Bloggers take over nuclear sub USS Hampton

ourrideWhat dangles when you angle? What slides when you dive? How many ladders can they fit in one sub, and must I climb all of them? This and many other questions were answered Friday when a group of 8 bloggers were invited aboard the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarine U.S.S. Hampton for an all-day distinguished visitor cruise.

The bloggers included Smarterware’s Gina Trapani (@ginatrapani), NBC San Diego tech correspondent and Mashable associate editor Jenn Van Grove (@jbruin), Mitch Wagner (@mitchwagner), Angie Swartz (@aaswartz), Chris Cantore (@chriscantore), Scott Kingery (@techlifeweb), Rob Marlbrough (@DowntownRob), and me, Peggy Gartin (@thepegisin). The visit was arranged by Submarine Squadron 11’s public affairs officer Lt. Denise Garcia and led by the squadron’s commander, Commodore Brett Genoble. Waiting to greet us were the boat’s commanding officer Commander Bill Houston and his crew of 134.

beforeAccording to Lt. Garcia, we were the first bloggers the San Diego-based sub community has hosted, and are possibly the first for the entire submarine community as well. I wondered if it would turn into a kind of culture clash—disciplined military types faced with long-haired eggheads used to shooting off their mouths. As it turned out, we had more in common than you might think.

The Navy, it appears, is coming to recognize the value of new media, and thinks bloggers can be as effective at telling their story as traditional media. The U.S. military has been surprisingly open to blogging even within its ranks; the number of “milblogs” (or military blogs) run into the thousands, with bloggers ranking as high as admiral (as in Admiral John C. Harvey, Jr.). Milblogging.com currently tracks 2,534 milblogs in 43 countries. Commodore Genoble confessed to reading up on all our blogs before we got there. Heck, lurking and snooping like that are core blogger skills! Maybe we’re not so different from submariners.

15milesThe day began with a coffee, pastries and a briefing in Commander Houston’s wardroom, the largest private room on the boat, but honestly, the size of a walk-in closet. They told us what they’d show us and what they couldn’t show us: mainly anything classified, which means no inspecting the nuclear reactor. We would get to see weapons, go up the wing to the bridge, and be in the control room while they did some maneuvers, including 30-degree dives to depths of 500 feet.

I couldn’t possibly tell you all the things we did in a brief blog post, but here are the highlights:

realestateMy “I shoulda joined the Navy” moment
I had heard that standing on the bridge (the top of the wing, or that part of the sub that sticks up) while heading out to sea is an experience not to be missed, so when they asked, “Who wants to go up first?” my hand shot up. I was then wrapped up in a warm jacket with USS HAMPTON on the chest and strapped into a rather complicated harness. I clambered inelegantly up 3 not-so-consecutive ladders, and kept thinking I was going to put my foot on a knob or a valve and a horn would go off. Then I stuck my head out of the hatch and couldn’t quite believe what I would have to do next: wriggle up onto a maybe 4-foot-wide piece of real estate, on either side of which was a 25-foot-drop into foamy, freezing-cold ocean. I am not a wriggler. Somehow I got up there anyway, my harness was clipped to a hook on the floor, and I clung to a railing for dear life.

beautyOnce I looked out on the ocean, though, I knew it was all worth it. The day was gorgeous, with mist just burning off around Point Loma, sun shining on cormorants, pelicans and gulls skating by or hitching a ride on the back side of the sub, and even a few dolphins playing some yards to our left. A gray boat labeled NAVY SECURITY accompanied us on the right, and a white Coast Guard cutter followed behind. The power of the boat as she sliced through the water, and the greater power of the sea as it surged over the bow, was simply breathtaking. I would have stayed up there all day if they’d let me.

Buster Keaton, angles and dangles
When we’d reached a point 15 miles out where the water was deep enough to dive, we all gathered in the control room for an exercise called “Angles and Dangles.” The CO explained that when you shoot a torpedo at an enemy, you reveal your sub’s position, and they’re probably going to fire back. So firing a torpedo is almost always accompanied by a steep dive so that when return fire comes, you’re not there anymore. He then showed us what that kind of dive felt like, first with a 25-degree dive, then a climb, then a 30-degree dive.

leanHave you ever seen that silent film of Buster Keaton fighting a wind storm? A steep climb forces you into a posture something like that. Your calf muscles scream from the strain. You grab onto anything just to stay upright. A steep dive forces just the opposite. You have to lean waaaaaaaaay back. Then your abs and thigh muscles have a fit. It’s a total body workout, and you’re standing still!

