Keeping the blogosphere posted on the goings on of the world of submarines since late 2004... and mocking and belittling general foolishness wherever it may be found. Idaho's first and foremost submarine blog. (If you don't like something on this blog, please E-mail me; don't call me at home.)

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Capstan Operations Or Marching: Which Do Submariners Traditionally Do Worse?

USS Alexandria (SSN 757) arrived for a routine visit in Souda Bay, Crete, this week, and as usual the excellent Navy photo team on the island got a good action shot of a boat out on the "tip of the spear":

As I was looking at the picture in high-res (as I always do with submarine action shots, looking for any evidence of B1rD (CGU-11 mod) system use), I noticed something very rare in this picture, to wit:

That's right -- submariners actually using their capstan in conjunction with (probably) a tugboat -- or maybe a bollard on the pier. Is the capstan being used correctly in this picture? I have no idea; I'm pretty sure I've never seen one used as designed. Maybe the boats I was on were an exception, but we never had much luck whenever we tried to use the capstan. Contributing to this, I think, is that we never really wanted to do any hands-on training with it, for fear it would break and delay our underway. Do any of you have any particularly humorous stories of capstan capers that happened on your boat?

Update 2228 07 Aug: Here's another picture of the Alexandria's landing using the capstan; this one shows that they do have the line around a cleat, and even provides a rare "action shot" of the line being watered!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

No stories here: I owned ours as AWEPS: coming out of shipyard we raised it, rotated it, and lowered it.

According to our records that was most that had been done to it in the past 10 years.


7/31/2008 5:43 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I remember our capstan was primarily used for topeodo loadout. I don't know weather is is being used correctly or not either. My concern is that those sailors are standing very close to a line under great tension. I know it is a sub and there is not much room topside, so I don't know where else they could stand either.

Being as how there is no room to run if the line shows signs of parting, wouldn't it be a lot better to have the pulling be from the pier and not from the sub? I know, it may not be possible in this situation.

I think all sailors should regularly view the navy safety film called "Snapback"

7/31/2008 5:44 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

We used our Capstan all the time! I thought everyone did....... Right before we got underway, we called them pre-underways! LOL. We also used it for crew turnover. Never used it operationally, I hear that they only got used in small ports?

The real question is if anyone has used their anchor!?

7/31/2008 5:44 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

On my first boat back in the late 80's, we used the capstan on a few occasions. Don't remember exactly where, but I am guessing places like St. Croix or Bermuda,small ports where we may not have had a tug available. We were a lot more manueverable when entering and leaving port than a more modern submarine. Small boat, and an SPM that rigged directly out of the bottom of the boat and could be turned 360 degrees. (S-girl)

As far as the anchor, sure. Anchored off of Maui and also in the harbor in Hobart, Tasmania. I expect anchoring is not common, but is done whenever a sub pulls into a port with no pier acceptable for berthing a submarine, or where the host nation doesn't want a nuclear vessel to moor at a pier.

7/31/2008 6:12 PM

Blogger bothenook said...

we were returning from a spec op, steaming up the channel for mare island. doc hendrix was the aft capstan phone talker for the maneuvering watch, which meant he was the topside aft phone talker, wearing a sound powered headset with about 100 feet of cord. he was sitting on the capstan, joking with us as we were hauling the line out of the locker forward of the after escape trunk. having just spent 100+ days at sea, the deck was slick as snot. next thing we know he's sliding down the turtleback, hits the water, just misses the twin screws and the rudder, and starts skipping along the top of the water holding on to the phone cord for dear life.
the tug came along side just as the cord parted ways with the headset.
afterwards, doc joked that he just wanted a little ski time. frightening and funny. he could have become chum quite easily.

7/31/2008 6:39 PM

Blogger I'm Bill Howell. said...

Back in the late 80's and early 90's, during my JO & Eng tours on 637s, we used the capstans quite frequently. As I recall, they made landings very simple for the OOD, especially in Pearl.

