Something that nearly every sailor (who isn't on a submarine) has experienced is an 'Underway Replenishment' (UNREP in the USN) or 'Replenishment at Sea' (RAS in other navies, including mine). Ships need to maintain certain levels of fuel, both for the ship itself and for any aircraft on board. Fortunately there are floating gas stations sailing around operational areas or accompanying groups of ships. You can also transfer stores, ammunition or even people between ships without stopping.
This is typically a pretty big 'evolution,' which in my navy just refers to a task involving special effort or a lot of people. Tons of fuel need to be transferred between two big vessels that need to maintain a certain speed and distance. Basically, there are a lot of moving parts and safety is priority number one. This makes sense, which any of you soldiers, airpeople or crayon-eaters out there can probably appreciate.
The "moving part" at the center of this story concerns something called the "distance line." A distance line is a rope with little flags on it that hangs between the two ships. Each flag has a number on it so that you can tell at a glance roughly how far apart the ships are.
On the hot, sweaty day in question we were filling up from a ship from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. My experience is that these ships have much smaller crews than a normal warship, so they sometimes come up with pragmatic solutions to questions like, "who are we going to get to hold onto our end of the distance line?" They wrapped their end around a stanchion multiple times, relying on the magic of friction to hold it, and then our team had the responsibility of keeping it taut. Holding the distance line is a team event, and we would normally have five or six people holding onto the line, and would regularly rotate positions. The whole process can take a very long time, and the wind makes it a hard go, even on calm days.
Every RAS/UNREP ended with something called a 'breakaway song.' Someone would choose a song and play it very loudly over the PA system as we practiced an emergency breakaway drill. Basically our ship would toot its horn and would quickly veer off from the tanker and we'd go on our merry way. The worst possible position for any distance-liner to be in was at the front of the line when the ships started to break apart, because you would be responsible for most of the hard work of hauling the line back onto your ship.
On this day, as luck would have it, that person was me. It's not normally THAT bad, however this day was a little different because those pragmatic British sailors didn't unwrap the distance line from around their stanchion. I was suddenly at the center of the universe as everybody from the Captain on down wanted to know why the distance line wasn't in the water and on its way back home, and why was I seemingly hauling with all my might with very little to show for it. It must have looked hilarious. Time was running low, so eventually a burly Petty Officer jumped in and took over. It was probably only after 15 seconds of me looking like an idiot, but it felt like an hour. He had pretty much the same experience until someone on the other end of the rope realized what was happening and unlooped it from around the stanchion. I don't think he fell directly on his butt, but he definitely end up on the deck.
Yvan eht nioj!