This is a story about a cow, a cow that walked on water, the Jesus cow. And I'm not making this up. This is a no-s______!
It takes place just off the coast of South Korea...
You really have to love South Korea. I've been there many times since I left the Navy, and every visit has been exciting and interesting. Looking out over the night time brilliance of the Seoul city lights from the observation deck of the Seoul Tower, rivaling the Seattle Space Needle for majestic views. Scurrying along, crab like, 500 feet underground in the cramped invasion tunnels the North Koreans dug under the DMZ. Enjoying magnificent traditional Korean fare in restaurants hundreds of years old.
I've really come to love the place.
But all that was in the future back in 1985, when our Westpac adventures took us to the port of Chin Hae.
Sonar had been fighting some self-originated noise for days, if not weeks. It was killing our capability for the Spec Op, and the crew was feeling the pain. We scoured the boat for sound shorts. Days had been spent crawling around outboard everything, under the deck plates, and in the overhead, looking for this elusive noise problem.
We had finally come to the conclusion that the noise problem must be external, and we were going to have to send someone over the side to track it down, which we couldn't exactly do easily at "greater than 200 feet".
A day's worth of radio traffic later, and we had instructions to proceed to the port of Chin Hae, where we would be allowed to tie up and send divers over the side. No shore power, no reactor shutdown, and "Oh, by the way, the Koreans are really, really, cranked about the short notice" so, what else is new, no liberty. In fact, you'd better expect that they'll shoot you if you try to leave the pier.
OK, then. Easy enough.
We surfaced somewhere off the Korean peninsula first thing in the morning. Holy crap! It must have been late January or early February, at least by my thermometer, which froze solid shortly before I threw it away to avoid the desire to commit suicide based on what it was telling me.
Welcome to the Annual Sea of Japan Freeze Your Gonads Off Winter Festival. The wind shrieked through openings in the sail. Rime covered the bridge windscreen and made it opaque. Sea spray soaked everything before freezing solid.
The bridge crew, myself included, being home-ported in balmy San Diego, was somewhat less than adequately prepared for sub-Arctic conditions. We may as well have been wearing flowered Hawaiian shirts, shorts, and flip-flops, for all the difference our foul weather gear made. Today, when I talk about bad weather conditions, this is the standard by which I judge.
It was brutal. The wind was in our faces, when we could dare peek around the windscreen to see what was going on. We took turns, three or four of us on the bridge, sticking our heads out in the gale, for thirty seconds at a time, then swapping out, and ducking back into the sail to clear your goggles and thaw out for a minute or so, then back into the storm. I don't even have photos because I couldn't keep the rime off the camera lenses.
Finally, we got into the lee of the peninsula, and in the channel downwind of the small hills and mountains we were able to catch our breath and restore some sort of ship-handling normalcy.
We tied up against the pier under the supervision of heavily armed South Korean soldiers, and spent about six hours with divers over the side for three to five minutes at a time, in seawater that was actually below freezing. The injection temperature gauge said 29 degrees Fahrenheit, and given the blue divers being hoisted on deck (since they couldn't climb out on their own power), the gauge wasn't lying.
But we'll leave the diving adventure to another sea story.
This is a story about a cow - remember the cow?
We cast off later that afternoon. The weather had died off, and warmed considerably, which was necessary, since the earlier bridge watch-standers were threatening mutiny, refusing to climb to the bridge, if it was anything like it had been that morning.
We started picking our way through the channel islands, and compared to earlier, it was positively idyllic. The channel twisted through dozens of small islands shrouded in mist and fog, and with a ghost of a sun, it was almost beautiful, even if we were headed back to sea.
Scanning the horizon attentively, as was amongst my many duties, I was alarmed that despite my natural inclination to avoid occasional delusions, I was now staring at something that even I couldn't believe.
"Cap'n?" I queried, tugging at his sleeve. "There is cow standing in the middle of the channel, dead ahead!"
"WHAT?" came the incredulous reply.
