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The Near-Miss
Summer 1997 --- by Sid Harrison ETCM(SS) USN(Ret)

I am reminded that even the best watchstanders sometimes touch the edge of disaster. I am also struck by the similar impacts these incidents have had upon each of us. The relevance is not the specifics of an incident but the effect. Wannabees and gameboys will never fully understand that. These are the things we rarely tell outsiders. It sure wasn't Hollywood was it?

One of the collateral duties I had in civilian industry was as Plant Safety Director. At that particular plant we were successful in breaking a long run of "lost time accidents" by using all of the motivational methods I am sure everyone on the board is familiar with.

One type of investigation and follow-up was for the "Near-Miss". When I first presented the importance of reporting the Near-Miss to the employees they wanted a simple definition. Which basically went something like: "...nothing was seriously broke, no one was hurt...but coulda". 

The following occurred on an FBM in the mid 1970s.

When going to periscope depth in a very heavy sea it was customary to trim our boat with a slight up-bubble and go up heavy - hopefully to counteract the so-called "surface suction" effect on the long missile deck. The goal of course was to not broach the boat which could compromise our position. The Captain's standing orders specified the maximum limits for added weight permitted for the purpose of depth control in high seas, and this additional ballast was at the DO and Conn Officer's discretion.

That evening after I had trimmed in preparation for anticipated rough sea conditions we cleared baffles and turned the watch over to the 00-06 watch. They made additional minor trim adjustments, shifting weight aft and flooding a few thousand more in as sonar gave the latest predicted sea state. I had been relieved on the dive by the A-Weps, a Ltjg. The conn and COW were relieved by two very competent people - the Navigator and a Chief Torpedoman. As the boat proceeded to periscope depth for the satellite position fix I went down for the usual soup and sandwich midrats.

While at periscope depth, in a sea just as high and rough as predicted, the word was passed on the 1MC "reactor scram". Going back up to the darkened control room to check with my ESM guy to see if we had any interesting contacts I noticed the entire control party mesmerized by the depth counter over the dive stand. The quiet in the control room was broken only by the occasional hiss of the fairwater valves and now with the backup electric motor our only propulsion, we steadily drifted deeper.

After spending some time in the ESM bay with the operator I paused by the periscope stand. Across the dark control room I could see a line of illuminated "Os" on the BC.  We did not have a "straight board" condition.

All vents were open.

A common practice after rolling in a "semi-broach" situation was to cycle all main ballast tank vents to allow any entrapped air to escape. Obviously, having done that, and now distracted with the reactor scram and loss of main propulsion - shutting the vents had been overlooked. The trim pump was running full bore trying to dump the excess water as we continued down - and everyone silently watched the depth gauge.

As all sub drivers know, having full speed control at your disposal can take up the slack for an out-of-trim condition and without that speed you are trying to float a very large rock. I was looking at a boat that was heavy; it's only propulsion the electric drive (EPM) and its ballast tank vents were open.

Then I did something I'm still embarrassed about - but I certainly don't regret doing it. I shouted across the control room to the COW to SHUT THE GODDAMNED VENTS. Everyone jumped. The navigator looked startled. The DO spun in his seat and looked at the panel and the COW, standing with his back to the panel, jerked around as if shot and snapped the vent switches. The (O)s changed to (-)s.  I was extremely gratified, even though I had violated a major watch-standing protocol. 

By then we were about 150 feet from a depth we certainly did not want to be at. But now if we had to emergency blow, at least all the air wouldn't escape through open vents.

Oddly enough it was never mentioned by anyone in the control party. I think everyone was too embarrassed and sobered by the cold realization of the "what if" ramifications. 

There's an old aviator saying, "Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing". Makes for a glib crack, but no submariner believes it. We like a stacked deck...in our favor of course, and that level of competence requires much practice and full attention to details.

Rickover believed all so-called accidents to be human failures. The premise being that equipment has no intelligence - so someone, somewhere is always responsible. A failure could be caused by a design flaw such as an incorrect alloy in a bearing to someone not doing PMs...or, it could be a case where an entire watch station becomes so focused on one narrow element of an evolution that routine procedures are neglected.    Afterwards in the goat locker, I thought about that.

Three weeks later I was playing on the back steps with my four year old daughter and she asked if when we were on "pea-trol" did we get water in our eyes.

I told her no....we always tried to keep the water out.