Chapter One: In Peril Under the Sea
On the Nautilus men's hearts never fail them. No defects to be afraid of, for the double shell is as firm as iron, no rigging to attend to, no sails for the wind to carry away; no boilers to burst, no fire to fear, for the vessel is made of iron, not of wood; no coal to run short, for electricity is the only power; no collision to fear, for it alone swims in deep water; no tempest to brave, for when it dives below the water, it reaches absolute tranquillity. That is the perfection of vessels.
-- Jules Verne,
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869)
In the bleak midwinter, the cold wind sweeps across Long Island Sound and funnels up the Connecticut valley of the Poquehanuck River, now called the Thames. Mariners know well the narrow channel that leads to the building yards of the Electric Boat Company and the Navy's submarine base in Groton, Connecticut, across the river from New London, where at pier after pier submarines make their preparations to go to sea. On one such day, in January of 1955, a great to-do of helicopters in the sky and ships in the channel gathered about the somber gray USS Nautilus. It was almost a year to the day since she had been launched, the traditional bottle of champagne broken on her bow. There was no ceremony or fanfare on this sullen winter day, but the media was out in force to cover the event -- the great submarine's moment of truth. Now, all lines cast off, she slipped away from her pier, making her way down the Thames toward Long Island Sound and then toward the open sea, as a lone quartermaster, manning the submarine's blinker, sent a message the world had never heard before: "Underway on nuclear power." Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, a unique figure, to put it mildly, in the long history of the United States Navy, had almost single-handedly led the successful struggle to introduce nuclear power to the fleet. USS Nautilus represented the first of his many victories over formidable opponents inside his own service, as well as throughout the nexus of the government and America's defense industries.
Rickover had not limited his responsibility to the design and operation of the reactor but had extended his influence over the entire system, exercising complete control over every nut and bolt. But a nuclear submarine is more than its power plant. It must unite that plant with hull and structure, with stability and control, with an environmentally sustainable life-support system and habitat, a skilled and trained crew, and a host of components that give it a mission, meaning, and being. And like the wonderful one-horse shay, it must last for more than a year and a day. In the years after World War II the importance of radically redesigning a new high-speed, long-endurance instrument of submarine warfare had been recognized by some, but budgets were limited and time was short. So the Nautilus that put to sea, apart from the glowing core of its reactor deep within its hull, was nearly indistinguishable from the most modern diesel submarines.
More than a year and a half later, in the first days of October 1956, there was neither press coverage nor ceremony on the Thames when the Nautilus slowly made her way to the Electric Boat Company dry dock. She had been tried at sea and had won every praise and laurel. Now, however, she was silently limping home. She was "down by the bow," as keen observers could see, but no one except her captain, Commander Eugene P. "Dennis" Wilkinson, had the slightest indication that the mighty Nautilus might be in grave danger.
dWilkinson's concern was communicated to retired Admiral Andrew McKee, chief designer for Electric Boat. By the very quaintness of its name, the Electric Boat Company proclaimed that it had been around a long time; it had in fact been building battery-powered submarines as long as submarines had been built for the United States Navy, and McKee was long in experience, too. His own name had become synonymous with World War II submarine design. In the early days of the war, the S-boats were doomed to sink if the engine room flooded. McKee added a sixteen-foot section to each hull that was no more than a buoyancy module, but it saved a fleet. As Electric Boat entered the nuclear age McKee's accomplishments kept pace. Like Wilkinson, he already knew that the Nautilus had been experiencing severe vibrations at high speed. The skipper had complained forcefully to the Navy's Bureau of Ships, whose structural engineers had measured these vibrations but had been unable to find their source. The problem had been assigned to the flow studies section of the David Taylor Model Basin and handed over to me.
At thirty-two years old, I was the new kid on the block -- a physicist at the Washington, D.C., David Taylor Model Basin -- considered by virtue of my California Institute of Technology master's degree and University of Iowa Ph.D. a theoretical whiz in hydrodynamics and structures, though few knew of my practical experience with ships at sea.
