Skipjack Moments

by Steve Gentry


Since completing shakedown following our period in Charleston Shipyard (SubSafe Upgrade) we have moved to Norfolk D&S Pier 22, and have put in some hours at sea (20-30 days total). Having worked the boat through the paces (lots of drills, deep, quiet, slow, fast, and angle/dangles) the crew is becoming proficient and us new folks are getting certified at their watch stations. I’m just a boot FN who has been certified on the helm and planes and I am logging enough hours at the diving stations that I pretty well know the operational characteristics of the boat… Holding depth (especially at periscope depth so as not to broach the sail), certified as battle station planesman, making depth and course changes smoothly, and of course the ultimate... Angle/Dangles. For Skipjack, high speed and large up/down angles in conjunction with large rudder angle changes, is what the boat was designed for. We were designed to maneuver at speed, pursue the target, launch our fish, and get the hell outa Dodge!!! Here’s a special story that I recall…

I was working the outboard position on the diving station. I had control of the rudder and the stern planes and my buddy had the fairwater planes on the inboard station. We sit side-by-side facing forward, the Diving Officer sits in a tall chair between us, the Ballast Control Operator (BCP) is just behind and to our left, and the Captain, Cmdr Tomb, has the Con from a slightly elevated position at the periscope stand just slightly aft and to the right. We’re all close together… Takes up about an 8-foot radius.

Captain Tomb has been aboard Skipjack for several years and has worked his way from LCDR, to CDR (Captain of the boat). He is one sharp officer… Rhodes Scholar, fits a uniform well, and knows the boat from top to bottom. He projects confidence and authority and is just the kind of Captain you want to have... Well regarded by the entire crew. He’ll be the HMFWIC during this memorable day!

“Now rig ship for Angle/Dangles”, the Captain broadcast on the 1MC.

After giving the crew several minutes to stow what you don’t what broken, we begin to maneuver. From the Con, the Captain orders several course/depth changes as we work our way from Ahead Two-Thirds, Ahead Full, and then Ahead Flank. As we increase speed the fairwater planes have a tendency to cavitate, so I’m controlling depth and headings from my outboard station. Man, this is fun and I’m getting pretty damn good at rolling out precisely on the new course and holding bubble/depth assignments as instructed. I’ve got my seatbelt pulled snug and sitting low in the chair to keep myself braced in nice and tight. When we do the big angles everyone has to hold on for dear life... It’s like an ‘E’ Ticket ride at Disneyland!

I’ve learned that the boat has a rather unique characteristic when doing big rudder angle changes... Because of the torque of the screw and the slightly off-set rudder/stern planes, the boat behaves differently when turning left, or right. At a Full/Flank bell, when applying right full rudder, the boat will tend to raise its nose up and you must keep applying a little bit of ‘down’ on the stern planes to keep the nose down... Just a little! BUT, with left full rudder, the nose will raise very slightly and will then fall off into a nose down position... A delay of a couple seconds before you need to put some rise on the stern planes to keep the nose up. Got it? Right turn... Use a little ‘down’, and left turn... Wait a couple seconds, then use a little ‘up’.

Enter the new Diving Officer trainee…

We’ve done a series of depth/course changes and all has gone well... The Captain has called the orders, the Diving Officer (sitting between the planesmen) has relayed instructions to us and insured they are complied with. The Captain now instructs the new officer, LCDR W., to take the Diving Officer position for training purposes. This is Mr. W’s first opportunity to train as Diving Officer, but he is projecting confidence as he assumes the position.

The Captain calls several instructions, which are promptly responded to by Mr. W. and we begin to increase speed and depth/rudder angles. The boat begins to bank into the turns and she begins to perform like the sport model that she is! We ultimately are cranking along at a flank bell and make several depth changes... Then, a little rudder angle is added. We are starting to rock and roll as the Captain calls for Right Full Rudder!

“Right Full Rudder, aye.”, responds Mr. W.

I crank in the rudder, report the rudder right full, Mr. W. relays this back to the Captain...

“Very Well”, the Captain responds.

The boat begins to bank to the right and the nose begins to rise a bit... I bump the nose back down with some dive input on the controls. We hold assigned depth pretty well (within 20-30 feet) and roll out on the new assigned course. Everyone is happy! The Captain then orders Left Full Rudder...

“Left full rudder, aye.”, responds Mr. W.

I crank in the left full order and report to Mr. W. that the rudder is left full... He relays that to the Captain.

Within a second or two, the nose begins to rise, as it always does, with left full rudder and Mr. W. tells me to watch my bubble... It’s getting nose high. I start to tell Mr. W. that it’ll drop off into a nose down posture in just a second, BUT Mr. W. wasn’t listening! He said,

“I told you to take that bubble off!”

And he reaches past me and pushes the controls forward. He pushes the controls forward at the same instant that the boat started its own nose-down attitude. The flank speed, hard left rudder, and Mr. W’s pushing the nose over placed us into the most radical dive and turn that we’d ever been on!!!

The boat cranks in a huge bank to the left and a steep down angle... I’m holding the controls pulled back against my chest (maximum ‘up’ input), got the rudder cranked in left full, and I’m falling out of the seat because my seatbelt has come loose. A ‘hush’ has fallen over the control room as the boat does a 40+ degree port roll and 40+ degree down angle and we are out of control… Doing max speed in a big giant spiral!

The depth gauge is chattering off depths so fast (click-click-click-click) that I only make out every 50-100 feet. I am scared to death and I’m holding the rudder left full and full rise on the planes and we are diving FAST. Suddenly, the Captain’s cool voice says,

“Rudder Amidships…”

Mr. W. relays the instructions, and I comply. The boat immediately rolls out level, I’ve still got full ‘up’ in the stern planes and we start UP! I release the full up on the stern planes and the Captain says make your depth 100’. Mr. W. relays the assigned depth and I acknowledge.

I’m watching the depth gauge and I keep bumping some of the ‘up angle’ off the boat as we continue our climb back to 100’... We are going so fast!!! At some point, I realize that I need to apply lots of dive to level off at 100’ and I apply 20-30 degrees ’down’, then full ‘down’ on the stern planes to try to level off. Hell, we are going so fast that we fly right on past 100’ and pop clear out of the water... We then plunge back into the water and dive uncontrolled back down to 300’ while I am applying full ‘rise’ on the stern planes!! Finally the boat is back under control and we slow to Ahead 1/3.

Everyone is totally in shock... We have just been through the most hellish ride you’ve ever seen. I swear that while we were doing that death spiral, I would have sat right there, frozen in position, had it not been for the Captain’s calm instructions to bring the ‘rudder amidships’. It took us all 10-15 minutes to get our heart rates returned to normal, relax a bit, and think of the mess in our skivvies.

I recall overhearing the Captain exclaim,

“Mr. W., let that be a lesson to you... The planesmen know how this boat handles... Just relay my instructions!”

“Aye, sir”, responds Mr. W.

Skipjack was a real motor scooter!