It’s A Long Way Down

My last post (Forest of Death) reminded me of another memory on the submarine. But before I get to that, I’m reminded of another related concept which I only fully realized when the Russian submarine Kursk was disabled and stranded on the sea bottom, eventually with the loss of all hands. As probably with most submariners, that event struck a chord in my psyche. There but for the grace of god go I, as they say.

When it went down, the Kursk was in fairly shallow water, about 350 feet. The boat’s maximum operational depth limit is much deeper. But even that shallow, there was too much water above the boat to allow the men to escape on their own.

350 feet of water is pretty deep from the perspective of normal human experience. Scuba divers usually don’t venture past 100 feet or so and rarely will dive below 150 feet. To go further requires training and other things, such as decompression stops on the way up. To dive as far down as the Kursk sank is totally out of the question. So, 350 feet is deep.

At some point, I imagined the physical situation with the Kursk, a 500 foot sub lying 350 feet down and it became incongruous. If the boat were stood up on end, a good portion would be sticking out of the water. The men inside could walk further end to end than they were below the surface of the sea. From that perspective, to lose a submarine in merely 350 feet of water seemed ridiculous. But it happened.

My experience in submarines was in the Pacific Ocean, whose waters are considerably deeper than 350 feet over the vast majority of its extent. Much deeper, in fact, than the depth limits of a nuclear submarine, be it the USS Sam Houston, the Kursk or any modern sub. More than that, though, given we operated out of a navy base in Guam and headed more or less into the open ocean, I’m pretty sure the boat transited waters above the deepest ocean depths: the Marianas Trench. Challenger Deep, the low point in the trench and thus the world, is more than 35,000 feet below the surface. That’s one hundred times the depth where the Kursk sank.

I was a scuba diver before joining the navy and I recall being a bit freaked out when I dove into water more than a hundred feet deep. At that depth, you can’t see the bottom so you have the sensation of being at a scary height above ground. It obviously wasn’t too scary because I loved diving deep – so many interesting things to see down there.

On a submarine, you have no such sensation of scary depths. Unless you know to look for telltale clues (loss of wave action on the boat, pressure gauges on seawater intakes, temperature gauges on the same water, the hull creaking from being compressed by the weight of water and of course, the depth gauges located in the control room and maneuvering), you really have no sensation of depth at all. You’re in an enclosed, rigid steel tube.

But you know. If you cast your imagination and visualize yourself just outside the submarine and look down, you will be staring into utter blackness whose depths you cannot discern but which you know is over six miles down. You find yourself suspended six miles above ground, a ground you cannot see.

Now, that’s scary. It sort of unnerved me, at least until I got over it. You learn to get over a lot of stuff on a submarine.

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