By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 8/10/2020
Occurred: 4/19/1969
Posted: 2/14/2012
Topics/Keywords: #CoastGuard #Florida #St.Augustine Page Views: 1776
All about the time I boarded a Coast Guard tender and had to find its bathroom.

Shortly after I turned 18, I talked my way onto a Coast Guard tender "to take pictures", a thrill that was made more intense when I drank my first cup of coffee…and learned what it did to my digestive system.

I spent years living in St. Augustine, Florida; and although the town didn't have a lot to offer kids by way of entertaining them, that meant we had to learn to entertain ourselves. I rode my bike all around the town, which I'm sure you know is America's Oldest City. (It was founded by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1565). It's a very pretty city, for the most part, and in 1969 the ride along the Bay Front, during which one could see clear across Matanzas Bay to Anastasia Island.

So of course, one day in April, 1969—I had just turned 18—it was impossible to miss that a Coast Guard tender had mysteriously appeared, moored to the concrete Bay Front, connected to a huge barge. It was there the next day, too, without explanation.

Bob and Roscoe.

But, as I rode by the second day, I saw a man and a dog walk down the gangplank to the Bay Front; so I stopped to ask what the deal was. The guy's name was Bob and he introduced the dog, a friendly Lab mix, as Roscoe. Bob was a Coastguardsman, and Roscoe was the ship's mascot.

Bob explained that the tender and barge were in town for the purpose of repairing the buoys that kept the water traffic in the Matanzas and the neighboring ocean moving in a safe and orderly fashion. As I learned, buoys were floats that held lights and bells out of the water, where they served as traffic signals to the boats.

As it happens, I had a camera with me. It wasn't really mine; it had been loaned to me by my friend Thomas's dad for the purpose of taking pictures for our high school yearbook, the Guardian. Because Mr. Jackson also allowed me to develop the pictures in his personal darkroom, I only used black-and-white film. (Color film was much more difficult and expensive to process oneself, in those days.)

I really wanted to get aboard that boat. So I explained that I was my school photographer, and if I could get some photos of the tender in action, I might be able to sell them to the St. Augustine Record (our daily newspaper) and thus explain to everyone in town what they were doing here…which would save them the hassle of having to explain it to everyone, one at a time. (At 18, I already knew that the way to get a favor from someone is to point out how it benefits them.)

Bob explained he'd have to ask his captain. Which he did. And the captain said Yes!

I was instructed to be at the tender at 4:30 the next morning, with a warm jacket because, even in northern Florida in April, the pre-dawn ocean breeze would be bitter.

Pre-dawn from the bridge

And so, the following morning at 4:25, I was at the gangplank of the Coast Guard tender, wearing a hooded sweatshirt (this was before anyone called them "hoodies"). I was partly afraid Bob wouldn't recognize me, or even be there; but he did come out to help untie the moorings and he did recognize me. So he brought me aboard, and introduced me to the captain, who allowed me to take pictures from the ship's bridge as the tender pushed the barge away from the Bay Front and into the slowly-brightening bay.

I was not allowed to go on the barge, where all the buoy-repair equipment was located, due to the danger of my tripping or falling or being hit by anything. But I was given free run of the tender, which was deserted because everyone, even the captain, had moved to the barge.

Bob had warned me to wear warm clothes; but somehow neglected to mention that a good breakfast would be also advisable. I hadn't thought to eat when my alarm went off at 4; and now I was starving as only an active 18-year-old can be. Fortunately, I stumbled on the ship's mess, a smallish room decked out like a tiny café, with a couple of booths with tables, and an industrial-type stove. No one was there, of course; but there was a bowl with a half-dozen hard-boiled eggs in it. So I helped myself to a few eggs.

But then I was thirsty; and the only thing I could find to drink was coffee from a large urn. Even though I was 18, I had never before had a cup of coffee. I had tasted coffee when I was 8 or so, but I hated it. So I tried to find something else. But I could find no water fountains; and nothing in the mess looked recognizably like a refrigerator. There were no bottles of pop lying around, either. So, with great trepidation, I took an empty paper cup and poured coffee into it.

