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REFLECTIONS ON A TIGER CRUISE
by Joseph J. Buff, [IMAGE]2004

Published in THE SUBMARINE REVIEW in the January 2004 issue

Photo Courtesy: Walter P. Noonan
[IMAGE] Introduction and Purpose

Back in October, 1999, the present writer was privileged to join a Tiger Cruise aboard the USS MIAMI, SSN 755, from the Naval Submarine Base New London to Halifax, Canada. Commander (now Captain) Jim Ransom was the MIAMI’s CO. MIAMI departed Groton, CT, on a Friday at 1000, and I debarked from the ship in Halifax the following Monday at 1400.

Many readers of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW will be aware that Tiger Cruises ordinarily embark close family relations of a Navy ship’s crew, and can be an excellent vehicle for enhancing morale, cohesion, recruiting, and reenlistment rates. In this voyage, the “Tigers” were primarily fathers or sons of the MIAMI’s officers, chiefs, and enlisted personnel. Due to a last minute cancellation, I was invited by a Navy League contact to participate. As a professional writer at that time engaged in the final editing of my first novel of future undersea warfare, the voyage was an invaluable formative experience. I remain forever grateful to the Department of the Navy, and to everyone else involved, for this wonderful learning opportunity.

Submariners may wonder what value this personal reminiscence could provide them, as it might appear to be “preaching to the choir.” However, many public naval forums have stated the importance of the Silent Service communicating effectively to the broader military audience, and to the public in general. Perhaps this documentation by someone “on the outside looking in” might help aid submariners to better grasp the perspectives and possible knowledge gaps of their wider constituencies -- and thus act in some small way as a tool or referent for those “on the inside speaking outward.”

It was not my intention in joining the Tiger Cruise to compose an article about it afterward, but rather to obtain only what journalists might call “deep background,” for additional novels and non-fiction writings I planned -- the idea of this present piece came slowly in the months that followed. More than three years passed since the voyage, as intervening world events repeatedly gave pause: the KURSK disaster, the USS GREENVILLE collision, the attack on the USS COLE, the horrors of 9/11/01, and the ongoing global War on Terror triggered by that infamous day. Yet in retrospect, these events all underscore a significant point: that serving on a nuclear submarine is a risky but absolutely vital calling.

Enough of preliminaries. Let’s go to sea!

First Impressions

I reported to the MIAMI at 0800. The sky was clear and sunny, the air refreshingly cool and brisk -- some thin mist on the Thames dissipated rapidly. Crewmen were busy making final preparations to leave port.

I had been on a number of SSN dock tours, so I had some idea of what to expect when inside the ship. But I knew that in the hours to come, I would be thrust into an overcrowded environment in which physical, mental, or even “acoustic” privacy hardly existed, and from which there could be no escape. This would be a social test of a sort I had never faced before. I knew the crew had all been carefully selected, tested, and trained, and had bonded strongly as a group -- for instance, when the MIAMI made naval history by firing Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles in two different theaters of quasi-war on a single deployment. Unlike the Tiger Cruise blood relatives, I was a complete outsider. Yet my concerns vanished from the start: Everyone was very friendly, clearly proud of their work, eager to talk shop (within the bounds of security), and made me feel warmly welcome.

One thing that impressed me as I got settled in that Friday morning, and we got underway, was the considerable ethnic diversity of the crew. Here was a true melting pot, men of all backgrounds welded into a single organic whole.

Since I was sponsored by the ship’s Chief of the Boat, I ate meals in the enlisted mess. Lunch that Friday was a chance to experience further the relaxed and open mood of the crew, their high morale, and their obvious competence and pride. And yes, the food was terrific!

When we were out past the twelve mile limit, the Officer of the Deck gave me permission to climb up the bridge trunk and stand in the tiny cockpit atop the sail. Lookouts wearing safety harnesses scanned in every direction using binoculars. The radar was running -- and metal radar reflectors were in position to enhance our signature for other vessels. Someone kept track of surface contacts using erasable marker pen on the Plexiglas windscreen of the cockpit. Seawater cascaded smoothly over the bow; looking down through that clear water I could see the vents for the forward ballast tank group, and the hatches for the Tomahawk launch tubes. The MIAMI’s wake, a churning brilliant white against the sparkling blue of the ocean, stretched behind us endlessly. I gazed toward the distant nautical horizon.

