A look back at MSC: CIVMAR Bill Doran

The following blog is a reflection on a life at sea with Military Sealift Command written by civil service mariner Bill Doran while 1st officer of USNS Big Horn (T-AO 198).

I recently went over 35 years of federal service, 31 with Military Sealift Command and four in the Navy. It was suggested that I write a little “then and now” piece about MSC to note some of the many changes I have witnessed over the years.

Capt. Steven Karavolos, right, civil service master of USNS Big Horn, presents a certificate June 4 to 1st Officer Bill Doran.  Photo by 3rd Mate John Bonner

Capt. Steven Karavolos, right, civil service master of USNS Big Horn, presents a certificate June 4 to 1st Officer Bill Doran. Photo by 3rd Mate John Bonner

I met my first MSC ship in an unusual way. I was reporting to USNS Redstone based in Cape Canaveral, Fla. On that day – April 30, 1982 – Redstone had just finished a shipyard period in Savannah, Ga. When my taxi arrived from the Savannah airport to where the ship was supposed to be moored, it was no longer there. As the cab got closer to the waterfront, the driver and I could see the ship up the river coming about in the turning basin. The taxi driver appropriately called his dispatcher. In turn, the dispatcher called the pilot station. An hour later I was boarding Redstone by pilot boat, up the pilot ladder, and just before the harbor pilot disembarked.

Now, I’m sailing as chief mate on USNS Big Horn with Capt. Steven Karavolos. The captain and I were able seaman and shipmates in 1984 on the oiler USNS Mississinewa, affectionately known as “The Missy.” At the time, we were winch operators on the underway replenishment team delta. Our job was to control the non-tension rigs of “the old days.” Our team’s slogan was; “Fly Delta, We’re Ready When You Are!” Captain Karavolos and I sailed together again in 1993 on board USNS Concord after coming through the “hawse pipe,” as second mate and third mate respectively. This history makes my present assignment pleasant.

Photo of AB Bill Doran in the lounge of USNS Sirius circa 1982.

Photo of AB Bill Doran in the lounge of USNS Sirius circa 1982.

Here’s another one for the “then” column. Before the days of closed circuit television on ships, and long before satellite television service, our entertainment came in the form of 16mm movies. The film reels were transferred in coal bags between ships during replenishment operations. We were all quite excited about the new movie titles and what would be in store for that evening on the mess deck or lounge during movie hour. Redstone even had a theater on board. It was great camaraderie to gather with shipmates and enjoy popcorn, soda pop and good movies.

Nowadays we are able to keep abreast of current events and can watch some of the same shows and events on satellite television that the folks back home are watching. Here on Big Horn, we are fortunate to have access to 32 Direct TV channels. After working hours, though, many crewmembers cloister themselves in their rooms until the following work day.

  I sailed on a few ships back in the 1980s that had amateur ham radio operators in the crew. On occasion, they would invite crewmembers to patch telephone calls through another ham operator back in the States. I remember calling my mom from somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea a couple of times. She would get very tense because she was supposed to say “over” each time she finished speaking – she could hardly concentrate on the conversation at hand. Phone calls from overseas were quite expensive back then.

In years gone by, traditional mail service, snail mail, could take a month or more to find its way to you, whether your ship was stateside or deployed half way around the world. Now the modern technologies of email, satellite telephone and internet allow today’s mariners to reach out and touch their love ones and friends very easily. With e-mail, just hit the send button! When mariners were first allowed access to email in the late 1990s, I felt a whole new dimension to my life at sea. I was not as isolated.  

I look back on my years with MSC with many fond memories – friendships with shipmates that will last a lifetime and more adventures than I could have ever dreamed of. I’ve been blessed with a great sea career and livelihood.

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