And O the wicked fool I seemed, in every kind of way,
To be here and hauling
Frozen ropes on blessed Christmas Day.
—R. L. Stevenson
Castro could interpret Chase entering Cuban seas as an act of war.
I stood the four-to-eight watches Christmas Eve of 1984 on the Coast Guard Cutter Chase’s bridge. We were south of Cuba, far from our Boston home, conducting drug and migrant interdiction operations although our priority was always search and rescue. The radar users, myself included, joked about seeing Santa streak across our glowing screens on his way to the homes we so badly missed that night.
The weather was balmy. The stars glittered. A stiff Navidad Christmas wind blew from the southeast, setting us toward Cuban territorial seas. I watched the radar carefully — Castro could interpret Chase entering Cuban seas as an act of war. There was little danger of this but smugglers and migrants often dodged into territorial seas to avoid interdiction so we patrolled close.
Suddenly an SOS crackled across the HF distress frequency, 2182 kHz Mayday-mayday-mayday! The OOD, officer of the deck, grabbed the radio microphone and returned the call, from an American pleasure boat cruising the Caribbean. His engine was disabled; he had no power; and the Navidad was pushing him rapidly toward Cuba. I plotted his position and gave the OOD a course to intercept the anxious skipper, his wife, and their broken boat.
“Sir, he’ll be in Cuban waters before we get there,” I added, which meant Chase would have to enter forbidden seas to render aid. I switched off the red night-light over the chart table and waited for orders.
Our proper action would be to contact the State Department and request permission to enter Cuban waters. Yet it was unlikely a gunboat would be patrolling the rural southern coast on Christmas Eve. With luck, Chase could slip over the line, take the boat in tow, and be gone before – if ever – the Cubans found out. Our captain, the “old man”, arrived on the bridge and ordered the simpler, if riskier, approach.
The helmsman put the rudder right full to steady on a northerly course. The engineers declutched the slower diesels and started the cutter’s two powerful turbine engines with their high jet whine and tremendous torque on the propeller shafts. The ship swayed. Even when asleep any of us could feel “the birds” come on line; the whine and sway signal something important is happening. The cutter picked up speed. The hull knifed through the sea like a fantastic tuna or a manic flying fish. Suddenly, Christmas Eve was no longer a boring slog looking for smugglers.
We were not joking about Santa any more; we had become Santa – and sleigh! The OOD radioed the boat we were en route while I reminded the helmsman to use only the smallest rudder angle possible. Chase was a highly maneuverable anti-submarine warfare ship; her two thirteen-foot-high rudders could be put to a thirty-five degree angle, which, at flank speed as we were now, would throw the cutter into a sharp and dangerously steep turn. “Two degrees of rudder, max,” I cautioned.
“Aye-aye,” he nodded.
We were not joking about Santa any more; we had become Santa – and sleigh!
A convenience store purveyed beer, Hostess cupcakes, and Slim Jims.
I stepped onto the bridge wing to feel the wind and watch our slim bow slice toward Cuba. Astern, Caribbean bioluminescence turned our wake into a shimmering blue-green track. The old man, not known for his warmth, had said that Chase would not pull into port for Christmas; but now, as the disabled boat would have to be taken to moorings, a holiday ashore seemed possible. I smiled. Guantanamo was the closest port.
I knew from experience that GTMO was short on attractions. There was one stoplight, a McDonald’s, a Baskin-Robbins, and a Cold War-era outside theater with shabby, sun-bleached benches. A convenience store purveyed beer, Hostess cupcakes, and Slim Jims. Creaky Blue Bird buses shuttled sailors to the to the telephone exchange where long waits yielded a staticky, ten-minute collect call to the States.
The sit-down restaurant, Blue Caribe, was frozen in its once-swanky 1950’s décor. Or you could hike into the Jamaican enclave and haggle for spicy, delicious, jerk chicken sold by clandestine grill-masters from tiny, stucco homes reminiscent of pre-Revolution Cuba. GTMO wasn’t home but it would be a break from monotonous round-the-clock watches.
But as I stepped back inside the bridge the old man was saying the tow would be turned over to the Navy and Chase would head back to sea without even entering port. So not even GTMO, I thought. And then the Christmas miracle happened.
BOOM! The cutter seemed to explode below the water line.
SLAM! Chase dove sideways like a tantrum-throwing toddler.