I said to the OOD, “So these are international waters. Nobody owns them, and here we are. Now I understand what ‘seapower’ means.” The OOD agreed.

“Dive! Dive!”

It took until about 2000 to pass the edge of the continental shelf and be ready to submerge. The Tigers (guests) were asked to assemble in one corner of the control room, between the ship control station and the navigation plotting table. It was fascinating to watch the instruments and readouts as the men carefully made preparations for diving, and then MIAMI descended beneath the waves. Except for a slight down-angle of the deck, and increasing depth indicated at the ship control station, I might never have known that the massive vessel had left the surface. Rather than feeling nervous or claustrophobic, my thoughts ran more toward “Ah, at last I get to see, and feel, and savor what a nuclear submarine is really designed for. Operations submerged on the high seas.”

The close interpersonal contact to me felt cozy, the ship’s hull like a protective womb for all of us inside. With trained paramedics and firefighters only seconds away, and with nuclear-qualified people held to the highest imaginable standards of preparedness always nearby, I believed (and still believe) I was as safe as one could ever ask for. The more time I spent on the ship, in fact, the more I learned to move deftly among her people and their tightly packed equipment and machinery; as the hours passed during the cruise, the MIAMI actually seemed larger.

Sleep? What’s That?

From several years of research before the Tiger Cruise, I knew that SSN crews worked very hard. I also knew -- by studying fiction and non-fiction on various naval topics ranging from the Age of Fighting Sail to the post-Cold War era -- that once underway one quickly becomes accustomed to the rhythms of the ship, including the regular watch-change schedule, and the cares of the land often tend to fall away. Now I had a chance to see this first-hand. I can state unequivocally that no amount of reading accounts written by others comes even close to experiencing this special and unique land/sea transition personally.

My sleeping quarters were in the Los Angeles-class design’s “Nine Man” compartment. I was assigned the top rack in a tier of three. Access to my tier was partly obstructed by another -- the opening to my rack was about four feet wide, and my mattress was up at about the level of my chin. Getting in there, and doing so quietly in the dark (because crewmen around me were sleeping) was quite a challenge that first night.

I “slept” about four hours. I put “slept” in quotes here on purpose. While I lay on my back, dozing very fitfully because of the sheer excitement of being there, I kept hoping I wouldn’t roll over in my sleep and fall to the deck! Then, once I did finally manage to fall asleep, the ship descended to a considerable depth to perform engineering tests. These tests included firing a number of water slugs from the torpedo tubes. The release of compressed air with each simulated firing made my ear canals ache. Then the ship suddenly put on a steep up-bubble and made toward shallower depth at what felt like flank speed. Upward I went with the ship, lying in my rack, ascending toward the surface feet first (i.e., with my head downhill). Then the ship slowed and leveled off and the 1MC blared “Secure from deep submergence.” So much for my first night’s sleep! It became clear that work aboard the MIAMI never ceased, and while underway the ship herself did not for one instant slumber. Every minute, every activity, went toward helping maintain and operate the ship, or toward improving crew training and “maintaining” basic bodily needs -- so the crew could go back and maintain and operate some more.

I had turned in to my rack at midnight, local time. I was awake and on my way to the head by 0400 Saturday morning. For me, this Tiger Cruise was a business research trip; I was determined to make all of it count.

There was one poignant note when I went to sleep that Friday night: I had traveled extensively on business in my previous career, and spent many nights in hotels. My last act before bed was always to call my wife from the hotel room. But there, aboard the MIAMI submerged somewhere in the North Atlantic -- alone behind the closed curtain of my rack -- there was no way whatsoever to “phone home.” I felt strong homesickness. Then I reminded myself that, for the MIAMI’s crew, this isolation from their loved ones happened every night, for months at a time. I came to better understand the sacrifices made by all who earn and wear the silver or gold Dolphins. (I “slept” another four hours on Saturday night; the being unable once again to phone home didn’t get any easier -- perhaps it never gets easier for Sailors either.)

My first real “Navy shower” on Saturday morning was an additional learning experience. The use of squeegees and sponges to constantly wipe down damp surfaces in the heads, to prevent the possible spread of germs, was yet another indication of how mutually interdependent and collectively self-reliant any submarine’s crew really are. I liked the idea of this sponging for cleanliness so much that I adopted it in my kitchen and bathrooms at home after the cruise!

