January 01, 2020

New Year's Logs

Steaming alone over waters no trouble,
McCAMPBELL is ready to fight on the double.
With lights burning brightly above on the mast,
All engines standard, 16 knots going fast.
We cut through the waters below deep and blue,
Our course is 200, degrees true.
Our position is in the sea to the east.
Our stomachs are full from the grand midrats feast.
1 alpha, 2 bravo are turning each shaft,
Alpha power units move rudders back aft.
Numbers 2 and 3 are the paralleled GTGs
Material Condition is Modified Z.
Computer assisted manual is the steering mode,
So we can maneuver per Rules of the Road.
CO’s in her chair, she’s up on the Bridge,
We’re still left of track, we’ll come right just a smidge.
TAO down in Combat, monitoring aircraft and chats,
And EOOW in Central, stay vigilant Hellcats!
The year that’s behind us was challenging, yes, indeed,
But Ready 85 will always succeed.
We’re mighty, we’re strong, we cannot be rattled
In the year that’s to come we’ll stay RELENTLESS IN BATTLE!

The US Navy has strict requirements for the contents of a ship's log, as spelled out in OPNAVINST 3100.7. This includes things like the ship's course and location, the state of the engineering plant, the officer in charge, and other ships nearby. But every year, the restrictions are lifted just a little, and the first log of the new year can be completed in verse, so long as all of the required information is present. The sample above was written by Ens. Lauren Larar for the log of USS McCampbell (DDG-85), one of the first USN vessels to cross into 2019.

Nobody is quite sure where the tradition started. The first example we have of such an entry is from the USS Idaho in 1926, but the comment “The Captain is glad to see that the old Navy custom of writing up the first watch of the year in rhyme is known to the younger members of the Service. The watch stands as written.” indicates that it may go back further. In any case, this is a tradition exclusive to the USN, and is not practiced by the RN or any of the other anglophone navies. In all likelihood, the tradition began as a way for the officer of the watch, on duty from midnight to 0400 while his fellows partied, to entertain himself.

As expected from the work of amateur poets under the unusual constraints of composing a legal document for the Navy, the results are probably not going to win broad acclaim from English professors. But personally, I really like the practice, and the results. It's quirky and charming, and it's always fun to see how a 20-something junior officer manages to cram all the required information into something that rhymes. And there are often neat personal touches in the entries, with the ship's motto and some reflection on the mission closing them out.

Sadly, while a competition in 1968 generated over 1000 entries, the New Year's rhyming log appears to be dying off. In 2016, less than 30 ships made such submissions, and the number for 2017 was below 20. The Navy gone out of its way to highlight these in recent years, culminating in an official contest for 2021, with the backing of no less a figure than CNO Gilday himself. The contest received 30 submissions, with the USS Roosevelt taking home the prize. The 2022 contest was won by Lake Champlain, and I look forward to the 2023 results.

I've compiled all of the examples of new year's log poetry I could find online. This blog post from Naval History & Heritage Command has a history of the practice, along with several examples, as does the contest main page. Individual ships include USS Cole 2004, USS O'Kane 2018, Ralph Johnson 2021, La Salle and Houston 1942, Rankin, Bush and King 1961. Unfortunately, I was unable to turn up any for Iowa.

I'll close with my favorite of the poems I found, this one from the log of USS Clark (DD-361), in 1937, written by Lt. A.R. McCracken. Like many of these poems, it includes a meditation on the new year, this time with the world war looming.

Once a year there comes a time to write the log in metric rhyme,
although a sailor finds it hard to emulate a bloomin' bard.
The O.O.D. must disregard the salty terms he's always heard
and shamefully must interlard with many an artificial word,
so reader be upon your guard. Moored at Boston Navy Yard,
dreary even at its best. Lines extend to Pier 6 West,
gangway at the starboard side. Rising with a flooding tide
our trim destroyer idly rocks, receiving service from the docks:
water, light and telephone, steam from boilers not her own.
At every mast a Christmas tree, half the crew ashore and free
and all the officers but me.

Other ships in company: Moffett, Quincy (S.O.P),
Number 19 Eagle Boat (very few are still afloat),
Wandank, Conyngham, and Case, with their lines of speed and grace,
Lamson, Tillman and the Phelps. Every sturdy vessel helps
to keep our flag upon the sea, a national necessity
ever since the Constitution proved herself the real solution.
Topmasts housed, she's with us here, tall and strong for many a year.
Building under wintry skies, incomplete the Mugford lies
near another, moored in line, Talbot (Ralph) of new design.
Soon they'll join the Fleet with pride, take their places side by side.
Coast Guard ships a few I see: Cayuga, Pequot, Thetis - three.
Odds and ends of district craft, cranes and barges and a raft.

Naval treaties died tonight, expiration of the fight
by warriors of the conference table, men-o-Mars without the label
asking much but giving less, meaning "No" but saying "Yes,"
sinking ships with ink and pen, pronouncing peace on earth to men.
War will not be stopped by phrases coined within the crafty mazes
of the human heart, perverse, coupled with a mind diverse.
In the lessons of the past one at least will likely last:
a man who won't protect his own will never reap the grain he's sown.
When greedy neighbors come along the winner is the one who's strong.

Naturally, a naval race with lesser nations losing face
is an economic blunder which can tear the world asunder.
Only one can win a race, others have to take their place.
Rivals bite their lips and glower as they strive for greater power.
Yet pacifists are like a man who tries to stop a running fixture
by a thumb against the faucet 'stead of turning off the mixture.
No effect is counteracted by a set of hopeful laws;
to eliminate an evil we must first correct the cause.
Navies needn't sail the brine when little children cease to whine
their earliest complaint, "It's mine",
When our towns need no police, then will come a lasting peace,
but long as robbers covet pelf an honest man defends himself.
So give us ships and give us men, give us guns and know that when
the nation needs to show the Stick, we'll waste no time on rhetoric.

Though New Year bells ring out tonight, I make no pious resolution,
yet I voice a fervent hope that beach-hounds all avoid pollution.
Seamen's troubles evermore have started when they neared the shore.
I would to God we were at-sea, the place a sailor ought to be.
So cheerio to '37; it may be hell, it won't be heaven.

Happy New Year, everyone.


  1. January 02, 2020Alsadius said...

    This is a really nice tradition, and one I'd never heard of. Thanks for sharing.

  2. January 03, 2020bean said...

    We have the "first log entry" for 2020, and I have to say that while I deeply respect the crew of the Abraham Lincoln for their extended deployment to cover the electrical problems on the Truman, that does not give them license to disregard the requirement to actually include the log stuff in the poem. The version USNI has is just a poem about the ship's year.

  3. January 05, 2021bean said...

    Good news here. CNO Gilday himself has backed an official contest for the best New Year's log for 2021, which makes me suspect that participation will be up significantly this year. I look forward to the results.

    Also, here is the first announced log for 2021. It's decent, and unlike last year's announced one, actually fits the requirements of being a log.

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