Back in the earliest days of my time in our beloved Corps, I was stationed at the Marine Air Station in Beaufort, South Carolina. It’s just a hop, skip and jump away from Parris Island (where real Marines, not those effeminate Hollywood Marines, are made), and a fast drive North from Savannah, Georgia and the endless joys of River Street.
Okay, one of the joys of River Street? Irish Pubs. More? Great nightclubs. My favorite? A bar that professed to carry 101 beers from all around the world… and if you drank one of each, you got a shirt showing you’d ‘Been around the world’. Thankfully, you were not expected to drink them all in one night, they gave you a punch card. Although some Jarheads tried. Oh yes, they tried.
One of the other local pleasures was Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, storied locale of hot beaches, hotter women, and drink shacks right on the water’s edge.
All in all, if you are mobile, life in Beaufort ain’t too bad at all. For being in a swamp, anyway. And PT in Beaufort is fun… I love running in the rain, and it rains in Beaufort ALL THE DAMN TIME. Screw Seattle. I was always partial to throwing my headphones on and going for a run in the rain around the flight line, a trip on pavement that tended to always be deserted.
One of the lesser known conveniences of living at the Marine Air Station, was that they actually had access to the waterway… and the base has a marina. I say has, I am assuming that, like much else in the military, nothing has changed. I could be wrong.
But there was a marina. And while it was, technically, funded so that the legendary gods of the officer ranks had a place to stash their yachts, (insert Kelly’s Heroes joke here), it was not actually off limits to the enlisted population. Just… not advertised. Or mentioned. Or encouraged for young Marines to go make themselves a nuisance there.
But, being the curious sort that I am, I took a jog down that way one day and saw the sign saying marina, and ducked into the quiant wood hut that stood at the waters’ edge to see what there was to see.
And behold, there was a window with a counter and a sign out log, and a Marine that attended said counter. And upon questioning, it was discovered that, if one were to take a written test on water safety and traversing intra-coastal waterways, and navigating channel traffic markings, then simply by presenting one’s ID card, one could check out… a boat.
A real life, kick ass sailboat. They’d actually GIVE you the damn thing! And trust you to bring it back!
Well, considering that you have to give them your ID, yeah, I guess they figured what the heck. But considering how controlled so many other facets of a young Marines’ life are, where you go, when you go, HOW you go… the fact someone would just trust you with a sailboat was pretty extraordinary.
So, having grown up in South Florida, and having spent one summer working a deep sea fishing boat as crew for my uncle, who owned and ran the boat as his livelihood, I knew my way around boats to a certain extent. the motored kind, anyway. Powered. Churning the waves, blasting through the sea. Fun!
Right then and there, I hatched Operation: Island Invasion.
I launched phase 1 the next day. I mentioned, casually, how it was possible to check out a Sunfish sailboat at the base Marina for fun and games.. and that it sounded like a neat way to spend a weekend… some brews, some sailing, some sun and maybe even some fishing.
And one of my compatriots in the unit allowed that it sounded mighty fun, indeed.
So off we went, that week after the duty schedule, to take the tests and get some maps of the waterways in the area.
It should be said, that neither of us had any previous experience piloting a sailboat. Ever. BUT, I was a Marine… how hard can it be?
My buddy for this task was a rather skinny little runt (as Marines go, anyway) that I shall call Corporal Henderson. He had been in the unit for about a year, and after another year, he would be able to change duty stations. He was single, lived in the barracks, and as far as I could ascertain had zero hobbies at all. Still, a pretty nice guy. And single, which was key to my plan.
I had hit upon my master plan at the very beginning of summer. Each weekend, we would jog on down to the marina with backpacks of drinks, check out a Sunfish, and head on out into the water. We learned to tack back and forth to sail into the wind, to maneuver and generally have ourselves a blast. Sailing, just for the sake of being out on the water, is a hell of a lot of fun.
Now, I say we, but the fact is that I was the captain of the vessel, and Corporal Henderson, sadly, was just along for the ride. He really did show an appalling lack of initiative and imagination for a Marine. Very content to just put his brain into neutral and do what he was told. So, I took the lead in learning, training, and getting the sailing of this little sailboat down pat.
Finally, the day came where I felt we were ready to discuss the second stage of my master plan.
I mentioned to Corporal Henderson how I felt that we were doing quite well in small boat handling skills. He allowed as to how he felt the same.
And then I painted for him a picture with my words. I said to him, “Imagine this… here they are, these beautiful ladies, lounging in the summer sun on Hilton Head Island… drinking foofy little drinks with fruit stuck on sticks and little umbrellas in ‘em. And from out of the ocean comes this agile little vessel, crewed by two buff and rugged young Marines such as ourselves, who pull our little boat up on shore and join them in drinks on the sand. And think how impressed these fine young ladies are sure to be when they hear of the length of our voyage and our travails across the seas. Frolicking, I dare say, may then commence in the surf and the sand. How does that sound to you, young Mr. Henderson?”