How could they? It had been more than a dozen years since I had twice disgraced my father by failing to get into Annapolis and then by joining the Navy as a mere enlisted man -- breaking the long line of revered Craven family naval officers who had gone on from the Academy to distinguished Navy careers. A third and perhaps intolerable disgrace would have been my lockup on a court-martial offense in the brig, following an unjustifiable fistfight with a fellow enlistee while on duty. Instead, the apparent emergency of the gory injury to my fighting hand landed me in a hospital, where a magnanimous Navy doctor decided, after putting two and two together, that the break in my protruding bone had occurred when I ran into a door, or, rather -- to remove all fault on my part -- a door ran into me. When the hospital staff finally noticed that Seaman Craven, who was basking in a monthlong convalescence, was again fit for duty, I was summarily transported to still devastated Pearl Harbor. Assigned to the battleship New Mexico, I found her moored alongside the sunken but balefully visible battleship Arizona, which had been lost in the surprise attack. It was the first day of 1944 and we were headed for the Marshall Islands to fight the rest of the war, but luck had somehow attached itself to my side, where it stuck. My brief (six months) but intense encounters in battle were experienced as a helmsman of the New Mexico, flagship of a task force of some 100 ships of the line and the train.
Here I would meet naval officers who were destined to one day be my subordinates. Here I would participate in and hear firsthand of battles won or lost by technology or skill, or both. Here, as the lowest-ranking seaman, I would acquire the helmsman's feel of the sea in calm, wind, and storm, in head sea, quartering sea, beam sea, and following sea.
By war's end I was enrolled at Cornell University in a naval science training program, graduating two years later near the top of my class with a commission as an ensign in the Naval Reserve. It was too late to fulfill my family destiny but a career as a naval scientist might make for a happy compromise. Accepted for graduate studies at Cal Tech, one of the nation's elite science and technology institutions, I went on for the next few years as a GI Bill student with scarcely enough time to leave the laboratory or look up from my books. Thus had I been rendered the "whiz kid" who now stood on the pier with my seasoned elders, Commander Wilkinson and Admiral McKee, and the world-famous Nautilus in dry dock.
We inspected the submarine from stem to stern. Our first concern was the integrity of the pressure hull. This is the inner space capsule that resists the pressure of the deep ocean. At test depth it is exposed to more than one thousand pounds per square inch of seawater pressure. Ideally the hull should be a complete shell of steel with no openings to the sea. But the crew, the machinery, and the supplies must be loaded on board at the beginning of a patrol or a dive and so there must be a hatch or hatches. The standard hatches on submarines are only twenty-five inches in diameter; they are open in port but closed and battened down whenever the submarine is submerged. The inside of the pressure hull is maintained at atmospheric pressure or close thereto. But outside there is a forest of machinery and tankage that is exterior to the hull. There are anchors and winches and all sorts of marine hardware. There is a propeller, which has a shaft that penetrates the pressure hull. There are periscopes and masts that project from the command and control center up through the sail. All of these must be covered by plating called "fairwater" if it covers machinery on the deck or the "sail" if it covers the masts and the surface observation bridge. The hydrodynamic shape of a submarine is thus a composite of the bare hull, the fairwater over the machinery on the deck exterior to the hull, the sail that surrounds the periscope, the masts, and the bridge, and the exterior of the ballast tanks, which envelop the hull fore and aft. There are in addition appendages in the form of bow planes or sail planes, stern planes, and rudders.
