The Singapore Swim
In nearly seven decades on this planet I've managed to outlive childhood, high school, Vietnam, two marriages, and my own stupidity, so far. This then, is the accounting of one of the stupid things that very nearly ended my lucky streak.
I have always been something of a non-conformist mixed with equal parts of thrill seeker and trouble maker. Joining the Navy during the Vietnam war didn't change those tendencies much but it did cramp my style; so I was always on the lookout for my next prank or stunt. My personal policy was to never really cross the "line" but rather to slide right up to it and have me a peek over the top.
As luck would have it my first ship was literally the oldest ship in the navy at the time in the late summer of 1970, the USS Plate, AO-24. The AO designated the old girl as an auxiliary oiler, a tanker; which was somewhat synonymous with being in jail with a chance of drowning according to fleet scuttlebutt. Tanker sailors have a traditional reputation of being a rough & tumble bunch, owing perhaps to having about the worst job in the navy, being a floating gas station & grocery store.
It seemed overly hot, & mucky even for summer in the south pacific the day we arrived in Singapore and moored to a buoy out in the harbor. It was the first time the ship had been in Singapore in quite a while according to the old timers; and whatever the reason, us deck apes were not given a memo. It was announced after mooring that this was not a liberty stop, so nobody was going ashore.
The news was not especially well received by an already over worked & stressed out crew, and you could literally taste the mood going sour all over the ship. The perfect conditions for me to invent a little fun & profit for myself. At days end; after evening chow, the ships business was done for another day and everyone went about their own off duty pursuits which usually meant card games in crew quarters until the evening movie on the mess deck. Never being much for the cards, I worked my way back to the fantail area at the rear of the ship to see what opportunity I might find to have a little harmless fun. Normally there is a lookout on watch on the fantail, but only when underway; which made it a popular place to gather and socialize when confined to the ship in port.
We had arrived in the late afternoon, and by the time I'd finished dinner it was getting dark as I joined the gathering on the fantail. Hanging around the same bunch of guys on, and after work is, if anything, predictable...so I knew if I was to be entertained tonight it was gonna have to start with me. Tanker sailors are big on daring each other to do stuff, usually stupid or dangerous stuff; so leaning on the handrail some 25 or so feet above the water, I tossed out a little bait to see who would bite by making the comment that it was a perfect night for a swim.
My plan was simple. Nobody knew I'd been on the swim team in high school, or that I especially loved the high dive. My intention was to get enough guys to wager their money on whether or not I would actually take the plunge into Singapore harbor to make doing so worth the effort. Of course diving in was the easy part; getting back aboard the ship, not so much. The official gangway was lowered and manned 24 hours a day for ships business, but swimming up to it came with several problems, none of which were in my plan. In this case, by diving into the harbor I would definitely be crossing over that line: The navy calls it Jumping Ship, and AWOL (Absent With Out Leave) & takes those charges seriously. Getting busted for this prank was certain to draw brig time!
On the opposite side of the ship there was a whisker boom extended from the ship which dangled a rope Jacobs ladder into the water. This rig was used by the ship's service boats for use when the main gangway was busy; and was my way back on the ship since it was un-manned.
The ship was 550 feet long and the whisker boom was located approximately a third of the way from the bow, which meant that I'd have to swim about 360 feet to reach the safety ladder attached to the boom. Piece of cake for a former boy scout with the mile swim merit badge.
Of course soon after saying it was a perfect night for a swim, someone challenged me, accusing me of only saying it because getting back on was impossible. I casually replied that I figured on getting back via the aforementioned whisker boom. A quick look around the corner confirmed it was indeed extended with the ladder down, so I had my way back on board. Not satisfied, my accuser said I still didn't have the balls to dive in; and with that, human nature mixed with boredom took over and before long someone was holding over 500 bucks in cold cash. This was going to be easy money.
I removed my shirt, shoes and socks, then carefully climbed over the guardrail, poised to take the plunge. As I recall, there was a small amount of trepidation at what I was doing, but the sight of all that cash was stronger, so there was no chickening out, especially not on a tanker. As I prepared to dive I turned and asked my buddy Mikey "What should I do, jack-knife or swan dive?" My friend just looked astonished and said "I think you should climb back aboard before you slip & fall." Knowing I'd never live it down if I failed to go thru with it, and having ultimate confidence in my swimming skills, I squared off, took a big breath and did a magnificent swan dive into Singapore harbor.
It was like diving off a two story building into semi-darkness, and when I finally hit the water the darkness became complete. I knew that diving from that height would mean I would also penetrate deeper than usual into the water & I was ready for that. I wasn't however, ready for the water temperature as it was several degrees colder than expected. After several strong strokes I still wasn't at the surface, and that big breath I took was running out fast as I struggled to break the top. Four or five more strokes and I hit the surface, gasping for air. With head above water, the sight I saw terrified me to my core.
