On the Waterfront – Raising Gibraltar

(Silverdale, Washington; August 24, 2020) – I am proud to present the first “On the Waterfront” column for this blog. This is a space in which I can organize and share stories of adventures on the sea. Some of these might be Navy stories, some might be civilian experiences, but all are tied to the ocean.

The first story that came to mind was one of the funnier moments I ever experienced aboard ship, and it happened at the hands of one of the three greatest commanding officers I ever served under.

I reported aboard the amphibious transport dock USS Ponce (LPD 15) as a Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class in mid-August, 2010 (please note the ship’s name is pronounced “pon-SAY”). I was Ponce’s entire media center: I was the photographer, writer, editor, graphic artist, and ship’s public affairs officer. Ponce itself was under the command of Cmdr. Timothy Crone. (I will be using the term “Captain” from here on out. No matter an officer’s rank, if they are in command of a ship, they are referred to as “Captain” while in command.)

The most famous smile in the Navy: then-Commander Timothy Crone, commanding officer of USS Ponce (LPD 15) while the ship passes the Rock of Gibraltar on Sept. 8, 2010. (MC1 Nathanael Miller)

Ponce was on deployment as part of the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group, or “ARG.” The ARG was led by the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3), and included Ponce and the dock landing ship USS Carter Hall (LSD 50).

We entered the Mediterranean Sea through the Strait of Gibraltar on Sept. 8, 2010. The Strait of Gibraltar is not nearly as crowded as some other straits, such as the Strait of Malacca, but it is a busy shipping lane. Navy warships making such transits set extra lookouts above decks to assist to the team on the ship’s bridge watch for potential hazards.

I personally was excited to see Gibraltar again. My first duty station had been in Spain, and the first international trip I took to explore Europe was a day trip to Gibraltar in late 1998. I was up on Ponce’s highest level (one level above the bridge) when I realized a hump I saw on the horizon was steadily resolving itself into the shape mariners recognize as The Rock (apologies to Dwayne Johnson). After getting some images, I headed down to the bridge to photograph from there.

The bridge of a warship is a very tightly controlled space. You might see people just wander onto the bridge of the starship Enterprise in Star Trek, but this does not happen on a real-life Navy vessel. In the Navy, the only people allowed to simply enter the bridge are the watch standers and certain other key personnel on official business. This is done to keep distractions to a minimum. Everyone else wishing to enter the bridge must get permission from the watch. Well, everyone except me.

A civilian tanker passes the Rock of Gibraltar as seen from the port side of USS Ponce (LPD 15) on Sept. 8, 2010. (MC1 Nathanael Miller)

I was authorized to enter the bridge whenever I wished since I was the ship’s PAO and media technician. In fact, I was the only non-bridge watch stander to have 24/7 bridge access. I had reported aboard Ponce only five days before the deployment, but I was already familiar on the bridge. I’d been up there several times already during various events over the previous few weeks, and sometimes went up there just to get “day in the life” photos of the watch standers in action.

The bridge team was happy to see me. “Sparky” Miller on the bridge meant each of those watch standers would be photographed and could get copies of the released imagery to email home, or to post on some new-fangled thing in 2010 called “social media.” I was rather popular already.

Such popularity is a hard thing to bear, but, somehow, I managed.

Anyway.

Capt. Crone was on the bridge that sunny day, of course. Crone is a big bear of a man bubbling with an endless supply of energy (I swear the man is nuclear powered!). He has a strong sense of duty, and the most famous smile in the entire U.S. Navy (at least, we said so on Ponce). When the man smiles, forget the room; he lights up a small town.

I stopped to talk to the navigator when I entered the bridge. I asked how long it would be until we actually passed the Rock. The lieutenant told to hang on until his team had it in sight so they could make the estimate. I cocked my head and said Gibraltar was already visible. The lieutenant told me I was mistaken, and that Gibraltar should be coming into sight within five minutes or so (meanwhile, unknown to me, Crone had quietly come up behind me to listen in).

Multi-image composite panorama from the highest level aboard USS Ponce (LPD 15) as the ship enters the Strait of Gibraltar on Sept. 8, 2010. Ahead and to port of Ponce is USS Kearsarge (LHD 3), and just to port (left) of Kearsarge is the Rock of Gibraltar. (Digital image by MC1 Nathanael Miller)

I pointed out the bridge windows and told the lieutenant that Gibraltar was right there. I was respectful and all, but I told him I was quite certain of my facts. I have been on the Rock, after all!

All hell suddenly broke loose…well, ok, it didn’t. But Capt. Crone let out the biggest, loudest, most bellicose laugh you can imagine right behind me, startling me so badly they had to scrape me off the overhead. To get an idea of his laugh, imagine an inebriated Kodiak bear letting loose while watching the episode “Turkeys Away” in 1978 from the TV sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati (look it up; the turkey giveaway clip alone is priceless, and nothing will ever touch the line,“As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!”). That was the power of Capt. Crone’s laughter!

“I can’t believe it!” Crone said, quite obviously intending the entire bridge to hear, “My photographer raised Gibraltar before my nav team even saw it!”

Every head—every head—on that bridge turned towards me. I was very much aware the navigation team was staring at me…and very much aware they were holding some rather sharp tools. I skedaddled with as much dignity and speed as I could muster.

A few hours later Capt. Crone caught up with me when I had to head back to the bridge. He apologized for embarrassing me earlier that morning. He explained he was surprised I pegged Gibraltar before any of the lookouts reported it, or the navigation team had marked it. He said using me was the perfect way to give a low-key, but effective, nudge to his team while keeping things relatively lighthearted. Still, he said he was sorry for causing me a difficult time.

Eight years later, in 2018, now-Captain Timothy Crone and I shared a laugh over this story during Crone’s retirement ceremony in Washington, D.C. Crone told me I had supplied him the perfect opportunity to gently push the navigation team and lookouts to up their game during a relatively safe moment. He then apologized again for putting me on the spot like that eight years earlier.

I was many things during my time in the Navy including being an admin clerk, F-14 Tomcat maintenance technician, public affairs officer, photojournalist, writer, instructor, and operations manager. Thanks to Capt. Crone’s sense of humor on a September morning in 2010, I can add one more item to my list. I am, to date, the only Navy photographer I know of who was used as a training aid by the captain for a ship’s navigation team!

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Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

Instagram: @sparks1524

Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sparks_photography/

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