Archimedes' principle states that a body will displace its own weight in water. Most submarine hulls are designed so that when they are empty their weight is about 0.4 times the weight of water they would displace. Thus the hull by itself would float on the surface and be unable to submerge. The depth to which the hull can go is a function of the material of which the hull is made and its configuration. Small submersibles use a spherical shell, larger ones use a cylinder with spherical end caps, but a large military submarine employs a cylinder reinforced by girders of steel called stiffeners. These girders or stiffeners are inside the pressure hull for that part of the hull where the hull plating is a part of the hydrodynamic shape of the submarine. For those portions of the hull where ballast tanks and fairwaters completely surround it, the stiffeners will be external to the hull but are not exposed to the flow. In either case the stiffeners are attached at regular intervals to the pressure hull. These "pressure hulls" are designed so that there is a balance between one failure mode, called "buckling," and another, called "elastic failure." Everyone understands buckling because any empty can of beer or soda can be squeezed or stomped on to demonstrate the phenomenon. Everyone has also witnessed elastic failure, which means that a structure, say, the beer can or a car fender, will not return to its initial shape after it has been deformed. The interaction between the cylindrical hull and the ring stiffeners is vital to the submarine's ability to resist buckling and to maintain elasticity.
When Wilkinson, McKee, and I had completed our inspection of the hull we were in a state of shock. What we saw were ring stiffeners that had been torn away from the hull as though a giant hand had repeatedly twisted them until they failed in fatigue. We could put our hands between the hull and the stiffeners. McKee was in shock because that discovery implied that he had completely underestimated the forces between hull and stiffener. Wilkinson was in shock because he now realized that he had come closer to losing the Nautilus than he had ever thought, and I was in shock because I had studied the theory of inelastic buckling under the renowned Professor George Hausner at Cal Tech and I knew that McKee and Wilkinson were dead right. I had never before seen or imagined a structure so completely destroyed by stress and fatigue. It was well known that aircraft could fail from aeroelastic vibrations known as flutter, but it was assumed that the massive hull structures of submarines would not be affected by hydrodynamic forces produced by the sea as the submarine plows through the water. Something was happening to separate the ring stiffeners from the hull and as a result the collapse depth -- the level beneath the surface of the sea at which even the most powerful submarine hull will implode without warning as a result of the pressure of the water around it -- was greatly reduced.
But there was more. A submarine is more than a pressure hull. It must include mechanisms that allow it to submerge, to surface, or to maintain a specified depth. This is accomplished by the use of ballast tanks. These are nothing more than inverted cans shaped to match the contours of the hull with openings at the bottom. There are no valves on these openings, so air can flow in and out as the submarine changes depth and air pressure inside the tank is equal to the water pressure outside. For this reason these tanks are called soft tanks. The exterior of the ballast tanks is part of the skin of the submarine that gives it its good hydrodynamic shape. There are valves at the top of the tanks, which permit the tanks to be flooded with water and cause the submarine to submerge. There are bottles of compressed air inside the tanks that, when the valves at the top are closed, cause the water to be expelled from the tanks to be replaced by buoyant air so that the submarine can rise to the surface. All of these simple mechanisms must work or the submarine will sink.
Our inspection disclosed, to our horror, that all the ballast tanks showed splits along their sides. If the ballast tanks leak, then water will flood the tanks unless replacement air is continuously added. Otherwise the submarine sinks. For the Nautilus, already down by the bow, the splits in the tanks limited the size of the bubble that could be contained and caused a continuous drain of the air stored in the ballast tank air bottles. It was only a matter of hours before the onboard air supply would be exhausted. The air bottles that contain the precious compressed air had broken loose from their attachments to the hull inside the ballast tanks and were dangling from the piping that carried the air from bottle to tank. In a few hours, or at most a few days, the air bottles would detach completely and then the frames would separate from the hull and the Nautilus and her crew of 116 hands would be doomed. Thus three modes of failure were imminent: destruction of the pressure hull, loss of ability to hold ballast air, and the loss of air with which to blow ballast and provide the buoyancy to raise the submarine.
When McKee, Wilkinson, and I wriggled out of the ballast tanks and alerted Washington, there was the kind of glowering consternation that precedes the dreaded public embarrassment of the Navy. The long shadow of a national disaster was falling and heads might have to roll. All of the top brass of the Bureau of Ships -- that powerful department of the Navy that oversees all aspects of naval vessels from the drawing of plans through commissioning and right through to the end of a ship's life -- descended on Connecticut.
