Tuesday, May 5, 2015
"Submarine life not all smooth sailing" -- reporter
Mike Mayo, Sun Sentinel
4 May 2015
To kick off Fleet Week, I went out of my depth — and out of my comfort zone — to get a taste of life aboard a nuclear-powered U.S. Navy submarine.
The USS New Hampshire is cramped and not for the claustrophobic. Imagine going on a packed 24-hour flight from Miami to Mumbai, except you go down 600 feet into water instead of climbing up seven miles into the air. It's a steel tube without windows, a bit longer than a football field but only 32 feet wide. It can deploy as long as 100 days continuously, carrying out clandestine missions around the globe.
"Isolated. Dark. Demanding," said crew member Jason Patrignani, 26, of Naples, when asked to describe submarine life. "Nobody knows what you're doing, and they need the best to do it."
The USS New Hampshire has torpedoes and Tomahawk cruise missiles and a nuclear reactor that can keep it running and powered for 35 years. Every nook and cranny is filled with stuff, and if you're not clumsily banging your head into something hard, then you're probably busy bumping into the very young, very determined-looking crew.
My two most-repeated phrases during an overnight trip from Port Canaveral to Port Everglades: "Ouch" and "Excuse me."
On the bright side, they had steak and crab legs for Sunday supper.
And on the even brighter side, if things go awry, these guys know to adjust on the fly.
That much was apparent after some unplanned hiccups, including a crew member's medical emergency while we were submerged 50 miles offshore Sunday night, and a Monday arrival in Port Everglades that didn't go as designed because of a ramp malfunction. Instead of climbing up gangplank onto the adjoining USS Cole, eight media visitors were helped onto a Broward Sheriff's Office harbor patrol boat, which took us ashore.
I stepped off the USS New Hampshire a little later than scheduled, but with renewed respect for those who serve our country. The all-male crew of 130, based out of Groton, Conn., might look like they're barely old enough to shave, but they are highly-trained, highly-dedicated professionals.
"When a new sailor comes on, we say, 'Welcome to the family,' because we are a family," said Master Chief Jesse Cook, the submarine's third-in-command and head of the enlisted sailors aboard, most of whom range in age from 19-to-25.
The other thing Cook tells them: "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face."
It's a quote from boxer Mike Tyson, and it means all the training and preparation in the world still can't prepare the
crew for everything they might encounter in a setting that's completely unnatural.
Like the time they were riding out a hurricane submerged in the Atlantic when a storm-churned wave rippled deep beneath the surface and unexpectedly tilted and lifted the sub hundreds of feet.
"Most of the time there's no turbulence down here," Cook said.
Sleeping quarters are tight: Six to a room on triple-decker cots. It's railway sleeper car meets sardine can; there's not enough room to sit up in bed. Toilets are similar to those found in airplanes; you push a button and waste gets suctioned out. Sea water is used for drinking and bathing after desalination. Crew members exercise on stationary bikes and weight sets crammed into hallways or the torpedo storage room.
The sub's goal is to remain undetectable beneath the surface: that means no Internet access or email while submerged. Some crew members play handheld electronic games; the submarine has hundreds of DVDs and a TV set in the cramped dining area.
Sunday's schedule was upended when a crew member had a seizure and passed out. While the onboard medic, Cory Clifton, tended to the stricken man, the commander, Capt. Jason Weed, ordered the submarine to turn back to Port Canaveral and re-surface, where he could communicate with officials ashore.
They weighed options, including a risky nighttime transfer to another boat . When the sailor woke up and stabilized, they decided the best course was to re-submerge and head to Fort Lauderdale. It would be the man's last night on a submarine; the episode meant he could no longer serve on the crew.
At a ceremony Monday before pulling into Port Everglades, Weed told his crew, "We had to make some lightning-quick decisions last night, and the way you guys responded was impressive. I'm proud of you all. Now is the time to focus on some well-deserved liberty."
That's Navy-speak for rest, relaxation and fun.
"Live free!" an officer shouted, starting the USS New Hampshire's motto, same as its namesake state.
"Or die!" the crew replied.`