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Sea Stories: Tight Spaces


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Sea Stories: Tight Spaces


Naval service occasionally required me to get into and out of a few tight spots.  I’m not talking about potentially dangerous situations.  I’m referring to actual confined spaces.  Whilst traveling along life’s highway, I have discovered that I’m mildly claustrophobic and mildly acrophobic.  I don’t like tight spaces, and I don’t particularly like heights.  But I have always felt that succumbing to fear rather than facing it lets that fear rule over you and limit you.  So I have always tried to make myself do the things I feared.  Heights?  I learned rappelling, then taught rappelling, and ultimately took up parachuting.  I agreed to go up on high places when a task required it, rather than begging off and making someone else go up there.

The Navy also asked me to go into some very tight, confining spaces.  I am currently 6’1” tall and weigh 195 lbs.  In those days I was the same height but weighed between 180 and 190 lbs.  I’m not a small guy and I don’t fit well into tiny places.  This was therefore occasionally very uncomfortable.  I clearly remember the worst of these experiences.


I.                 One one midshipman cruise, I was being given a tour of a minesweeper.   These tiny ships were old even then, and made of wood to reduce their magnetic signature.  As many of the things aboard as possible were non-magnetic.  The tour led down a very small, round hatch in the afterdeck, and down a wooden ladder into After Steering, the rear-most compartment of the ship, which contained the rudder steering gear.  It was redolent of decades worth of hydraulic fluid, and a bit slippery.  The deck hatch (called a scuttle in Navy parlance) was about 18 or so inches in diameter.  It was a very tight fit requiring me to scrunch up my shoulders to get through it.  I could not see past it down into the small compartment, so was descending blind.  As I was focusing on this, my foot slipped off the lowest rung, and I dropped about a foot unexpectedly.  A wooden workbench was fitted into this tiny space, as there was absolutely no spare room on such a small ship, and this was a place where a work surface could be fitted.  A corner of this workbench protruded directly under the ladder.  I fell onto this corner, which neatly bisected my buttcrack, and I took my full weight onto my coccyx, probably cracking or breaking it.  It was excruciating and I was conscious of pain there for at least the next month.  I still have some pain there occasionally.  Strike One for tight spaces.

Nuclear Weaponsman - NAVY, COAST GUARD AND OTHER SEA ...


II.                On my Ballistic Missile Submarine, tight spaces were common, as you might imagine.  My bunk, for example.  Lie flat on your bed.  Place your elbow into your hipbone and point your fingers towards the ceiling.    Your fingertips would be touching the bottom of the bunk above you.  No worries, I carried on smartly, studying and learning as much about the boat as possible.  For a time I was spending my watches in the Torpedo Room, which on that class of boat was all the way forward in the nose.  I learned about the torpedoes, the tubes, and their support systems which allowed it all to work.  One of those clever systems was a mechanical interlock which prevents both the outer door and inner door of the torpedo tube from being open at the same time, thereby flooding and sinking the boat.  (This seemed a wonderfully prudent design to me!)  Torpedo tubes are also quite small:  about 21 inches in diameter and about 22 or so feet in length.  Take out your tape measure and look at 21 inches.  The torpedo fits very tightly in the tube.  There isn’t any spare room for any debris or material in there.  It could jam the weapon in the tube. So after every flooding of the tube with seawater, the tube is pumped empty, and some sailor actually has to crawl in headfirst and wipe it down with a rag, removing any sea life or debris which may have entered.  On one watch, we actually fired a blank shot, called a “water slug” out of an empty tube to test the firing systems.  I was given the honor of pushing the button.  WHAM.  Big jolt, big rush of compressed air.  I was Clark Gable in a WWII movie.  What fun! Then the leading torpedoman said “whoever fires the tube, dives the tube. That’s the rule.”  So I was handed a rag, the tube was pumped down and the breech door opened, and I was shoved headfirst into the 21-inch tube and bade to hunch my way all the way out to the far end.  This, while the boat was hundreds of feet below the surface, at patrol depth.  I hunched.  I wiped.  I kept calm and carried on.  The tube was as black as night and very cold.  The Torpedo Gang was yelling “encouragements” up the tube, and directing me to kiss the muzzle door, as this was my first tube ride, and that it was “tradition.”  I delivered a big old smacker to the cold, wet steel door…..and they slammed the breech door shut 22 feet behind me with a resounding clang.  I instantly recalled that the mechanical interlock was now bypassed, and it was at least theoretically possible that a stray electrical impulse could open the outer door to the pressure of the sea.  I was not best pleased.  On this class of boat, the passive sonar array was located conformally around the nose, and around the tubes.  This was the boats “ears”, and the means by which potential adversaries would be detected.  I was later told that the Sonar Shack called down to the Torpedo Room and insisted that whoever was in the torpedo tube be let out immediately….they couldn’t hear a damn thing for all the yelling that was going on.  Strike Two.

