08 September 2005

Oh Carp, what a duty day!

It has been a while since I had a good long post, so I thought I’d make it interesting:

TINS* - And yet, it is all about, err, -it-:

It is a long one, so click on ‘Full Story’ to read it.

Before I launch into my tale, an explanation for non-submariners is in order. Submarines are often referred to as self-contained. This is not entirely true. While they do make their own power, and they do not need to go ashore for water and air, they have to interact with the ocean for many essentials. Water we distill from the ocean, obviously, and air we produce via electrolysis of water. We also discharge, among other things, air contaminates (carbon dioxide, hydrogen, ex…) and, ahhh, human waste. How we discharge this waste is the backbone of my story. At sea, there are two main ways of emptying our “sanitary” tanks (think sewage system). We can pump them to sea, which, while slow, can be done at any depth due to the strength of the pump, or we can use pressurized air to “blow” them to sea, which is much quicker, but is much more dependant on the backpressure of the sea due to depth, and noisier. In port it is much the same, except we have a hose connected to the boat that leads to some kind of sewage collection – the type of collection varies depending on the port.

So, on with my story.

This story arc takes place on my last few months on the good old USS Ustafish. I had been on board for three years, I was the longest qualified duty officer on board, and I knew my job cold. Duty should have been smooth sailing for me, right? That is what I thought. Foolish mortal. What really happened was the biggest string of bad luck and bad duty days that our boat had seen in years.

It was less than a month before our boat was set to deploy. Our sea/shore rotation was insane, and so, any time we were in port the CO tried to cut everyone loose. However, it also meant our in-port watchstanding was a little rusty. When we took the duty, we quickly realized that the duty section we had just relieved had left us with nearly full sanitary tanks. Apparently, they just didn’t want to bother with getting rid of the stuff. My Duty Chief (our A-Gang LPO) and I quickly realized that we would have to secure the heads until the sanitary tanks were emptied. Therefore, getting the tanks done was a priority. So, to expedite things, my section leader and duty chief requested that we blow tanks instead of pump them. We normally pumped in port, because it was easier, but, we had blown sans in port before, and, frankly, we wanted our heads back, so I gave the go-ahead. Now, in Groton, the san tanks are connected by hose to base sewage piping that runs underneath the piers. Spaced along that piping are relief valves, to prevent any gas accumulation from overpressurizing the pipes and bursting them. However, if you shoot pressurized waste into this sewage system at a sufficiently high pressure, sewage will reach the relief valves and cause them to lift open. One can tell this is happening when the manhole over the lifting relief valve is lifted 6-8 feet in the air by a geyser of poop. I know this, because, in his haste to empty our tanks, our intrepid on-coming belowdecks watch had, instead of slowly throttling air to the san tanks to blow them dry, and thrown the air valve full open, immediately pressurizing the san tanks to a much higher pressure than the sewage system could handle. In his defense, the operating procedure did indeed say to throttle the air “at sea” to 5 psi over sea pressure, to reduce noise, and didn’t say a thing about throttling in port. However, that did not make the environmental office any happier, nor most of my duty section, which had to assist in the cleanup.

