'Come on, sir, take control of our sub'

Michael Ruane, an American journalist, recalls the day he 'drove' a nuclear sub
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I didn't really want to drive the submarine. I'd spent much of the day on the USS Asheville trying to suppress a growing seasickness.

I didn't really want to drive the submarine. I'd spent much of the day on the USS Asheville trying to suppress a growing seasickness.

The Navy had been very accommodating: It even had an admiral on board to answer questions, which scared the dickens out of every crewman there, way more than the presence of a reporter. But now it was time to drive the boat.

This was a few years ago off San Diego. We were in a nuclear sub that is a sister vessel to the USS Greeneville, which collided last week with a Japanese fishing boat, apparently killing nine on board the smaller craft. I was the military correspondent for Knight-Ridder newspapers and the Navy was showing me and another reporter the ins and outs of subs. The tours were a regular thing: the Navy needed every iota of good press because submarines are extremely expensive and hard to fund.

We had crept out of harbour on the surface, radioing over and over to everyone in sight that we were an "outbound US submarine ... outbound US submarine." The skipper, Dough Guthe, said the spectre of a collision in the busy harbour drove him nuts. The boat was black, covered with what felt like tyre rubber, had a low profile above the water, and could be run down by almost anything, Guthe said. The conning tower was jammed with lookouts tethered to the railings.

We reached a "box" of deep water where the boat could manoeuvre away from commercial vessels and submerged. The boat felt crowded, busy and professional. Then came the big moment.

Nah, I said, I didn't really need to drive the boat.

Sure you do, my hosts said, everybody likes to drive the boat.

It was hot. I had a headache. It's okay, I said.

Come on, sir, drive the boat.

I felt as if somebody was going to get canned if I didn't drive the boat. Maybe the admiral would get angry: "Why didn't he drive the boat?"

The two crewmen at the side-by-side steering wheels were standing beside their blue vinyl chairs, indicating that I and the other reporter should sit down already and drive the boat.

At the seat I took, the wheel controlled the down-and-up pitch of the boat. Facing the array of instruments was like sitting in a car with no windshield. There was a guy standing right behind me, ready to grab the wheel if I did something rash, and someone on either side as well.

After they explained how the wheel worked I moved it gently and felt the bow drop. Emboldened, I moved it the other way, and felt the boat pull steeply up. Papers began to slide. Somebody said something like, Ohhhkay sir, that's a little too much. I switched seats with the other guy. And the next thing I knew I was finished driving the boat.

Everyone seemed relieved.


Michael E Ruane is a staff writer on 'The Washington Post'. © The Washington Post Company.