Sharing sea with the Navy

Friction: A mixture of animosity and camaraderie characterizes the relations of fishermen and commercial seamen with the Navy.

March 18, 2001|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

STONINGTON, Conn. - There is a popular sea story that goes like this: A Navy ship is steaming through the ocean when it encounters a signal from what it presumes to be another ship. "Get out of the way," the Navy captain demands.

"Not possible ... change course" is the reply.

After a series of fiery messages, the Navy radios, "This is a United States warship, equipped with nuclear and ballistic weapons. Move aside."

The response, "This is a lighthouse. Your call."

The story is almost certainly more legend than fact. But in recent weeks it has been repeated almost daily along the eastern shoreline by fishermen and sea captains as they describe similar experiences while sharing coastal waters with the Navy.

The tale has become symbolic of a growing sentiment among seamen who complain of Navy arrogance on the water, an attitude they know can lead to dangerous encounters.

In the past year and a half, there have been a dozen cases of Navy vessels hitting reefs or other vessels, with the most notorious being the USS Greeneville surfacing beneath and sinking a Japanese fishing vessel off Hawaii last month, causing nine deaths.

Here on the shores of Connecticut - home to a large fishing port, many of the nation's shipping companies and the largest U.S. submarine base - there is a sense of both animosity and camaraderie between the Navy and seamen who have co-existed for more than a century.

But these days, even the camaraderie seems to come with an edge.

Long-submerged accounts are being recalled, such as an accident in the 1960s in which a Navy submarine became tangled in a fishing boat's nets outside Stonington and pulled the vessel to the ocean floor. And captains are sharing new experiences of their own.

Donald Frost, a former naval officer and merchant shipping captain who runs the Connecticut Maritime Association, remembers steaming south from New York in the middle of the night several years ago when he encountered a large naval warship, stopped in the shipping lane, demanding, "What ship, where bound?"

"Well, I signaled back, `This is the SS President Van Buren bound for Panama,' but he's not responding; he's just sitting there," Frost recalled.

"I said, `This guy's crazy.' He's sitting there in the middle of the main north-south shipping lanes and he wouldn't move. Finally, I signaled to him, `We're on your side. Get out of the way.'"

Some of the frustration among seamen stems from a feeling that the Navy operates with a different set of rules than the rest of the seagoing world. They communicate on a private channel, and though they are required to monitor the public channels, some commercial captains say that they can't always get through.

During practice drills, Navy ships often make erratic moves without warning, some commercial captains say. They also say Navy vessels sometimes operate without the navigation lights that sea laws require.

Navy officials dispute this. Navy captains use the utmost professionalism and care in navigating and are vigilant about communicating with other ship captains and avoiding collisions, according to Lt. Cmdr. Mike Brown, the spokesman for the Navy Region North East.

Other captains note that, with the entire Atlantic at their disposal, the Navy seems to insist on running drills in the middle of high-traffic areas and always demands the right of way, regardless of how big the tanker or freighter that is bearing down on them might be.

`Big-brother bullies'

Matthew Bomster, a tugboat captain out of Providence, R.I., who hauls oil and petroleum on giant barges, said he came upon five Navy ships recently lined up equidistant in a shipping lane.

"You know you're on a collision course with them, and they won't answer you," he said. "Yeah, it tends to cause a little anxiety. With a barge behind you, you're a quarter of a mile long - these things don't turn on a dime. You can't stop quickly, either, without getting run over by your barge.

"They're bullies, basically at times," he said of Navy ships. "Big-brother bullies."

To be sure, many captains, especially those operating out of ports such as Norfolk, Va., and New London, Conn., where the local economy is intertwined with the Navy and defense contractors, speak of the Navy's professionalism and courtesy.

Many fishermen who run their boats out of Stonington also speak of a sense of kinship with Navy captains who go to work on the water as they do.

But even those fishermen expressed concern recently while down at Stonington's fishing dock, as they talked about the Greeneville and whether they could suffer the same fate as the doomed Japanese fishing ship.

Their relationship with the Navy is based largely on their faith that submarines, invisible to the fishing boats, will steer clear of them and their nets.

`Know they are down there'

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