A notable exception was Hyman Rickover, who never allowed his name to be associated with failure. He would leave the mess to Wilkinson, his personal choice as the first skipper of the Nautilus. At the emergency meeting in New London, Wilkinson briefed the BuShips admirals on the damage, and a consensus emerged that the Nautilus should be laid up for a reevaluation of the design to uncover the mechanisms of the failure. When at the end of a long day they got around to me, I pointed out that I had a plan and a package of instruments designed to investigate the problem. "Why don't we repair the damage," I said, "and try to find the cause." The breakdown had taken place over eighteen months and was not likely to recur during the short period of my investigation. As against the grim alternative of a high-profile crippled Nautilus in sick bay, there seemed to be no harm in this approach and they agreed.
I discussed it with a senior naval architect for the Electric Boat Company, Robert McCandliss, a man whose judgment in crisis I trusted. He had been a fighter pilot in World War II. His plane had been shot out of the sky in a dogfight, and when he bailed out, the straps of his parachute got caught in the fuselage. Instead of panicking, he instantly analyzed the nature of the entanglement and reasoned that if he were to rotate his body in a certain direction, he would be freed. He was right. Now, with respect to the equations I was using to analyze the situation, he suggested that there might be unknown factors at play and that I ought to instrument for every conceivable and far-fetched scenario. I did.
The instrumentation consisted of small pressure gauges designed to measure the fluctuations in fluid force on each submarine appendage and the pressure inside and outside the ballast tanks and in each cavity of the superstructure. I hoped that the magnitude, frequency, and location of these pressures would reveal the nature of the mysterious forces that had produced such damage.
The Electric Boat Company would not allow me to install the instrumentation on the boat and insisted on doing the job themselves. It was apparently a matter of pride and, though no one could know it at the time, it was the kind that goes before a fall. The pressure gauges were distributed throughout the outside of the pressure hull of the submarine. Each gauge was meant to measure the difference between the pressure at its own location and the average pressure associated with the depth of the submarine at any given moment while submerged. It was therefore necessary that all the gauges be exposed to this average pressure. The method devised by Electric Boat was to connect each gauge by long lines of thin tubing to a single large bladder, or balloon, filled with air that was placed in a cage aft of the submarine's external vertical structure known as the sail. As the submarine changed depth the bladder would compress or expand, placing the appropriate air pressure on the back face of each pressure gauge. With the test instruments so installed, we put to sea.
This was my first extended voyage aboard a nuclear submarine. It was unlike any ship I had been on before. Gone was the reek of the diesel oil that permeated the conventional submarines of my experience, and it was neither cramped nor confining; there were no hammocks like those on the battleship I had served on. Nor was there any of the rolling, pitching, or heaving that I had known on minesweepers. As soon as we left port we submerged into the quiet world of the undersea. I was treated as a junior officer, and my mechanic, Louis Louistro, as a member of the crew. After dinner that first night, I went to my quarters to set up and calibrate the instrumentation, very much aware that I was missing the poker game that had begun in the wardroom. It was a bit hard to bear. I realized that no one aboard knew of my skill at that great psychophysiological game, a huge advantage in setting out to take one's opponents to the cleaners. But after I had had the opportunity to discuss the quality of the poker played on Nautilus with the supply officer, I had reason to pause.
The CO, he told me, was the greatest poker player in the Navy. Before commissioning, when Wilkinson assumed command, the high-stakes wardroom poker game had spun out of control, with losers out a lot more than they could afford. Wilkinson's expertise was such, it seemed, that he could literally control who won and who lost. The big losers found themselves recouping, and soon he had reestablished equity, at which point he reduced the stakes to a more reasonable level. The supply officer shook his head in wonder as he recalled Wilkinson's uncanny ability to detect the best bluff from the real thing. I, too, was impressed but spurred on, resolving to one day break the captain's hold on the game. When I was still a boy, my uncle on my mother's side, Eddie Pinna (the spelling of the family name had been altered), a Brooklyn cabdriver, had taught me the poker arts: how to spot a cheat, first of all, but mostly how to read between the lines of a player's body language, the giveaways of butterflies, thrill, excitement, anger, disappointment, the sweat on a brow, and other nuanced, involuntary manifestations associated with a pat hand, a flush, or a full house aces high. For now, however, I would have to defer my aspiration to be part of the Navy's poker stories. There was a submarine in distress and I was on the spot.