I then learned a “pointed” lesson in exactly how crowded a submarine can get, while flossing my teeth. My elbows almost poked in the face the men on either side of me. This garnered some justified dirty looks, and I immediately grew more careful.

I ate a hearty breakfast along with the off-coming watchstanders. I was impressed by the variety of entrees available even at breakfast -- on Sunday morning, for instance, steak and eggs were one menu item. The coffee was strong and very good: exactly what I needed to get ready for my long and interesting first full day on the ship. The camaraderie among the crew as they dined was impressive, and gratifying. Again I felt very welcome, almost as if I were one of them for the duration of my visit.

The skill and dedication of the mess management specialists was just one of many things on the MIAMI that positively amazed me. These men provided extremely good service to their “customers.” In fact, at one point when Reuben sandwiches were being served for lunch, I casually mentioned that I followed a low-carbohydrate diet and would have to select something else. The mess management chief overheard, and at once offered to grill me a plate of corned beef with sauerkraut and melted cheese. Outstanding! And thus, the “breadless Reuben” was born, a small but important moment in Silent Service culinary history. The Navy definitely takes good care of its people.

Extreme Eco-Tourism

At one stage, while we were running deep in about seven thousand feet of water, I spent a couple of hours in the sonar compartment. Besides observing the different display screens, and hearing the sonarmen announce each new contact, I was permitted to listen to the noises outside the ship by borrowing a spare set of sonar headphones.

This was one of the most unforgettable moments during the cruise. I was able to hear whales calling, dolphins whistling, and shrimp “popping.” (To me, though, the shrimp gave off something more like a repetitive clickety-clack.) Hearing these biologics from deep underwater via sonar, on what amounted to a billion-dollar nuclear-powered sound system, was “extreme eco-tourism” at conceivably its most extreme!

To Be the Hunted

Saturday afternoon, as we made our transit north toward Halifax, the MIAMI did some cost effective double-duty by serving as a training target for P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft crews. We went to periscope depth to establish radio contact while an Orion was still at a distance, and then submerged so it could practice trying to find us using sonobuoys.

For most of this exercise, I returned to the sonar compartment and donned spare headphones and watched the console screens again. I could see and hear the sharp “plops” as each air-dropped sonobuoy hit the water. Sometimes the Orion would overfly the MIAMI, and the aircraft’s noise signature would streak diagonally across the broadband waterfalls like a comet. Talk about your high-bearing-rate contact!

For a little while, I pretended those Orions were enemy aircraft, hunting the MIAMI in anger during war. I came to understand more vividly the importance of stealth and secrecy. Knowing those aircraft might have been carrying anti-submarine torpedoes, and in a real combat scenario -- had they been hostile -- could have launched a full-scale attack, drove home to me two issues: the power an SSN or SSBN (or SSGN) possesses when it can shrewdly hide in the depths of the all-concealing ocean, and the extent to which everyone in the crew was so fully dependent on each other’s courage, and calm, and focused skill. In fact, in that moment of “make believe,” I came to most completely experience how we were all truly living and working inside a warfighting machine. Each of us aboard, and every thing we did or didn’t do, were analogous to components, or functions, of that all-surrounding and all-demanding machine that was also our home.

The supreme importance of good naval intelligence, of diligent counter-espionage, and of keeping classified information classified, could not have been more dramatically demonstrated than for me to be -- if only in my imagination -- sitting in the “hot seat” during an enemy attack in hostile waters.

The Tigers were allowed to witness a casualty drill, a simulated fire in the ship’s galley. The expression of concern and urgency on one crewman’s face as he dashed right past me to grab a fire extinguisher showed that the MIAMI’s crew trained the same way they would fight. Believing the “make-believe” in drills and simulations, clearly, was essential to survivability of the men and their ship.

“Helm, ahead flank.”

Dramatic and exciting in a different way was to be permitted to man the helm “under instruction.” I did this while the ship was submerged at a few hundred feet. I was very closely supervised, and there were known to be no collision hazards anywhere in the area.

Steering the ship wasn’t, at first, as easy as it looked. The officer at the conn began barking out helm orders in rapid succession and I became hopelessly confused. At one point I turned the rudder the wrong way, and we went so far off course that the sonar compartment called the control room to inquire if there had been a course change they weren’t told about! But I was allowed to learn from my mistakes -- to the credit of my instructors, as this is the best way to learn -- and soon enough I was acknowledging and executing helm orders with some confidence. The highlight was when the OOD ordered flank speed. To steer such a mighty and sophisticated undersea capital ship, while her nuclear reactor and whole propulsion plant were working very hard, called for total concentration, and yet was immensely satisfying.

