Sunday, July 28, 2013

Ships and Stuff

This seems to be becoming an annual thing... last year I was sent on assignment to San Francisco to cover a product announcement germane to the video game/equipment review site that I write for as yet-another-hobby of mine.  (see here)  I had figured that to be a one-time deal, but the chance for another trip came up this year. This time, the product(s) to be announced were being developed by a Russian studio so rather than the racing theme of last year, which was the reason for the selection of the Ferrari Store in downtown San Francisco as the venue, a more militaristic setting was selected: the retired American aircraft carrier USS Hornet was to be the location.

The Aircraft Carrier USS HORNET Museum is a national treasure, having participated in two of the greatest events of the 20th century -- World War II and the Apollo 11 manned space mission.
Now peacefully moored at historic Alameda Point on San Francisco Bay, the USS HORNET is a timeless memorial to those who defended our American values and to those who have pursued America's technological advancements.
There is a little flim-flammery in that blurb: yes, it sounds as if this is another trip to beautiful San Francisco, but it was not. No, this was a trip to Oakland, a city not well renowned for its aesthetic pleasures, or much of anything else, for that matter. But hey, an aircraft carrier! Who could say no to that?? I haven't been on an aircraft carrier since I toured the nuclear-powered USS America (completely by accident) way back in 1979 when I was 18 years old and travelling Europe on $10 a day. Which was hard to do even back then when $10 still meant something, but that's a long story. The America was scuttled in 1996 after a little more than thirty years of service.

The lineage of the USS Hornet is a bit more complex.
USS Hornet (CV/CVA/CVS-12) is a United States Navy aircraft carrier of the Essex class. Construction started in August 1942; she was originally named USS Kearsarge, but was renamed in honor of the USS Hornet (CV-8), which was lost in October 1942, becoming the eighth ship to bear the name.
Hornet was commissioned in November 1943, and after three months of training joined the U.S. forces in the Pacific War. She played a major part in the Pacific battles of World War II, and also took part in Operation Magic Carpet, returning troops back to the U.S. Following World War II, she served in the Korean War, Vietnam War, and also played a part in the Apollo program, recovering astronauts as they returned from the Moon.
Hornet was finally decommissioned in 1970.

Flying into Oakland is apparently something that not a lot of people choose to do. I base that statement on how many stops it took to get there.

The first leg was Columbus to Midway, just outside of Chicago. Midway is always interesting to fly into as a passenger in an airliner, primarily due to its relative short runway. Whereas even the shortest runway at a podunk airport like Port Columbus is 8,000' long, the runway we would be landing on crashing into at Midway is only 6,445' long, not all that much longer than the 5,500' I enjoy at lowly Bolton Field. When landing a Boeing 737 on a 6,445' long runway, the pilots don't have the luxury of landing with even a modicum of finesse. Basically, they hit it and stick it. What that means to us folks back in the passenger seats is a big, BIG thump, followed by heavy braking and a whole lot of noise from the engines' thrust reversers. And, for those both in the know and at a window, furtive/concerned glances at the 'feet remaining' boards along the side of the runway.

Oddly enough, this time around it was the departure that made me more nervous. It was a full load with every seat filled and presumably enough fuel in the tanks to get us across the continent, but it was a nice, new 737-700 and I wasn't at all worried about getting off of the runway. What made me nervous was that we leapt of the runway with a roar of power, climbed to maybe 3,000', and then rather than continuing the normal steep climb to cruising altitude, the throttles came back to what seemed like flight idle. You know, just like if something was horribly wrong and we were heading back to the airport. Which, well, with a full load of pax and fuel, that would be a mighty interesting landing on that small runway.

As we continued to poke along at what must have been only a couple of hundred knots and 3,000 - 4,000 feet, it became obvious that we weren't headed back to the airport, nor were we gliding down to a fiery end. Still... what the heck was going on??

