Mind your helm…

My first patrol on the USS George Washington was a blur in many ways.

Being a new guy, I spent most of it completing my non-qual duty of mess cooking. I distinctly remember the hatches being shut for the last time, the diving alarm and the feeling of helplessness as the boat dove beneath the water for the first time with me on inside.


Of course there were over a hundred other guys but at that particular moment, I was not aware of anyone else. The sounds of the boat adjusting to the sea pressure were all around me and the angle was not as severe as I thought it would be. I am not sure about other submariners, but those are moments that stay with me and sometimes come back even when I don’t request them.


I never really questioned where we were going or how long it would take. The Chief had told us to make sure we had enough cigarettes and geedunk (as well as clothes) to last at least 70 days. Never having been on a boat before I brought too many of the wrong things and not enough of the right ones. It didn’t matter much though since once you are on the mission, you don’t get a do-over and you learn to adapt to overcome your mistakes.

The second patrol was a bit more exciting for me since I was qualified and got to spend my turn as the helmsman/planesman. I can hear a few old boomer sailors chuckling right now as they have their own memories of punching holes in the water very low and slow with no particular hurry. While that is true in the whole once you are on station, there can be many interesting moments all along the way both to and from the area you will call home for the majority of the run.


I got a chance to drive a 380 foot submersible ship through the water with only a diving officer and an OOD to keep me from going too far off course. 6000 tons of metal and machinery were subject to the movements of my hands and arms. Not bad for a nineteen year old kid. It was certainly the biggest and baddest thing I had driven up to that point. Over the course of the next few months we would practice all kinds of drills involving angles and dangles, rapid excursions, emergency power drills, manual operation of the planes and so on. It was a great adventure.

One question that often gets asked when you talk about life on the boats is “How did you know where you were going?”. My answer is almost exactly the same each time. As a helmsman on a nuclear submarine, does it matter? Don’t get me wrong. I followed the little round gyro repeater faithfully and tried to keep my heading as close to the one ordered by the OOD as I could. Even in storms and undersea currents, you wanted to make sure you kept your heading squared away as much as possible. It was a matter of pride.


But it was only a repeater after all. The signal came from another piece of equipment and you took it as a matter of faith that the piece of equipment ran as designed and you really were heading in the direction it said you were. Most of the time, it worked. At the time, I didn’t have a clue how. Here is a brief explanation though:

… the SSBN needed to be able to pinpoint, with extreme accuracy, her position at every moment in order to be able to accurately target her missiles. As a result, the 598 boats were among the first ships to carry a full Ships’ Inertial Navigation System or SINS – a set of gyroscopes on a stabilized platform which allowed the submarine to accurately record her accelerations in all dimensions and hence construct her position. While gyrocompasses had been in use for many years, this was the first time a ship was able to keep a positional log based purely on the mathematical integration of vector changes.

Sins of the father

Well, alrighty then.

I wish we had one or two of those for our country right about now. I feel like I just woke up during the mid-watch and the whole control room was sound asleep. I look up at the little compass repeater and realize we are about 90 degrees off course. How long were we out? Who knows this? Are we in trouble? Am I in trouble???

Pretty much.

The non-quals have taken over the ship. You no longer need skill or knowledge to advance, just as long as everybody advances (or declines) together. Since it wouldn’t be fair to reward the hard runners, why should they bother to excel? Average is the new normal and as long as the lowest achiever never feels bad about themselves, no one will get hurt.

There will need to be a few changes though. Since everyone is now equal, no one will have to scrub the decks anymore. The dirt will probably start building up but at least we will feel good about ourselves. Mess cooking will no longer be allowed since that sort of demeaning activity is also banned. The scullery will stack up pretty quickly but hey, Seaman Schmucatelly will not have to endure the long hours scrubbing other people’s dirty dishes.

Watchstanding will be a bit hard also. We used to do 18 hour days (6 on, 6 off, 6 in the rack if you were lucky). Since we want to hold everyone in highest esteem, there will be no wake up calls. Also, if you really don’t feel like standing a watch, why should you? The Captain gets to sleep in doesn’t he? Why shouldn’t you? Its not a serious problem anyway since the boat would probably never get to sea. All that nasty business of line handling will suddenly be beneath even the lowest seaman.


Everyone will be issued dolphins on their first day aboard. Each month, a lottery would be conducted to see which medal would be issued to all hands. It would be unfair for any one sailor to be given an award without understanding the feelings of the others. Within a short while, there would be no more need for those expensive submarines. If they never go to sea, why keep putting more money into them. Just issue every sailor a check and send them home.

The Chinese, Russians, Iranians, Muslim Brotherhood, North Koreans and all of the rest of the world will be very happy. They are probably ecstatic that the USS America is completely lost at sea. No gyrocompass. No Leadership… just a bunch of sailors on liberty waiting for the shore patrol to show up and put an end to the fun.

Mister Mac


10 thoughts on “Mind your helm…

  1. Love this and it really does describe Americas rudderless course of the day very well

  2. qualified in submarines
    on the gold crew in 1973. took her on her last med cruise thru the panama canal to pearl, long ass patrol for my first one!

  3. I was on the USS Abraham Lincoln( SSBN-602) 1975-1978 Thanks for the share. Lyle Vinatieri QM2(SS)

  4. Thank you for the posting.
    Qualified 2 boats (SSBN 624 and SSBN 630) and served on one tender (AS-32) 1973 – 1977

  5. A Little Piece of History
    About SINS,
    that’s Ships Inertial Navigation Systems.

    During World War II, we did not have an Inertial Guidance System, it wasn’t developed at that time. Dead reckoning and star sightings were required.

    After World War II, a great increase in learning and improvement in skills was made available via the G.I.,. Bill which permitted many veterans to attend schools. The result was years of improvements, especially in the technical Research and Development fields.

    A New Jersey based company did some very secret new development work with a team of specialists, technicians, scientists, engineers and others; they were located in what looked like a private house. The main office was the former second floor front room, other rooms on the second floor became office spaces. Downstairs was converted to offices, shops and test areas.

    In these surroundings, we would report for work on what became the first Inertial Navigation System. It had to be small, lightweight and suitable for use in aircraft and missiles. The three floated rate integrating gyros with their accelerometers were housed in a gimbaled system as a hermetically sealed unit. The electronics were in a separate package.

    I recall the results of the first successful flight test. This test proved that the system could travel 3,000 miles and be within a seven mile radius of its target. That’s an error of plus or minus of 7 miles in a 3,000 mile journey, including refueling stops en route.
    This was considered an outstanding success for the time and place.

    Soon after, the US Navy, requested work to start on other systems which would permit submarines to navigate while under Arctic the ice.

    Now, Inertial Navigation Systems, in combination with star trackers permit travel to other planets and places far away with pin point accuracy.

    Other systems are in common use, known as G.P.S., or Ground Position Systems for use in autos and other tracking devices.

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