Army skipper ships out to deliver the goodsJan 1, 2003
The M-1 Abrams tank, among the world's top battle tanks, is 26 feet long and 12 feet wide. Each one weighs close to 70 tons when loaded and ready for deployment.
Patrick May, the skipper of a 272-foot U.S. Army landing craft, can deliver up to 24 of these bruisers right to the beach wherever they are needed. However, he probably won't ever get to land on the beach in a Normandy-style invasion, with troops and tanks storming ashore under fire.
As captain of the Army's logistics support vessel (LSV) General William B. Bunker, his job is more likely to involve bringing a cargo of tanks, trucks, containers or construction equipment to a secure beach with an offshore floating ramp or to a pier in a friendly or not-so-friendly port.
"Patrick May's job and his vessel are strategically very important for the purpose of closing a military force into a theater of operations as quickly as possible," said Lt. Col. David Kolleda, commander of the Army's 10th Transportation Battalion in Fort Eustis, Va.
May, 40, recently took over as captain of one of six Army LSVs, which are the largest landing craft in that branch of the military and one of about 50 oceangoing and coastal vessels operated by the Army's Transportation Corps. The others include two other types of smaller landing craft and several classes of harbor or oceangoing tugboats.
May says he's reached the pinnacle of his career with Army watercraft. After almost 20 years in the Army, he's a third-level chief warrant officer in charge of a 272-foot ship with a crew of about 30. He can sail his vessel anywhere in the world, delivering cargoes of vital importance to U.S. military interests.
For a college dropout who enlisted in the Army at the age of 20, May has accomplished a lot.
"I remember when the Army's very first LSV pulled into a pier at Fort Eustis in 1987," he said. "And I remember standing on the pier when it came in, and I announced that one day I was going to be captain of that ship. Now I've reached that goal, and I'm very proud of that."
Before being offered his present command, May went through years of training and qualifying jobs, including time as an instructor at an Army school for maritime officers. Like many of his peers, he started out attending a nine-month warrant officer candidate school that qualified him to serve as mate on oceangoing vessels. May says that this basic deck officer school is the equivalent of the best such civilian schools in the United States.
About five years later he enrolled in the more advanced A-2 training school, which lasts about four months and includes advanced aspects of ship and cargo handling, navigation, communications and a variety of related topics. In between stints on other vessels, including three years in Hawaii, he served as instructor at the advanced school, specializing in ship handling, GMDSS and celestial navigation.
"That takes us to this past July, when they asked me if I wanted to take command of this ship, and you can guess what my answer was," he said. "I still feel there's not much better that can happen to me. The only down part is having to be away from my wife and family, but we are all learning how to live with that."
May's new ship was built about 10 years ago by Halter Marine's Moss Point, Miss., shipyard. Powered by a pair of EMD diesels generating up to 3,900 hp, General Bunker can cruise more than 6,000 nm with full cargo, at a speed of about 10 knots. Her cargo bay encloses 10,000 square feet of deck space, and the ship is designed to carry about 2,000 tons of cargo. "We usually cube out before we max out with the weight," May said, "but we can go two-high with our containers and that really packs them in."
Like most captains, May spends plenty of time thinking about the ship-handling details of his command. The twin-screw ship has each propeller in a kort nozzle with a triple-rudder behind each nozzle. "The rudders can be independently operated, and they can turn up to 60° in either direction, so if you combine them[with our 1,200-hp bow thruster, we do have a lot of maneuvering options," he explained.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of eneral Bunker is the 26-foot-wide bow ramp which, when raised, juts well above the main deck level and when lowered, gives the ship roll-on?roll-off cargo-handling capability. That ramp, which defines the ship's profile, is designed to be just wide enough to handle a single M-1 tank. The ship's stern is also designed to open up for loading or unloading when required.
Just a bit less prominent on the stern is the 1,500-lb kedge anchor, tucked away in a cavity on the port side. Here is the classic design item associated with all manner of landing craft, going back centuries ? the means for getting off the beach. General Bunker's kedge anchor is attached to 1,200 feet of 1.75-inch wire rope, which, in turn, is spooled around a three-speed McElroy winch mounted athwartships on the aft deck centerline. The winch can generate 25 tons of line pull, enough to pull the ship off a beach on its own power in reasonable weather conditions. LSV skippers say they typically deploy the anchor about 300 yards outside of the target landing area, whether it be beach or floating ramp.
"When we do a beach approach, the tension on that anchor wire can help us maneuver to the exact spot where we are going," May said. "If the anchor wire goes out at an angle ? often to port, since the anchor deploys from the port quarter ? we can use that to our advantage in getting the ship oriented to the ramp of a target spot on the beach and also in holding it there."
Even with a full load of cargo, the ship's crew can pump off ballast from forward compartments and reduce draft at the bow to about four feet, which helps the unloading process, according to May.
He revels in the details of ship handling, but one thing he loves even more is celestial navigation. Long a celestial enthusiast, he easily passed the celestial components required in the Army's various marine training schools. While showing a visitor around his ship recently, he couldn't resist dragging out the sextant from its shelf in the wheelhouse and showing off the sight reduction tables.
"With all the electronics we've got up here, it's true that the computers seem to be running things," he said. "But we can turn it all off at the flip of a switch and go entirely on manual, and that includes navigation.
"I'm still a paper guy at heart, in that I like my paper charts. And celestial navigation is still a part of basic navigational knowledge. On our last passage, we took sun sights, LAN, sun azimuths and stars the entire trip. I actually require at least one sun sight per watch, and all the deck officers seem to be interested."
May's colleagues and superiors stress that he is a talented celestial navigator. "Mr. May does seem to have an exceptional talent when it comes to navigation of this type," said Kolleda, his commanding officer. "There are some officers who fail some of the training components at our schools, and in almost every case it is due to celestial navigation. He's always willing to help people learn more about it, which is one of the qualities that makes him a good officer."
Being able to teach and help others learn is just one of the satisfying parts of being a captain, said May.
"It's also the sailing. I love to be at sea, and that's a big part of what we do," he added. "And it's the command aspect. I love being in charge of a ship, and I greatly enjoy mentoring other members of the crew."
May related an incident from his most recent trip, which, he said, makes clear why he is so satisfied with what he has achieved in his career. While the ship was underway he had a young crewmember out on the bridge wing standing lookout. May walked out onto the wing to say hello.
"I asked him how he was doing and he said he was doing pretty good. Then he said, 'I was just thinking, skipper. I was just thinking that I really want your job.'
"Well, that was something," said May. "It was so frank, it was kind of awkward. I told him that lots of the crew wanted to be captain. And I told him to go right ahead and start working towards that goal. That's how I got to be captain.
"I know I can help him, too," said May. "He's a hard worker, but he's real shy and not so comfortable talking to people. But, hey, I was like that at one time, too. And I told him about the day I saw that ship come in and how I set a goal to become captain right then and there."
Greg Walsh is founding editor of Ocean Navigator.