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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Our special project ... with beer cans (fifth in a series)

Read part 4 ...

Read part 3 ...

Read part 2 ...

Read part 1 ...

So I promised you a story about a "special project" in the previous blog post. Here it is!

Coming out of Singapore, the Orthopaedic Surgeon and my good friend, Matt Provencher researched fun things to do in Darwin, Australia for our much-needed four days off. One of the first things that popped up was the "36th Annual Darwin Beercan Regatta." The idea is to build a boat out of soda or beer cans and race it. Although there is no beer on American ships, there were nearly 1,000 people onboard at that point and there were lots of soda cans around.

First question - how do you secretly build a sizeable boat without knowledge of it reaching the people who could make you stop?

Second question - how many cans are we actually talking about?

Third question - once you build it, how do you get it off the ship and through the very strict Australian customs and agricultural inspection station?

Before proceeding further, Matt contacted the event coordinators for more details. The event chairman, Des Gellert, was thrilled to have an international competitor, the first American entry ever. He emailed us the entry forms and rules and would end up playing a larger role later...

After reviewing the rules and having a brainstorming session, we knew we needed organization, materials, and dedicated and discreet people. Enter Kevin and Ruth. Kevin is our malcontented ENT surgeon and a fellow veteran of the 2008 mission--I knew he could be trusted. Ruth is one of our civilian nurse volunteers working in the OR and has a background of rowing crew in college. Both were immediately recruited and sworn to secrecy. We had an executive committee (me, Matt, and Kevin), a design committee (Shaun and Dave), a fledgling building committee (Ruth), and an entire ship at our disposal.

We launched the "special project" with a massive soda drinking campaign and set aside special containers in which to collect the cans. Shaun figured that we would need about 1400 cans to float a 4-person boat. Our team decided that a catamaran design would be the most stable platform.

The next several days en route to Indonesia were spent scouring the ship for materials. We figured out that we needed to bring additional people into the project if we were going to succeed. LTJG Gomez, the Seabee who controlled all the saws, drills, and other fun stuff, donated tools. He was also young, light, and strong, so he ended up on the boat as a paddler with Ruth, as did Shaun. We also had to enlist one of the civilian mariners who works as permanent ship's crew - Elvis (yes, really). Elvis got us some aluminum railing which aided the final structural strength of the craft.

The next dilemma was how to put all the cans together. We debated everything from duct tape to silicone caulking but finally decided on epoxy at Shaun's insistence (good call, Shaun). As we sat in the middle of the Moluccas islands, we asked - "Where in the hell are we going to get some epoxy?" LTJG Gomez suggested that we go to the local hardware store. Gabe (LTJG Gomez) frequented the local version of ACE Hardware almost daily to pick up supplies for his engineering projects ashore. We collected Rupiah (9,000 rupiah to the dollar) and sent Matt to the hardware store.

Our boss, Commodore Franchetti, was baffled when she rode back on the boat with Matt who was carrying sheets of ¼' plywood, PVC pipe, and several epoxy cans. She admitted that she was so flummoxed, that she thought it best not to ask questions.

Next step - Where do you secretly build an 8 foot by 7 foot catamaran on a ship with nearly 1000 people working day and night? Enter Machinist Mate First Class Adrian Pena. MM1 Pena is another trusted veteran from 2008 who let us build the boat in the Oxygen generating plant. This was perfect since it was one level removed from the cranes on the flight deck and was not subject to routine inspection. The only caveat was that we’d have to move if they needed to light off the plant to generate some oxygen for the anesthesia machines (more on this later).

We were excited to have a project that diverted us from the doldrums of mid-deployment. The can collection started very slowly, so we had to make personal rounds every evening throughout the ship to collect. Based on international maritime laws, we have to sort our trash, so several cans were pre-sorted for us by virtue of being in the metal collection bins! People found it very odd that two Commanders and a Navy Captain rummaged through the trash every evening.

The cans poured in and were sorted by color and type (Mountain Dew was the most common, followed by Diet Coke). Shaun mixed epoxy and sealed the cans together. Ruth, Tess, and Erica spent hours in the stuffy oxygen generating plant roughening the edges of the cans with files to allow a tighter molecular bond with the epoxy. We'd collect cans, file down cans, or go to administration spaces and make sure no one knew about our secret project.

