Terminal Leave Adventures (3): Disney Wonder vs. U.S.S. Essex: a ship on ship cage match

Well, my terminal leave continues and it is time to revisit my unbiased comparison of the Disney and U. S. Navy Gator fleets.  Today marks day six of my Disney Deployment, er, family friendly pleasure cruise and thus far I have had a great time.  More importantly, my family has had the time of their lives- especially the kids.  Possibly the only greater vacation would be to spend a week in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory where my youngest son could join the Oompa Loompas and go swimming in the chocolate river.  My oldest son is living la vida loca as by being the coolest eleven year old in the Edge tween club- I just peeked in and saw him eating ice cream while sandwiched between two young hotties who found his purple sunglasses and black fedora irresistible.

But yet again I digress.  Today we will compare the Disney Wonder to the USS Essex, which is the amphib on which I spent the most time while underway.  The Essex is currently homeported in Sasebo, Japan, and serves as the command and control ship for the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU).  The Essex has spent about a decade in the far east, before which she sailed with MEUs from San Diego, and she is due to be replaced by the Bonhomme Richard (aboard which I have also had the privilege to sail) in the next year or two, after which she will return to the west coast of the United States for duty.

The Disney Wonder, on the other hand, is temporarily homeported in Los Angeles.  She originally hailed from Florida, and like the Essex is temporarily assigned away from her home station.  Wonder is here on the west coast for two years or so and after that she will probably find another home from which to take families on holiday.  Both ships, then, share the distinction of serving ports far from their original stations.  That, however, is one of the few things that they share.

For those intent on keeping score, here is where we stand up to this point:

Running score:                  Disney:                 6              U. S. Navy:          2

Today we are going to compare the ships on the things that really matter to those who sail aboard them: safety, dining, and working out.  These three areas represent some of the most important things to visitors aboard any ship; the crew is charged with making sure you get to where you are headed and keeping the ship afloat while the embarked passengers and Marines are more concerned with where you can eat and what you can do between meals.  In that vein we will take a look at both ships, starting with the Essex.

Now, before my friends aboard the Essex go completely berserk, I must point out that I sailed aboard her as the commanding officer of an artillery battery about a decade ago and returned as an expeditionary fire support evaluator eight years later.  I have not stepped food on her most excellent steel decks since 2009, so my point of comparison is dated by a couple of years.  That said, my experience aboard her sister ships is similar, so I am using the Essex as an amalgam (or composite) of my experiences sailing aboard big deck amphibs.

Kapishe?  No hard feelings?  I hope not….

Let’s start with safety.  It is mandatory on any Navy ship that visitors (including Marines, despite their Naval heritage and significant amount of experience at sea) must undergo a mandatory harassment package in order to be allowed to sail on the big grey boat.  It consists of three painful evolutions: first, the “passengers” must be introduced to the “Man Overboard” drill, second, we must be schooled in the ways of abandoning ship, and finally, we are forced to endure evacuation drills.

The Man Overboard drill is a particularly painful one for anyone in charge.  To be fair, however, it is an incredibly important exercise because it truly is the difference between life and death for any hapless soul who happens to find himself swimming in the wake of the ship as it steams on without him.  The drill is simple in concept and excruciating in execution.  It is simple because all you need to do is account for every member of your unit and report their status to the ship’s Commanding Officer.  It is excruciating because you never know when you will have to do so- may be 0300, maybe at noon chow, maybe when you are in the shower or in the gym.  It doesn’t matter.  The CO, at whatever whim strikes him, is authorized (and duty bound) to sound the man overboard drill and demand accountability of each and every Sailor and Marine aboard his ship.  Imagine if you will the consternation that follows when the klaxon sounds and you, the Commanding Officer of your unit, has ten minutes to report the whereabouts of each and every individual in your charge.  They may be in the head, they may be in the on the vehicle storage deck chipping rust off of your equipment, or they may be off the ship doing God-knows-what.  Once the whistle blows you have ten minutes to figure it out.  Without going into the painful details of how it is done, my battery was successful in reporting the status of all members when we conducted these drills.  That is a good thing, because the COs of units that couldn’t were “invited” to explain to the Captain why they failed.  He made it especially challenging, too.  As the omnipotent and omniscient commander of all that he oversaw, he would dispatch one of his henchmen (known as the “MAA”, or Master At Arms) to find an unsuspecting soul who was invited to enjoy the largesse of the captain as he conducted the drill.  This Marine or Sailor was brought to the Captain’s Mess (the CO’s private dining room) where he or she happily sat with his or her feet up on the Captain’s ottoman and ate ice cream while the rest of the ship freaked out when the bell rang.  The key to success was knowing where all of your people were, and more importantly reporting when you couldn’t find them all.  In my case, none of my Marines were snagged by the MAA, so I could report that all hands were accounted for.  Some of my fellows were not as fortunate- in once case a CO whose Sailor was basking in the temporary glory of the Captain’s ice cream reported him present.  I think he is handing out basketballs in the Aleutian Islands now, but I could be wrong.

