How Deep Can You Go?

I wish I had a nickel for every time I have heard this question asked. For the past seventeen years I have been delivering speeches to all kinds of organizations about submarine operations  during the cold war. Submarines played a key role throughout the Cold War and some of the stories remain buried in secret even today. I was just fortunate enough to have served on five submarines that each had their own role in a “War” that lasted over fifty years.

I was a young seventeen year old when I first got the Navy bug (just like my Father and Grandfather before him). It was in the middle of the cold war just as Viet Nam was winding down. My Qual boat was the USS George Washington (SSBN 598 Blue Crew). After almost a year of schooling, I finally reported aboard the “Georgefish” in 1973. My world would never be the same.

598 1973 Pearl Horbor

I heard the question for the first time right after my first patrol when I came home to see my family. At that time (as now) submarine operations were meant to be as classified as possible. We were warned in submarine school never to divulge. You never revealed how fast you went, how deep you could go, or what general part of the ocean you operated under. The Russians had trawlers set up all over the world with listening devices. Their main goal was to try and track us well enough so that our missions could be compromised.

1974 Bob and John

(Yes, we were allowed to wear beards and yes I qualified in one patrol)

But it was also assumed that they had operatives near US bases. A number of times when on later boats (fast attacks) we would pull into ports on special operations only to be greeted with signs at the local bars welcoming us and offering discounts on drinks.

If I remember correctly, in those days we were allowed to say that we operated at depths in excess of 200 feet and greater than 20 knots. Later, I seem to remember you could actually admit that the boats could travel in excess of 400 feet but I am not sure I remember if they ever allowed us to admit more than 20 knots.

Rear Admiral Rayborn and Admiral Burke

I have to be honest with you, 20 knots was fast enough on some of the older boats. When you are going that fast, it’s a little harder to “see” what is going around you in the dark ocean outside. Unlike my favorite TV show growing up (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) our subs are not equipped with windows of any sort. But that speed helps when you are trying to get someplace in a hurry or at least back to the surface.

Surface surface surface

The real answer on how deep you can go is how well your boat was built. In the early days, boats were built with the technology of the day and were limited to some fairly shallow operations. The Holland for instance was made of steel plating and had angle iron ribs. She was built to withstand a pressure of 35 pounds per square feet and could safely operate at a depth of 75 feet. Pretty amazing stuff for a ship of that age. One of the other constraints of the early boats were that they were assembled using rivets.

The Holland was the precursor of not only safe submarine operations, but of what could go wrong on a submarine. One night in 1901, she was in the Narragansett Bay getting ready to dive when a passing Ling Island Steamer kicked up a wake large enough to swamp the little boat whose topside hatch was partially open. With the buoyancy on the old boats so close to neutral, it didn’t take too much blue water coming in to send the boat to the bottom of the sound (95 feet). Fortunately, they got the hatch closed quickly, blew and pumped their way back to the surface and had the first realization about two things: the engineers were wrong about 75 feet and in the near future, somebody better put some thought into how to get out of this little sardine can if you couldn’t  get her back up.

San Francisco 1981 Carribean

Years later on the USS San Francisco’s maiden voyage, we were in the Caribbean on the surface when a rogue wave rolled over the bow towards the open forward hatch. This hatch is right above the XO’s stateroom and part of the computer room. I was below decks when the boat suddenly developed a small down angle and it was like seeing a solid blue column coming in that hatch. Two of us scrambled through the incoming stream and got the hatch shut, but we were completely soaked. More importantly, the boat was very heavy very quickly. Only the efforts of the control room crew kept it from becoming an even worse casualty.

Silouette of 598

Through the years, construction has improved and we learned from our early lessons. The boats got stronger and the men got smarter. Schools were set up to better prepare the men for their future roles as submarines. Welding replaces rivets (although there are some very interesting stories to come later about welds)

The two terms all submariners know are test depth and crush depth. For those of us that have ever driven one of these underwater fighting ships, we are keenly aware of how far we are from both of those depths almost all the time we are on the planes. Its particularly interesting when you intentionally dive to test depth just to see if the engineers have made the right calculations. But that story is for another day.

