The Mail Buoy Run

Green Buoy in the ocean. Photo by Atypeek Dgn: https://www.pexels.com/photo/photograph-of-a-green-buoy-12264234/
Not A Mail Buoy

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Going down to the sea in ships can best be described as weeks of mind-numbing boredom interspersed with moments of sheer terror. Based on my Navy career with about twelve years actual sea time, I can attest this is true.

So, sailors come up with very creative ways of filling in those weeks of mind-numbing boredom. One way is to play pranks with new crew members just starting their seagoing careers. On my very first submarine sea voyage I became the star attraction in a mail buoy run.

The Mail Buoy Gag

The running gag behind a mail buoy run (for Navy sailors) is that the US Coast Guard maintains a series of mid-ocean buoys in cooperation with the US Postal Service. Whenever the Coast Guard knows a Navy ship will be in the vicinity of one of these alleged buoys, they dispatch a cutter to load ship’s mail into the buoy. Then, when the Navy ship passes they can pick up mail.

Back in the pre-Internet/pre-satellite communications days, sailors could go weeks without any communications from family back home. So, getting mail on a ship was a BFD. However, mail buoys did not and have not ever existed. Which has never stopped sailors from seriously messing with their new shipmates in organizing mail buoy runs.

First Underway

Such was me way back in 1975, on my first sea voyage on the nuclear submarine USS Scamp (SSN 588). By the time I reported to Scamp I had been on active duty for seventeen months, going from one Navy training school to another. My last school was a four-month class located in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. As fate would have it, Scamp was also in Pearl Harbor just finishing up an eighteen-month overhaul at the shipyard. Scamp was scheduled to leave Pearl to transit back to permanent homeport of San Diego, California, a week after my graduation.

USS Scamp Entering the Harbor of Maracaibo, Venezuela, July 25, 1978 (Official Navy Photo)
USS Scamp Entering the Harbor of Maracaibo, Venezuela, July 25, 1978 (Official Navy Photo)

So, I reported aboard Scamp after my graduation. After several days of getting my few belongings moved onboard and learning my way around the boat, we departed Pearl Harbor on my very first underway on nuclear power. We would be making a planned ten day run across the Pacific submerged. Just a routine, mind-numbingly boring transit across the vast expanse of the Pacific ocean.

Now, during my seventeen months of training I’d picked up a lot of important nautical stuff. Among those tidbits of information was common stunts played on new crewmembers, including the infamous mail buoys. So, as a salty sailor on my first sea voyage I knew mail buoys weren’t real.

The Setup

One of the informal customs for a new sailor, learning their way around a boat, was getting a “Sea Daddy.” This was a much more senior, experienced sailor who becomes an informal mentor for the young sailor. When I reported onboard I did get my sea daddy, Al, who was also one of the other two members of my division. I quickly felt he was the only person onboard I could trust to teach me all the stuff I didn’t learn in school. Which, turned out to be a lot of stuff. Being newly onboard a nuclear sub was an environment as alien as anything I could have possibly imagined. I was feeling pretty lost and desperately wanted to fit into the crew.

About day five of our transit, I was talking with Al during our watch turnover. Al casually mentioned we were planning on picking up mail from the mid-Pacific mail buoy later that day. I smiled and said “I know those don’t exist. My instructors all talked about how mail buoys are just a trick.”

Al looked at me, incredulous, and said “Ron! How can you say mail buoys don’t exist? Didn’t you read today’s Plan of the Day? It was in there! That’s an official ship’s document. Do you think the Captain would allow something to go into the Plan of the Day that wasn’t true? Ron, we’re going to surface in the mid Pacific to pick up mail. Do you think a nuclear sub would surface on a transit like this for no reason? How can you say mail buoy’s don’t exist? How do you think submarines get mail while they’re at sea? We’ve been underway a whole week now. Don’t you think the crew wants to get mail?”

The Hook

By now, I was feeling unsure of myself. Al went on to say “maybe surface ships don’t use mail buoys, but submarines use them all the time. The Coast Guard brough our mail out to the mid-Pacific mail buoy yesterday. Do you think the Coast Guard would do that if mail buoys were just a trick? Mail is important. We need volunteers to pick up that mail. You’re new on board. If you want to make yourself popular, and fit in with the crew, you should volunteer to be on the mail buoy detail.”