I finally figured it out. We hand landed on runway 4R, which means we landed towards the northeast. As I was looking out the window trying to figure out what was going on, I saw big old O'Hare off to the northeast. So, planes landing at O'Hare would be flying right over us as we departed towards the west - we TRACON must be keeping us down low and slow to keep the landing approaches to O'Hare clear. Once on the ground at our next stop (Los Angeles), where I stayed on the same plane just as I had at Midway, one of the pilots wandered back and asked if he could have a bite of the sandwich I had brought with me.

The answer was, of course, NO!

But as long as he was there, I asked him about the departure from Midway and asked whether my theory was anywhere near right. He confirmed that it was. Cool!

Not all of my interactions with the flight crew went quite as well, though. Once I had finished the sandwich, I wanted to divest my seating area of the leftover wrapper and other detritus accumulated through the flight. I grabbed it all and headed up to the front of the cabin where a flight attendant was going about her duties.

"Hey, are you collection trash up here?" I asked.

"WHAT DID YOU CALL ME??" she replied.

"What? Wait! I was just asking..." I stammered.


I usually catch on to those kinds of things, mostly since I'm such a master of it myself. Oh well. Foist on my own petard. What goes around, comes around. Etc.

The ride to Los Angeles did provide an opportunity to see some of the most impressive scenery available from an airliner at altitude. The dry air of the southwest allows for some fairly decent views of the deserts, mountains, and canyons of the region.

After a brief stop in LA, we were on our way up to Oakland. All told, it was eight hours spent in the same airplane, so it was a relief to finally walk up the jetway into Oakland International. It was less of a relief to find that our arrival gate was something like a mile away from the baggage claim area, but it felt good to be walking again for the first 1/4 mile or so, so there is that.

A short cab ride later and I arrived at the Waterfront Hotel in the Jack London Square district of Oakland, where much to my annoyance I found that my trip had been poorly arranged - I had no reservation until the next day and the day after. Luckily, they had a room open that I was able to get into. It was, I imagine, the last one open because of the not-so-scenic view:

You see that clock tower on the parking garage? That's about 150' away. It's also right next to a railroad crossing. A railroad crossing through which trains passed roughly every twenty minutes, day and night. Crossing bells, locomotive horn blasts, clattering railroad cars. The whole shebang. Yippee!

On the other hand, the in-room coffee was superb!

I called it a draw. Good coffee cures many, many ills. And other than the not-so-great room location, it was a pretty nice place. It's an older building, but it is well maintained and the service was exemplary. The latter to a fault, as we will see.

I immediately went for a walkabout in the Jack London Square area. All two blocks of it.

It's a good thing I didn't drive; apparently parking is abysmally hard to find:

The restaurants on offer were all fancy places and far beyond what I was wanting to spend on dinner, but a little time spent on Yelp turned up an affordable option:

A hot bowl cauldron of Hibachi BBQ Beef Udon and a cold hefe really hit the spot!

That hadn't been my first choice, but as it turns out Yelp doesn't always tell you precisely everything you might want to know. I gave this place a pass:

I sat around the pool for awhile, but that went poorly. I was reading a book when a flock of pigeons flew over the pool. They were being led by a complete idiot: he ran the entire flock into the glass wall around the pool. They all picked themselves up, shook off the shock, and flew off.

Except one. He got stuck between the hand rail and the wall:

He made a helluva fuss for awhile, then just kind of settled in for a long stay. I went and got one of the hotel workers and between the two of us we were able to get him out of there. He stood around in a bit of a daze (the bird, not the hotel worker, although it was hard to tell the difference if I'm honest) for about ten minutes before deciding to move on.

Even those most trivial things are adventures to me. It just kind of follows me around.

After a pretty sleepless night (par for the course when I travel), I got up early and started to plan my day. I didn't have to be ready for the press event until 5:45, so I had the entire day to myself. It was already apparent that I was going to have to find something other than the local environs to fill the day. I had considered taking a BART train up to Berkeley or some of the other this-side-of-the-bay towns, but the station was a one mile walk through Oakland. That had no appeal to me after perusing the area guide in the hotel room and seeing local establishments advertising traits such as "The Safest Bar in Oakland." Besides which, the ferry stop was 100' from the hotel.

