Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Between Two Worlds – Surface/Submerged

Because of a corporate merger, I have been away from the blog for a week on a business trip teaching my replacements at the new main office in Minnesota. Approaching unemployment had me feeling a little introspective about career changing events and I remembered two minor events in my service on submarines that shaped my feelings about being at sea. I thought I would share some these personal contradictions.

Surfaced heading for the deep:

A person at sea can feel insignificant or small compared to the vastness of the ocean’s expanse and depths. I had such a feeling aboard the USS Alabama SSBN 731 on a cold and clear midwinter’s night in 1985.

We were somewhere near the end of a progression of builder’s trials before commissioning, at sea, on the surface and off the Southern New England coast. Having just come off watch I requested permission to go to the bridge for some air. With permission granted, I climbed up to the bridge and into a different world.

On the Bridge, the temperature was significantly colder than down below in the control room. The below freezing temps weren’t uncomfortable but invigorating after a long maneuvering watch on the Radar and ESM. Once topside I scanned the horizon west of us for the fishing trawlers I had tracked while on watch earlier. We had passed a small group of trawlers around the 50+ fathom curve, probably fishing the moraines and ledges that run for miles out beyond Block Island. The only sign I could see was a single white masthead light flickering out of sight as we moved away and further towards our dive point.

It was a nearly clear moonless night and the canopy of stars seemed to stretch to infinity. It’s hard to describe the extent of the night sky when there’s no city or street lights to obscure or diminish the view, but if you have ever been far out at sea or in the wilderness at night you know what I mean. The only other light source outside the ship was the blue-green glow of millions of bioluminescent sea creatures disturbed by the boat’s movement through the ocean. A glowing greenish frothing wake trailed off behind us in a gentle arch towards the western horizon. Occasionally the bow pressure wave would produce miniature flashes as the ships motion forward excited these dinoflagellates.

Other than orders here wasn’t much conversation going on between the bridge watch standers. Everyone seemed to be just taking it all in.

What struck me was the contrast, in one moment I could step back into the cold, feel small, and alone surrounded by the vastness of the ocean and night sky. The next I could move over the bridge trunk, feel the warm air rising up, hear my shipmates busy below and feel the power of the ship pushing through the sea. A cocoon of steel and technology soon to disappear into the depths of the cold vastness of the sea.

At that moment, I was a lifer ready to sign the re-enlistment papers for another hitch.

Submerged looking to the surface:

I heard that the Navy did a study a while back and found that colors or the lack of can have an effect on an individuals mood and mental state. From personal experience, I felt that was true even before I heard of the study.

On the Trident boats, we had lots of colors, different decks and passageways had different colored paneling, orange, blue, green, red. Not so on the old 640 class boomers. My first boat had basically two colors battleship gray for the equipment and a tan color they called mushroom on almost everything else.

Towards the end of a routine and boring boomer patrol we were having our weekly 4 hour field day. I had just finished cleaning behind the BCP, cleanest cableways on the boat, and was getting ready to secure from field day when I realized both scopes were still up. The quartermasters had for some reason decided to clean the bottom of the periscope wells that field day.

We were doing about four knots submerged with the scopes still completely underwater. I decided to take a quick periscope liberty before going down to the mess decks for lunch. After getting permission from the Officer of the Deck I stepped up to the scope and looked out into the underwater world.

There wasn’t much to see, far from land it was a sunny midday somewhere in the warmer reaches of the Atlantic and the water was crystal clear. I aimed the periscope elevation as high as it would go and peered at a translucent surface of brilliant blue. It reminded me of lying at the bottom of a swimming pool as a kid and looking skyward.

Then pointing the scope aft I slowly panned the elevation down toward the missile deck. The colors progressively went from bright blue to blue-green to blue to deep blue and eventually pitch black. Where the missile deck and aft end of the sub should have been was blackness, I couldn’t see the submarine.

From my two-minute periscope liberty, the sense of blackness where I existed and the brilliant color and light of the surface made me aware that making patrols had an effect on me that I had not anticipated. After four patrols I did a split sea tour to new construction for a change of pace less routine and more daylight.

Changing Course:

Both experiences, although not profound, in some way affected me. I always seek some form of adventure but suspect that what may seem routine to me may not be ordinary.

Thanks for reading my self-indulgent posting. -LL


Anonymous said...

LL, great post. Brought back memories.

loddfafnir said...

Dinoflagellates. What cool word.
I have some great memories of looking out from the bridge in my time, as well as a few good 'scope stories. Thanks for the refresh.

Anonymous said...

I too, enjoyed going to the bridge for a little fresh air whenever I had the chance to do so. As an FTG, I got more periscope liberty than most did, but it was great to go to the bridge and take in the view. It was really relaxing, particularly at night on a clear night. Sometimes we would surface transit thru the virgin passage on our way to the Carribean. Many people would take the opportunity to go to the bridge and take in the view. 5 minutes of that goes a long way towards helping the morale of the crew.

Lubber's Line said...

Thanks for stopping by gentlemen, sometimes it's simple things that bring back the memories.

chaoticsynapticactivity said...

Anything but self-indulgent! It was a great post and lets me know of things I would have 1) never seen myself and 2) not even stopped wo consider, except for this post. Your story is sharing what others will never experience!

Thank you!

Boomer Bob said...

Having ridden the ladies of the Deep for over 20 years I have found myself missing that world. This brought back many wonderful memories. I miss it yet don't really want to go back yet would if I could.
Fair Winds and Following Seas