Over the course of several weeks, we ran into various dilemmas. First, our oxygen reserves became low and the Chief Engineer indicated to MM1 Pena that he needed to fire up the oxygen generating plant. Second, epoxy levels were low--and we were about to move to a different island with an unknown ability to resupply. Third, Des Gellert from the Darwin Beercan Regatta, was so excited about our international entry that he advertised our boat on the local radio.

The executive committee sprang into action. We promoted Shaun and Ruth to the executive level based on sound decision making, proven discretion, and the ability to get the job done.

Step 1 - Move the boat. Fortunately, we only had about 400 cans glued together in rows of 10. We put the frames together with industrial sized zip-ties courtesy of Elvis. Just to be sure, we poured epoxy over the whole thing. MM1 Pena relocated us to the Medical Gas Storage Locker on the first deck. It had wide double-door access and air-conditioning. Everyone was relieved to see the new work space. That night, we spirited the rows of cans and the plastic framework out of the O2N2 plant and relocated everything one floor down.

Step 2 - Get more epoxy. Since Matt's interaction with the local orthopedic surgeon was successful, it was time for a follow up with our host nation colleague. I got Matt and one of our trusted CRNA's on a morning boat to “teach." A few hundred thousand Rupiah later and we had enough epoxy to finish.

Step 3 - Damage control. With Des airing radio ads about our imminent arrival in Darwin and causing interest in the arrival of the MERCY, I let the boss know about the project. I put a very positive spin (BS'd my butt off) on the opportunity for us to highlight Pacific Partnership through entering the race.The Commodore fell in love with the project! We received official permission to enter the race and build a boat aboard the ship.

We were almost ready to leave Indonesia for Darwin. The previously mentioned visit by the Indonesian President was a blessing in disguise. The security lockdown on the city of Ambon was impressive and for two days we did not leave the ship and surgery finished for the mission site. Our team took action.

Rows of ten cans became rows of twenty. Used sealed water bottles with a laminate of thin plywood provided buoyancy. Matt drilled and put screws in things faster than we could lay cans and tighten zip ties. We used duct tape to hold the cans in place while they dried. We finished construction of the individual pontoons the evening prior to arrival in Darwin. The final step was relocating to the helicopter hangar for final assembly. Naval aviators put a soda can boat right next to their $15 million dollar Seahawk helicopter (thanks Cooter and Bacon!).

Last step - Get the boat off the ship and to the race. Des gave us a flatbed truck to haul the craft over to Mindil Beach for the event. Elvis rigged a series of ropes to sling the boat for the crane ride to the customs and agricultural inspector. I gave her the paperwork for bringing the boat into Australia and she mentioned that she had heard about this on the radio--she was going to have to let it in.

When Elvis went to crane the boat over the side, the executive committee let out a collective cheer as it lowered to the waiting bed of Des' truck. MERCY crewmembers finally got a glimpse of what had been only a shadowy urban myth.

Race Day - The "USNS NO MERCY" sat proudly atop two sawhorses from the high-water mark. It was the most photographed vessel of the day, largely due to the beautifully painted sail that young HM3 Jones designed and decorated. The other big hit was the giant "NO MERCY" sign that MM1 Pena engraved.

When race time finally arrived, our paddling team of Shaun, Gabe, Ruth, and Nicole climbed aboard. We had about 300 people from the ship watching and cheering. The Commodore was there to help launch the boat as well. Our crew was strong and the boat well built. We placed 5th out of 30 entries and sustained little to no structural damage. Apparently, Indonesian epoxy is some really strong stuff.

NO MERCY won best soda can boat and best international entry (there were 2 Japanese entries and one from Ireland). It was a great way to spend a day and it was the culmination of a lot of hard work. It was also a bittersweet ending to our time in Australia and the fact that we had to say goodbye to many of our new friends and colleagues.

Interestingly, the story of NO MERCY is not over. The local Lion's club wanted to keep it and we were all too happy to oblige since the Commodore made it very clear that she didn't want it coming back on the ship. It is currently on Ebay Australia and being auctioned for charity. The auction will start on the 19th in the States. Click here and search "beercan boats."

The boat project has been among the most enjoyable that I have ever had while deployed. New friendships were made, existing friendships were cemented, and lifelong connections were established. I learned more about organization and leadership with the executive committee than I have being the director for surgical services during the mission.

The NO MERCY team has scattered in to the wind and either already gone home or are preparing to do so in Guam. The summer is definitely coming to an end and I was glad to have just one shining day in the sun with good friends. I'm ready to go home.

--CDR Trent Douglas 95M, director, surgical services, USNS Mercy

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