The most impressive part of this exercise was the clear and exact communication between captain and crew. The control room was full of people, but each was quiet and focused on their individual task. The captain would say an order, not loudly but clearly, and the person who knew that task was theirs would repeat that order back, say “Aye sir,” and get it done. I never heard anyone repeat back an order wrong or fail to get a handoff that was meant for them. In this way the captain and crew executed precise maneuvers, all while the captain was giving us a running dialogue of what we were doing and why. It made you feel that we were in really good hands.

Hmm…what’s missing?
By now I had been all over the boat, and was even starting to recognize certain people when I saw them again. “Oh hey, there’s Fisher again. Excuse me, Spillner. Hiya Jonesy, how ya doin’?” Still, there seemed to be something missing, and it seemed connected to the wide-eyed silence I sometimes encountered as I made my way down the halls. Then it hit me…THERE ARE NO CHICKS ON THIS BOAT. Well, other than me and 3 of my blogger sisters.

I asked Commodore Genoble about it later, and sure enough, women are not yet allowed to serve aboard U.S. Navy submarines. Other ships only began allowing women in the ‘90s, a fact that also surprised me. He explained that to have both sexes aboard such a confined space would be tough, given that space is at a premium and privacy practically nonexistent. However, there is a plan to integrate some of the bigger SSBN submarines in the near future. I hope so, because otherwise sustaining my joining-the-Navy-at-43 fantasy is going to be tough.

menuEating like admirals
In preparation for this visit, I asked my dad what he remembered about subs from his Navy service. Here’s what he said:

“Let me make a prediction: you will eat like admirals. When I was a young ensign in 1960 at the Naval Photographic Center, my first job was to sit in a screening room and declassify motion picture footage from the U.S.S. Triton, an SSN making a secret around-the-world cruise underwater. They only surfaced the conning tower to offload film to a helo off Spain. The job was torture. I was living in the BOQ and had not yet figured out how to get to work on time and eat breakfast first. The hours of watching the mess cooks at work were excruciating. SSN crews eat exceedingly well.”

Just as my dad predicted, lunch was a feast. Two kinds of braided bread, salad, choice of tomato soup or seafood chowder, beef stroganoff, and for dessert, cookies & cream ice cream, cherry cheesecake or fresh fruit cup. If you held up 3 fingers, you got all 3 desserts. They even made one of the breads, one of the soups and the noodles vegan because they knew one of our party was vegan. I was stuffed.

The captain explained it like this: “These guys work 18-hour days, sleep 6 hours, then do it all again—generally seeing no sunlight for days at a time, and can only tell what time it is by what meal they’re being served. The least we can do is make that meal enjoyable.” He also confirmed what I’d heard about every sub having its own ice cream maker.

inthetubeRoll me into the torpedo tube, I want to take a nap
Next they showed us the delicate operation of loading a torpedo into the torpedo tube. They used a dummy “shape” for our demo, but I could just imagine how nerve-wracking it would be to load a live shell. I mean, the torpedo is 21 feet and 1 inch long, and the tube is only ¼” longer than that—not much room for error.

Later they dared me to climb in to the torpedo tube, and of course, I did. Once I was in there they started telling me how there was only a thin 1” steel louvered door between me and the whole ocean, which caused me to scramble out in as ladylike a manner as I could muster. If I’d been calmer about it, my knees wouldn’t be so black and blue today.

onthebridgeHome again
When we pulled back into port, I couldn’t believe we’d been gone all day, from 8AM to 4PM. I’d had so much fun, it felt like we’d just left, but our day as submariners was over. As climbed out and walked onto the dock, we passed dozens of crewmen carrying boxes of food and produce. The captain had explained this earlier: “We can stay out at sea as long as our food holds out. We can make our own air, we can make our own water, and the nuclear reactor keeps us powered indefinitely. The resource we have to replenish is food.”

If what I saw was any indication, they plan to be at sea for quite a while.

3 Comments so far

  1. My Day on a Nuclear Submarine (pingback) on January 19th, 2010 @ 9:45 am

    [...] Peggy’s blog post [...]


  2. Scott (unregistered) on January 19th, 2010 @ 10:25 am

    Great piece, Peggy! Thanks also to @downtownrob for the video. What a rare opportunity!


  3. @sdMatt (unregistered) on February 6th, 2010 @ 4:36 am

    What an awesome experience. You guys must have had a blast!!!



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