In real time less than a minute had passed since diving off the ship, but when I surfaced it was a couple hundred yards away and getting smaller fast. It was as if in under a minute the ship had broke mooring, fired up engines and departed the scene at flank speed. Of course my brain instantly knew that was impossible, leaving just one other really ugly reality; I was being carried away, out to sea on a swift moving 5 knot current and the outgoing tide. The harbor looked like a glass lake when we arrived because it was at high tide. Now, several hours later the harbor had become a swift moving river to oblivion.
My survival instinct kicked in remarkably fast, perhaps aided by having heard these are shark infested waters. I began what became the swim of my life by doing my best to become a flesh torpedo. Fortunately for me I just had the current to fight, there was little to no wave action. At first it didn't seem like I was gaining any headway, but soon I could tell I was gaining on it, the ship was getting bigger as I swam; but if I stopped even for a few seconds to rest, I'd lose the game and likely my life as well. It was that thought that kept my arms and legs churning even as the lactic acid began building and burning in my muscles.
My mind was racing, as my stamina drained by the minute. After swimming at my absolute strongest ability for what felt like 20 minutes I was getting close enough to encourage some hope. I thought that certainly my buddies on the ship would by now have tied a life jacket on a line and tossed it over for me, but my heart and hopes sank when I looked up to see a totally empty fantail, without a single soul looking for me, and no rope in the water either. Tanker sailors!
As I approached the point at which I'd entered the water I knew I didn't have anywhere near the energy or stamina to make it to the whisker boom, and that nobody was close enough to hear me yell for help; leaving me but a single hope.
Every ship has various discharge pipes built into the hull thru which to dump various unwanted types of dirty water etc. These scuppers as they're called are sometimes a vertical pipe welded to the side of the ship, so as not to leave a slimy streak on the nice haze grey paint job. Because painting the hull was one of my jobs as a deck ape; I knew exactly where one of these enclosed scuppers was; and it was close enough for me to get to it and hang on to the side of the ship.
With literally the last ounce of energy in my body I made it to the scupper pipe and grabbed ahold of the pipe bracket. The pipe & bracket were covered in a layer of sharp barnacles, and soon after grabbing them with waterlogged pruned fingers I was bleeding into the water. I knew I had to climb the scupper up the side of the ship so the time to begin was now: before the blood drew in unwanted company. The brackets holding the pipe only gave me about two inches on either side of the pipe for climbing on, and my feet were mere inches above the water standing on the lowest one, and bleeding now, just like my hands were. The brackets above me were free of barnacles as well as being farther from the sharks I knew were coming, if not already there. I tapped that survival instinct one last time to give me the energy to pull myself up to those higher brackets; and making it was the first break I'd caught all night so far.
My feet were now a safe height above the water. Although I didn't see any sharks yet that didn't mean there were none nearby, and not seeing them was somehow worse than actually seeing them. This was still an issue because my legs were shaking uncontrollably and my arms were aching from the swim and holding onto the life saving pipe. If I were to slip, or just lose focus for an instant I'd be right back to being in the water, and bleeding. As I was eyeballing the next bracket some four feet above me; I noticed someone leaning on the handrail a few yards down the deck, I even recognized him; it was a kid from the personnel office named Clark McGarr. I called to him by name, and to my relief he heard me...but didn't see me. I called out again with a hint to look down and aft; then he saw me and was soon looming 15 feet or so above me on the handrail. "What happened?" he asked. "Long story, go get a rope..." I replied. Just like a life saving boy scout; Clark took off to get a rope...but soon returned with a heaving line, about the same thickness as a clothesline.
I was at first disappointed with his choice of rescue rope as he lowered one end down to me to tie around myself; but being in no position to criticize I just went with it and tied myself on. A few feet above me, along with the next set of brackets, there was a porthole glowing with incandescent light from the engineering crew quarters; and it might become a problem. I was very close to getting back on board the ship and was still very keen to avoid punishment for my stunt if at all possible. Being seen hanging around outside that porthole could mean serious trouble.
With the rescue line secure, Clark says; "You ready? - Here we go!" Before I could reply the hay bale tossing Iowa farm boy pulled me right up the side of the ship, hand over hand; as if I was a wet rag doll. Fortunately when he paused to get a fresh grip on the line; there was a pipe bracket for my feet to stand on. Unfortunately however I was now looking directly into that porthole, and at a first class engineer named Joyner, just as he was taking a swig from a bottle he wasn't supposed to have aboard ship. He looked at me with what seemed suspicious eyes, not quite registering what he was seeing. "You ain't supposed to be out there!" he says to me... so I replied, "I'm not here and you ain't supposed to be drinking that." at which point the burly Mr. McGarr gave another brisk pull on the line which brought me right up to the handrail. Clark manhandled me over the top rail as my rubbery legs gave out. Now, Clark was smart enough to know that I was up to no good; and that he might be complicit for helping me; so as he disappeared around the corner he says, "I was never here man."