The second drill is the abandon ship drill.  This is particularly important because we were aboard an American Man of War and sometimes wars break out.  The drill wasn’t too painful, really.  When the call went out (over the ship’s 1 MC, which is a sound system that goes only one way- from the bridge of the ship to a speaker in every space aboard the vessel) to abandon ship all of us headed for the flight deck across from the island.  The flight deck is the big flat space where aircraft take off and land from and the island is the big steel structure that sticks out of the starboard side of the flight deck.  Only a true idiot could miss it….so most of us didn’t.  We practiced running to our abandon ship location and lining up to board the life rafts that would keep us out of the water until we could be rescued by somebody- preferably American, because the thought of being captured by an enemy navy is not particularly pleasant.  Anyhow, this drill was pretty easy, because all we did was run up to the flight deck and stand around until the people in charge got their fill of watching Marines pass out from heat exhaustion.

The evacuation drill is one that is self inflicted- that is it is one that is imposed on Marines by Marines.  The ship’s company was only required to train us how to find each other in the case of missing personnel and how to get off the ship should it end up sinking.  We were on our own for the evacuatioh drill.  Warships run the real danger of being attacked by the enemies of our nation, and when that happens the only thing that matters to the Navy is saving their ship.  For Marines, who have nothing to do with damage control and firefighting, the main effort is to get above decks where we can shoot back.  In order to do so, we need to be ready to get out of wherever we are below decks and find our way topside.  That means that we must be ready to find our way through pitch dark passageways that are filled with noxious smoke, feeling our way from the bowels of the ship to the relative safety of the decks above.  Blindfolded, we practiced grabbing our EBA (Emergency Breathing Apparatus- a hood that contains an oxygen generator capable of providing enough breathable air to escape the most inaccessible space of the ship) and feeling our way up to the flight deck.  We memorized every turn in the corridor, every hatch that could stand in our way, and every ladderwell that led to safety.  We were blindfolded because the ship’s lighting was unreliable in an emergency, and we felt our way because the smoke created by the burning ship would obscure any light anyway.  We practiced this until we were certain that we could escape the dangers below deck, which was important because what we really needed to be ready to do was to man our guns and shoot the hell out of whoever put us in this predicament to begin with.

Contrast these drills with the one conducted aboard the Wonder.  On the afternoon of our first day aboard we were directed to watch a video on our in-room televisions (!) that depicted our expected actions when the emergency siren was sounded.  Pretty simple, really.  A series of seven short blasts on the ships horn would be followed by a continual wailing tone, and when we heard that my family and I were directed to go to our stateroom, and once we were all there to go up to the 4th deck and find a seat in the movie theater.  Once there, roll would be taken and we would be directed to our lifeboat should Disney’s finest suddenly decide to impersonate a submarine.  It was very genteel and very polite, and my kids loved it.  That said, I felt safer aboard the Essex– after all, I could find my way off of the burning ship in the complete dark with people shooting at me.  In this case, I must give the point to the U. S. Navy and the USS Essex- although the lifeboats may be nicer on the Wonder the surety of reaching one and surviving a catastrophe was mercilessly drilled into us by the captain of the ship.  Point- U.S. Navy.

Running score:                  Disney:                 6              U. S. Navy:          3

Now that we have the survival drills under our belt, it is time to find something to eat.  Dining aboard any vessel is an adventure, and in some cases more of an adventure than others.

