The Men Who Sail Below
The legend behind the Snipes
Sweat runs down a soot-covered face, carving a path through the thick field of grime. It gathers and pools before falling in a bead to the metal below. It sizzles as it hits and is gone.
The cramped metal room is hot. It is a place where fires burn, water boils and steam lives. The man with the soot-covered face looks up as orders are relayed from above. He shakes off his daze and nudges his partner, then picks up a coal shovel. Time to answer the bell.
These are the original Snipes, and their story dates back more than two centuries.
The first steam-powered warship in the world was the Demologos - later named the Fulton in honor of the man who designed it. According to Frank M. Bennett in "The Steam Navy of the United States," the New York-built vessel was constructed in 1814 to combat the British during the War of 1812.
The Demologos, however, was not completed in time for use against the British fleet. Nonetheless, it changed the seas forever. No longer would navies be reliant on the whims of the wind.
"Back in the days of sail, they used to have Sailors that would run the sails to make the ships move," explained Senior Chief Gas Turbine System Technician Nakia Riley of USS Preble (DDG 88). "The first engines they put on ships were steam engines, and the people they had to actually man the plants were steam engine operators from land."
Riley is a tall man who looks at home at his watch station, a raised chair overlooking Preble's central control station. His title aboard Preble is "Top Snipe," and the words stand out in bold on his name tag. He explained that in the early days, there was a divide between the deckhands and the engineers from land. Ship crews needed them to operate the engines, but refused to view the gritty, coal-covered men as Sailors.