In a previous post, I talked about the path I took at the beginning of my Navy career to get to and through Naval Nuclear Power School. I called it Reactor Startup. Now, I want to talk about the next phase of my career – my time aboard USS Sandlance (SSN660). I call this part Reactor Critical! A critical reactor, despite the somewhat negative connotation of the term, simply means the reactor is self-sustaining. I thought it was an appropriate analogy.
I reported aboard Sandlance in October 1985. The first time I walked down Pier Mike in Charleston, SC, I had no idea what to expect. Yes, I had graduated from Nuke School and prototype, but now I was headed to a submarine and the real Navy world. No longer a student, but a fleet sailor.
I reported aboard as a nub (non-useful body), non-qual (unqualified person), dinq (OK, technically I wasn’t delinquent in qualification – yet), flob (free-loading oxygen breather). Translated, it meant I was pretty useless and everyone made me painfully aware of the fact. There was a ton of pressure to qualify as quickly as possible! In a way, it was a lot like being a student again…
My first underway was an experience I will never completely forget. I don’t remember where we were going, but I remember standing watch – probably fire watch since I wasn’t good for much else, seasick as a dog. Once we secured the maneuvering watch and dove, I was allowed to hit the rack – in the torpedo room. Yep, my first rack on the boat was right next to a MK-48 torpedo. So, seasick and miserable, I crawled into the rack and went to sleep – only to be rudely awakened by the stern light pole falling from its bracket in the overhead of the torpedo room and landing on me. My submarine career was off to a rousing start…
Things got better, and qualifications commenced. I was lucky, too, since I didn’t have to mess crank! For my nuke quals, it meant learning everything from the reactor tunnel aft. For submarine quals, sonar, torpedoes, the diesel generator, diving the boat, the oxygen generator, and many other systems had to be learned. Reactor operators (ROs) quals included AMR2UL, electrical operator, throttleman, RO, and SRO. And yes, I even got to make the reactor critical! Then, if you chose to, it was Engineering Watch Supervisor (EWS), and later Engineering Officer of the Watch (EOOW). When I was aboard Sandlance, EWS was as far as the enlisted could qualify.
I don’t recall how long it took to qualify all of those watches, but I do know that I qualified submarines in December 1986 while I was on the Med Run. Here is my Submarine Qualification Certificate.
We did get to see and do some interesting things on the Med Run. We spent a fair amount of time in La Maddalena, Italy (a little island off the tip of Sardinia), where we participated in the Submarine Gladiator games. Despite its age and condition, I still have my t-shirt from those games!
Luckily, I got a chance to visit Rome, Italy. I visited the Vatican, the Pantheon, Circus Maximus, the Coliseum, and many other amazing sites. We pulled into Toulon, France, where I got to play Shore Patrol for a night. I was paired with a sailor from the USS Savannah (AOR-4) and the things we saw and the people we had to escort back to the ships… let’s just say it was an interesting night! Those stories, though, are for another time! After my night of shore patrol, I hopped a train to Monaco and spent the weekend in Monte Carlo. Monte Carlo is an amazing place. The first picture is the harbor and the second is the palace where Prince Rainier and Princess Grace lived. Bear in mind that the pictures were taken in 1986, so things may have changed! We gambled at the Loews Casino and had a ball!
Of course, submarine life isn’t all just fun and games and visiting interesting ports. There is the day-to-day operational stuff, both at sea and in port, maintenance, training, and the stress of knowing that the hungry sea was lurking just outside the hull ready to crumple the boat like a beer can. In my 3 and a half years on Sandlance, I only recall one actual fight, so it’s a testament to the mindset of the submariners that they can handle the stress without cracking.
Many people ask me what the sleeping arrangements were like. Well, to say they were cramped would be an understatement. More like sleeping in stacked coffins than anything else. And what about food? When I tell people that we had to load food for months, that we stacked cans on the deck to the level of the first rack, and that we had a cook that tried to make pancakes from mayonnaise (because we had run out of fresh eggs), they just shake their heads in disbelief. And, when you mention the Sony Betamax entertainment system, most have no idea what I am even talking about!
One of the coolest (both literally and figuratively) places Sandlance went was under the Arctic ice cap. While we didn’t get to break through the ice and surface, I still got my Bluenose. We also visited the US Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico (I missed that cruise), and Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Finally, though, Sandlance was due to head to overhaul in Portsmouth, NH. We left the warm climate of Charleston, SC and arrived at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine in mid-1988. Interestingly, USS Sandlance was launched at Portsmouth in 1969.
For me, this was the beginning of the end of my time on the boat. A short year and a couple of months later, I left the only submarine I ever served on and went to recruiting duty in Americus, GA. A future post about my time as a recruiter will be the last post of this series as I wrap up my Navy career.
I could spend much more time telling you about submarines and some of the things that happened underway. Many of them are funny, some are tense, and others show the perils of submarine duty. I will say that to this day, I miss the people, but don’t miss the boat so much! However, the experiences I had, and the people I met, helped me in my post-Navy career in ways I cannot even begin to explain. One of the characters in my books, The Gemstone Chronicles, uses knowledge gained from his days in the Navy to help out with the quest to find the stolen gemstones. That character was loosely based on me!
Are you a former Sandlance crew member, or a former or current submarine sailor, leave me a comment and tell me some of your experiences. As always, shares and feedback and greatly appreciated!