The Navy has a long tradition associated with eating aboard ship.  There is a time honored saying for life underway- “eat until you’re tired, and then sleep ’til you’re hungry”.  That applies to cruise ships, too!  But keeping with our Naval impetus let’s look at eating from the military perspective.  Each class of sailor- be he a deck hand, a chief petty officer, an ensign, or the Captain- has his or her own mess in which to break bread.  Suffice it to say the higher in rank you are the nicer the dinner table.  The enlisted sailors and Marines eat in the main Mess Deck- a huge cafeteria of sorts that makes most college dining facilities pale by comparison.  You go through the line and get what you get- a choice of vegetables or meats perhaps, but the deal is you get what you eat and you eat what you get.  It will keep you moving until the next meal, but it is generally not something you look forward to.  Moving up the chain, the Chief Petty Officers run a pretty impressive mess.  Chiefs, as they are ubiquitously known, run the Navy.  Since they are in charge, their mess makes all others (including, arguably, the Admiral’s) pale in comparison.  As an example, I have sailed on a half dozen or more Navy ships and have never had the good fortune to dine with the Chiefs.  My status as a junior Marine was below their recognition, and as an officer I was far too reviled to be welcomed into their exalted dining room.  It is a long tradition, but one that yields a lot more Steak and Lobster than we got up in Officer’s Country.  Speaking of the Officer’s digs, we ate in a smaller cafeteria (officially called a Wardroom) but with arguably better food.  Although it was probably the same as they served on the enlisted mess deck, we told ourselves it was better- because we had to pay for it.  I won’t bore you with the byzantine rules of accounting that pertain to military dining, but suffice it to say enlisted Marines and Sailors eat for free.  Officers pay at the door.  For the same food.  Go figure.

The Captain’s (and, by proxy, the Admiral’s) mess is a five star private dining adventure.  While the officer’s mess has stewards to clean up and generally avoid working too hard, the Captain has a dedicated staff of Sailors and Marines who set the table, take your order, and deliver you dinner in a manner reminiscent of the Che Paul.  The life of the captain at sea is a good one indeed!

Aboard the Wonder it is much more egalatiarian.  Everyone eats well!  There are no less than three fine sid-down eateries (four if you include the four star adults-only restaurant) and several fast food bistros on the entertainment deck (think three pools separated by cocktail bars, pizza establishments, and grills).  Want a hot dog?  Have three!  Pizza?  They’ll make you one from scratch!  Beer with that bratwurst?  Have one!  It is not even in the same league, and not even the same sport- the food on a pleasure cruise is so completely different from that served aboard a big grey Navy ship that the point goes to Disney without a second thought- particularly since I am typing this after eating a most excellent pepperoni, mushroom, and tomato pizza washed down by three Gin and Tonics.  Tough to find that on a Navy ship!  Point- Disney.

Running score:                  Disney:                 7              U. S. Navy:          3

Now that we have eaten our body weight in pizza and French fries it is probably a good idea to do a little exercise.  The Essex, like all big decks, has a pretty impressive gym that all hands can use to burn off those wardroom calories.  Navy ships have embraced the common military obsession with fitness- and it shows.  Located in the forward area of the ship just above the foc’s’le (where the machinery to raise and lower the anchor sits) and below the flight deck (where Harriers scream off the ship to bomb the enemy), the gym is an aggregation of steel plates, Nautilus machines, and aerobic training equipment.  Most importantly, it has several pull up bars welded to the overhead beams, which are of utmost importance to all Marines, because our annual physical fitness test includes running three miles, performing crunches within a time limit, and hauling your carcass over a pullup bar.  Twenty times for the maximum score, which I have personally been able to meet for ten years now.  I may not jack any steel or bend any Nautilus machines, but I religiously pay homage to the pullup bar and find enough square footage on the deck to work on my abs.  The Essex had everything I needed, and more importantly, enough raw testosterone laden gym equipment to make even the most ardent muscle-beach adherent proud.  Add to that the ¼ mile long steel track that circled the flight deck and we could stay in shape with little problem while underway with the Navy.

The Wonder, on the other hand, is a little less manly in regards to physical fitness.  They do have an impressive cardio gym that overlooks the bow of the ship- replete with treamills, climbing machines, and recumbent bikes- but lacking in the most important tool of all; a pull up bar.  The ship does have a very impressive track, however.  The 4th deck is the Promenade- a teak decked oval that circles the entire ship.  During my cruise I logged no less than 90 laps (yielding over 25 miles at 1/3 mile per lap) as I ran every morning before the family got up.  Unfortunately, the lack of a pullup bar required me to use a sharp ladder cage to do my daily 100 pullup/chinup routine, which resulted in blisters and torn callouses on my palms in the pursuit of upper body fitness.  The Wonder has a great new-age air about it with the treadmill and recumbent bikes that look out on the beautiful ocean view, but in my quest for visceral and manly fitness I must bow to the U. S. Navy and her commitment to grinding it out – the lack of a pullup bar completely overrides the pleasantries of working out on the Wonder.  Fitness point goes to the U. S. Navy and the USS Essex.

Running score:                  Disney:                 7              U. S. Navy:          4

That brings this post to a close, and the Navy is closing the gap- now narrowed to only only three points.  Who will prevail?  Only those readers who continue to follow the travails of Disney vs. Navy deployments will find out!   Next time we will look at the things to do while under way…

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