Carr: Going 50 Knots with Your Hair on Fire

carr's hair on fire
Credit: Michael Carr

By Michael Carr – “All boats, comms check, report when ready.”

Three Riverine Warfare boat captains respond with “loud and clear”, and then four green and brown camouflaged boats slowly and quietly head out into the muddy river. There are no lights, no sounds, and barely perceptible ripples on the river’s surface.

Twin water jets linked to turbocharged 500 HP diesel engines power each boat. Water is sucked in from beneath the boats, spun through a turbine, and shoved out the stern at an enormous flow rate. When operating at full throttle these boats skim across the water at speeds over 50 knots.

Tonight, a group of four boats, each with a crew of eight, are operating somewhere in the cold dark swamps of backwoods North Carolina. This excursion is an exercise, one of many back-to-back “missions” over endless days. Together these missions form the final exercise in a grueling eight-week Riverine Warfare training class.

Each underway mission builds on the previous excursions and intelligence gathering. There is no rest or “reset”, and each mission has a different commander, as students rotate through that position. Instructors provide intelligence and goals, and then students develop a mission plan and execute. Everything is timed, except for sleep. There is little sleep. Meals are MREs and endless coffee. For sure, the coffee pot is the most valuable piece of equipment.

Tonight’s mission seems to have been designed to cause students the most angst, and require seamless teamwork and coordination. Four boats, each equipped with machine guns, individual weapons, communications gear, medical equipment, ammunition, water, food, & spare parts are tasked to move far up a river, through enemy territory, and insert a four man SEAL Sniper Team, without being detected.

Later, they are to re-enter enemy territory and extract the sniper team, once again without being detected. If they are detected, and fired upon they should return fire and return to base, ensuring the SEAL Team’s presence and mission are not compromised.

Of course, the friction of “war” is everywhere. The entire civilian population of this rural North Carolina community has been retained by the Instructors to serve as insurgents. Normally mild-mannered civilians have been equipped with AK 47 rifles, RPGs, and Soviet-style machine guns, all loaded with “simunitions”. Now every bass-boat and aluminum skiff carrying carefree fisherman, are in fact adversaries waiting to open fire.

A route through the swamp to the SEAL insertion point is planned, and a different return route, with alternates, are laid out on charts and electronic navigation systems. Once underway and moving at high speed in complete darkness, there is no time to perform traditional navigation. You must know where to turn. There is no slowing down, and no allowance for missed turns. Night vision goggles show the way.

The separation between the four boats is minimal, fifty feet or less. All four boats run as a single unit, keeping the same RPMs on each engine. A single sound prevents your enemies from knowing how many boats are approaching. Each boat has specific duties. The mission commander’s boat controls communications and initiates all actions. Tonight there are also helicopters overhead, requiring an increased level of coordination, and communications requirements.

Coordinating four boats moving at 50 knots, in darkness, is a ballet. There are no random movements, no extraneous commands, no improvising, and no last-minute initiatives. Each expenditure of energy and each spoken word has a specific purpose and intent. There is no idle chatter. No lack of focus.

However, there is one topic which must be debated and discussed, and that is what music to play over the internal communications system while underway.

Playing music through the internal communication system is not approved, but crews deem it a mission necessity. It keeps everyone energized, focused, and it builds team cohesion. There are votes for Flo-Rida, AC/DC, Aerosmith. Someone jokes and offers Olivia Newton-John, “Really Dude?” Finally, the Rolling Stones are chosen. Everyone is good.

Each crew member wears a set of headphones under their helmet. They can toggle between channels, and the boat captains can monitor all internal and external channels, selecting channels for listening and others for broadcasting. They can adjust each channel’s volume to assist in distinguishing boat crews, boat captains, aircraft, and the operations center.

“Standby, on my command, come up to 2000 PRMs,” says the mission commander.

“All boats, all boats, increase to 2000 RPMS, execute.” All four boats accelerate together and come up on a plane. They are off, the mission is underway. For the next hour, they turn left and right and left again moving steadily through the swampy waters, heading toward their insertion point. Cold night air numbs their fingers, and the blasting wind makes their eyes water. As the four boats pass pre-determined phase lines the mission commander communicates back to the command post.

“Base, this is Whiplash, passing phase line Tango, ops normal.” Short and concise. After an hour of focused and concentrated navigation, the four boats are nearing the insertion point.

“All boats, we are 3 minutes out.” This is all that is needed to communicate the upcoming high-speed maneuver needed to insert the SEAL Team.

“Standby, 30 seconds”. They are still moving at 50 knots, the next orchestrated move will be executed on a single command.

When the mission commander keys his mike, he will say “Execute” and all four boats will come to an immediate stop by reversing thrust on their water jets. There will be no change in engine RPMs, only the direction of water thrust will change, from propelling the boats forward by pushing water out astern, to pushing the water forward. This action stops the boats within a boat length.

Insertion is planned at a specific point on the left riverbank. The lead and stern boats will flare out in opposite directions providing cover, and the two middle boats, on which the SEAL team is embarked, will run up on the riverbank. These two boats will barely touch the riverbank, and the SEALS will bound off and disappear into the darkness.

Almost as quickly as they touched the bank, the two middle boats will back off and resume their position between the lead and stern boats, and the four boats will disappear down river. This all happens, at most, in ten or fifteen seconds and the night is quiet again. Take a sip of coffee, look away, gaze at the stars, and you will miss the entire evolution. In and out, unseen flawless execution.

“Execute” comes over the internal communications channel. Before these words are fully uttered the boats have executed their maneuver. In the background, on the headsets, you can hear….”I can’t get no satisfaction…cause I try and I try and I try…” Up on the bank, SEALs are out, boats back off, spin around and head down river.

Four boat screaming through the night, Rolling Stones filling headphones. Insertion complete, stage one complete. The night is far from over. An extraction still needs to be completed. There is sure to be an ambush, a firefight, a medevac, a disabled boat, call for close air support, a comms failure, and more.

But for now, the mission commander is feeling good. Screaming down the bayou, doing 50 knots, hair on fire. He is quietly humming…”That’s what I say, I can’t get no satisfaction, I can’t get no girl reaction…cause I try, and I try and I try…”