The most interesting use of the capstan I remember is mooring alongside the Hunley in Guam in July of 92. They had just relieved the Proteus as the tender there and still hadn't quite figured out how to support SSNs (instead of the boomers they'd been supporting in Charleston). So they ended up mooring us too far forward. By the time they figured it out, they'd released the tugs. When they said we'd have to wait hours to get them back, our CO said: "The hell with that! We can move ourselves with our capstans." And that's what we proceeded to do, much to the amazement of the tender sailors...

I've always liked capstans.

7/31/2008 6:50 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the late 80s on a 637, we used the capstan for weapons loadouts. Also, in three consecutive years, we anchored off Lahaina three times.

7/31/2008 8:13 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gotta use it for unfendered tugs. It's called an "Unassisted Landing". For an SSN with a trainable outboard, mooring is a breeze (unless your line handlers can't speak English.....)

Requires use of line throwing gun - if you think that sailors with heavies are funny, just watch a TM with a line throwing gun that will always shoot 100 yards past the edge of the pier and bounce off buildings or through windows.

7/31/2008 8:20 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was an EM on a 637 in the mid-80s and during maneuvering watch I was the bell recorder. This allowed me to be the last EM down after disconnecting SP and the first one up to connect SP. The aft capstan was always up and generally had a line around it, but we were moored by the time I got up there so I'm not sure they were used properly.

The one time I was topside during a maneuvering watch on an operational submarine was leaving Pearl, Sierra 9. I was aft phone talker. The tug was supposed to pull us away from the pier into the wider part of the Lock, turn us 120-degrees to port, and let us go. After we had were moving away from the pier the CO and the tug skipper had different agendas. After we spun to port 315 degrees to port with a couple of trips toward starboard the tug let us loose and took a defensive postition to keep us from taking out a Ticonderoga-class skimmer (who sounded their collision alarm). After backing into the wider part of the Lock we spun around on our own and left with hundreds of submariners and skimmers manning the rails of their vessels like sideboys laughing at us. The Capstan was up and a line was around it for awhile, but when I asked the STSCS in charge of the aft if this was a normal maneuvering watch he said this redefined all that could be wrong and not hit anything.


7/31/2008 8:34 PM

Blogger T said...

Re: Anchors, I think a better question is if any Ohio class sailors have ever used their anchor succesfully... I heard it was used during TRE once on my boat as a practical, and swiftly broke off to never be seen again. This happened a bit before I got there, so I can't personally verify the story. But the rumour is that the Ohio-class anchor is not sufficient to hold the boat, particularly at the break points in the chain (I forget exactly what those special links are called).

7/31/2008 9:26 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

We used our capstan a couple of times pulling into some smaller ports, and I saw it used once for a preunderway....
We used the anchor when we anchored out in Phuket, Thailand, and on a dependents cruise to Lahiana, HI. Well, we were supposed to, anyway. After twenty four hours (of which I was on duty) the anchor chain broke. They never were able to find it...

7/31/2008 9:42 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

We've used both our capstan and our anchor on my Ohio-class boomer. The capstan lasted about 2 minutes before breaking permanently, and the anchor parted when we let it go. Luckily, we were next to the pier when it happened...those INSURV guys just wouldn't let us get away with not testing it.

7/31/2008 10:03 PM

Blogger T said...

That sounds pretty similar to what happened with our anchor... Granted, you don't go too many places in a Boomer where anchors would really get you much anyway.

But as far as INSURV goes, I mean, there's not really a whole lot the crew can do to fix the anchor. I guess make sure the anchor stowed light works... Speaking of, our anchor stowed light broke one time, talk about a troubleshooting nightmare. Good luck trying to get a division to even own up to owning the circuit it runs on.

7/31/2008 10:34 PM

Blogger Bubblehead said...

