Coming home only cure for ‘channel fever’

I see that the aircraft carrier (aka: “Bird Farm”), USS Nimitz, is back in port after 70 days at sea and that its crew will be enjoying some well-deserved rest and recreation.

In the midst of all of the reporting regarding the Nimitz, however, I didn’t see any mention of how the crew dealt with “Channel Fever.”

“Channel Fever” is a disease as old as the history of sailors going to sea. Its onset coincides with the last days of any extended period away from homeport and its severity is directly proportional to the amount of time a ship has been away. Unless you’ve been there, it’s hard to describe, but no sailor is immune to it.

Hands down, one of the best feelings at sea comes when you know that you’re done with whatever you’ve been sent to do and that you’re finally headed home. It’s a mixture of relief at having finished a tough deployment, pride at having completed the projects assigned, and relaxation that comes from winding down the tempo of operations.

But then comes the realization that there are several thousand miles to go before you actually get home. Storms can slow you down. You might have to stop along the way to drop off or pick up people or equipment, and time passes slowly now that the hours aren’t crammed with mission-related tasks.

That’s when you start noticing the little things being done to help relieve the boredom and keep spirits up.

Charts are put up on the mess decks and in passageways with the ship’s progress plotted each day to show you that miles are, indeed, being chewed up. Card tournaments break out and all-night backgammon games are common. Movies are played continuously and the galley starts turning out “midnight pizzas” and other snacks for those wandering around at all hours because they’re too keyed-up to sleep.

The bridge gets to be a busy place because everyone want to come up and just “have a look around” to “make sure” all is going well. Too, the bridge watch has to keep an eye on the engineers because even though you’ve rung up a specified number of “rpm’s” to make a certain speed, it isn’t long before “liberty turns” start being added.

The bridge watch checks the shaft tachometers and sees that one screw is turning 5 or 10 rpm’s higher than the other. Shortly, thereafter, “to balance things,” they notice that the other screw is now turning at the same number of rpm’s. The solution never seems to involve slowing either screw.

Left alone, each oncoming engine room watch would continue to do this and, pretty soon, the ship would be running flat out with the beginnings of a “rooster tail” showing in the wake. About once a day, therefore, the bridge watch has to call down and tell the folks down there to slow things down to the rpm’s initially ordered.

Doesn’t help. The whole process begins again almost immediately.

When close to home, everyone is up and about hoping to catch first sight of land. Most ships’ arrivals are scheduled in the morning. This gives the crew the chance to shut things down, get their gear, and depart with plenty of time left in the day to celebrate with their family or friends.

During that last night at sea, though, almost no one sleeps.

Coffee is consumed by the gallon and people can be found packing and repacking “to be ready” to leave the minute the gangway is put over. Heaven help the officer who makes a shoddy approach to the pier and has to back out and try all over again. The comments from those on deck aren’t very complimentary and all of them seem to involve some threat to life and limb.

After docking, there’s the rush ashore. Tears, laughter, hugs, kisses, and smiles are everywhere and, very quickly, the ship becomes a very quiet and lonely place. Those who remain aboard are at a loss for things to do and a general aimlessness takes over — but only for a few days.

Preparations for the next deployment begin quickly and “Channel Fever” retreats into dormancy only to rear its head once again near the end of the next cruise. And, once again, the only cure is the first line going over to the homeport pier.

Good to have you back, Nimitz.

Larry Simoneaux lives in Edmonds. Send comments to:

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