Storytime: Marines and sailing, what could go wrong?

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.


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.


18 thoughts on “Storytime: Marines and sailing, what could go wrong?

  1. Just a matter of curiosity, never having been in the service myself. (Tho I admire and fully support you guys and gals that put it all on the line for us.) I do know my way around guns and ammo a little bit having an uncle that teaches gun safety, and I know it’s not particularly smart to fire a weapon that has water in the barrel. Do/did y’all use any sort of thing to protect the insides of your rifles from water when you are going to be submerged?


  2. Tal… as I remember it, the point was to be tested as to our swimming capability under load, and in that situation the only point of the weapon is to add weight and encumbrance.

    I’m fairly certain the unit armorer would have been overjoyed at the thought of every rifle having to be cleaned immediately after prolonged immersion in chlorinated water for a routine training exercise.


  3. The Boy Scout camp I worked at through high school had a small fleet of sailboats like that. They really are a blast to sail. The catamaran was even more fun, if you were lucky enough to get a turn at it. Surely, on one of these many lakes around here must be a place that would rent me one for an afternoon. I haven’t seen any yet, though.


  4. Hey man great story but really, us Hollywood Marines had the “Reaper” what did you guys have but flat walking surfaces. What maybe a few sand fleas. I know I have heard all of the horror stories. Our humps consisted of walking along the fire breaks on top of hills and mountains. We ran to the top of Helo pads for our PT. I’m just saying, lol.

    Anyways good story.

    Semper Fi 2nd battalion 4th Marines Comm platoon.


  5. Lake Michigan is scary to me, let alone the ocean

    Lake Michigan should be scary to you. I read somewhere that there are more sunken ships in Lake Michigan than the entire Pacific coastline bordering the US. The radical weather changes and potential for incredibly high waves makes the Great Lakes some of the most dangerous waters in the world. If the reputation for Lake Michigan is playing any part in your fears, then try a different lake. LOL.


  6. Assuming that 25 is a grown adult, I am one of those grown adults who can’t swim. I can doggie paddle or tread water for a little while, if I have to, but I’d be totally screwed if I were in a “swim to safety or you die” situation. I was just never around water much growing up, so I never learned how.

    But given that this has contributed to my fear of open water (Lake Michigan is scary to me, let alone the ocean), my kids are DEFINITELY learning how to swim. It’ll just have to be the hubby that teaches them. =)


  7. Glad I wasn’t the only Marine to give those “Hollywood Marines” a hard time. I know what you mean about going near PI after graduating.

    My wife and I drove through Beaufort on a family trip about 7years after I graduated. She wanted to know if I wanted to stop by and show her and the kids where I went to boot camp. I said Hell No! so fast it startled her. I told her that would be like going back to Death Row after getting a pardon…


  8. Artorin, it’s a more common problem than you might expect…

    At least in the Marines, it’s a function of low body fat. You get a group of people that exercise a LOT, and place an emphasis, rightly or wonrgly, on rapid 3 mile runs for fitness tests, and you get a decent number of folks with such a low body fat that they are just not naturally bouyant.

    And when you have to fight like hell to stay above the water buck ass nekkid, adding a bunch of wet clothes and gear does NOT help.

    In Henderson’s case, it was cause he was just… scrawny. He was highly successful at very fast long distance running… but he was NOT the kind of guy that would be humping ammo for a mortar on a 20 mile march. Ever.

    One of the people who was my personal hero in the service, Gunny Michael Jordan, was one of the most fantastically in-shape guys I ever knew, a natural athlete that worked his ass off to be in top shape at all times. He had posters of Michael Jordan the basketball player (no relation) everywhere as his inspiration, and he was just a hardcore badass. He strove to be the best of the best.

    When American Gladiators was first on the air, way back in the day, Gunny Jordan went on the show, and he did pretty well.

    Gunny Jordan was in the line of non-swimmers that day. All I’m saying.


  9. Lol I had my own car when I was in HS…. but I started working when I was 14 so had saved enough to buy it AND pay for my car insurance… of course it was 15 years old when i bought it and had no AC (which was fun for that 24 hour drive when I moved to Florida)

    Anyway I love the story as allways BBB. I allways love those Navy men who can’t swim in the movies wtf? Surprised to see that it really does exist. Hard for me to see how any grown person can’t swim but its probably more common then I think. Aqualad FTL


  10. Ok, I have to respond now. Taueth pretty much hit my experience right on the head. I went up to Williams Bay, WI and learned to sail on a sunfish on Lake Geneva at a Summer Camp. No, I didn’t have a car in HS…I didn’t have a car till my Junior year of College when I needed to buy one to get to work. I rollerbladed my happy butt around town TYVM!!! =D

    My reaction to your story BBB was mostly that I read you talking about this Kick Ass Sailboat (didn’t look at the link right away) and then a few paragraphs later I saw the word Sunfish. I basically did a double take. See at the camp, some of the councelors lived on the lake. They had some very nice 40-50ft sailboats. Ya know the ones that could seat 8 people comfortably, actually had a jib instead of just one triangular mainsail. On nice evenings we would take those out onto the lake and just cruise around (with the councelors of course). So from my initial perspective, those were the nice (Kick Ass) sailboats and the sunfish were the little trainers that the campers got to learn on.