Blog Admin Notice: I'll be on a short "posting hiatus" while Blogger responds to a report listing me as a "spam blog". I'm not sure if it's an automated 'bot algorithm or if someone maliciously reported me, but they say I should have posting rights restored by sometime Monday, if not Friday -- as soon as a human at Blogger gets a chance to look at my blog.

7/31/2008 11:19 PM

Blogger montigrande said...

On my first boat (646) we routinely used our outboard and capstan for “unassisted landings,” mainly at ports in St.Croix and Puerto Rico. There was a legend about a skipper in the early 80’s (his name is spelled “BIG AL”) who wanted to give the crew the weekend off and was told that there were no tugs available. The story goes he landed at Pier “M” in chucktown, just in time for the Commodore to spot him from the fantail of the Frank Cable. I never knew anyone who saw it first hand.

As for the anchor, on deployment in 99, the Albuquerque moored out in Cartagena Spain for a long weekend of sangria drinking and general liberty mischief. The memorable part about it was that all of the EWS’s had to get anchor operator qualified because the weaponeers that normally manned the beast for the maneuvering watch were going on liberty. Things went well and we dropped and weighed anchor without mishap except for our big fat aching heads.

7/31/2008 11:22 PM

Blogger Chap said...

That's because you were an Eng, Bubbles. Your job during maneuvering watch was doing checkouts in the horseshoe, right?

Yup, capstans are handy, particularly if you can train the outboard and hold the back of the boat up against the pier while closing up the front (quicker than two capstans alone). Or you can point the boat in and slack as you close up aft. Three bell landing unassisted, yah let's do it. I miss surface OOD; it was my favorite job and I'd like to think I was good at it at the time.

Landings aren't fun, though, if you try it in [foreign port], when the band from [foreign country] is playing on the pier, and the pilot/foreign reps convince the CO to line up in the wrong direction. Yeah, that can be embarrassing.

As for anchoring, I used to have these entertaining discussions:
"Boss, we're going to anchor. The anchor never drops the first time we want it to drop if we haven't used it in forever, and that sucks when you're anchoring in a precise spot. Let's cycle the anchor a bit before that, hey?"
"But, if the anchor gets stuck, we're going to lose the op. We can't do it."
"Okay, boss, but the anchor is going to get stuck, just at a time we don't want it to. I plan to say I told you so..."
Later that month:

INSURV was good to us. We gamed it--the right way--as much as we could, by asking everybody who recently did one what else to check before the team got aboard, and worrying a lot about some of the scarier PMs like the hand ram on that other boat that resulted in a little pyro trouble in the launcher and an impressive photo I didn't want to see on the boat I was on. They got us but good on one thing we never checked and didn't have a PM on and I'm glad they did. We sent *that* one around the waterfront as a cautionary tale--one of those things nobody thinks about till they need it.

Oh, and. Lots of blogs with a particular viewpoint are getting flagged. I've seen a couple going down in similar circumstances.

8/01/2008 4:56 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the SSGNs uses their capstan all of the time and anchored off of Lahaina for a day earlier this year. (There's photos of it somewhere).

Submarines use capstans and anchors a lot. The stories of not working are rumor, myth and superstition.

8/01/2008 8:53 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

They should have the line going around one of the cleats, not just direct from the capstan.

TMs with a linethrowing gun is a sight to behold. Most likely, the primary will foul, the secondary will be "unavailable" for some reason, and you will have to use a heavie anyway...often at an uncomfortably close distance to the pier.

8/01/2008 10:33 AM

Blogger RM1(SS) (ret) said...

The real question is if anyone has used their anchor!?