The first ferry of the day departed at 6:00, but I didn't want to get there too early, so I opted for the 7:05. Even with the intentional delay I was at the pier at 6:45 where I found the ferry already boarding morning commuters. I went ahead and boarded. I asked one of the attendants how I go about buying a ticket, and it's good that I did that right away. The very act of asking clearly indicated that I was not a local.

"Where are you trying to go," he asked, looking somewhat dubious.

It seemed a pretty stupid question to me, to be honest, but I told him "The City."

"Are you aware that this ferry isn't going there?" he responded, looking (if possible) even more dubious.

"Uh, no."

Wrong ferry.

At 7:00, I boarded the correct ferry, along with a small gaggle of morning commuters. This was all very exciting to me, which had they known would have seem ridiculous to the people that do it every day. It would be like seeing a Venetian going ga-ga over riding a city bus instead of a gondola. It's all about what you're used to, I guess.

There was already a lot going on in the bay. These guys were out for morning practice:

They were still loading this ship - they had been putting containers on it when I arrived the day before.

"This one is named after me," he said sardonically:

I was the only one that paid any attention at all to the stuff going on in the bay. For the rest of them, it was just their normal morning commute.

So, I thought it would be cool to ride the ferry with the morning commuters. I was wrong. It was COLD! Twenty knots of wind and temps in the low 50's. An me with just a light sweater. Frankly, if it wasn't for the touristy aspect of it, I would have been miserable.
As it was, here is the first of a series of really bad pictures of me:

The thing about the 6:00, 7:05, and 8:10 ferries is that they stop at the Ferry Building at the Port of San Francisco. As opposed to what, you ask? Well, as opposed to continuing on to Pier 41, which is more in the touristy area of the waterfront. No worries - I'm a tourist, and I have walked up The Embarcadero before.

One of the secrets that the San Francisco Tourist Board doesn't want you to know is that San Fran could quite easily be nicknamed The City in the Clouds. The honest truth is that it isn't miserable in the summer. Foggy, chilly, etc.


I would be walking about two miles from the ferry building to the tourist area.

Here it is, in pictures:

There is a small mall just off the ferry. It's a great place to get that first cup of coffee for the chilled commuters, along with the day's bread and produce.

Birds are everywhere along the waterfront. They are not the least bit shy of humans.

I'm on the right track!

This is where American exchange student embark for Hogwarts:

This is the first sighting of the semaphore on Telegraph Hill. There will be more. You will be able to use them as a weather gauge as I continue my walkabout:

In case you're interested:

Originally named Loma Alta ("High Hill") by the Spaniards, the hill was then familiarly known as Goat Hill by the early San Franciscans, and became the neighborhood of choice for many Irish immigrants. From 1825 through 1847, the area between Sansome and Battery, Broadway and Vallejo streets was used as a burial ground for foreign non-Catholic seamen.

The hill owes its name to a semaphore, a windmill-like structure erected in September 1849, for the purpose of signaling to the rest of the city the nature of the ships entering the Golden Gate. Atop the newly-built house, the marine telegraph consisted of a pole with two raisable arms that could form various configurations, each corresponding to a specific meaning: steamer, sailing boat, etc. The information was used by observers operating for financiers, merchants, wholesalers and speculators. Knowing the nature of the cargo carried by the ship they could predict the upcoming (generally lower) local prices for those goods and commodities carried. Those who did not have advance information on the cargo might pay a too-high price from a merchant unloading his stock of a commodity — a price that was about to drop. On October 18, 1850, the ship Oregon signaled to the hill as it was entering the Golden Gate the news of California's recently acquired statehood.

The pole-and-arm signals on the Telegraph Hill semaphore became so well known to townspeople that, according to one story, during a play in a San Francisco theater, an actor held his arms aloft and cried, "Oh God, what does this mean?," prompting a rogue in the gallery to shout, "Sidewheel steamer!," which brought down the house.

