How did this thing get so far out of alignment?

Like many submariners, I spent a few weeks in one shipyard or another helping to fix wear and tear issues. As an Auxiliaryman (A-Ganger) I quickly found that there is a special kind of hell reserved for us in a shipyard. Since our equipment and systems run the length of the boat, our work could be almost anywhere on any given day. Auxiliary Division was responsible for air systems, trim and drain systems, ventilation systems, service air systems (high and low pressure), hydraulics (internal and external) the diesel on some boats and certainly anything associated with masts and antennas.

That of course is just a short list. In the shipyard we also gained ownership of the temporary services and equipment that would allow work to be done on the major ones. The passages and hatches quickly became clogged with lines and hoses that provided many of these services. While necessary, they merely added to the already cramped atmosphere of a submarine. On my list of “Happy Things” ridding the boat of all this extra crap at the end of a yard period will always stand as one of my happiest.

The reason I used to equate shipyards with hell had to do with the type of work we had to do and the location of much of it. Since our equipment was “auxiliary” it frequently was located in places very much out of the way. This required one of two things… either you found the smallest guy in the division for certain jobs or you had to remove the deck plates. Worse yet, you had to remove the framing for the deck plates in order to do serious work. The overcrowded conditions got even worse at that point since inevitably you would not only have to work below where they had previously been, but on the other side which would now require special rigging.

The yard period could last months (even a year or more under some circumstances) which saw the changes of many of the crew members before reassembling the boat. Even if you didn’t have that much change, remembering where everything was before and where the parts had been stored for safety was always a miserable ordeal at the end of the period. Deck plates were a particular bedevilment for all of those reasons.  You not only had to remember where the plates went, you had to have the right frames in the right places. Even then, you often faced one of the toughest challenges. The bolts.

The bolts holding the plates in place were critical for not only safety but helped to keep the plates from becoming noise generators during subsurface operations. The deck plates needed to be complete aligned in order to make sure all of the holes could be used. But I swear, shipyard gremlins must come on board every boat during their yard time and carefully realign each and every deck plate so that it would never again fit the original designer’s plans. I have never been able to figure out how three of the four holes could be aligned so well that the bolts almost threaded themselves in place, but the fourth? He would be so far out of alignment you would swear you had the wrong plate.

The San Francisco (my middle boat) was the worst. I know Newport News did a fine job on initial installation because I distinctly remember removing all of the bolts in the machinery room with what seemed at the time as relative ease. Being on two previous boats, I remembered the nightmare of plate and support arrangement so we had devised a careful map to reassemble them. We even had a special locker designated to hold critical parts. I was so proud of my foresight, I was sure we would have an easy transition back to being an active boat. After all, it was only going to be a few short months anyway. What could possibly go wrong?

The months went fairly quickly and we were able to fix almost all of the major issues with relative ease. The word finally came that it was time to put things back together and prepare for our sea trials. A few of us went to the Machinery room and prepared to put our plan into action. It all seemed so simple. And then we began.

Did you know that after a submarine is built it goes through a series of sea trials? (any self respecting bubblehead is shaking his head up and down). Did you also know that between the end of building to the first shipyard, that boat will execute wild turns to the right and left, entire a number of storms on the surface and below and take excursions to test depth a number of times? And did you know that the dimensions of the boat can change ever so slightly over the course of a few years of these operations?

Yea, neither did we. The San Francisco has now entered the Twilight Zone. Things like three of four deckplate screwholes aligning with a dead fourth are not only possible, they seem to be mandatory. Frames that used to be flush now ride at awkward angles creating potential sound shorts which could reveal our position at a critical time. Those bags of screws? The locker they were carefully placed in was ordered to be emptied on one of the days you weren’t there and Fireman Jones followed the instructions to the “T”.


Now there comes a bit of pressure. All of the other work is done, the Captain would like to get to sea, and you are holding up the progress with loose and misaligned deckplates. This is where creativity takes over. The whole gang plus the Chief end up in the room. Substitute crews are found (thank goodness the Olympia was across the pier and not going to sea for a few weeks). Sledge hammers and grinders modify the alignment and soon the plates are back in place, ready to fight another day.

Of course all of us but Fireman Jones would eventually transfer before the next shipyard period. Then the hellish cycle would start all over again. Sometimes when I see that a relatively new boat is being decommissioned before one that is much older, I have a theory why that happens. Frankly, I think it’s the deckplates.

The fundamentals of any structure rely a lot on the “deckplates” for support and utility. When the deckplates are so far out of alignment sometimes, you really do need some over the top methods to get them back into a good place. I think the same can be said about the countries leadership right about now. When you have gaps that are too large in the deckplates, important stuff will fall through the gaps. Somehow we need to get the plates back where they are suppose to be. Any ideas?

Have a great week.

Mister Mac

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