at all the gear stacked on deck, and thinking about this non-functioning Inmarsat. We should have had the unit up and running days, or weeks ago, but issues beyond our control prevented that from happening. I drank my coffee, and thought to myself, “Ahh, same shit, just another day.”

“OK, let’s figure this out” I said to my Chief Mate. First, we need to stop fixating on the Inmarsat. It’s a silly piece of electronic equipment. It’s not working. It appears unlikely we can get it working, so what are our options?’

“We need the Inmarsat for emergency and e-mail,” replied the Chief Mate.

“What about this option; we sail within VHF range of the Coast, and substitute our VHF GMDSS system for the Inmarsat. Our emergency calling system will be the VHF & EPIRB, and we use our Internet connection to send position reports via Gmail? We can get weather updates from our VHF.”

I added, “This will satisfy the intent of the pre-sail checklist, and will not increase our risk assessment.“ I needed the Chief Mate to agree, if he did not agree then we could not sail.

“I will put this decision in writing, and send it up the chain of command, under my signature.”

“I don’t know Skip, the pre-sail checklist says we must have the Inmarsat up and running.”

“I know” I replied “And if were sailing off soundings, out into the big blue ocean, I would agree, but we are sailing coastal, we have our EPRIB, we will be within VHF range if we modify our track, and we can send in our required position reports via Gmail.”

We bantered back and forth while our communication Soldier toyed with the Inmarsat. “I know why the system is not working,” I said to know one in particular.

“You do?” the Chief Mate replied.

“Yup” I said. “Our command did not pay our Comsat bill. It happens all the time, we don’t sail for a month and they think we can save money by not paying the bill, as if communication accounts are an A la carte system. The Battalion does not pay the bill, and Comsat shuts down our account. It happens all the time. That’s the issue.”

We looked at the Navy’s dive gear on deck, checked through more of the pre-sail checklist; weapons, ammo, fuel, water, steering pumps, emergency generator, fire-fighting gear, and on and on. All day the crew worked. Slowly we checked off every item. I held the clipboard and as each department completed an item the Chief Mate and I verified, and we checked it off.

Finally we were done, except for the Inmarsat. I leaned against the bridge rail, looked at all the dive gear loaded on deck, and asked the Chief Mate, “So, what do you think, should we sail, or are should we just sit here at the dock?”

He looked at me and said, “Skip, if you are comfortable with this situation, so am I, lets execute”.

“Thank you, I appreciate your support. Let’s modify our track line, stay as close to the coast as possible, and plan on departing at 08:00 tomorrow. I will send the completed pre-sail checklist to the Battalion. Lets do this.”

We departed the following morning, sailing from Morehead City on an ebb tide, and headed down the coast. Four days later we arrived in Key West and moored at the Navy’s Truman Annex. As we pulled up, there were a dozen Navy Divers standing on the dock waiting for us. They piled onboard the Navy Master Chief came up to the bridge.

“Good to see you guys pull-in,” said the Master Chief, our guys are ready to start diving tomorrow, we are going to set up our gear now, get the chambers readied, all the surface supplied gear setup, so we can depart at first light tomorrow. You guys are on time! That’s so awesome. Did you have any issues on the way down?”

I looked at the Master Chief, and thought about his divers, and the importance of this mission, how we had promised him, and his command, that we were capable and reliable. How we could be there for them, on time on target.

Should I share our Inmarsat issue, how we came so close to not sailing? Nope, not going to do that. So instead I smiled, took a big gulp of coffee, and said:

“Hell no Master Chief, piece of cake. I told you we would be here to support you, and we are here. Easy Day. Let’s Dive!”