It was horrible. It was bitter, vile, tongue-curdling. Yet, I had to drink something. By now, I was literally choking with thirst. I tried adding sugar, and then powdered creamer. That helped a little, and I was able to get it down. But I prayed I wouldn't be forced to drink another. Surely, the crew would finish with the buoys in the bay and then we'd be back and I could get something palatable to drink.

But we didn't stop at any of the buoys in the bay. Instead, we headed for Vilano Beach and the Matanzas Inlet. Then we were in the Atlantic Ocean.

The sun rose, spectacularly. I hadn't seen many sunrises in my life, but this one was worth getting up early for…even in black-and-white!

Sunrise over the Atlantic.

As the sun continued to rise, we came upon our first buoy. The tender pushed the barge close to it, and a crane lowered a hook and pulled the thing right onto the tender!

Loading the buoy

The men didn't dally; they did whatever they needed to do to restore the buoy to top working order, then returned it to the sea and moved on to the next one.

Since I wasn't allowed on the barge, I did my best to find interesting camera angles from which to shoot the work. But, as I did so, I became aware of a growing discomfort in my stomach. I was going to have to visit the restroom, and soon! The coffee I had drunk had an unexpected side effect. It made me need to use the toilet. NOW. No delays allowed.

But, in all my exploration of the tender, I had not noticed any bathrooms at all. Of course, I hadn't looked in every compartment. For example, there were a couple of doors labeled "HEAD" but I knew that bulkhead meant "wall" and, granted, I had no idea why there would be a door to a wall; but my need was so desperate that I couldn't afford to waste time opening doors to anything but a lavatory.

And I couldn't find one. I toyed with the idea of sitting on the railing with my butt hanging over the side, but…what if someone saw me? What if I left some kind of souvenir on the hull of the tender—or worse, the deck? What if I fell off?

What if the only bathroom was on the barge? That didn't seem very practical to me but what did I know? Nothing but that I was cramping badly.

I made another search through the tender, and noticed the door with a placard that read, "CAPTAIN'S QUARTERS". I was terrified of entering someone else's room, especially a grown-up's, especially the captain's. BUT…it seemed very likely to me that the Captain would have his own, private bathroom in his quarters.

My stomach was cramping severely; nevertheless I ran back to the deck to see if it looked like the men were going to be finished with the current buoy anytime soon. But no; they were all gathered around it, removing this part to look inside and tightening another to keep it watertight. Even Roscoe the dog was bouncing around, joining in the excitement.

Working on a buoy.

Heart pounding, I returned to the Captain's door and pushed. It was unlocked, and looked a lot like any motel room. Small, a bed, dresser and night stand…even a little TV set. And, yes, to the right of the bed was a door marked "CAPTAIN'S HEAD".

It finally clicked that "head" must mean bathroom, and not "wall" as I had thought. But I no longer had the option of returning to what must have been the crew's "head" in the main passageway. It was NOW or disaster. So I entered the Captain's private restroom, dropped my trousers, and sat upon his commode.

And not a moment too soon. My guts, exposed to coffee for the very first time, exploded with enough force to launch me nearly into the air. I emitted things I had eaten years before.

I had to flush twice. (Fortunately, the tender had a normal land-type toilet so I didn't have to figure out that part.) There was no room fan, and no way to keep the door ajar. I could only hope the Captain wouldn't return to his room until well after I had said goodbye…or the smell somehow dissipated on its own.

I returned to the deck, trying to look innocent although everyone else was still on the barge, just returning the buoy to the sea.

Returning the buoy to the sea.

With their task done, the crew crossed back to the tender and we returned to Matanzas Bay and the Bay Front. I found a number of the guys in the mess, sitting, snacking and chatting. The men were friendly and answered questions I had about the Coast Guard—did they live on the ship (yes, except for their days off), what were their meals like (excellent!), and so on.

They even asked me if I'd like a cup of coffee!

I politely declined. And didn't have another cup of coffee for almost a decade, when I joined the Navy. And even then, I never drank a cup without being very certain in advance just exactly where the nearest bathroom was!