Early the next day, we were on station and my gauges were all functioning. I notified the skipper of my readiness and he began to bring the boat up to speed. Suddenly, however, all the gauges failed simultaneously. Buoyancy and high-speed flow had torn the external average-pressure bladder loose from its moorings, destroying all the gauges as well. There was no point in continuing and we turned back to port, our mission further than ever from accomplished.
As I emerged from the hatch, three admirals peered down at me eager to know the results. I had to tell them that we had none and I did so unabashedly. These officers had fought a war in which all too many skippers had to return from patrol with the mission frustrated. It had taken more than a year before our torpedoes in World War II were functioning. They knew then, as they knew now, that despite all our best efforts, the sea is relentless and will find a way to thwart the mariner. Long ago I had learned that when you bring something new to the sea, the sea will bring something new to you. To the uninformed observer the discussion at the hatch would have seemed almost laconic. If the admirals were testing anything, they were testing my competence in coping with the sea. Electric Boat's insistence on installing the instruments was not my alibi. It had done its best in the installation of new and untested oceanic instrumentation. That the instrumentation had failed did not diminish its credibility and left my own intact.
It was, therefore, with a certain equanimity that I approached the next conference of admirals. The same group had again flown up from Washington and it was in fact a repeat performance, except for my negative reaction to the shipyard's proposal that we berth, rather than dry-dock, the Nautilus for reexamination. They did accept my suggestion to repair and reinstall the gauges and go back to sea.
I decided that each gauge should have its own bladder. When Louistro and I could find nothing suitable in the Navy's supply facility, we went to a Woolworth five-and-ten-cents store and bought thirty-six brightly colored beach balls that seemed perfect for the task. The venerable Electric Boat Company thought otherwise. If beach balls were to be installed on its high-technology submarine, I was informed, Louistro and I would have to install them ourselves. Furthermore, neither Electric Boat nor the Navy was willing to foot the bill for returning the Nautilus to dry dock. Instead, holes were cut in the tops of the ballast tanks to permit my mechanic and me to inch our way through and make the installation. To prevent water from flooding the ballast tanks as we did this, temporary covers were placed over the ballast tank openings at the bottom of each tank. Unfortunately these covers leaked and water was entering the ballast tanks. To compensate, pumps were installed to keep the ballast tanks relatively dry. No sooner had we started working than, inexplicably, the pumps stopped operating and water began to pour through the leaky covers, flooding the bottom of the tanks. Two very wet individuals shot out of those tanks like rockets and the Navy dipped into its pockets and ordered the ship dry-docked.
Finally, the gauges repaired and reinstalled, we were ready to give it another try. Back at sea, my equanimity began to give way to raw emotion after we completed the first run. As the submarine gained speed, all the gauges began acting in unison and soon all indicator needles were hitting a point on the dial that I'll call X. This was a value we had assigned for the pressure fluctuation that we rated as dangerously high. Our instruments allowed us to record values well in excess of X and 1 set the scale on the instrument panel to 2X. All the indicator needles were hitting the stops at 2X. The tension mounted. I went to 5X. The needles hit those stops; same result at 10X. The intensity of the forces due to the vibrations could not be measured until I set the scale to record values of 30X, positive and negative. All the needles were oscillating in synchrony when the limit had been reached. I knew then that only a "little brown jug" phenomenon could explain the fluctuations in pressure. The water flowing over the opening at the bottom of each tank caused it to behave like a jug when you blow over the top of its neck and produce a sound. In the little brown jug case the frequency of the sound depends upon the volume of air in the jug and, to a lesser extent, its shape, and the amplitude depends on the amount of air that passes over the top of the jug. For the submarine the frequency of the sound depended not only on the volume of water in the ballast tanks but on the elasticity of the hull and the ballast tanks. The amplitude depended on an unforeseen resonance phenomenon similar to flutter on aircraft. It is this particular resonance phenomenon that I am reluctant to disclose (for security reasons), but I knew what it was and I knew what modifications could solve it. I also believed that the Nautilus was again at risk of sinking -- if not immediately, within the next few hours or days.
