Growing up, my brother and I were sometimes treated to amazing stories from the time our Dad spent on Coast Guard Cutters Chautauqua and Taney in the 1950s (see also: His home movie of the hazing ritual young recruits went through upon their first crossing of the Internal Date Line: Pollywogs). Recently, he wrote down some of his memories of working in the boiler room on an original steam ship, the intensity of the seas they endured, and the life of an old salt. It’s an experience that’s largely gone from this modern world, and I wanted to share it here for posterity (with his permission).
Jim Hacker served in the US Coast Guard from 1955-1959. He was on the Taney in 1955 and the Chautauqua 1959, Cape St. Elias Lighthouse 1957 and various buoy tenders in-between.
My first assignment was on board the cutter Taney which served in the battle of Pearl harbor. [He later served aboard the Chautauqua]. She was also steam driven and I worked in the engine room as a BT/3 (boiler tender 3rd class) Diesel engines were just coming out and replacing steam during my term. I am glad I had the opportunity to serve aboard steam driven ships during a dieing era. Never to be experienced by anyone again.
I miss the sounds, the fire in the boilers, the escaping steam in leaking pipe joints and the eternal heat. Talk about working in hell. Blast furnace heat, trying to keep your balance in a stormy sea, lack of fresh air and the constant smell of crude oil used to fire the boilers. Washing fuel filters and other parts in a bucket of diesel oil in a heavy sea was enough to make anyone seasick.
The smell combined with the heat, lack of fresh air and and a pitching ship made it difficult for me to make it through a watch without heading topside and heaving my guts out over the rail, especially at two or three in the morning in heavy seas. Calm seas, no problem. Then crawling into your bunk with your skin covered with a layer of steam oil because you were just too tied to take a shower or the ship was pitching so wildly you couldn’t stand up in the shower anyway. You have to remember that The Chautauqua and Taney were stationed between calif and Hawaii or between Hawaii and Japan. ( the point of no return for airlines and we were there to rescue them if they had to ditch at sea.)
This was before weather satelites and we had to follow hurricanes, tornadoes and squalls, often getting into the eye so we could send weather forcasts for airlines and maritime vessels. Being in the middle of a storm was state of the art and we were the original storm chasers. If we wern’t in a storm were becalmed by the doldrums. A glass flat sea and not a breath of wind. This is when we would have swimming, small boat races, ( rowing) volly ball games, fishing and just time to relax. If you could play an instrument small bands were formed, beer was passed out and it was time to relax and soak in the sun. All this and being paid $72.00 a month. Not a bad deal. Hey, room and board was included. Cigarettes … 10 cents a pack. Paid once a month and no where to spend it. Such a deal. YES, they were the good old days.
A you watch the video above (embedding disabled unfortunately, but you can click the link to view), shot in Terra Del Fuego, and see ships in rough seas, just know that this is what I experienced on a regular basis on the Taney and Chautauqua. Nothing here that we didn’t experience and it was our duty to follow storms and hurricanes to make up weather reports. At times the ocean was so rough the ship would lay on it;s side and waves would come down the smoke stack and put the fire out in a boiler. We would have to open the fire box. put in a ladder and climb down five feet and bail the water out with a bucket, then re- light the boiler and keep going. Fortunatly we only lost one boiler at a time, so we always had some power to steer by and run the ship.
And that is why I am an old salt.