It was the winter of 1974 and the cold war was still in full swing. We left the East coast aboard a new Sturgeon class fast attack and began a high speed submerged transit for a deep water port in Scotland. My first child was born one week out and I wouldn’t meet her until she was 9 weeks old but at least she and my wife were both healthy.
We made port in Scotland for some repairs, to take on fresh stores and some spare parts before our northern patrol. It was cold, rainy and windy the 4 days we spent there and the weather restricted movement ashore but we weren’t there for a liberty call.
We left port and with the high winds and shallowness of the ocean in that area it was very rough and the first day on the surface a few pf us were sick. That problem was fixed that night when we were able to submerge and head north on our patrol.
The first week in transit to our OP area we were busy with training. Fire drills, flooding drills, reactor emergency drills and operation and testing of all main and backup systems to insure all systems were in top operational shape. We had a fire in the ships laundry but didn’t surface. We extinguished the blaze and came to periscope depth to snorkel to clear the smoke and we continued with our mission. While on patrol surfacing is the last choice when responding to a casualty like flooding or fire. The plan is to manage the problem submerged.
Arriving on station we settled into a routine of monitoring electronic communications which requires having some antenna exposed. During the daytime we took pictures of shoreline and at night we would monitor ships traffic via passive sonar and track those contacts studying the military movements for our own safety and for intelligence with respect to which ships and what kind of ships were coming and going. We were in a heavily trafficked area with both commercial and navy ships of all kinds and they all had to be monitored at all times.
It was about midnight, we were rigged for red and submerged as always Just making about 4 knots, listening and making no noise of our own. We would clear baffles (that’s listening behind our own ship) at random intervals decided by a roll of the dice to be sure we hadn’t been detected and might be followed by another submarine. The officer of the deck who was also the engineering officer said to the quartermaster, “Petty officer so and so, report the depth here?” After referring to the chart he replied 410 ft. sir. When on patrol and not wanting anyone in the world to know where you are you never use a fathometer to measure the depth of the water. We would rely on the charts to know how deep the water should be. I was in the control room making my rounds as I had a roving watch forward monitoring and operating auxiliary machinery. So when we heard the 410 ft report everyone naturally looked at the depth gauge to see how deep we were and the depth gauge indicated 400 Ft.
Now if you do a little basic math you will see that the water was SUPPOSED to be 410 feet. We were exactly 400 feet deep at the keel of our boat leaving just 10 feet of clearance from the bottom. You could have heard a pin drop in the control room and we all recognized how near we were to hitting the bottom of the ocean while being in an area that is only frequented by ships of a foreign country which was not friendly to us. Submariners are typically pale due to lack of sunshine but I am pretty sure we were all a few shades lighter than usual. But the officer of the deck was a cool character and very quietly ordered the diving officer, “Chief so and so, make your depth 350 feet zero up bubble. We executed that maneuver and avoided crashing into the bottom or digging the propeller into the seabed. It all sounds pretty simple but was very dramatic to those who were in the control room that night.