Skip to four days later. I am back on duty (yup, four section, senior guy privileges) with the same duty section. After lunch, we decide we are going to be a responsible duty section, and empty our san tanks so that the next day’s duty section doesn’t inherit full tanks like we did last time. However, this time, we are going to pump – no lifting manhole covers for us this time, thankyouverymuch! So, very carefully, and with much deliberation, we line up to pump sans to the pier. We start pumping, and everything seems to be going along just fine. Then, right as we are finishing up the tanks, the pier guard calls down to the boat on his radio that the manhole cover is rattling ominously. We quickly secure our lineup – the tanks were mostly empty anyway, and do a quick review. We did everything right, but we don’t know why the manhole rattled – but the good news is it did not jump into the air, so no cleanup. Skip to a few hours later. My section leader, an MM1, is talking to his counterpart on the Seawolf, who was on the other side of the pier from us, while they are at the smoke pad. He quickly comes down to the wardroom to tell me what he had heard. It seems that Building 21 had lined up to blow sans, as we had done 4 days previously, but, unlike us, and due in no small part to the dire warnings from squadron to all boats not to repeat our mishap, they (correctly) only slightly pressurized their san tanks. However, when they commenced blowing, they saw their discharge pressure shoot up, and, assuming their valve lineup to be incorrect (why else would pressure shoot up so quickly?) they quickly secured their lineup to figure out what went wrong. What they didn’t realize was that while they were attempting to blow their tanks, our sanitary pump was faithfully chugging away, pumping our san tank to the same sewage line they were connected to – they were seeing our pressure – it was this combined pressure that made the manhole cover rattle. What the also failed to appreciate was that in shouting at their rather junior sailor to secure his lineup, they caused him to panic, and he screwed up his lineup while shutting down. Really screwed it up. To the point that their tanks overflowed. What confused the Seawolf A-ganger was how the blasted watchstander had managed to overflow the tanks. You guessed it – their screwed up lineup had allowed us, unknowingly, to pump our san tanks to theirs. Yup, we overflowed their san tanks. Ooops. Bad for them, funny for us.

Skip to three days later (so much for seniority) – a little over a week and a half before we deploy, and I was stressed, and not just because it was a duty day. I had been acting Navigator for a while, as our Nav had gotten fired, and I was his only JO. Trying to get the department ready for what was sure to be a longer than 6 month deployment was starting to wear thin. The good news was our new, official Navigator was due to report any day now. The bad news was I was on duty when I really needed to be doing other things – like the full crypto inventory that was due. Ah well. Well, a few hours after lunch, it was again apparent that we were going to have to deal with our san tanks. After my previous two duty days, I was not going to take this lightly. I briefed the entire duty section, walked through the entire OP, and the Duty Chief and I stationed extra watchstanders at key gauges and valves to ensure we did not screw this up. We lined up to pump sans, the section leader double-checked the lineup, the duty chief walked the hose, and with that, I gave permission to pump. Again, everything started off just fine. Then, however, my radiomen screwed me. Anxious to keep me out of trouble, one of my radiomen (who was a gauge watch, and therefore on sound powered phones), called up to the topside watch thusly: “Topside, Machinery Room, check the pier valve open.” He was worried that, if the pier valve was shut, we would simply overpressurize the san hose and pop it like a balloon, and he realized suddenly that he had heard us check the inboard line-up, but not the outboard line-up (we had, he just didn’t know it). The topside watch answered: “Aye.” Those of you in the know are probably screaming, “Ack! No verbatim repeatback!” And you would be right to do so. Our nubly little topside then pointed to an even nublier sectionmate, and, because topside was tied to the phones, told him to “open the pier valve,” not check it open. When the nubly electronics tech told the topside watch he did not know -how- to open the pier valve, the topside watch said, “It is simple – if the valve handle is pointing 90 degrees off the pipe, it is shut. Just turn the handle until it is in line with the pipe. And hurry, they are already pumping!” What the topside watch didn’t know was that the san pier connections had handles that came off rather easily, so they had a valve indicator that you were supposed to use instead of the valve handle. If our nub had known this, he might have noticed it indicated the valve was open when he went to it. But he didn’t know this – but he did notice that the valve was 90 degrees off the pipe, so he dutifully turned it inline with the pipe – shutting the pier valve. According to the topside watch, the hose quickly swelled up like a balloon. Then, well – have you ever turned on the water to your hose outside without holding on to the hose? Imagine a 4 inch diameter hose flopping around like that. While spewing poop. Oh, did I mention that at that very moment, who should be walking across the brow but our newly-reporting Navigator. My relief. To add to it all, the topside watch, after we had managed to secure the san pump, stuck his head out of his shack (where he had jumped when he saw the hose begin to swell), and helpfully exclaimed to a drenched-in-you-know-what Navigator, “Welcome to the boat, Nav!”

