Submarine Tiger Cruise by Chris Summers
Rub A Dub Dub, My Trip On A Sub!
I thought I would do a little write up on my trip aboard the USS Nevada, SSBN 773 for anyone interested. My trip began with my flight to San Diego where I have not gone for so many years. I had a 2 day wait until my son's sub was able to "bump the dock" and take on passengers. Interestingly, Trident Subs normally never dock anywhere but at their home base, either Bangor, Washington or Kings Bay, Georgia. It cost around a million dollars each time they do it at other Navy docks as there are many costs involved in meeting the sub when it surfaces and escorting it into port and arranging for local tugs and pilots to get it berthed safely. Also, for security reasons there is a flotilla of escort ships as they approach any port or harbor; a mix of Navy vessels and Coast Guard ships.
I met up with the other Tiger Cruise members about 2 hours before the time we were given for boarding. Most were fathers of sailors, a brother or 2 and one 11 year old boy whose dad was a Senior Chief. We made the usual small talk as we waited, first in a meeting room and later down on the dock. The sub would be picking up extra provisions and there was a general nod of approval when a fork lift delivered fresh produce and about 20 five gallon tubs of hard packed ice cream! Soon the sub was in sight and was being gently pushed along buy 3 huge tug boats. The pilot was up on the bridge (the top of the sail or what you see as the tower that sits on the top of the sub. The captain later told us that the pilot remarked after safely docking the sub that this was his first time with a submarine of that size! The captain was not amused! Speaking of size, the sub is 560 feet long and 46 feet wide at the beam with a vertical draft of 37 feet. It has a crew of 17 Officers, 15 Chief Petty Officers and 122 Enlisted, but multiply that by 2 as there are actually 2 crews, Blue and Gold which swap out after a set time period of shore or sea duty.
So, needless to say the sub is big... REALLY BIG!!! We made our way down the ramp that had been set down from the pier to the ship and then we all walked to the back of the sub and climbed down the ladder in the rear hatch, not like a typical ladder you might use to clean your house rain gutters but very straight with no angle to it which makes it a challenge. We were all taken to the Crew Mess or dining area, there were around 36 of us. There we were welcomed by the Captain and given a safety briefing. Our cell phones were taken up and stored, not that cell phone's get any kind of signal through the thick hull or underwater but because most have a camera or recording application.
Let me diverge here and explain something I did not realize prior to my cruise. The opportunity to go on a Tiger Cruise (the Navy term for a cruise with family members as guests) on a ballistic missile sub is extremely rare. Why? Well, let's just say that if a trident sub was not attached to our navy or the USA and was an independent entity it would be about the 4th largest nuclear armed power in the world! Also, these subs typically get their orders for a sea tour to go somewhere very deep and unseen and sit and listen and wait. Some of the sailors refer to this as "4 knots to nowhere!" There main mission is usually to listen and wait for the message that they hope will never come!
The Nevada had just completed a complete 2 year dry dock overhaul of it's reactor and missile system and had just done a successful test launch of a trident missile. How successful? Well, let's just say that launching a test missile from the waters off of San Diego to a spot in the Pacific ocean over 4000 miles away on the far other side of Hawaii and hitting a target area the size of a baseball diamond defines it as successful!
After our initial welcome we were shown the rooms where we would be bunking together. Each room is around 10 x 12 feet and sleeps 9 in 3 sets of bunks. All the bunks are about the size of a camp cot, about 24 inches wide, barely 6 feet long and there is only about 28 inches between the mattress and the bottom of the bunk above or the ceiling in the case of the top bunk. I was assigned a top bunk and as I stared at it wondering how I would get my body up there I realized that the middle bunk just below was not occupied as one cruise member was not able to make it. I got permission to move and even so it was a bit of a hike to get up into it or reach the floor when I needed to get out. There was a small closet and a set of drawers for each occupant. The room was chilly as was most of the sub; we were told that it helps keep the sweat down, something that makes sense when you confine 136 or so individuals in a small space! Each bunk had a curtain to give privacy and also make the bunk area dark as many sleep on different shifts. There is also a thin storage pan under each bunk and a small lockable box within the bunking area for valuables.
I was not able to meet up with my son, Colin until much later that day as he had been on watch in the Engineering area which was off limits to all cruise participants as well as the radio room and the nuclear reactor area. Other than those areas we had complete access to all areas of the sub, something that will not be possible once the ship has it's payload of 24 missiles aboard!
