Letters and Memories From The Chief
From: Dane Hoyle
To: Dennis Ambruso
I was one of the Boat Captains of the first “Cadillac” PBR: 721 “back in the day.” At least it was back in the day for me. I had worked my way up from crewman. She was a hardtop back then and the first of that configuration and the first PBR built in 1972. The Unit had two hardtops: 31RP721 & 31RP722. Both were later converted to rag-tops.
721 and I had a connection from the start. I learned every nut and bolt, wire, fitting, this, that, and the other thing. I went to sin city, West Sac, and bought an injector timing gauge and injector wrenches. I bought injector jumpers and exhaust valve bridges for “just in case” and various other items as I saw the need. Of course I bought a deep socket for the bowl bearing with a one inch drive because when the lipseal on the sandcap fails or the setscrew decides to go on holiday it’ll get it “righty loosey mosty skoshi.”
I fawned over 721 and she returned the affection. She was fast. She was quiet. She was dependable. She never let me down. She never broke down. She never caught fire.
We communicated… not just by sound and feel but by something else… and it was the same with the crew. All I had to do was look at a crewman. He, also, had already heard it or sensed it and understood the look to mean “go check out the port tiller arm; it’s working its way loose” or “stick the starboard tank” or whatever as the case may have been.
She never left me high and dry or stuck in the mud. Often we were accused of having tank tracks on the bottom of the hull. There is even photographic evidence of 721’s trail in the mud snaking its way around one and then another PBR aground in the mud of Cutoff as viewed from Suisun Slough.
On one occasion we were assigned to insert an Army squad at an asininely inaccessible location. There was no water and the Army guys sunk to their armpits in the mud when they attempted to traverse unloaded the two hundred or so yards to shore. We were up on the mud healed over to port with muddy shivering Army pukes and their huge ungodly heavy rucks on the bow. I figured, this time for sure, we were parked for the night and waiting for high tide… but what the hell? We checked the simplex strainers. They were good. I paralleled and hit starboard; paralleled and hit port; slammed the Morse controls forward and quickly helmed over starboard, back to port, back to starboard, back to port. She rocked. She shimmied. She shook. She ground her fantail down like she was giving a lap dance and enjoying the hell out of it. Then she spun to port and wiggled her way to deep water like a gator with its tail on fire. We were nose down and flying — seemingly skittering across the water like a crazed out-of-control skipping-stone. This was the first time that evening we were at full-tilt-boogie in thin water. It felt wonderful. I eye-balled the temp gauges… in shallow water, they can peg in a heartbeat. She was running cool and stretching her legs. She was loving it!
The Army guys were saucer-eyed and pressed up against the deckhouse hanging on for dear life. A few looked back at me accusingly — sure that at any moment the bow would dig-in, be buried in the mud, and we would nose-over and go end-over-end to our deaths. For them it must have been like going over the top on a rollercoaster, the wind tearing at them, stinging them; the mud and an ever increasing load of super-hydrated bugs weighing them down. An impending muddy doom in the blackness of a moonless night would surely be their hapless fate. They didn’t understand the dynamics of the boat. It sort of defies a lubber’s reason and logic. If the bow had dug-in, only the aft gunner was endanger of conducting impromptu flight-ops and he was safely wedged between the midship splinter-shields. Army was in the safest place on the boat.
When our wake finally creeped aft of the beam and we had escaped to a couple of feet of water, I idled her down; checked my posit; extinguished my hair; wiped the bug crunchies off my teeth; the snot off my face; and unstuck my eyelids. I shutdown port, had the strainer cleaned, relit; shutdown starboard, had the strainer cleaned, relit; and checked overboard. Then I had the crew go forward to get the Army guys pealed off the deckhouse, reassured, and treated for shock and hypothermia with a thermos of Joe.
From the coxswain flat, I instructed our guests that we would make for their alternate and they should stay absolutely quiet, as low as possible, hang on, and most especially do not to move as we would be navigating as much by mystic forces as by dead reckoning. That’s judging the depth of the water and the difference in the depth to port and starboard by sound and where on the hull the wake would break while we were “on step” (traveling at full speed and planing). It feels like ice skating but it is, in reality, more like riding a bike. Remember when you were a kid and immortal… coasting down hill and going so fast the playing cards in your spokes sounded like menacingly angry radio static… riding the curb between soggy wet grass and parked cars? We had to make best speed to hit the insert window. That meant running the shallows way outside the channel. We would be trying to keep about eight to eighteen inches of water under our keel and would be going hell bent for leather. We had to “judge” the charts, read the water, and most of all feel the boat. Only she could tell how deep the water was, the composition of the bottom, the undulations and depressions in the bottom, where the thin water was, where the seagulls were walking, all sorts of dangers, and communicate that information to us. We were connected to her… and, she was connected and communicating with us.
She did her job – no sweat GI. We safely made the transit and the secondary insert without further incident. Then she brought us home as she always did.
721 was a nimble, responsive, elegant, magnificent dance partner with great legs and a sassy little vixen when surfing. I miss the metallic varnish smell of her paint… her perfume of diesel and burnt gunpowder. I miss sleeping on her and more often than not staying awake the whole night through to appreciate the beauty of another sunrise in her embrace… just so long as the birds and bugs were noisy as hell. But then, WTF, a little rock & roll and smoking LSA in the morning is as good as pears & pound cake and a pack of ‘bros to set you right: kick-start your brain-pan big-time.
Dane Hoyle SMC USN Ret.