USS Skate: "Romancing the Bottom"
Found in my E-mail tonight a story from the Diving Officer of the Watch on USS Skate (SSN-578) during her near-grounding in 1962. It's a good example of why every submariner knows that every single shipmate they have might be the one that saves their life someday...
"The USS Skate (SSN578) was transiting from Key West Florida to Norfolk Virginia in the Fall of 1962. While enroute, the Operational orders were given to enter the Chesapeake Bay without observation by Task Group Alpha, a specialty Aircraft Carrier Task force designed to find and destroy enemy submarines...
The time was about 11:30 p.m. and the control room was rigged for red, with no white lights on. This was essential to prevent night blindness to anyone who looks through the periscope or, in case of surfacing, the OOD and bridge lookouts could still retain their night vision. The red lighting is limiting due to its dimness and is slightly eerie.
Timing meant everything to the Skate that night. Due to Navy custom and tradition, watches are relieved fifteen minutes before the hour. Extraordinary events occurred when Navigation Chief Petty Officer Frank A. Calta, a very experienced and qualified Quartermaster, decided, since he was 'up and about', to relieve Quartermaster Second Class C. E. Frost earlier than usual. Frost was the junior Quartermaster on board. He was qualified but required supervision due to his relative inexperience.
Calta came to the Control Room navigation table and asked Frost to show him the ship's position on the chart. On the Skate, the Executive Officer was also the Navigator. He had Four Enlisted assistants (Quartermasters). His instructions to them are written in the 'Night Order Book'. Frost pointed to where he thought the sub's position was, approaching the continental shelf via approved submarine sea-lanes off the coast of North Carolina.
Calta immediately sized-up the situation and said, "We're going too fast at this depth to not know exactly where we are." He repeated this to the OOD and me while reaching to turn Fathometer's sounding single ping "on." Lt. Hewitt said, "That's been ordered off." Calta said, "I don't care, we're in trouble." Lt. Hewitt concurred with a single ping. The Chart showed about 400 feet under us and the bottom was approaching us fast. Calta switched to continuous run and then to medium range. The bottom was still coming toward us fast.
Just moments before, I had rotated a trainee bowplanesman into the seat. Yeoman Second Class Fred T. Crickman was the bowplanesman on watch and trainer. Full rise on both planes was ordered. The trainee bobbled the yoke joystick, so I reached in and pulled the bowplanes controls to full rise. The ship immediately rose to a 35 degree up angle. Calta switched to the shallow range, which switched to scope view. I could see we had only about 25 feet below us. Lt. Hewitt ordered "All back Full." I countered with "Don't ring that up, I need the speed."
The scope showed six feet below the keel, for what seemed an unusually long period of time, but turned out to be just minutes. The air and water manifold operator, Machinist First Class Marshall E."Ski" Kovalycsik , was chomping at the bit, twice saying you want me to blow? meaning the main ballast tanks. I said "Not now! The fleet is above us." The sub would have popped up like a cork in a bathtub. All the time this was going on, everything shifted into mental slow motion. I expected my face to slam into the diving panel at any time.
The Ship's Captain sensed a problem and came out of the Wardroom to the Control Room. He had to pass the Sonar Room door where Sonar Petty Officer Third Class R. J. Higgins stood in the doorway and, due to the steep up angle, dropped his cup of coffee in the passageway to the Control Room.
By now the up-angle had increased to 45 degrees and the Captain slipped and slid on his butt to the Reactor Compartment, colliding with the oncoming Interior Communications Watchstander, First Class Petty Officer Roderick F. Cashes.
I did not see the Captain's downhill slide, but I witnessed the uphill struggle of the Captain pulling himself up, by whatever means available, to the Periscope Stand. At this time I could see more distance between the keel and the bottom and I ordered zero degrees on both planes. We leveled off at about 150 feet depth, then, on Lt. Hewitt's order, proceeded back down to 200 feet leaving a comfortable 200 feet below.
Naturally, the Captain asked a lot of questions to ascertain what went on. The only deviation from emergency procedures was the OOD had failed to sound the collision alarm and it was later agreed upon that it would have only added to the confusion and 'dogged' hatches would not have helped had we "hit the wall."
The Navigator reread his night orders and stated "well I'm covered!" My thoughts were to 'cover' him with blows from my fists. It was his not taking the 'setting ahead' of the gulf stream into consideration that put the ship 20 miles ahead of track and in extremis..."
Read the whole thing, including the "depth profile" that shows how close the Skate came from grounding -- (although it's not quite exactly to scale; the continental shelf is steep, but not that steep...). When I operated in the Atlantic, we were always