All of the cruise participants were given a welcome packet with a list of things we were asked to do in order to qualify as an honorary submariner and earn our Dolphin Pin at the end of the voyage. It reminded me of when my boys were in Cub Scouts or Boy Scouts and working on the next rank or a merit badge. It consisted of lots of items like visiting different areas of the sub and interviewing the sailors who were working in each area and finding out what they did. That was actually a lot of fun and all of the submariners were eager to explain to us what they did and also do demonstrations of group activities like fire fighting which is very important on a submarine! On most surface ships there are designated jobs for different sailors and if a fire breaks out the occupants of an area evacuate so the fire fighting team can do there job; but, on a sub, everyone is a fire fighter or a leak fixer of whatever! And most have 2 jobs; an area of expertise as well as a duty position, like holding a watch in the Command room. For instance, the Lieutenant who was the supply officer and responsible for securing all supplies and provisions also was a Dive Officer and had a 6 hour watch where he oversaw the helmsman who controlled the rudder and the sailor who controlled the planes that effect depth.
Meals are served 4 times a day because there are always men who are up and around, even in the middle of the night. Breakfast was from 5 to 6 AM, lunch from 11am to 12 pm, dinner from 5-6pm and Middies (the midnight meal) from 11pm to 12am. We were asked to allow those going on watch to get to eat first as they had to go to a pre-watch planning session and the Mess only held about 50 or so. I have to say that I was quite amazed by the overall quality of the food and the generous portions served. The meals were a bit heavy on meats and starchy carbs as well as a sweet dessert, sodas or energy drinks and plenty of coffee, but these young guys burn calories a bit faster then we old ones, I guess. There were always 2 choices for an entree, beef and chicken, pork and fish, etc. A starch as well as some vegetable; the frozen were far better then the canned stuff. There was also a salad bar area with lettuce and an assortment of other basic salad items. Desserts ranged from fresh baked pies to cakes and often had the hard packed ice cream which was more of a treat because of our presence on the cruise I was told. I only ate in the Crew Mess a few times as I was invited to dine in the officer's Ward Room since my son is a Lieutenant. Meals there were a bit more formal although breakfast was the most informal as not everyone attends. As we entered and sat for breakfast, a sailor in chef's uniform came to take our order; I typically chose an omelet with the usual sides like bacon or sausage or hash browns. It was my big protein start to my day and I usually had a few cups of coffee which actually was not bad! Lunch and dinner were more formal with the Captain at the head of the table and officers and their guests seated. There were seats for 12 or so and once again the first to dine were the officers who would go on watch after the meal. The server always came in and announced the meal items and then asked if anyone wanted soup. If you did not you were to place your spoon in the empty soup bowl and it was taken away and the soup was served. As was to be expected, no one ate until the Captain took his first bite. I usually got a salad from the special salad bar that was set up after my soup and then the main dishes were passed around family style and you could pretty much take whatever you liked. The officers seemed to genuinely enjoy the casual time and there were plenty of jokes and funny stories about what may have transpired that day. The general rule was that only the Engineering Officer could discuss any business with the Captain. If anyone had to be excused to go on watch they stood up and addressed the Captain with a polite, “Excuse me, Captain.” I changed it up a bit when I would leave by asking to be excused but also thanking the Captain for inviting me to dine. There were also some amusing rules in the Ward Room such as if 2 officers were present who had to leave early for their watches they could invoke “the dessert rule,” which meant they could have their dessert before the others, including the Captain, were served. There was also a rule that if the Engineering Officer made a late entrance after the door was shut he had to do something called the Periscope Dance, which I never did get to see. I never did sit down to eat at midnight but I was told it was mixture of leftovers as well as some comfort foods fixed in smaller batches. On Saturday, pizzas were made in the galley and served continuously from 8pm to 10pm and a movie was shown in the mess. All the crusts had been freshly made and pre-baked by the chef earlier that day, quite a feat in such a small kitchen with only 2 ovens!
The bathrooms were near the bunking area and had several toilets, sinks and 2 showers. I tended to get up to shower before breakfast and beat the rush so I was up at 4am or so each day.
