Midnight Ride of the Gig

For the actual sailing orders, and the Itenerary, see the "wardroom" section.


I have enjoyed reading your recollections and comments on the famous midnight ride of our gig, under Bernie McMahon's command, from somewhere out at sea to Charleston. You have stirred many memories, the leading question being "Was I nuts?"

I don't think so, but because none of you have yet heard what motivated me to do this, you might have the same question in your minds. So let me tell my story, as best I can recollect it after forty years.

I was impressed at the time we were together, by the role that brave and innovative leadership plays in a ship like ours. I was not thinking of myself, but of all of you, officers and enlisted together. I knew that SEMMES was just one stage in your careers, and if your were not going to be challenged on my watch, you would be challenged eventually. The secret of success is to be ready when you are challenged. That is the core reason for imaginative training.

The default of peacetime service is that the challenges of wartime are not encountered, and the risk of simulating them too closely is quite great, the Navy being generally in a no-fault mode. As a result, peacetime training aims at excelling at what are considered prudent standards, which are too often inadequate when the realities of hostilities are encountered. The result was in our time, and I suspect is not much changed today, that the crew was coddled by being shielded from any actual risks. If it was a bit too rough, we canceled the boating exercises. If the visibility was hazy, we canceled the gun shoot.

Because I had a brother who was a naval aviator, who had been a DD gunnery officer for two years beforehand, with whom I used to shoot the bull to good advantage, I became aware that there was one place in the Navy where this idea of coddling the new hands was not accepted. That was in carrier aviation. Those young pilots were expected to launch into the dark and stormy nights just like their older mates, fly off to some distant target, and then get back aboard. It dawned on me that If they could do it, so could our boat officers and their crews. Everybody would be nine feet tall the next day.

You might recall that just before we left Charleston for that cruise to PR for "Springboard," we hosted a visiting Canadian DD, HMCS Something. We had a wild night in the Wardroom with a collection of Charleston Belles who were very adventurous going out one port hole, up to the upper deck, across, and back in through the opposite port. It was an introduction to Canadian Navy games. Tom Boyce was there and can confirm, as can Bernie. The Canadian skipper told me about his plans for going back to Halifax. They involved an exercise called Outward Bound by the Canadians, which meant in this case putting a boat in the water about 100 miles from Halifax and having the junior officer and his mates get it home, mostly under sail. Flash! The idea was born!

I do recall that I never mentioned this to the XO. Then one dull day when we were in the exercise areas about 35 miles north of San Juan, I broke it to the Wardroom at lunch. I broke it cold. "Gentlemen, about 1330 we will take a course suitable for launching the gig, which will be equipped for an independent run to San Juan to await our arrival after today's exercises. Do I have a volunteer for a boat officer to organize and command this exercise?" A stunned silence. Then every hand went up.

The XO and I gave considerable thought to choosing the two officers. We wanted the drill to be a reinforcing experience for the Boat Officer in Charge. Not everyone needed reinforcing. On the other hand, some of the officers were not quite ready for the responsibility. So we bracketed the problem.

Then there was the Junior Boat Officer. Too strong an officer might preempt the Senior Boat Officer and negate the results for him. Too inexperienced a junior could deprive the senior officer of the support he was entitled to. Again, a bracket.

I can clearly see in my mind's eye the distant mountains of Puerto Rico on the southern horizon when we put the gig in the water and wished the crew a safe passage. Sea conditions were not harbor conditions, but safe enough for maybe 8 to 10 knots. That would be three to four hours. Some of you may remember the message we broadcast on the common circuit, something like "Ships participating in Operation Springboard encountering the SEMMES' gig unaccompanied in the southern exercise areas be advised that the gig's passage to San Juan is part of normal shipboard training, and unless assistance is asked for, none should be offered."  You can imagine the raised eyebrows that message produced!

The gig was waiting for us, you remember, at the Coast Guard Station in the inner harbor, and led the way to our berth, the crew having shifted into whites, all nine feet tall.

The boat trip from at sea off Savannah to Charleston was even more challenging, being at night and further at sea, and with a difficult inshore navigation problem after making landfall. Again, we were met by a very proud crew, looking as smart as though it was merely a routine boat trip.

You might be interested to know that I wrote up both of these exercises for ComDesLant, via the chain of command, recommending that they be made the basis for a standard exercise and leadership training plan, similar to the Canadian's "Outward Bound." I do not recall any supporting endorsements along the way, and I am very sure the recommendation when it reached the Force Commander was greeted with silence. So much for dare to excel beyond your own lifelines.

I have not been able to follow all of your comments on this episode, having been discombobulated by a horrendous move from our home of 25 years, but from what I have seen in the last couple of days, I gather that you all remember it with pride and affection. That's as it should be!

My very best to you all.

Capt. A.

Thank you, Captain Alexander, for the background on the gig trip. For me the exercise fulfilled its function. I think we all arrived at Charleston standing nine feet tall. As a result of this discussion I have recently gotten in touch with Bernie McMahon and we did some reminiscing. I wonder if any of the wardroom remembers the amazing parties we used to have at Bernie & Ellen's place on Tradd Street. And...I am pleased to hear you mention the socializing with the officers from Canada. I remember people climbing in and out of the portholes, but nobody else I ever told the story to would believe it. I feel validated! It sure made an impression on this green Ensign.

I need to ask you a question. Was it you that used to go alongside during replenishment by approaching at all ahead two-thirds or all ahead full and then ordering all back to slow the ship down?

Jack Williams

Hello, Jack: No it was not me who used the backing bells to slow down. At least I don't remember doing it as a standard practice.

That wild Wardroom party with the Canadians was in their ship, not ours. I recall their CO telling his Exec, his "Number One", that if any of those girls got hurt, the Exec's career was over. Nobody got hurt, and we all had a great time.

I also think that the Gig trips were in 1964, during the spring before I handed over to Bob Wellander. Not in 1963. In 1963 we were still learning to excel.

What a crew. Hope you are well. Best wishes.

Dick A.