Thrice: St Croix (USVI) in 1984, Pattaya (Thailand) in '88 and Cartagena (Spain) in '01. First two times were aboard Olympia (SSN 717); third time was aboard Providence (SSN 719)

Honolulu (SSN 718) evidently tried using their anchor during their first WestPac - they left it at the bottom of Truk lagoon. 8)

8/01/2008 12:35 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Use of capstans went away when the decision was made you needed a tug to get next to the pier. Smoke-boats rarely if ever used tugs. In my 5 years on USS Barbel SS-580 I can only recall use of a tug one time and that was to pull us away from a commercial pier in Keelung Taiwan in 1974. The ROC Navy tug didn't even have a hawser to pull us out. We passed him our # 2 mooring line which they managed to part when they put on a full backing bell. The line parted right at our # 2 cleat and he got the full force of that parted mooring line right on the front of the wheel house. That sucker sounded like a cannon shot when it parted!!

Capstans used all the time to pull the boat into the pier, in particular the after capstan. Also used for loading and offloading torpedoes, and on my first boat, a fleet snorkler in 1961, to recover a mk 14 mod 3 exercise torpedo at sea using a king post and boom and capstan. Now that was fun!!

Sigh, what ever happened to ship handling skills and pride the crew had in the ship handling abilities of the wardroom? Most of us ol'smoke boat sailors when we get together at reunions and USSVI conventions still talk about many of those famous landings. How about a 143 bell landing inside the basin at HMS Tamar in Hong Kong on a twin screw fleet snorkel boat without pusher boat assist. Electricians on the sticks in maneuvering told us afterwards they were always at least three bells behind after about bell # 40. Now that was a landing to talk about!!!

Keep a zero bubble......


8/01/2008 1:10 PM

Blogger a_former_elt_2jv said...

The real question is how many of you were covered with reactor coolant when taking off a valve cap?

Apparently, theres +1 from the USS HOUSTON recently (as seen on


What sort of dumb-ass ELT would ever report something like that?? It violates rule 1: If I can say that no good can come of this, then I shouldn't do it.

To my ELT friends on the HOUSTON, I'm truly sorry about your pain.


8/01/2008 4:32 PM

Blogger Bubblehead said...

This blows! An article about submarines on the front page of and I can't post about it! Of interest, the article does do a fairly good job of explaining how little radioactivity the leaked water contained. I'm sure that won't matter when the rest of the MSM gets ahold of it, though.

8/01/2008 4:56 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Bubblehead. Can't you still post over at Ultraquiet No More?

8/01/2008 5:26 PM

Blogger Bubblehead said...

Yep, I sure can. I posted my thoughts on the Houston story over at UQNM.

8/01/2008 6:11 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

For the Eng bashers out there this comes from an Eng who stood surface OOD for every landing on WESTPAC. We used our Capstan for unassisted landings. It does a wonderful job of controlling the bow, while using the SPM to control the stern. The 688 class is an incredibly easy platform to more with no Tug use. Take it from me, Mariner skills are back in the sub fleet and I could challenge any of you DBF'ers!

8/02/2008 12:52 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The best skippers know that standing surface and maneuvering watch OOD is a privilege, not a right, and direct their Ops officer to assign these watches to the department heads.

I served under one of the best-ever COs in this regard, and he later became COMSUBPAC. Today's commanding officers might well want to take note.

8/02/2008 10:57 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...and I could challenge any of you DBF'ers!"

Oh, but please don't. Everyone knows that the DBF'ers are perfect in every way. There is absolutely no way that *any* aspect of a stinkin nuke boat could be anywhere near as good as any DBF that ever existed. /sarcasm=off

8/02/2008 11:05 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Relax shipmate, the good news is Submarine Force is experiencing a major adjustment with more focus on seamanship development, shiphandling skills, and submarine warfighting. We're actually sending our Submarine Officers to the RN Submarine "Perisher" course. Thats a good thing and long overdue.

I'll confess... I did serve over four years on a boomer 62-66. All the Nuc skippers and most of the wardrooms on Nuc boats had smoke boat commands and experience for XO and below during that era. They were submarine "operators" first and Nucs second. In the subsequent generations of submarine "drivers" that orientation got reversed.

I ain't got enough time left to re-fight the Diesel-vs-Nuc battles of the late 60's and 70's. I will tell you this, with a number of countries buying sterling engined smoke boats, you'all better get your best game going if you want to find them and not get ambushed. HMS Gotland made that lesson very clear in 2006.