Each day we met with members of the crew and discovered what they did. Areas like sonar, navigation, missile guidance and torpedo launching as well as all of the positions in the busy Com room where the Officer of the Deck was in control. Technology may have changed many things on a Navy ship but some things have not. The OOD typically gives out commands or asks for data and the officer or enlisted man in that area repeats the request with an Aye at the end and responds as they fulfill the command. With all of the Tiger Cruise guests on board it could get quite crowed in this area but the crew was great about allowing us to be there and intermingle. I found a small stool next to the Quarter Master (which is the name for the sailor in charge of keeping track of the course on the charts). I enjoyed watching them as I have always liked maps and navigation. I also enjoyed spending time in the Sonar room where 3 to 4 sailors spent their shifts staring at computer screens with green and black dots and shapes slowly dropping room the top to the bottom of the screen, sort of like that scene in the movie, The Matrix with lines of code going by. They also listen to sounds on headphones and they explained what they heard to me and let me listen. “Biologics” as they call them are fish or dolphins or whales or even the clicking sound that shrimp make as they move through the water. Then there were the sounds of other ships moving above on the surface which made a mechanical noise like the sound of a train clicking along as it goes down the tracks or the “Wub Wub Wub Wub” of a ship's propeller or “screw” slowly turning. The sonar operators could even tell how many blades a ship had by counting the beats out in a cycle!
We were treated to special activities like actually firing a torpedo known as a Green Zinger which was the term for an empty torpedo chamber that was filled with water and fired out as a water slug. It was kind of like when you flush the toilet on a passenger plane and you hear the loud “WOOSH”; but, on the sub there was also a blast of cold vapor that actually came out of the breach seal at the back of the tube. The pressure created by the water slug firing also made your ears pop no matter where you were on the sub! I also got to launch a make believe Trident missile at Country Bravo who was some sort of enemy of ours.
Once while a few of us were out exploring the decks we came upon the ordinance specialists busy taking out the tracking controls for the second of the 2 test missiles they had taken on this cruise. This was the back up missile in case something failed on the first one that was launched. It was amazing to climb up to the hatch at the nose cone of the missile and see the various parts of what would be a huge nuclear warhead after the ship loads out later this month. Such destructive power in a very small package...
I also had a fair amount of private time where I could just go walking around or just have some quite time to read. I had purchased a Nook electronic pad reading device just before my trip and downloaded several books to read as well as taking along an iTunes device with some music to listen to. My favorite place to relax was on the top deck in between missile tubes 14 and 16 where there was a comfy spot to lean back on and curl up between the pipes, valves and connections that would be used if the ship ever has to fire it's payload. Seemed kind of ironic that s a place of such solitude could be so close to weapons of mass destruction.
On the second to last day as we made our approach up the coast of Washington, the sub did several interesting maneuvers. They did a deep dive which I am only authorized to say was to 700 feet below the surface but you can venture a guess that we were a bit deeper! We also did what is know as “Angles and Dangles” where the sub goes from a 600 to 200 foot depth and back and increases in dive angle from 15 to 20 to 25 degrees. All I can say is that 25 degrees is pretty darn steep and you better hope they don't ever have to do it when you are in your bunk or you might end up on the floor!
On the final day we made our way into the Straits of Juan de Fuca and the sub finally surfaced within the small flotilla of escort ships. The weather was fantastic and we all took turns ascending to the the bridge up at the top of the ladders that go from the Com to the Sail. A dependent's cruise was planed where we were supposed to leave the sub as dependents came aboard, mostly wives, mother's and other family members of the crew. The captain decided to just save time with the transfer and just take on the dependents and let us all stay on as the sub made its way into Puget Sound and down to the Hood Canal and into the Navy base. It was well past 6pm when we finally made our way off of the sub after thanking the crew and the officers.
One of the things I did that was rather unexpected was to ask the Quarter Master as he plotted our course into the final stage of the voyage if I could have a chart and get signatures of the crew. We used to do this when I took Boy Scout crews to Philmont in New Mexico by having everyone sign off on a picture of Mt Baldy. Anyway the QM said he had some smaller low security charts and for about the last 2 hours I spent my time covering the submarine and getting signatures. Many of the sailors were rather surprised but liked the idea and many wrote me special notes as a memory of my voyage. The best one was from my son, Colin who said the nicest things. I can only say that I had a huge sense of paternal pride as I watched him as OOD giving out orders or interacting with the crew. I have a new appreciation for what he does and also for all of these men who make great sacrifices to be away from their families and live a most dangerous life under the sea and stay vigilant to protect us and our nation.
The motto and cheer of the ship is “Battle Ready! Battle Born!” and when they shout it they shout it loudly. My thanks goes out to all of them and to my son for inviting me to come along and see what he does. Please keep these fine men in your thoughts and prayers. Feel free to ask any questions or make comments on this note. I will also post photos that were given to us of our cruise or that have been published about the Nevada.
Trip report from my Tiger Cruise aboard the USS Nevada, SSBN 733 upon completion of their DOSA test launch deployment
This was the very last time I went underway on a submarine.