As any submariner will attest, few things scare you as much as the 1MC blaring “FLOODING IN THE ENGINE ROOM!” Submarines, you see, don’t float particularly well and when more water is coming in than is being pumped out, you become concerned, trending towards frightened.
Date: circa 1978
Location: somewhere east of Guam, over the Marianas Trench
Setting: onboard the fleet ballistic missile submarine USS Sam Houston (SSBN609)
There was no such 1MC announcement of impending doom. There were no semi-panicked sailors rushing about attempting to stave off said doom. No, all was quiet in AMR2LL. Well, as quiet as it gets while underway what with pumps running, steam and water coursing through pipes. Which is not remotely quiet, truth be told.
But we were still flooding. At least I thought so and judging by the concerned expressions and comments of my fellow nukes, I wasn’t the Lone Ranger in that opinion. There was definitely more water – a lot more water – coming in through that crappy drain pump shaft seal, as well as other holes in the boat, than the pump could expel outside the hull. Soon, we would all die a horrible, crushing death.
So why no 1MC, no panic? Why weren’t we blowing ballast and driving to the surface? Simple – the boat was at test depth to test the integrity of the systems, including the seawater piping and pump shaft seals. We did this after every refit, which occurred three or four times a year. The captain would take the boat as deep as operationally allowed and the crew would check for leaks. And leak the boat did, every time. The enormous pressure at depth was just too much for the seals and pumps to resist entirely.
Normally, this evolution was routine. Dive deep, note where the water was coming in and how fast, take her back up. This time, however, as we stood around watching the bilge water depth increasing, we weren’t coming up. The boat remained at test depth for a really long time, much longer than required to do the leak test. And still the water poured in. We were getting concerned.
Let me digress a bit and explain a fundamental characteristic of our crew. You could divide us into groups based on a couple of things – the nukes vs the forward pukes being the clearest. Nukes are engineers; everyone else isn’t. But you could also divide us, albeit less clearly, by our love for the navy. You had the ‘diggits’ who were in for life and you had the dissidents who were actively counting DTGs (days to go). I was in the latter group. There were more diggits among the non-nukes but we had our share, too. One thing diggits liked to do was re-enlist and one thing the captain (aka Chief Diggit) liked to do was make a show of re-enlistment ceremonies.
Let’s get back to the flooding. Why were we still at test depth? Why, the captain was conducting re-enlistment ceremonies in the control room. While we were basically flooding back aft.
My wife tells me that I told her that I reacted somewhat emotionally when we learned what was going on. The story goes that I expressed my displeasure with the captain quite forcefully over the whole episode. I don’t remember doing that but it sounds good.
In any case, we made it back from the depths alive. It might even have been the time the captain did an emergency blow from test depth. That was an experience. At great depth, the high pressure air banks don’t have nearly the ummph to displace all the water from the ballast tanks. So the boat doesn’t rise very fast at first. In fact, it’s almost imperceptible. But slowly, the air in the ballast tanks wins the battle with the water and the boat’s rise picks up speed. And also adopts a serious ‘up’ angle. By the time we hit the surface, the sub had enough angle and impetus to drive a third or so of its length out of the water before crashing back down on the surface. It’s fun. You can see videos of subs doing this on the internet, and I believe also in the movie Hunt For Red October.
So, yeah. Test depth. Loads of fun.