CRASH! Binoculars, coffee cups, navigation plotters, log books, pens, pencils, message pads, and radio microphones sailed through the air and shattered into a concert of crockery and glass and metal onto the bridge decks.
The helmsman shouted. “SIR! I have lost my rudder! My rudder is right thirty-five degrees!” The old man was already on the bridge.
“ALL ENGINES STOP!” the OOD yelled. The turbines dropped power and Chase slid to a wallow beam-to the Navidad-stirred seas.
“Sir, we are now one mile inside of Cuban territorial waters,” I said after taking a radar range to the island.
“Shit,” the OOD said.
“Merry Christmas,” I replied.
“What’s going on?” the old man fumed.
SIR! I have lost my rudder!
Get there, get him, and get out.
Soon enough reports reached the bridge and we knew what had happened. A hydraulic steering line had failed; Chase’s huge rudders had come unfettered, and, thus loosed, jumped from a two-degree rudder angle to the maximum thirty-five degrees. (BOOM!) Then the high-torque turbines had wrenched the cutter hard to starboard. (SLAM!) Finally, inertia had propelled unsecured objects forward at flank speed even as the cutter zoomed to starboard. (CRASH!)
But we were still on mission. “Where’s the boat?” the OOD said.
“One thousand yards ahead.” I marked the radar blip ahead of the bow.
“Get there, get him, and get out,” the old man said.
And so we did. Sailors wrestled the rudders back to neutral with chain falls. Engineers traded the turbines for the staid diesel engines. An hour later the disabled boat was in tow and its grateful owners were on board Chase enjoying bitter coffee and sweet Christmas cookies baked by the Boston Junior League for our patrol. Soon enough we were back where we belonged, in international waters.
I got to bed past midnight and went back on watch at four a.m. to find Chase nearing GTMO. I skimmed the night order book: 0600 reveille, 0700 sea detail, 0800 mooring. In spite of the old man’s earlier position, we would have to dock for rudder repairs. Santa had remembered us after all!
Soon enough we were back where we belonged, in international waters.
What was he going to do? Send us to GTMO for Christmas?
At 05:59 I told the boatswain mate that I would pipe reveille although it was his duty. “It’s Christmas,” I said. He ceded the PA. At 0600 sharp I started the system’s cassette player and grinned as Dave the Manager’s kind, tenor voice chirped into the berthing areas below. “Alright, Chipmunks, Ready to sing your song?” The tape was scratchy.
“Okay, Dave!” said Simon, Theodor, and Alvin before launching into angelic, squeaky-mouse song. Christmas, Christmas time is near, time for toys and time for cheer…
Immediately the bridge phone rang: the old man. The boatswain answered and sputtered “Yessir! No, Sir! Aye-aye, Sir!” then hung up laughing. We let the tape run. What was he going to do? Send us to GTMO for Christmas? The Chipmunks crooned, We can hardly stand the wait! Please Christmas, don’t be late!
The base was deserted. Everything was closed except the phone exchange, which was overrun. I shared my mother’s cookies and reread her letter into which she had typed Robert Louis Stevenson’s Christmas at Sea.
I took a run: through Little Jamaica, redolent that day with curried goat, up Cliff Road past the Blue Caribe and the lighthouse, along the windy, arid bluff, and down to Cable Beach. The water was sapphire. Navidad-blown surf combed the outer reef. On the return I passed lolling iguanas and one big banana rat.
Later I showered and headed to the mess deck where Christmas dinner had been reduced to turkey carcasses and ham bones plus Junior League leftovers, cutout snowmen. My division ensign appeared. “Hey, Merry Christmas, you guys,” he said, smiling. Shyly, he handed each of his four petty officers a tissue-wrapped red tee shirt emblazoned with the Coast Guard logo. I pulled mine over my uniform. The mess cooks cleared dishes; their little, fake Christmas tree twinkled beneath the TV.
A few minutes later quarters was piped and Chase prepared to return to sea in search of cocaine smugglers, desperate migrants on overcrowded wooden boats, and distressed mariners praying the Coast Guard was monitoring 2182. As we headed out the channel I thought again of Stevenson’s words:
As the winter’s day was ending, in the entry of the night
We cleared the weary headland, and passed beneath the light.
I took a bearing to the old lighthouse casting its beam to sea. I was no longer homesick; instead, I was filled with a charitable Christmas spirit that warmed me. All of us that year had given ourselves, however modestly, to strangers we would never see again.
I was no longer homesick; instead, I was filled with a charitable Christmas spirit.