"There is a cow standing in the middle of the channel", I whispered, somewhat embarrassed to share my hallucination.
"A f______ cow!"
"In the middle of the channel!"
All of the bridge crew stared, open-mouthed, as it took us what seemed like seven hours and forty-two minutes to come to the mutual agreement, that in fact, there was a cow standing in the middle of the channel.
"All Stop!" the Captain exploded over the MC. "Mark depth under the keel!" For a moment there, we felt like the pilots in the plane in the Far Side cartoon, looking out the window, wondering what a mountain goat was doing up here in the clouds.
"NAVIGATOR!! Where the hell are we?"
"Forty-five feet under the keel, center of the channel by multiple scope bearings, plot is good", the report came up.
We drifted to a stop.
"Check the charts, check the fathometer, check the g__-d____ plot, and tell me I'm where I'm supposed to be!"
The OOD gulped. We stared at the cow. The cow stared back.
"We're good", the Nav said, defending his QMs, the slight rise in his voice reflecting the fact that they hadn't yet been told what the fuss was about.
"Train the scope to zero-zero-zero, look out about a thousand yards, and tell me what you see", the CO ordered, with that subtle, but not to be missed tone of command in his voice.
The scope turned behind us, then stopped.
The MC crackled to life. "A cow? Standing in the middle of the channel? Sir?"
"OK then", said the Captain, shaking his head. "We are all agreed that it is a cow standing in the middle of the channel. Now tell me, HOW CAN THAT BE????"
We spent the next ten minutes checking and rechecking. During the last few years, we had already bounced off something, somewhere, that shouldn't have been where it was, and accidentally run into La Jolla, California, and the Captain wasn't about to let this be our third strike. Literally. We checked the fathometer, we checked the bearings, we checked with radar, we checked the plot. We even checked the cow, or at least as well as we could from a thousand yards away.
But everything checked out.
Everything that is, except for the cow, standing in the middle of the channel.
"OOD, bump us ahead, and let us drift. Let's sneak up on her slowly, and make sure we don't run into whatever she's standing on." The Captain's new set of orders broke the stalemate - us staring at the cow - the cow staring back.
We inched forward. 900 yards, 800 yards, 700 yards. Water under the keel got deeper. We stayed in the center of the channel, at least by the charts. The cow stared back. 600 yards, 500 yards, 400 yards. It was a long half-hour. Finally, as we crept up on the cow, the angles started to resolve, and we could see more clearly.
And I saw a man sitting under the cow. The cow standing in the middle of the channel. Staring at us.
At this point, I'm a little reluctant to report any news to the Captain, let alone this, but I do my duty. The Captain, thank God, and to his credit, does not instantly have me relieved and tested for illicit substance abuse, but concurs, and as the bridge crew once again stares and catches flies, we realize the man is sitting in a boat.
More of a skiff, or a punt, perhaps, about 10 or 12 feet long, up to the gunwales in water, with about one inch of free-board.
Our ability to accommodate the unanticipated is being stretched this day beyond our imagination.
I mean, which is harder to believe?
A cow standing in the middle of the channel, walking on water, as it were?
Or that a dirt poor South Korean farmer would walk his only cow to the water's edge, somehow convince her to step into an open ten foot long jon-boat, that can barely accommodate the weight, climb in it himself, shove off from shore, and sitting in the shadow of a cud-chewing Bessie, paddle his cargo across two miles of open water to another island, bailing in between paddle strokes, in absolutely horrid weather, in water that's below freezing?
The cow stared.
We had a little room here, so we altered course slightly, crept around behind him, and headed for the open sea, moving as if in a 'no-wake' zone. After all, he had maybe an inch of free-board, and we could hardly afford to upset our foreign relations by starting what would surely come to be called the "International Bovine Immersion Incident".
We accelerated gently. The skiff rocked. The farmer paddled.
The cow stared.
And they faded into the mist. It was the last we saw of them.
We wondered what stories the farmer would tell his grand-kids.
It was almost easier to believe the cow had been walking on water.
The Jesus Cow.