“Surface the ship.”

Later in the cruise, on Sunday night, we surfaced for the long approach to our destination. Halifax was a vital assembly point for convoys during World War II, and is a historic seaport dating back to British colonial times. It remains today one of the busiest harbors in the world.

That night, the sea was engulfed in pea-soup fog. When permitted to observe through one of the periscopes, I could see a murky intermittent glow around relative bearing 180 -- the MIAMI’s blinking rudder light was illuminating the fog.

That last night, like many aboard, I never went to sleep. Hence I was able to share yet another submariner experience: “channel fever,” the adrenaline surge that comes with knowing you’ll soon be making a port call on leave. At 0100, I offered to man the helm under instruction again. I was curious to see what it was like to steer the ship on the surface, as opposed to while submerged. From 0100 to 0300, I manned the helm. The bridge was also manned, with extra lookouts because of the fog. The radar was going constantly, of course. So was the ship’s fog horn. Now, as submariners reading this article will know, while the bridge is manned the sail trunk hatches are always kept open as a safety measure for the men topside. At the helm, I was seated almost immediately below the bottom of the sail trunk. Every two minutes, a crewman on the bridge would shout down the trunk, “Blow the ship’s whistle.” This, I quickly learned, was done to warn control room personnel that all conversation was about to become impossible for several seconds. Then, the whistle (fog horn) would be blown. It was truly deafening! Yet the steady rhythm of it, blowing for some ten seconds every two minutes for the entire two hours I steered the ship, was also uplifting and soothing. My concentration on the ship control station instruments and control wheel was total. The gentle, smooth pitching and yawing as we cut through moderate cross-seas added to this almost transcendental clarity of mind. The fresh air coming down the sail trunk was delightful. My being felt purified in a manner I never imagined possible.

Because of the need for extra lookouts, the midnight watchstanders were working slightly short-handed. I hoped that by manning the helm for two hours during this period, I was doing some useful small thing to help out, to give back in return for the lifelong memories this voyage was giving to me.

In the morning, that Monday, come full daylight I was permitted onto the bridge again for a short while. There was a heavy mist and no horizon was visible. I quickly became drenched, but the experience was quite “atmospheric.”

Back below, I was able to observe all hands in the control room and sonar compartment working intently together. To enter such busy shipping lanes in such poor visibility was perhaps one of the most dangerous but necessary evolutions a submarine can perform in peacetime. The bow sphere’s active sonar probed continually for contacts. The surface-search radar rotated and rotated; its display screen glowed at a station beside the fire controlmen’s consoles. When in range, the MIAMI also maintained unbroken radio contact with the Halifax harbor-traffic approach coordination center. All these on-board and remote sensors and communication links were tightly integrated to produce an accurate plot of MIAMI’s position: relative to land or other potential hazards to navigation, and relative to all other vessels in the area and their projected tracks.

Arrival

Visibility improved sometime after sunrise. As we entered the roads to the harbor, even though running on the surface, both periscopes were put into heavy use. Bearings were taken off different landmarks constantly, to plot the ship’s position in the channel using visual data. The steady, purposeful ballet of the men at the periscope eyepieces, and the practiced speed and precision of other men marking the chart on the plotting table, bespoke an intensity of teamwork rarely seen in civilian life.

In late morning, in driving rain, the USS MIAMI docked safely in Halifax.

Conclusion

I returned to New York by commercial airline from Halifax. I quickly noticed a pattern to the questions about my voyage that friends and relations would ask:

1. Was I nervous? As already addressed above, I explained to them that I never felt safer during my entire adult life. The taxi ride home from LaGuardia Airport was probably vastly more dangerous.

2. Why do we still need submarines? I would explain the many essential missions performed by SSNs even in “peacetime,” such as stealthy forward presence and deterrence, intelligence gathering, Special Warfare operations, accompanying carrier battle groups, and indications, surveillance, and warnings. I would tell people how our SSN fleet had been virtually cut in half at the end of the Cold War, and new construction rates were inadequate for anticipated needs. After 9/11/01, things changed. People no longer asked me why we still needed submarines. Instead they asked what America was doing to make sure we always had enough.

THE END

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