“Whereas, some merchant ships crossing each other’s wake in the mid-Atlantic, will oftentimes pass on without so much as a single word of recognition, mutually cutting each other on the high seas, like a brace of dandies in Broadway; and all the time indulging, perhaps, in finical criticism upon each other’s rig. As for Men-of-War, when they chance to meet at sea, they first go through such a string of silly bowings and scrapings, such a ducking of ensigns, that there does not seem to be much right-down hearty good-will and brotherly love about it at all.”
“But look at the godly, honest, unostentatious, hospitable, sociable, free-and-easy whaler! What does the whaler do when she meets another whaler in any sort of decent weather? She has a “Gam”, a thing so utterly unknown to all other ships that they never heard of the name even . . . But what is a Gam? You might wear out your index finger running up and down the columns of dictionaries, and never find the word. Dr. Johnson never attained to that erudition; Noah Webster’s ark does not hold it. Nevertheless, this same expressive word has now for many years been in constant use among some fifteen thousand true born Yankees. Certainly it needs a definition, and should be incorporated into the Lexicon. With that view, let me learnedly define it.”
“Gam. NOUN—A social meeting of two (or more) Whale-ships, generally on a cruising-ground; when, after exchanging hails, they exchange visits by boats’ crews: the two captains remaining, for the time, on board of one ship, and the two chief mates on the other.” — From Chapter 53, Moby Dick by Herman Melville.
Melville’s opinings aside, we Rocket Ship sailors knew what a gam was. Here are the pictures of one that took place in the waters off the Republic of Vietnam one day in early 1970 between the USS White River (LSMR-536) and the USS Clarion River (LSMR-409).
My high school English teacher, under whose thumb I read Moby Dick, made deadly sure that I would never forget what a Gam was. So when I got the chance to use my old Argus C-3 camera that my cousin Billy gave me to record a gam, I was forced by guilt alone to do so for fear that should I fail to do so, Father Belway would come after me in those white monk robes and haunt me forever.
Although there is little “chance” involved in the gam between the 536 and 409, the navigator always is a little nervous when told to go to a PARTICULAR spot in the ocean. He always “knows” where he is, but when that knowledge is compared to the knowledge of another navigator or a rocky promontory, it is a nervous moment for him. Nevertheless, the ships approach each other and, with the advantage of radar, come into view. White River is shown framed in the aircraft sights of MT 42 Director.
A crowd begins to gather when the word is passed, “First Division, Standby to receive the White River alongside to starboard.” ENS Shenk watches from MT 42 Director tub just aft of the Chart Room. White River is now within “spuds from the quarterdeck” range.
With big fenders over the port side, White River carefully maneuvers alongside the Clarion River, which is dead in the water for the event. Finally together, bow first, just like “downtown” and all that remains is “Port ahead one third, right full rudder, put over lines 2, 3 and 4, heave around on 2, 3, and 4, double up all lines, secure the special sea an anchor detail.”
After a couple of hours of trade and conversation, smoking and joking, reversing the process and going our separate ways, it is back to the business of the Gunline. Meeting a ship like this, out of sight of land, gives us the impression that we are the only two ships and the only people on earth at the moment and just like that, the effect is shattered and we go back to reality, such as it was in Viet Nam.