True, all the repairs had been made on the stiffening rings and the pressure hull -- the rings were reattached to the hull by welding -- but there could be no doubt that these forces were creating new damage and we could not be sure that the repairs were completely effective. I called for a pause in the test program long enough to develop the records and be sure that the data would not be lost. I then went to the CO.
"The good news is," I said, "I found the problem. I have the data to demonstrate it and there is a simple solution."
Wilkinson nodded. "And the bad news?"
"The bad news is that we should slow the ship down and proceed directly back to port."
Wilkinson looked at me with a pat-hand smile. He suspected that my reluctance stemmed from a first-time submariner's fright. "Sorry, Craven," he said. "I have two days of tests to carry out."
I smiled in return, for I was the one with the high cards. "But I prepared that test program and I advise you not to."
Wilkinson, knowing that all the damage had been repaired and knowing that he had operated for eighteen months before the condition was serious, said, "Well, I am going to carry it out. You never know what else you might learn, son."
Sure, I thought, maybe the last lesson of my life.
Now I had to make a decision. I could, with little effort, make my instruments mysteriously stop working, forcing termination. Or I could take the easy way and not, as they say, rock the boat. First, I assessed the wisdom, if any, of the CO's call. Quite clearly his education did not include an understanding of the relationship among stress, elastic resonance, fatigue, and failure. Whatever understanding he had of the situation was based on intuitive knowledge acquired from experience, not a solid grounding in theory. From what I had heard about his card-playing prowess, I felt safe in surmising that he was a man who soaked up this sort of knowledge in all of his life experiences. He had skippered this ship for thousands of miles at high speed, fully aware of the vibrations and their intensity. Was that enough? I wanted poker -- I wanted cold calculating unemotional thought in an assessment of skill and chance. I was getting poker, in spades. High-stakes poker is not a game -- he was betting his life. I decided to go on with the tests -- looking forward to what I might learn. And learn I did.
The next set of tests was conducted at maximum operating depth and at flank speed. This is the most dangerous operation for any submarine even when all systems are go. The distance from maximum operating depth to collapse depth is a little more than the length of the submarine. For the officer of the deck it is like being a pilot with the Blue Angels flying in formation. One misstep by any operator on the team means disaster for all. One stern plane jam, one rupture in the seawater system, one failed repair to the hull or structure and there is no opportunity for recovery. First-timers on a submarine will experience extreme stress during this operation. As the submarine reaches the maximum operating depth the compression of the hull will induce "snap, crackle, and pop" in the light plating of compartment bulkheads, inducing beads of sweat on the brow of the neophyte. Qualified submariners will have no qualms. For the Nautilus, I estimated that the forces I had measured would reduce the collapse depth by not more than one hundred feet. I was wrong. Subsequent analysis would show that two thousand of the ship's fifteen thousand horsepower were absorbed by the resonance. That meant that the ship was being battered by the equivalent of twenty-one-hundred-horsepower sledgehammers at more than ten times per second. Failure could occur at any depth. Luckily the maximum speed tests at maximum depth were uneventful except for the cheerful revelation that at maximum stress the needles hit the stops no higher than 30X. My Grandmother Pinna's old saying about what life had taught her -- "If I live through Monday, I live through the rest of the week" -- was comfort as never before.
