In an earlier post I told about losing power, briefly, while leaving San Diego. This story occurred several thousand miles further West, and was just as unpleasant, if not worse. The ship, USS Okinawa, was a helicopter carrier. We carried most of a Marine battalion and delivered them ashore to do ‘Marine things’. While they were away, we either anchored in Danang or sailed back and forth off shore. Sometimes we even delivered hot meals to the troops in the field.
In this event, we were sailing back and forth making ruts in the ocean that filled with water as soon as we passed. Unlike the case in San Diego, we were in no hurry. We had only one of our two boilers in operation to provide steam power. I was officer of the deck for the midnight to 4 AM watch. My relief had already arrived and I was briefing him to take over the watch when the Engineering officer of the watch called me.
“We’ve lost sight of the water in the sight glass on the boiler. I’m shutting it down.”
That was standard procedure. The sight glass shows how much water is in the boiler. If the water level is too high, or too low, it cannot be seen. The engine room sailor assigned to keep watch of the level had failed to do so. He might have fallen asleep, but that wasn’t important. If the water level was too low, there would not be enough water to turn to steam and the extra heat could melt the boiler tubes. If there was too much water, drops could carry over into the steam line feeding the turbines. Even a small drop of water propelled by the pressure of the steam could break the steel turbine blades.
I ordered the helmsman to ring up “All Stop” on the engine room telegraph. I turned on the international navigation light signal for “Not under Command”. The two red lights showed anyone else nearby that we could not maneuver. I then notified the Captain. After that I turned over the watch and went below.
My cabin was located just under the flight deck, about 4 stories above the water line. When I came to the passageway leading to my room I could see from the light of the emergency battle lanterns that it was full of water, up to the level of the swash plates that separated sections of the deck. I dipped a finger into the water and tasted it. Salt. I quickly entered my cabin and called the damage control center to report salt water flooding on the zero four level. Then I called other staterooms nearby to let the occupants know there was salt water on the deck. One officer had to chase out into the passageway to recover one of his shoes that was floating away.
At this point I was wondering why the battle lanterns were still on. Normally, the emergency diesel generator would have automatically started and provided electrical power in place of the regular steam generator. I decided to go to the engineering spaces to see what was happening.
The boiler room was a bit chaotic. Number one boiler had been in use and was the one shut down because the water line in the sight glass had disappeared. When steam was lost to the generator, the main source of electricity stopped. At that point the forward emergency diesel generator came on. The first items to get power back included the fire main pumps. They drew water from the sea. One of the fire mains ran along the edge of the flight deck and was fed from a pipe that went through the shower room at the opposite end of the passageway where my cabin was situated. It had a pressure release valve that was located in that same shower room. When the pumps began running the pressure quickly reached the point where the release valve opened and sea water flooded the shower room at a rate faster than it could drain. The water overflowed into the passageway. That was the salt water I tasted when I came to my room. But the electrical load was heavy, and the emergency generator broke down. Once again we had no electric power. The after emergency generator was disassembled for routine maintenance and was not ready to take over to supply electricity. That left us in the dark except for the emergency battery powered lighting and a few personal flashlights.
The next step would normally have been to light off the second boiler to provide steam again. But the boiler needed a supply of fuel and water and both of those were dependent upon electrical pumps. The fans for extra air were also electric, but the extra air wasn’t necessary for starting the boiler. There was some water in the boiler, so the first priority was to get a fuel pump working. Easier said than done. The engineers tried using a storage battery. It wasn’t powerful enough. Then several batteries connected together were tried. Still no luck. Finally, one of the veteran chief petty officers thought about using compressed air. He welded an extension bar on the main fuel pump and made a few vanes from sheet metal to attach to the newly connected bar. Then compressed air was taken from a portable tank and blown against the vanes. They moved. The pump was working again. The fuel was ignited in the boiler and the first steam produced was routed to the generator. Once electric power was restored all the other machinery could be used and we were soon able to move under our own power. As best I can recall, the whole business took about 4 to 6 hours.