Keep a zero bubble......


8/02/2008 12:39 PM

Blogger wtfdnucsailor said...

The capstan was used every mooring on the subs I served in in the sixties through eighties. The anchor - well - As XO, I was honored to do a Lost Anchor JAG investigation when GATO lost her anchor off Vina del Mar, Chile in 1977. This was after getting to spend eight extra days in Rio because the anchor chain had a knot in it and would not come up. The Navy had to send divers from Norfolk Naval Shipyard to untie the knot. I was very impressed with those folks. They flew in, dove and freed the anchor, and flew out. They did not spend one day or evening in Rio to see the sights. Back to the anchor, it probably is still there in the sands off South America. Earlier, when I was OPS on TREPANG, we lost our anchor off of New London while testing it. Didn't ahve to do a JAG investigation for that one.

8/02/2008 3:00 PM

Blogger Rosemary Welch said...

I love your commenters! You have the best. It is very interesting to me, even if I don't understand all of it. They are good enough to explain it so even a lay person can understand it...and chuckle. ;)

8/03/2008 1:44 AM

Blogger T said...

That "major adjustment" has been occurring for a few years now, when I left the boat in march, training plan admin hell was still in full force. I'm betting that's still the case, no matter what the brass likes to tell you. We had a brief here from Donnelly a few weeks ago and to my ears it sounded like he was talking about a different Navy than ours with all the stuff that's supposedly been done away with. Kudos to him for trying to fix all the crap in sub force, but quite frankly good luck getting the squadrons and CO's to drop programs due to fear of getting killed on not having them for inspections...

8/03/2008 11:09 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Too Funny!

I was a nuke onboard the Kamehameha (SSBN/SSN 642) and on the Wyoming (SSBN 742).

We had a capstan???

As far as an anchor, I know we HAD one on the Kam. The chain broke when we were off of Kona on the big island of Hawaii. Seems like many anchors are still at the bottom.

8/04/2008 10:51 AM

Blogger J120 Bowman said...

My second CO during my JO tour had us raise the capstan in port and used the occasion for EMI. He wanted it polished and shiny, so any young junior enlisted who was dink had the added task of shining the capstan!
Other than that, we only used it once to tie up to the mooring bouy off St. Croix after the pier was destroyed in a hurricane.
It's good to hear seamanship is making a comeback. During my mid-90's JO tour, it was greatly lacking. We NEVER did an unassisted landing. Two tugs, ALWAYS!

8/05/2008 5:06 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

To the bonehead on the Kam and Wyoming...of course the Kam had a capstan. We used to sit on it and go roundy roundy all the time!

How ya doing?


8/05/2008 5:49 AM

Blogger JT said...

I was Maneuvering Watch throttleman when we pulled in to Tromso, Norway in '97. I WISH we had used the capstan. It was our only liberty port that deployment and the CO decided to let a JO park us for his OOD quals. For over forty minutes it was a non-stop A 1/3, B 2/3, A 2/3, B 2/3, A 1/3..... My bell recorder could hardly keep up, and I was panting and sweating buckets. It got bad enough that the EOOW called the OOD to tell them to park the boat already, before they killed the throttleman!

8/05/2008 11:37 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the two 637s, we used the capstan all the time!
On the two 688s, we raised, tested and then lowered EVERYTIME (too chicken to leave without a tug)
On the one 726 class I was on...What's a capstan???? Trainable outboard???

I am just wishing damn submariners could just shift colors correctly!!!!

8/17/2008 9:10 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was working on Ford Island from 1989-1992. The Kamehameha was leaving port and didn't know she was dragging her anchor. Pulled out some cables between Pearl Harbor Naval Station and Ford Island which just happened to be our electrical power source. We eneded up taking the rest of the day off - can't work in a dark building!

8/18/2008 11:14 AM


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