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Sea Stories: Snakes at Sea


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Sea Stories:  Snakes at Sea


One of the great challenges associated with Navy shipboard life is maintaining the appearance of the ship.  Appearance matters a great deal, especially to promotion-minded Commanding Officers!  In a tradition extending back across the millennia, great efforts are expended to keep the ship looking smart despite the destructive forces at play 24 hours a day.   The salt-water spray corrodes everything it touches, the sun bleaches and destroys natural and synthetic materials alike.  And topside areas are under the constant assault of….seagulls.  These flying poop machines are the bane of Deck Divisions everywhere.  Far from being the cute, picturesque accents beloved in seascape paintings, seagulls are actually nasty creatures; they are basically flying rats, but with preternaturally toxic bowels and better PR.   So a constant state of war exists between sailor and seagull.

My first ship fairly bristled with radars, mounted on masts high above the deck.  All of these radars had rotating antennae, which had to be maintained from time to time, so a sailor would have to go aloft and do whatever needed to be done to the antenna.  To give him a place upon which to stand, sit, or lie, the Navy built metal-mesh platforms high on the mast, below each antenna.  These were accessed by donning a safety harness, climbing a ladder welded to the mast, opening and passing though a trap door, then closing it to restore the safe platform.

The seagulls thought that the radar platforms made just dandy nesting, sitting and pooping sites.  They loved to congregate up there in their bazillions.  The decks under the radar platforms were therefore biohazard zones and ugly eyesores unless they received constant attention.

Our First Lieutenant (the officer in charge of the Deck Division, the legendary Boatswain’s Mates) was desperate to try anything that might deter the daily seagull conventions.  He became aware that seagulls aren’t too bright….and are, like most birds, deathly afraid of snakes.  Aha!  A new weapon was introduced into the everlasting war between man and seagull. 

Several rubber snakes, (the kind you buy for your grandkids when their mom is terribly scared of snakes) were pressed into naval service.  They were placed on the radar platforms, zip-tied in place, and ordered to maintain a 24-hour seagull watch.  They stood their watches stoically, without complaint, and at all times.  And they did in fact greatly reduce the pooping problem, as most of the seagulls suddenly determined that they had pressing business elsewhere when they came to alight on the platforms. 

All was going so well.  One day, the SPS-10 Surface Search radar antenna developed a problem requiring local maintenance.  An experienced Electronics Technician was tasked to go aloft and work his “Twidget” magic. (In Navy parlance, a technical specialist is often called a “Twidget” as a term of deprecation/endearment.)  The young lad had not been aboard long, as he had been recently assigned to the ship after service on another vessel.  He was a city boy, urbane and sophisticated.  He donned his safety harness, clipped his toolbag to his belt, and jauntily ascended the mast to perform his special brand of skill.  He unfastened the trap door, swung it up, and climbed one more rung, poking his head up above platform level……and coming  eye to eye with a menacing rubber rattler about 6” from the tip of his nose.

“YEEEAAAAUUUUGHHHHH”!   came the ear-splitting cry from high above the deck.  It sounded much like politician Howard Dean’s famous (and career-ending) shriek of battle lost in the 2004 presidential election, but with overtones of sheer terror mixed in.  A brief flurry of activity followed, accompanied by a stream of fluent profanity.  Once his heart rate settled back down, the young ET went up on the platform, completed his mission, and returned to the relatively safe confines of the ship.  He lived to tell the tale. 

For the next month or so, when the ET would walk into a compartment or gaggle of shipmates topside, someone was almost certain to acknowledge his presence with a rousing “YEEEAAAAUUUUGHHHHH”!  More than a few called him by his new nickname: “Snake”. 

He was not amused.




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