Sailing ships brought cargo to San Francisco, but needed ballast when leaving. Rocks for ballast were quarried from the bay side of Telegraph Hill. Exposed rock from this quarrying is still visible from the Filbert Steps and from Broadway.

Pressing on, I made many detours along the various piers. There is a ton of public access to the water front.

Cleaning up after slovenly tourists is a full-time job.

Keep an eye on the Transamerica Pyramid too - it was in and out of the clouds all morning.

I guess there is a sailboat race coming up. Just kidding: it's the America's Cup. I was hoping to see sailboats, but the only thing in the water was the fleet of support boats.

Ah, more America's Cup stuff. It's a pretty big deal. Of course, you can't do anything these days that doesn't anger someone - there were protesters in front of the ticket windows. I didn't bother to find out what their beef was, primarily because I don't care.

Oh, a gap in the fog!

These guys have an interesting history:

The sea lions camped out in PIER 39's West Marina have been endearingly coined, "Sea Lebrities." These boisterous barking pinnipeds started arriving in droves, taking over the docks in January 1990 shortly after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. At first they numbered from 10-50, but due to a plentiful herring supply, available dock space and the marina’s protected environment, the population grew to more than 300 within a few months. Each winter, the population can increase up to 900 sea lions, most of which are male. During the summer months, the sea lions migrate south to the Channel Islands for breeding season, but in recent years a small group stays year-round at PIER 39's K-Dock.

They're noisy, they stink, and they draw a crowd. Just sayin'.

This is the goofiest restaurant ever! It's actually a motor barge with a small restaurant built on top of it:

This is our first sighting of Alcatraz and our second awful picture of me. I really should devote some time to developing a camera-safe smile.

What happened is that I walked to the end of one of the public piers where I found a couple trying to take a picture of themselves with the island in the background. Through personal experience (see bad photo #1, above) I know that these pictures are always disappointing, so I offered to take one for them. They were so grateful that they insisted on reciprocating. This gave me an idea: I'm going to retire and move out to California where I will make a living just walking up and down the piers offering to take people's pictures for $1. I can't count how many times I saw people forming multiple groups with one person always missing because they had no one to operate the camera! It's a money-maker, I'm telling you!

Like I said, they are not shy at all.

I was right up in this guy's face before he decided that he'd had enough.

I had no real plan for what to do once I got to the touristy part of the pier area, but this looked interesting:

I skipped the submarine tour since we have the USS Cod up in Cleveland and I've toured it a few times.

This, on the other hand, looked like something new. Out of 2,700+ of these things that were built, there are only two fully functioning examples remaining in the world - they take it out on the bay now and again for commemorative cruises.

Captain Jeremiah O’Brien (1744–1818) was a captain in the Massachusetts State Navy. Prior to its existence (or that of the Continental Navy), he commanded the sloop Unity when she captured the British armed schooner HMS Margaretta in the Battle of Machias, the first naval battle of the American Revolutionary War.

Built in just 56 days at the New England Shipbuilding Corporation in South Portland, Maine, and launched on 19 June 1943, this class EC2-S-CI ship not only made four perilous round trip wartime crossings of the Atlantic and served on D-Day, the vessel later saw sixteen months of service in both the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean calling at ports in Chile, Peru, New Guinea, the Philippines, India, China, and Australia.

The end of the war caused most of the Liberty ships to be removed from service in 1946 and many were subsequently sold to foreign and domestic buyers. Others were retained by the U.S. Maritime Commission for potential reactivation in the event of future military conflicts.Jeremiah O'Brien was mothballed and remained in the National Defense Reserve Fleet in Suisun Bay for 33 years. In the 1970s, however, the idea of preserving an unaltered Liberty Ship began to be developed and, under the sponsorship of Rear Admiral Thomas J. Patterson,USMS, (then the Western Regional Director of the U.S. Maritime Administration) the ship was put aside for preservation instead of being sold for scrap. In a 1994 interview printed by the Vintage Preservation magazine "Old Glory," Patterson is alleged to have claimed the ship was steamed to her anchorage in the mothball fleet (unlike the many that were secured as unservicable and towed into storage), and frequently placed at the back of the list for disposal, which undoubtedly contributed to her survival.
About halfway up, the gangway begins to bounce up and down quite disconcertingly.