Was it possible to escape from the Russian submarines ...


III.              When a ship undergoes a baseline overhaul, as much as possible is done to repair and maintain it to like new condition.  This includes the sandblasting, cleaning, repriming and repainting of tank interiors.  Fuel storage tanks on a warship are usually located in the hollow space between the outer hull and an inner hull, between adjacent structural ribs.  They conform to the shape of the ship, and are mostly well below the waterline so as to keep the weight very low for stability.  As having many thousands of gallons of fuel freely sloshing back and forth would be very bad for stability as well, the tanks are baffled.  This means that they are subdivided with internal barriers into little cells, about the size of long coffins.  There are oval scuttles connecting each cell with the adjacent ones, so fuel can drain back and forth, but it is slowed down to prevent that sloshing.  One such main fuel tank on my ship had been overhauled, and was about to be bolted shut for several years.  Procedure required that someone go down in the tank to make sure that all blasting grit, painting materials, stray wrenches or tools, rags or anything else which could clog the fuel system had been removed before the tank could be certified ready for service.  I happened by at just the wrong moment, and was asked if I was willing to do the job.  Several sets of enlisted men’s eyes looked at me, wanting to see if I would demur and make some one of them do something I was not willing to do myself.   To hell with that.  So I said I would!  I was dressed in a set of dirty coveralls and handed one of those angle-headed OD green flashlights like troops used in Vietnam.  As I recall, I went in feet first.  The tank reeked of decades worth of fuel oil which had seeped deep into the metal, even after cleaning.  Hunch forward, pass through a scuttle into the next cell, then the next.  Then twist and proceed through a horizontal scuttle down a level, through three or four more cells, passing through a tight scuttle each time.  Then twist and down again.  I was hanging in there.  I got to the very end, completing my inspection, and for some dumb reason, decided to turn off my flashlight momentarily.  Bad, bad mistake.  If I hadn’t been claustrophobic before then, I dang sure was now.  It was awful, like a crushing weight rushing in on me.  I knew I was far below the waterline, with all those cells to traverse before getting back to light and fresh air.  I could not get that light on and get out of there soon enough.  It makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck even now and I’m not sure I could do it again if I had to.  It is a job for a very small and very brave man.  Strike Three.

In case you are wondering, I have left instructions in my will that when I die, my body is to be cremated.  There ain’t no way I’m going back into a box that size to spend years or centuries awaiting the Resurrection.  Not a chance. 

Edited by Gunboat1
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Story two just confirmed i would never make it as a submariner.

I did not enjoy engineering spaces, supply storerooms, or any place enclosed. CIC was claustrophobic  enough for me.

I always wanted to be topside.

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The tightest space I've ever had to crawl through was over the top of munitions in a fully packed magazine, squeezing between the top of the ammo and the overhead, taking care not to disturb any sprinkler heads or bang my head on any angle irons while conducting inventory.  I've still got dents in my skull from those pesky angle irons. 

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