And I bit. I asked Al, “really?” Al gave me a disdainful look and replied “Ron, if you want, go ask anybody on board. They’ll tell you.” So, not wanting to look like a complete newbie I asked “how do I volunteer?”

Al said “I’ll let the Chief of the Watch know.” He ran out of our equipment room, telling the COW “Chief, our new guy wants to volunteer for the mail buoy detail!” The people in the control room all looked at me approvingly, nodding their heads. The OOD looked at me and said “I’ll let the Captain know.”

The Run

The next couple of hours went by fast. First, I was informed that as a third class petty officer (advancement as a result of my seventeen-months Navy training), I would be in charge of a three-person detail. The other two members of my detail had all been on board several months longer than me.

Suiting Up

Next, was outfiting. The COW explained that we needed proper safety gear, including protection from possible radiation. As explained, occasionally nuclear subs would brush against the buoys and leave them contaminated with radiation. So, the three of us were outfitted in yellow radiation suits with booties. Then, we had to put on life jackets for working over the side in open ocean.

Suiting Up In Protective Gear for the Mail Buoy Run
Suiting Up In Protective Gear for the Mail Buoy Run

Once I was suited up, as the head of the detail, I was told to go down to the Wardroom, Chief’s quarters, and crews mess, to collect any outgoing mail. So I tramped on down to the Wardroom. I was first invited into the Captain’s stateroom where our Captain handed me an official-looking letter. He said a few words about how important this mail buoy detail was, and how he appreciated me volunteering. Then I reported to the XO, who also told me he appreciated me volunteering. Then down to the Chief’s quarters where I picked up a few more letters. Finally, I went back to the crew’s mess where I was handed a partially full mailbag. Several crew members wished me luck getting the mail, telling me they were waiting for important letters from their families.

Surfacing

Once back in the control room, mail bag in hand, I was told to assemble with the other two members of my detail. I heard an announcement from Sonar reporting a bearing to the mail buoy. One of my shipmates explained there was an active “sonar pinger” on the mail buoy to help subs locate it. Next, the OOD brought the boat to periscope depth, and started calling out visual bearings to the buoy using the periscope.

The Scamp Mid-Pacific Mail Buoy Detail of 1975
The Scamp Mid-Pacific Mail Buoy Detail of 1975

After a few minutes at periscope depth we surfaced. Once on the surface the OOD and lookout went up to the bridge. I was told to wait until they called for my detail.

The Letdown

A few minutes later I heard the OOD call down, “send the mail buoy detail to the mid level bridge.” The three of us climbed up into the mid level bridge area and waited. I was anxious to see the mail buoy, or even just a look at the open ocean. But, it wasn’t possible to see out of the sail from where we were.

USS Scamp Sail Diagram
USS Scamp Sail Diagram

A few minutes later one of our radiomen climbed up the ladder from control, carrying an official-looking message board. He looked at me very seriously and asked “are you in charge?” I nodded my head yes. He said “just a minute” and climbed up into the sail. I heard him talking with the OOD. Then the radioman climbed back down and handed me the message board. The message inside was marked “CONFIDENTIAL,” and read that the day prior another nuclear submarine had struck and damaged the mail buoy. It would not be possible to collect or leave our mail.

I explained the message to my detail. Then the OOD called down to me “go back down to control. We’re going to have to leave.” So, we all climbed back down.

The Reveal

We all climbed back down, followed a few minutes later by OOD and lookout. The Captain came up into control while we were undressing and on the ship-wide announcement system (1MC) said “folks, unfortunately we were unable to retrieve our mail, through no fault of our mail buoy detail. We thank them for their attempt, and better luck next time.” A few minutes later we dove and continued our transit to San Diego.

Three days later one of our chiefs let me know I’d been had.

The Fallout

No one ever ridiculed me about being caught up in this stunt. I felt like it was all taken in good fun, and gave the crew a bit of amusement that broke up the trip. I will say that even now, I’ll mention being part of the Great Mid-Pacific Mail Buoy Run of 1975, and anyone who was onboard at the time will admit, it was the absolute best mail buoy run ever.

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