Skip to about a week later (short underway intervening) – I am back on duty, our first day back in port, and just a few short days before we deploy. The Chief of the Watch coming in to port, on his very first qualified watch, had not thought to pump sans, so there we were, again, having to pump sans. And yes, by now, I had a reputation. So, again we had the full duty section brief. Again the lineup was second checked. This time the duty chief stayed topside to ensure no one touched the lineup (he was no fool, though, and stayed in the topside watch’s shack). Now, a bit more explanation. The hose that connected our sanitary system to the pier fitted directly onto the pier valve, but it required a brass fitting to attach to our hull opening. Public works provides that fitting. All it is is an adapter to allow the hose to fit onto our hull penetration. Usually. Public works did have one oddball fitting, that had an internal valve in it. They were not supposed to issue it, as no one was used to it. You guessed it, they gave it to us. The only way to check it was to be lowered down via safety harness – the only time this was done was when it is first attached in port – it is then left in place. Well, the mechanic who attached it in port did not notice the valve on it – why would he, we never had one there before? We learned an interesting fact, however. Our san pump can produce enough pressure to shatter brass. Of course, the downside to gaining this practical knowledge is that in order to learn it, you must then deal with the resultant poop geyser shooting up and out the side of your boat. Oh, did I mention the Seawolf was one pier over, having her change of command? That meant that the Commodore, the Group Admiral, and many others were on a platform that faced the Seawolf, and just behind her, us? What I have not mentioned up until now was that it was standard operating procedure to call the squadron engineer anytime an accident like this happened (he and I talked a lot). Knowing full well that he was at the change of command, I called his cell. Before I even said a word, this is what I heard, “Yes, I know which boat this is. Yes, I know what happened. As a matter of fact, everyone knows what happened, including the admiral. We will have the fact finding in one hour. Is this LT PBS?” Me: “Yes sir.” SQUENG: “Figures. [click]”

Ahhh, but then came deployment. Certainly this string of bad luck won’t follow me on deployment, right? Our first port call was Rota, Spain. As I was relatively senior, I got the day we pulled in as duty day – the Senior Watch Officer trusted me (ha!) to get everything set up right for the port call, and that way I spent the least amount of time in port on duty. Suffice it to say that I did -not- screw up the sans, but that submariners and machine guns do not mix. That is the subject of a whole different post, though. But we had no problem with sans! The streak was broken! This was, of course, aided by the fact that in Rota, you simply pump your sans into the bay alongside your boat. Ewwww, the fishies like eating brown trout!

