Noilly Prattle: Looking Back: 16 – swimming with sharks

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Looking Back: 16 – swimming with sharks

Mayport Naval Station, Jacksonville, Florida
     After leaving the Brooklyn Navy Yard we returned to the Kaskaskia's new home port the Mayport Naval Station, Jacksonville, Florida. Apparently the refit done in Brooklyn hadn't been completed or perhaps had been done half-assedly, I don't remember the details. We were scheduled for further refitting in Mobile, Alabama in April, 1962. Once in Mobile, I requested a leave of absence to go to Miami to pick up my car, spend a few days and then drive to Jacksonville to rejoin the ship.

Sputnik I
       Two events of note occurred while I was serving aboard the Kaskaskia. It was the time of the Cold War when the Soviet Union launched the first orbital satellite, Sputnik I in October 1957. The following year President Kennedy pulled out all the stops to play catch up and the NASA civilian space program for aeronautics and aerospace development and exploration was founded in July 1958.

Sigma 7
recovery of Sigma 7
       In October 1962 the “Kassy” was assigned to one of the Atlantic recovery positions for the United States' fifth manned orbit of the planet as part of NASA's Mercury Program. Walter M. Shirra orbited the earth six times in the Sigma 7 spacecraft on October 3, 1962. Although still behind the Soviet Union, this flight set a new record of manned flight for the US space program. The Sigma 7, however, landed nowhere near us in the mid Atlantic Ocean, but in the Pacific Ocean and was successfully fished out of the water where Shirra had landed a half mile from a recovery carrier.

swim call (shark watch in background)
       The Captain of the Kaskaskia decided to give the crew a couple days of liberty on the island of Madeira, which was not so far from our recovery station in the eastern part of the Atlantic, before returning to Jacksonville. But, before steaming off for Madeira, the Captain called a “swim call” over the loudspeaker while we were still on station. This meant that anyone who felt like it, could literally go jump in the ocean. Of course it helped if one could swim, since the water was a good two miles deep. Well, I could swim, and along with most of the rest of the crew donned a swim suit and jumped in and went swimming.

       The water was full of small jellyfish that were practically invisible but you could feel little shocks when you bumped into one or several—and you were constantly bumping into them. The thing I found most remarkable, however, was the incredible pressure pushing up from below. It was impossible to sink. I tried to swim straight down but kept getting pushed right back to the surface. After a while I got bored with the swim and the jellyfish and returned to the side of ship and climbed back aboard on a kind of rope ladder made from cargo netting. All of a sudden somebody yelled “shark in the water”.

       There were still a lot of the guys in the water and they all started scrambling to the side of the ship and climbing the rope ladder. Naturally, the possibility of sharks had been anticipated and a lifeboat with armed men aboard—the “shark watch” had been put in the water to patrol the periphery of the swimming area. As the last few guys were scrambling aboard the shark became visible between the ship and the patrol boat and one guy was cut off from the ship. As the shark headed for him he managed to swim to the life boat and scramble aboard spoiling the shark's chance for dinner. The shark, which appeared to be maybe 10 or 12 feet long or more, kept swimming around the ship and it was finally shot more for sport than because it presented any further danger to anyone.

       After the afternoon's excitement we got underway and headed east towards the Portuguese island of Madeira, famous, as some may know, for its wines.

To be continued...

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