    Not to knock Sunfish though. They are a blast to sail around in and pretty easy to right if you tip them over. One of my favorite things that we’d do is go out onto the lake and play pirates. Basically it was about 12 campers in 6 sunfish hopping out and intentionally capsizing the other sunfish. Loads of fun.


  11. Yeah, you’re absolutely right Taueth, I didn’t express that well. I was just trying to be mildly sarcastic to Squirrelz, since he’s a buddy in Sidhe Devils, and then drifted into random bitching.

    But yeah, I can totally understand how a lot of people probably get exposed to the Sunfish in lots of ways. Where I grew up, a canoe was the norm, since South Florida has lots of canals and few big bodies of flat water.

    Maybe I’m just still bitter over getting handed a .357 magnum pistol for my HS graduation instead of a car.


  12. BBB, you don’t have to have had your own car in High School to have learned how to sail a Sunfish at an early age. If you grew up in the right region of the country for sailing, specifically very near to ponds or lakes, it’s not that unusual to have learned how to sail a Sunfish.

    While I don’t have that skill, to my recollection a Sunfish was one of the first boats taught to anyone who was learning how to sail at one of the local summer camps. No, we were not all rich kids, my mother and I lived off of SS checks following my enlisted father’s death for a very long time. So I can understand the idea of a Sunfish as a starter boat, seeing that where I grew up there were kids who’d been sailing on ’em since they were, well, kids. I guess a good analogy is horses and farm animals, if someone’s from the city it must be pretty amazing to own them. If you’re from the country or grew up on a farm, it’s the norm. Same thing with sailboats, kayaks and canoes around where I grew up. Not to say that everyone had ’em, but hearing someone owned a canoe or kayak wasn’t any reason to bat an eye. While fewer own a Sunfish, plenty of people around here have cruised around in ’em at camp or at a friend’s house.

    Anyhow, I’m not trying to shoot down the whole Sunfish = Awesome. We don’t own one, but I do think they’re pretty sweet. Very fun to take one onto a lake if my friend’s piloting. I guess I’m simply trying to explain how the perspective of them as a starter boat is not necessarily linked to feelings of superiority, high school, or money. Ya?


  13. Squirrelz, do I detect the hint of an elitist attitude towards my beloved Sunfish?

    I am shocked! Shocked, I tell you!

    You were probably one of those spoiled brats that had your own car when you were in High School, too.

    Maybe to most folks, they seem pretty lame. Especially if you are used to having access to that kind of thing.

    I’ve said it before, I grew up in Miami, and we were pretty much dirt poor. Always rented apartments, once in a while rented a house. Moved around a lot.

    To this day, if one were to measure success strictly by material possessions, income and stability of a household, I am by far more successful than either of my parents have ever been.

    Shoot, I’m the first one to own a home based on savings and income rather than just by inheriting a windfall.

    Your friends in HS may have mocked it, or just thought the Sunfish was lame…

    …but to a low ranking Marine at his first duty station, the freedom of being able to go sailing whenever I wanted made that boat the coolest damn thing in the entire world. I’ve often thought how awesome it would be to buy one, but I’ve never been in a situation where I felt I would use one enough to justify it.

    Kinda like a snowmobile, my wife and I both loved riding them, but because we wouldn’t use them enough to justify buying a pair, plus a damn trailer, we decided to just go to resorts where you can rent them when we wanted rather than buy.

    Or a motorcycle… which Cassie won’t LET me have. Damn it.

    @Awlbiste… I had to joke about that, we took it as an article of faith that those Hollywood Marines were treated gently… got issued sun tan lotion and sunglasses right at initial issue. After all, life MUST have been easier on the West Coast, amiright?

    It’s all in fun.

    Oh, and the reason I needed a second person on the trip? The reason it was all part of the master plan? the biggest reason it just blew me away?

    I needed a second person for safety. The Seals know damn well what I’m talking about, you don’t go near the water, serious water, without your swim buddy.

    The ocean is a no-shitter, you just don’t screw around with it, if you act the ass on the water, the ocean WILL try to kill you. I just wasn’t stupid enough to plan on making a 30 mile voyage, part of it on the ocean even if it was within sight of teh coast the whole way, in a Sunfish all alone…

    BUT apparently I WAS stupid enough to assume that all Marines can swim. Or would think to mention it if they couldn’t.

    That dumbass.


  14. Damn, the boyfriend’s effeminate, where do I get a good one?

    Have to appreciate Henderson spending all that time in/near/on the water and not saying a single thing.


  15. I had to laugh a few paragraphs in because you are the first person I’ve ever heard that described a sunfish as a kick ass sailboat. Though, they are fun little boats to mess around with on the water. I learned to sail on one back in my freshman year of high school. Good times.


  16. Hmmm… I guess I find little worth laughing about telling stories where things went as expected.

    I do enjoy laughing about when I think I’m being so smart and shit goes ‘oops’.

    And I aint’ beeen johhny in over 20 years, we’re not resurrecting the nickname unless you were in my unit.


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