Back to sea we went, and, many weeks later, we pulled into La Maddalena, alongside the sub tender stationed there. Again, I had duty the day we pulled in, for the same reasons as above. This time, however, we would pump sans to the tender’s sanitary tanks, and they would pump them to shore at their convenience. We, the oncoming duty section, were warned by the squadron liaison officer that every ship in the past year had screwed this up the first time they did it. He asked, nay he begged us to be the first to not screw this up. No problem, I thought, we have screwed up sans every possible way, and we now know how to prevent that. We will not screw this up. Ha. So, the time comes for the inevitable pumping. Again, a full duty section brief, especially since this was a new environment. Everyone got hand-held radios this time, as our sound powered phones would not reach the tender, and you had better believe that we were going to station someone at the valve on the tender and be in communication with him. So, pumping commenced. Again, things were going along just fine. It was about that time that a group of senior Caribineri came for a tour of the boat. For those of you who do not know, the Caribineri are like a mix of the police, FBI, and military police for us. And, in my experience, they are none too friendly to visiting American sailors. So, the onus was on me to make sure their tour went flawlessly, to try and butter them up and keep them out of our hair while we were in port. They came down the brow in expensive looking suits and imperial expressions on their faces. And only one of them spoke English. Poorly. I, of course, spoke zero Italian. So I began showing them around topside, pointing out the periscopes and antennae, answering questions about the capstan and line-handling, when, suddenly, it began to rain. Except it wasn’t rain. It seems that the duty section sailor on the tender decided to lean over the railing to get a better look at the Caribineri, and while he was doing so, a tender sailor, seeing the hull valve that we were discharging to in a position he had never seen it before, decided to close it. Let’s review that statement. He closed the valve. Unilaterally. Without talking to the guy with the radio standing next to the valve. Without requesting permission from his engineering watchstanders. He.just.closed.it. So once again, the san hose swelled like a balloon. This time, however, instead of imitating a garden hose gone amuck, it split down its seam, sprinkling you-know-what topside. Where the Caribineri were. Luckily they had their backs to the san hose. I quickly ushered them below decks. When they asked me what had been spraying topside, I explained that we were moving the periscope, and as I had just told them, we had a garden hose topside to lubricate the ‘scopes, as they were normally seawater lubricated. The English-speaking one sniffed his suit coat, and asked, “Are you sure this is seawater?” I assured him it was, and then hastily turned the tour over to my Duty Chief, as I could no longer keep a straight face. And I smelled like san tank. The best part of that was the tender defended its crewmember, and actually said he was taking laudable initiative in correcting what he thought was an out-of-spec condition. They did not change their tune until we threatened to weld the valve open so it wouldn’t happen again. Sheesh.

Thankfully, blessedly, my string of bad duty days ended there. Primarily because I did not have another one – we went back to sea, and by the time I was up in the rotation again, it was time for me to transfer to shore duty. Trust me, the Eng was not entirely displeased to see me go…
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At 9/08/2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Had me laughing too much, ouch! What color was Ustafish usually painted?

At 9/08/2005, Blogger Rob said...

That is the shittiest story I've ever read... :) Great one...but hey, if you ever come to the Olympia, I don't want to stand duty with you!!


At 9/10/2005, Anonymous spectroid said...

I am in hysterics...but of course, we, of the OOOOOOLLLLD Navy, Cruiser type, would never, ever, ever, do anything like that....and if you believe that, I have some oceanfront property in Arizons that I'll sell you, cheap.

At 9/10/2005, Blogger Lubber's Line said...

OK PBS, you got me wondering if you were the duty officer on the starboard outboard boat in this story;-) But then again I don't recall you ever claiming 640 class SSBN duty in 1981.

At 9/11/2005, Blogger PigBoatSailor said...


Heh, you don't even want to know how old I was then ;-)

At 9/12/2005, Blogger John of Argghhh! said...


Gotta love what we do.

At 9/12/2005, Blogger Brainy435 said...

This reminds of Tiger Cruises when the inevitable civilian would ignore the head secured signs for a mid-night potty break. It's impressive to see a perfectly human-shaped form shown in relief against a newly brown-stained bulkhead.

At 9/12/2005, Blogger PigBoatSailor said...


Best I ever saw was the outline of the A-Ganger who had lined up sans to blow in the first place. He walked right past the signs he had hung and opened the ball valve! The phrase "turd-herder" was never more appropriate =D

At 9/12/2005, Blogger Ed said...

On my 688 Ustafish we had a rash of nubs trying to use the head when we were blowing the sans. Never in port though always underway. Those of us trapped in Groton generally refer to Bldg 21 as the PIERWOLF now. They are a sibling in a group known to me as the "Evil Triplets" SSN 21, 22 and 23. Lord I hate them. They are a logisticians nightmare.

At 9/13/2005, Blogger PigBoatSailor said...


Don't tell Bubblehead that, he was Eng on 2/3 of them ;-)

At 10/30/2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice blog enjoyed it :)

Keep up the excellent work! and i bookmarked u!

so cant wait for ur next post! :)


At 11/05/2005, Blogger Hoodia said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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