Escape to Freedom – Submarine Escape and Rescue

The Buoyant Ascent

The tower at the US Naval Submarine Base was one of the most memorable features of the Groton, Conn. Skyline. Submariners from the past who trained there will always remember that tower as one of the defining points in their submarine journey. This tower was used to prepare us for the day when leaving a perfectly good submarine may be the only way to survive to fight another day. For most of us in that age, it was indeed a right of passage that marked the point where we were no longer Sub School students to real submarine candidates.


The tower was the place where we learned the basics of escape from a disabled sunken “Boat”. For most of us that actually had to go through this test…this 125 foot tall tower built a new self confidence and courage. Not going through with this could be a disqualifying event and frankly no one that I went through Sub School with wanted to be disqualified. But I have to tell you that the weeks leading up to the day we would go in the tank were pretty intimidating. I didn’t want to admit it, but the whole idea of going inside that tank and making a buoyant ascent was a personal test I was not sure I would be able to do.

A “buoyant ascent” is when a person surfaces from a depth of 50 or 100 feet underwater using ONLY the air in his lungs wearing a Steinke Hood (a specially designed hood that kept your head dry and allowed you to see the light at the top of the tower).

The real value of the tank training (and the recompression chamber usually done just before) was automatically weeding out claustrophobes. You really didn’t want to find out a guy was space crazy as the submarine starts a 60 day patrol.

Dressed in just our Navy issued swim trunks, we would proceed to the top of the tower where we were greeted by this site looking down into the water:

Inside the dive tower

Once you became familiarized with your surroundings and instructed for the 10th time on just what to do and what not to do…you descended to a “pressurized Escape trunk” 50 foot under the surface

Inside the escape chamber

The rule was simple: ‘raise your hand and we’ll let you out.’ We had one guy in my lock group do so, we vented and drained down, out he went, and he was moved out of the barracks by the time we got back two hours later – never saw him again.

Once in the 50 foot “escape trunk” with your instructor, the outer hatch was closed and you received your last set of safety instructions. The escape trunk was then filled with water just a little over your chin (if you were 5’11” tall) and the hatch to the inside of the tank was opened.

You ducked through the hatchway into the tank and you were now 50 feet below the surface, where you were then greeted by Navy divers who, for safety reasons were stationed at various points along the way. Once outside the Escape trunk the first thing you saw was a large “No Smoking” sign just above the hatchway. Believe me when I tell you that smoking was the last thing you were thinking about at that point.

Coming out party

The Submariner would then grab a bar on the side of the tank, arch his back so he was looking straight up through 50 feet of water above him…and then let go….the ascent had started. The air in your lungs would carry you to the surface.

If you held your breath the air in your lungs would continue to expand as you went up. There was a strong potential that you would permanently damage your lungs between that level and the surface if you did not do it properly. In our case, we were taught to say the words “HO HO HO” as loud as we could all the way to the surface. The trip took about 8 seconds. The Navy safety divers were placed at key points and if they saw you holding your breath, they would catch you and encourage you to breath by punching you in the diaphragm. In worst case scenarios, you would have to be placed in an air chamber and gradually brought back to the surface over a very long period.

If everything went as planned and you did exactly as you were trained, you would arrive at the surface with a brand new sense of self confidence and experienced an adrenalin high better than any amusement park ride could produce.

At the top

Life is like that sometimes. You find yourself forced to leave the comfort of your existing surroundings and you find yourself staring straight into the open escape hatch. The fear you have as you prepare to let go can be staggering. Some people just stand in the hatch frozen with a sense of foreboding. But eventually, life pushes you out. You are in the tower now and all that training, all the preparation and all of your skills will be put to the test.

There will be people along the way to help but in the end, it is completely up to you to master the ascent. The message of the day is as wild of a ride as it can be, you don’t want to miss it. Let go of the bar, hold your hands together over your head, look up and shout as if your life depended on it! Don’t stop until you reach the top. (That was almost 40 years ago and I still feel the rush).


Mister Mac

New pictures added 3/30/2015

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6 thoughts on “Escape to Freedom – Submarine Escape and Rescue

  1. Great post! Took me back… I had forgotten about it, and then here it is, and yes it was a rush!!!

  2. for me it was June 12 1962. and your right it’s one hell of a ride. It’s a shame it has been replaced. After a fire at the 60ft level.

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