The next tests were conducted at shallow depth. All hands were relaxed when suddenly there was the sound of a violent explosion in one of the ballast tanks, then in another -- an intermittent series of powerful blasts in one or more of the ballast tanks. The officer of the deck quickly reduced speed and the blasts stopped. I must admit I was alarmed. The crew informed me that they had experienced them before not knowing what they were. I had a sudden insight, recognizing this as a phenomenon known as "cavitation." Vapor was being generated by negative pressure in the ballast tanks that exceeded the pressure of water at depth. In shallow water, or at atmospheric pressure, this negative pressure is about one atmosphere, or some fifteen pounds per square inch. We were getting more than double that inside the tanks. Each bubble was like the first bubbles in a pot of water that is about to boil. If any of the officers or crew were alarmed it did not show, but all were eager to hear my opinion on the source and severity of the cavitation bursts. I pointed out that the explosive sounds were produced by nothing more than great pockets of collapsing vapor. The vapor itself was pressure-relieving and the collapse had merely reinitiated the pounding to which the ship was continuously exposed. It was hard to tell how much that reassured them but cavitation was a phenomenon I had studied in the laboratory and that knowledge was good enough for me.
When the tests were over, the Nautilus surfaced. For our trial purposes, large steel plates had been bolted over openings in the fairwater, the sail, and superstructure, and at this point the test program, which could not anticipate that the problem might have been solved, called for removing these temporary plates so that other hydrodynamic phenomena might be investigated. The CO, Louistro, and I went topside. With the Nautilus heading directly into a moderate sea, we climbed to the top of the sail. Because nuclear submarines are continuously submerged few nuclear submariners see what we were about to witness. Only a small number of officers and crew are in the sail while underway on the surface and thus able to see what is happening outside the sub. What we saw was, under the prevailing conditions, a manifestation of a natural phenomenon at sea. A great sheet of accelerated water covers the bow. Being thin, and moving at the same velocity as the submarine, this sheet of water appears as a lustrous transparent glaze. As it proceeds toward the stern it slows and at a certain speed suddenly produces a standing wave of foamy water known as a hydraulic jump. The ship itself generates great diverging bow waves like a giant knife cutting the water. The wedge containing the bow waves invariably makes a perfect 19 degree 28 minute angle with the path of the ship. Similarly, the bow waves diverge tangent to a line that is always 35 degrees 16 minutes with the path of the ship. Behind, the great rolling following waves have a length (lambda) that depends on the speed of the ship.
I had learned the formula by heart as a form of poetry, and now I shouted, "C squared equals g lambda over 2 pi." These beautiful and immutable patterns are the same for a rowboat as for an aircraft carrier. Some may think that such knowledge detracts from the beauty of the scene but when one knows the details of the wave pattern one knows precisely what further beauty to look for -- the undulating reflections of the moon by night or the glittering shimmer of many suns by day. One appreciates with new insight the luxurious rolling, trailing waves -- as did we on the Nautilus, with those towering waves breaking over the bow, hurling their refreshing foam and spray into our faces. In a cathartic release of tension -- we were going to live to tell the tale -- our whole beings were filled with exultation as the skipper, Louistro, and I crawled along the deck, secured by safety lines, unbolting the steel plates and hurling them into the sea with fiendish glee. Our lungs bursting with the exhilarating breath of the sea, these words rang out in my memory:
Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;
Man marks the earth with ruin, -- his control
Stops with the shore.
Lord Byron notwithstanding, for eighteen months the Nautilus had taken on the ocean, fury and all, and the Nautilus had prevailed. The mission done, a simple, straightforward, and still classified modification of the ballast tank openings in hand, there remained only the debrief on our return and maybe my chance to extract wages from the CO at his own game. But that was not to be. Back in port, Wilkinson was besieged in the wardroom by reporters eager to hear of the latest exploits of the Nautilus, but oblivious to the real-life drama that had just unfolded. In the background, a radio was blaring the only sour note -- Yankee Don Larsen was pitching a World Series perfect game against my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. The secure telephone was ringing incessantly with calls from the BuShips admirals. The true story of our voyage, even though it was top secret, would spread swiftly though the fleet and soon enough I would be summoned to the science and technology helm to steer another ship away from rocks and shoals.
Copyright © 2001 by John Piña Craven