I'm a sucker for old mechanical equipment with the maker's name embossed on it. Seriously, I am!

It was a self-guided tour, so I only know what I was able to figure out on my own or what I gleaned from the notes that were posted.

The first interior stop was the engine room. Access to which, it appeared, was going to be on the scary side of the continuum.

The good news was that I didn't have to go down that shaky looking ladder.

The bad news was that the actual path wasn't a whole lot easier!

This is the very top of the engine. Keep in mind that this isn't an Evinrude we're talking about. This engine is bigger than your house! (Well, not your house, Mr. Gates, but everyone else's):

Here is a simple explanation that I understood precisely none of:

Engines of any type are all about lubrication. There was oil literally everywhere!

More oil, of various flavors:

I could't decide if these were grounding straps to avoid sparks, or if they were delivering yet more oil:

Note the date: they still regularly fire up the boilers.

This is the engine telegraph. The Captain (or helmsman, I guess) moves a handle just like this up on the bridge. They are attached such that this handle shows the position of the bridge handle. Based on where the handle is positioned, the engineering crew will add or remove heat to/from the burners to generate more or less steam. There is also presumably a forward/reverse control somewhere, but I never found it.

Note that Bendix is still in business today. I'm not sure of what all they make, but I do know that they make state-of-the-art avionics.

These are emergency communications tubes. One to the wheel house, one to the Chief Engineer.

This was another reciprocal photo. And old German gentleman who told me that he worked in this very engine room until 1967 needed his picture taken. I was happy to oblige.

You know, retirement planning.

Oil, oil, and more oil!

These are the burners.

These are piston rods attached to the crankshaft, I think. The engine parts were to huge that it was hard to get pictures of them in their entirety.

The old German guy ran into another old German guy. There was something ironic about old German guys working on one of the ships that contributed to their defeat.

Moving back upstairs, I came across the radio room.

And the navigation station.

And the Captain's quarters.

Back on deck, I found that the ship was by no means defenseless. This is not to say that it wasn't heavily outgunned by the enemy, though.

I'm not sure if this is a locker that held signal flags, or a portal to the flags we will see later. I am sure that it had something to do with signal flags, though.

Checking the weather gauge again:

This is the telegraph located on the flying bridge:

Alongside a very nice compass:

This picture proves the need for a "roaming take-my-picture" service:

But if you can find, say, a binnacle to hold your self-timer equipped camera...

There were concrete-lined gun tubs on each side of the flying bridge.

This is the clearest picture I got of the Golden Gate bridge. It spent nearly all day hidden in fog.

The flag locker again:

A couple of flags were flying. No idea what the message was. Probably "Bring Coffee!"

This is the wheelhouse telegraph. In the background you can see the other ends of the two emergency communications tubes that we saw down in the engine room.

Here are the signal flags. I don't know if they had more than one set, or if they were just stored down here in the wheelhouse.

The biggest gun on the ship was up at the bow.

This is a telescope/gunsight. This gun apparently had quite a bit of range.

This is, I suspect, the kind of boat they would have been shooting at, albeit this being the American equivalent of a U-Boat:

The ship's bell. It rang "five bells of the forenoon watch" while I was onboard. That would be 10:30 am.

Unlike civil clock bells, the strikes of the bell do not accord to the number of the hour. Instead, there are eight bells, one for each half-hour of a four-hour watch. In the age of sailing, watches were timed with a 30-minute hourglass. Bells would be struck every time the glass was turned, and in a pattern of pairs for easier counting, with any odd bells at the end of the sequence.
Number of bellsBell patternMiddle
One bell.0:304:308:3012:3016:3018:30†20:30
Two bells..1:005:009:0013:0017:0019:00†21:00
Three bells.. .1:305:309:3013:3017:3019:30†21:30
Four bells.. ..2:006:0010:0014:0018:0022:00
Five bells.. .. .2:306:3010:3014:3018:3022:30
Six bells.. .. ..3:007:0011:0015:0019:0023:00
Seven bells.. .. .. .3:307:3011:3015:3019:3023:30
Eight bells.. .. .. ..4:008:0012:00‡16:0020:000:00

Just as I was leaving the ship, I saw America's Cup turn buoys being towed out into the bay. I guessed that maybe I would get to see one of the bots after all.