Even with the movie playing on the mess deck there were always a few guys loitering on the fantail smoking weed or whatever; but not on this night. It was empty. I grabbed up the rescue line and just tossed it over the rail to eliminate evidence, then sat down to collect my wits & recover from my ordeal. When I could stand & walk again my body ached like a train had hit me, and I was already dreading how I'd feel come morning; as I made my way to crew quarters for a shower and some dry clothes. Nearly everyone was watching the evening movie, and no one in the compartment had been on the fantail when I dove. So far, so good.
Clean & dry; I made my way back to the mess decks & quietly sneaked into thru the back, taking a seat to watch the rest of the movie, "The War Wagon" with John Wayne, a film about betrayal & revenge. Sometimes you just gotta love the irony. As I sat there among the handful of guys who were on the fantail when I dove; my anger at just being left for dead intensified. It was a most powerful wake-up call about how cold life can be.
Being fairly certain I wouldn't be busted for my stunt, I mulled over the dynamics of collecting my hard won $500 bucks. The last I saw, my "buddy" Mikey was holding all the loot; and chances were good he hadn't yet given it all back. You just don't do that sort of thing out in the open unless you want the whole ship knowing your business.
By the time the credits were scrolling on the screen I still hadn't settled in on how to handle the confrontation, so I decided to just go with the flow. All I knew for sure was I had the element of surprise on my side & I wanted to get the maximum effect from it. There was a newspaper on the table next to me so I grabbed it as the lights came up, holding it open as if reading it. The closest place to light up a smoke after the evening movie was the fantail area; thru the back door behind me. I had to fight to suppress the urge to giggle a little as the crowd exited past me, many of whom were there when I took my dive.
Last man out, I laid down the paper and stepped out into the hot summer night. There were maybe ten guys on the fantail when I rounded the corner to join them, and the ones I wanted were all grouped together talking in whispers. When I was spotted standing there a few feet away...just staring at them, someone yelled "Holy Shit" and with that it became sorta like the old E.F. Hutton commercials where it got so quiet you could hear the fish farting.
My fellow shipmates looked like they were seeing a ghost, or more specifically a dead man. Before any of them could say anything I stepped right up to them with my hand out saying "Where's my money guys?" Mikey glanced furtively, like a weasel to the guy who originally challenged me to dive. "Don't look to him pal" I said to Mikey; my voice dripping with anger & sarcasm, "We have some issues here: first you all put up five hundred saying I wouldn't dive, and I dove, so just cough up my cash; then we'll talk about all of you cowards just leaving me to die."
By now more sailors were within earshot, drawn like moths to a flame by the confrontation and my angry voice. As his hand slid into his pocket for the cash, Mikey asked how I got back on board the ship; I told him "Dive in and I'll talk ya thru it!" As I snatched the cash from his hand faster than a Singapore pickpocket. Looking my "buddy" in the eye I said "You just ran away and left me to die out there...all of you did." Having collected my loot & spoken my mind I silently declared victory, and walked away into the darkness because I was experiencing a powerful urge to throw some bodies over the handrail at that point.
If you're a tanker sailor, your life aboard ship is largely driven by your reputation. The nervous, weak & foolish have a much less enjoyable experience than those who project a degree of boldness and confidence in themselves. In the fullness of time the story of my evening swim made it around the ship's rumor mill. Only two people other than myself knew how I got back aboard the ship that night; one of them was drunk like a warlord at the time and the other one never spoke a word to my knowledge, so my reputation had a degree of mystery to it which I came to rather enjoy. My friends would pressure & cajole me to tell how I got back aboard, but like a good magician, I never give away how the trick is done.
Despite being embarrassingly stupid for not thinking to check local sea conditions before diving from the back deck of an oil tanker; my ordeal taught me first hand the importance of "look before you leap." If I had just thought to toss a wad of paper over the rail to test the current, I would never have said a word about swimming and my night would have been very different, perhaps even boring. However, to this day I still contend that some of life's most important lessons are only learned thru the stupid acts of ourselves and others.
Additionally, my Singapore swim forever etched into my brain the simple fact that when you take that step into raw wild nature, where ever it is; you most usually just get the one mistake. Remembering the details and physical pain of that night while writing this account, what stands out most is the sheer luck tossed to me like a life preserver from the universe. I took that as the universe wanting me to stick around a while longer; and although it gave a certain maturity to my judgment I remain a steadfast non-conformist and thrill seeker.