He seemed particularly delighted by this idea. Operation: Island Invasion was a go!
I had planned out our course most carefully. Making our way from the base marina to the waters of the ocean would be a long and interesting navigation, considering that there would actually be very heavy traffic. We were planning to take our adventurous voyage over the course of a 4 day weekend, and there were sure to be many other ships plying the waves at the same time. Plus, the Sunfush has a very shallow draft, making it an interesting challenge in heavy waves. We were going to need plenty of practise in choppier waters than the calm millpond crap you see in an intracoastal to complete our mission successfully.
So we stepped up our weekend excursions with longer and longer trips, lasting many hours of sailing time, to get closer out into the actual ocean. Much of the route actually passes right offshore of Parris Island, which was kind of spooky at the time. Kinda the same feeling I’d imagine I’d have sailing past Alcatraz… knowing that you were passing a land of pain and suffering beyond human ken. But I digress.
The point was, we’d need to get really comfortable with sailing in all environments.
I took to watching the weather reports VERY closely. It’s a serious shock how the smallest changes in wind velocity and direction, things that have little impact to traveling over the road, make traveling at sea on a wind-powered ship VERY different. There were more than a few hairy incidents, but we handled them all with calm and style.
Finally, the week had come, where that very next weekend we would be taking a little sailing trip. We were going to be taking the waters, leaving Marine Air Station Beaufort, SC, sailing through Beaufort itself to access Port Royal Sound, cutting across to the south side and then skirting the coast as we made our way to the beaches of Hilton Head Island… and we were going to take our sleeping bags in waterproof bags with us and sleep right on the damn boat on the beach. We’d spend the night there, and then sail on back. Perhaps we’d even be sleeping somewhere other than on the boat?
The thought of who would be watching the damn boat once we got there and had no place to lock it never crossed my mind.
A truly magnificent adventure!
But first, we had to get through the week.
That week, we had an event that all Marines must do at some point. You have to requalify in many different things over the course of your time in the service, to ensure you are still prepared to do your basic job as an amphibious infantryman. Land, Sea, and Air. Gotta be prepared.
And while you obviously expect Marines to requalify on the shooting range, or the land navigation course with map and compass, or in moutaineering, or cold weather training… this week, we had our swimming requalification test to complete.
Among these tests include holding one’s breath while swimming a set distance underwater, treading water while in full uniform and loaded pack and gear (and mock rifle for the dead weight) for a certain time, that kind of thing. It was done at the on-base swimming pool.
And my unit formed up, and the instructors looked us over, and then, before we got started, said, “Okay, everyone that has had no problems with swimming in the past, over to that side of the pool. Those of you that can’t swim, over here.”
And as we all got ourselves sorted out, I see to my laughter that Corporal Henderson has gotten into the non-swim, or ‘brick’, lineup.
And as I laugh, because that’s a pretty funny joke, I tell him to get back over in our line.
And he informs me that, no, in fact he cannot swim.
He can’t swim.
He. Can. Not. Swim.
HE CAN’T WHAT?!?!
For three months we’ve been sailing over the waters for endless hours in a little freaking boat that could flip at any moment, without the faintest idea what we were doing, we were planning on sailing the damn thing into the ocean for a trip of about 30 miles, we have never, EVER worn our damn life vests the entire time, although we DID have to take them on the boat, I used mine for a cushion to sit on, and he doesn’t know how to WHAT?!?!
Just shoot me now, oh Lord, just shoot me now.
And my fellow Jarheads, seeing my poleaxed look and dazed countenance, ask me what the hells got my panties all twisted up in a bunch.
And, more fool me, I told them.
Now, in my unit we all had GI Joe nicknames for fun. You earned your nickname the hard way.
We had one guy that had a pitbull, a dog he dearly loved, he was married and lived off base and god did he love that dog. And the base commander had gotten calls from the cops about his damn dog barking all the time. So, of course, he was “The K-9 Kid”.
I usually pulled the early watch, and I would jog into work early for my PT, get dressed there, get the coffee going, and drink about a pot of it with plenty of non-dairy creamer and sugar. All before 3 AM. By the time the rest of my team would come rolling on in, I’d have early radio checks done, radar would be turning and burning and ready for flight ops, and I’d be buzzing from caffeine like a livewire. My nickname was “Johnny Storm”. Flame on! Bouncy bouncy bouncy, ferret shock, ooh shiny!
So of course, right then and there, Corporal Henderson gets a brand new nickname, and “Aqualad” was born.
Needless to say, I never did make my trip to Hilton Head Island by sea. A failing I shall never forget.