Kids today: no interest in history.

Back on the pier, I came across this:

One thing you have to know about me is that I have been attracted to game arcades since I was five or six years old. Back then, the arcade tent was one of my favorite parts of the Darke Co. Fair.

A lot of these games looked familiar from those days:

Even in the 70's I was hugely interested in racing games:

Hey look! I got high score! That was the best $.25 I spent on the entire trip!

I want one of these for my den!

It was about that time that I realized that I hadn't eaten anything all day. No worries - there are plenty of options. It was still fairly early so there were no lines to deal with. The only problem was deciding which place to go to. They were numbered one through nine - I just went with number one.

I hedged my bets: half shrimp, half rock crab:

A postprandial stroll up the pier:

Ah, finally! A sighting of an America's Cup entry:

The Golden Gate was still enshrouded in clouds, but the rest of the area was looking better:

So, by now you have probably forgotten that I was there for a reason: I had a press event to attend. I was allowed to bring a guest and the co-owner was unable to join me, so I asked Jen, a former work associate that lives in the city, if she would like to go along with me. You might remember her.

I didn't get much past "Cuban food, rum, and cupcakes" before she agreed to go.

The first thing at the top of the gangway is the ship's bell:

The dinner line wasn't open yet, but Jen was able to finagle her way into an illicit cupcake with a story about low blood sugar, an impending medical emergency, and the threat of a lawsuit. When it comes to cupcakes, the end justifies the means!

This is the PR/Marketing guy that arranged the whole shebang.

Did I mention that the development studio was Russian? They took the stage to announce the two new games.

To a rapt audience.

Hey, one of the new games is an ultra-realist flight sim!!

They got access to formerly Top Secret performance charts for some of the airplanes.

They had it tested by a former Russian fighter pilot.

And then, the food. It was spectacular!

We got a little seat time on the new flight sim.

They had some old cockpit sections set up for photo ops. I'm pretty sure this used to be a North American A-5 Vigilante: Nope, F-11 Tiger.  Interestingly, the F-11 was never flown from the decks of the Hornet:

In service, the Tiger operated from the carriers USS RangerIntrepidHancockBon Homme RichardShangri-LaForrestal, and Saratoga.

More flim-flammery.

This guy offered to explain what all of those exotic and esoteric gauges meant. I proceeded to point at each one and identify it. Shocked, he was.

Another cupcake! A girl has to watch her blood sugar, you know!

We gathered in a small group to tour the ship with a retired chopper pilot that had served aboard her.

I took a turn at presenting a flight briefing.

To a distinctly  not-rapt audience:

We visited the Command Center:

Jen tried to get Netflix, but to no avail.

The convoy map:

The guide, thinking that we were all young and naive (I shaved the gray beard off for just that reason!) asked us if any of us know what this was. "A computer," I told him.

"Just how old are you," he asked in return. "Most kids your age think a computer has to be electronic."

Then we went to the combat bridge where I took a turn at the helm:

Jen didn't see the appeal of it, I think.

Having failed to get Netflix, she tried to get some Hulu going next. That didn't work either.

The highlight of the whole event had to be the gift bags, wherein we each received plush Russian hats. Neither Jen nor I wanted orange ones, so we made sure to be first in line to select hats. Jen went with white.

Then we headed for the pier to catch the shuttle bus.

I managed a couple of hours of fitful sleep before finally giving up at 4am and heading to the airport for the flight home.

Oh, and what about my Russian hat? I decided that it just wasn't for me.

I gave it to someone that it looks a lot better on:

Or not.