Its hard for me to imagine a submarine setting out on a journey without a chart. The modern Trident boats today cost between 2-4 billion dollars depending on which group is trying to defend or decry their existence. That’s a lot of money to risk on an adventure where charts are not accurate or available. I suppose it was a matter of faith on my part that each time we went to sea, I believed that the Navigator and his department spent the appropriate amount of time to ensure our safety.
If you have never closed the last hatch and yelled “Last man down” you can’t imagine the finality of that statement and the next words from the Officer of the Deck.
“Very Well, Diving Officer, submerge the ship, make your depth 150”
“Aye aye sir, Chief of the Watch, sound three blasts on the diving alarm, pass the word on the 1MC and open the forward main vents. Helmsman, rudder amidships, …”
The electronic claxton of the modern boats sounds and the USS America gradually breaks the surface hold. At first, you can hear the water as it washes over the decks and finally the sail as it sinks below the water.
The planesmen move the control surfaces as directed and the boat levels off at the appropriate depth. The speed and course are controlled by the general directions laid out by the Navigator and off you go.
Throughout the boat, regular routines kick in as the normal underway watch is set. Like a symphony, all the players have their parts.
Something feels different about the boat today. A lot of things are going on as usual but it feels like there has been a fundamental shift in the boat’s direction. That new skipper we picked up three years ago has always been a little “different” but surely the Navy wouldn’t put someone in charge that didn’t know what they were doing would they?
Little did the crew know at the time that he had never commanded so much as a charter fishing vessel. He had been an avid student of alternative ship handling methodology though and even taught a class or two in his native city of Chicago. He was mainly chosen because of a lack of diversity in the captain’s corps that had preceded him. The powers that be determined that something had to be done to level the playing field. He was chosen mainly because, in the Executive Officer’s own words,
"I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," the XO said. "I mean, that’s a storybook, man." (From a CNN report… wouldn’t want to be accused of plagiarism you know).
Orders are relayed to the conn that the America was going to deviate from the plans laid out for it and head into uncharted waters. You can feel the tension in the control room as the captain comes in and takes the conn. He picks up the 1MC and says,
“Crew, this is your captain speaking. In a few minutes, we are going to change course for a new direction. I will be ordering up an all ahead flank bell so we can get there faster. Although we have no charts to support us, I am a really good captain and if you just believe in me, we will get to this new destination. The Executive Officer will be giving a briefing in the mess decks after the noon meal. I promise you if anything goes wrong, I will take full responsibility.”
A voice comes from the sonar room saying, “But Sir, at that speed, sonar will be unable to warn us of any obstacles or barriers we might run into.”
An enraged captain tells the chief of the boat to silence that man. “No naysayers will ruin this mission. Put him on report and have him relieved.”
As the flank bell registers in the engine room, you can feel the boat start to surge. Shortly, some digital warnings pop up on the Dive Station and the Diving officer reports, “captain the ship is …”
He never gets to complete his warning. The captain cuts him off with a shout and a stern glare. “Navigator, have that man relieved for insubordination”
In the ocean nearby, a Russian Akula has been silently stalking the ship. He is surprised at the audacity of the American but then surmises that the aggressive nature must be an attack. He opens his outer doors (that the American can’t hear due to his own noise). He only gets one shot since the America is quickly picking up speed. Torpedo in the water! No one on board the American ship can hear it until the last moments. At this speed, a radical turn could produce unintended consequences. But it doesn’t really matter as the America hits the uncharted mountain and the deadly torpedo destroys the remaining part of the ship.
As the ship breaks up, the last sounds from the control room are the captain saying, “Well, if the last captain hadn’t forced me to make all these changes, we would have made it okay”.