Flooding is always a concern on a submarine (although in my opinion not as bad as fire). We trained in simulated damage control trainers on shore to prepare the teams to patch and fix leaks that we really hoped would never happen. At deeper depths, the sea water pressure is so intense that even a small leak would shoot like a cannon through the materials inside the boat. The USS Thresher was an example of how things can go wrong. That is also a story for another day.


The modern boats go deeper and faster than anything I was ever exposed to. I try and keep the perspective that men from the early days of submarining would have the same perspective about the boats I drove and rode.

Well, the answer to the question “How deep can you go” is the same now as it always has been since I was a young seventeen year old:

“I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you”.

(Sorry, I couldn’t resist shipmates)


This picture is taken outside of the submarine Force Museum in New London CT. It gives a very visual perspective of how far submarines have grown. The inner ring is the size of the first submarine (Holland) hull, and the outer one is the relative size of the Ohio class submarine’s hull

For those of you who are non-believers, Liberty Call Commences for you now. Liberty Expires Onboard at 0800 Monday Morning July 18, 2011

For all others:

Church Call… The smoking lamp is out on all weather decks.

Maintain silence about the decks

Navy Church Pennant

Chaplain’s Corner

This morning, it occurred to me that we are a lot like submarines in our ability to handle the question and the reality of “How deep can you go.” Recently, my loving shipmate and I have been forced to undergo a personal dive to test depth. It was an unexpected wave over the bow and caught us both off guard. Much of the comfort in our life has been stripped away by what amounts to an overreaction. Old friends and colleagues seem to be in short supply these days. Even people who we had given strong service and faithfulness to have been very hard to find. As the old saying goes “the phones aren’t ringing”.

But our faith has sustained us and brought us closer together. We have been reminded that the “Builder” has given us the internal strength to withstand the pressure. He has given us the protection to keep us from going deeper than his love has prepared us for. Spiritually, we have come even closer together and feel his presence in our lives.

When you find yourself approaching test depth, remember your training.

Psalm 26

Declare me innocent oh Lord for I have acted with integrity. I have trusted in the Lord without wavering. Put me on trial Lord and cross examine me. Test my motives and affections. For I am constantly aware of your unfailing love, and I have lived according to your truths.

I do not spend time with liars or go along with hypocrites. I hate the gatherings of those who do evil, and I refuse to join in with the wicked.

David was not saying that he was sinless. In fact, he is asking God to forgive him of his sins and not let him sink to the level of those who have aggrieved him. He was consistently in fellowship with God clearing his record when he confessed his weakness and asked for forgiveness. He knew that God will forgive those who come to him and he despises those who fail to do the same. David is pleading with God to clear his name of the false charges made against him by the enemy. We can also trust God and ask him to forgive our sins and clear our record according to his mercy.

No one on the face of this earth is completely innocent. Otherwise, Jesus would not have had to come to give his life to relieve us from the burden of sin. You know that the enemy is very active in the world today. The days you lose ground are the days you choose to fight him on your own.

What about you? When do you choose to show mercy or withhold it? What does your compass tell you when your ship is tossing about in a rough sea?

James 2:13

There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you.

I hope in your daily walk you get the chance to demonstrate your understanding of His words. I know I have been given a clearer perspective and will strive to be better at honoring him by showing more mercy in the future when I am in that role.


7 thoughts on “How Deep Can You Go?

  1. I often wonder, does Chief Mac really know how many lives he and Miss Debbie have affected in an inspirationally positive manner. Reading your posts on brings back many positive (and some not so positive) memories.
    Thank you for continuing to be such a positive role model and inspiration!

    1. Harry, Thank You for the very kind words. Our Navy days were a very special time for us because of you and other sailors who touched our lives along the way.

    1. Do you remember the story I told about Angus and Rufus finding the little black kitty last year? You know, the one with the white stripe? Well, apparently they didn’t remember since they found one of its cousins last night. I love them a bunch but sure do wish they would actually remember the smell and find something else to chase. Thanks for checking in on the blog. It is doing pretty well these days.

  2. Just found your site today, August 24, 2011, and really like what I have read so far. Obviously a tremendous amount of time, thought, patience and caring have gone into your work. I’m kinda in the so much to read and not enough time category now as I explore the site. Guess I am old………all my experiences are diesel. But my boat is now a nearby museum in Charleston…..seems like you indicated certain boats for certain ops………several of the advanced diesel/electrics may have been more involved in some areas than you imagine.
    Keep up the great work

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