Another dodgy moment in submarines
Following the popularity of my post last week, I am bowing to demand by dredging up other tales from my memory banks about the more interesting events during my time in submarines. Whilst most are too highly classified to repeat, I can think of a few more, but not all equally as dramatic.
I recall some excitement in my first four weeks at sea in a nuclear submarine. I had joined her as a trainee in dock a few months earlier. Following the docking period we had to go through what is known in the RN as ‘work-up’. Over a four-week period, we had several members of the submarine operational sea training staff on board, putting us through our paces, including safety and tactical drills.
On one particular day I was the Ship Control Officer of the Watch, ie responsible for the manoeuvring and trim of the submarine. Firstly, the inspection staff made us ‘scram’ the reactor, meaning we had to shut it down and operate on battery power. Then they set off some smoke to simulate a fire whilst dived. I had to bring the submarine to periscope depth so that we could ‘snort’, ie put up a mast to suck in air to ventilate the submarine and charge the batteries on the diesel engines. Due to the smoke, we were all wearing emergency breathing apparatus, so all orders were muffled. Just for good measure, the staff then shut down half our electrical power so that we had to control the after planes using compressed air instead of electrical power. This made it much more challenging for the ‘planes operators to keep depth.
This was all going well except that without that 50% of electrical power, I could not operate the trim pump to pump out water, so we were ‘heavy’. Moreover, the electro-hydrolysis plant was still working, converting sea water into oxygen and fresh water. I desperately needed to pump out the brine residue as the submarine was becoming yet heavier, but without the power to the pump, I could not do so. As a result, we had to apply more and more ‘rise’ on the ‘planes to remain at periscope depth, taking on a steeper angel, in the same way as a pilot raises the nose of an aircraft to gain height. Unfortunately, after some time of such fun and games, the angle on the submarine was so severe that one of the after trim tanks vented and, through a design fault, it vented directly over the switchboard. Consequently, the switchboard shorted and we lost all our remaining electrics. The submarine began sinking backwards and, as we headed for the bottom, we had to shut down the snort induction system.
The captain responded by ordering me to apply more speed, but it made no difference. We kept sinking. Then he ordered ‘full ahead’, an emergency order and blew main ballast to surface in emergency. When the propeller was barely fifty feet from the bottom, the submarine at last began to respond and we headed for the surface.
Several years later, I met up with my former captain again at the Army’s Staff College. He took great delight in regaling the tale to my fellow officers and told everyone how impressed and amazed he had been that, even though a trainee, I had acted so calmly throughout this dangerous time. What he never understood was that, as a trainee, I had no idea matters were so dodgy. I had thought this was normal life in submarines! Sometimes ignorance is bliss.