"In September of 1989, Hurricane Hugo came roaring towards America's southeastern seaboard. People rushed to prepare for the storm's arrival, including the U.S. Navy. At Charleston Naval Base in South Carolina, submarines scrambled out to sea, but a handful which were undergoing or awaiting heavy maintenance had no way of escaping Hugo's onslaught. One of these vessels was the Navy's 100th nuclear submarine, the USS Narwhal (SSN-671).Hugo made landfall in South Carolina on the 22nd September as a class four hurricane. 20 foot storm surges and ten inches of rain were experienced in some areas along the coast. Narwhal's crew were onboard the submarine, which had its nuclear reactor offline as it was awaiting its turn in dry dock for a complex refueling and overhaul, as the center of the storm approached the base.
Narwhal's mooring lines were fortified in preparation for the storm's arrival. Two three inch lines and nine double wires were supposed to keep the 314 foot sub in place but as the first half of the storm hit, all but one line had snapped and the submarine began to drift out into the Cooper River.
As the eye of the storm passed over, brave tugboat crews and the Narwhal's crew tried to keep the nuclear fast attack sub from being pulled away, but the winds and currents were too strong. With the second half of the storm fast approaching, the Narwhal's commanding officer had to make a very tough call. He could either let the nuclear submarine drift away with the wind and current or he could do the unthinkable, dive the boat in the middle of the river.
With no diesel fuel onboard and the reactor cold, running only on battery power, the dive alarm was sounded and Narwhal's crew executed their orders, dropped anchor, flooded the sub's ballast tanks and submerging to the river bed. Just the submarine's sail and masts were left sticking up out of the water (pictured at the top of this article). The crew sat in the submarine with everything off but emergency lighting to wait out the storm, watching the hurricane's 150mph winds rage around them through the narrow field of view of submarine's periscope.
The captain's bold plan worked, it took some time the next morning to break the boat free from the silt it lay in, but Narwhal and her crew came out unscathed. The submarine went on to get its refueling and refit and served another decade as part of her 30 year long career.
The captain's call could have lost him his command or even his entire career, but according to reports, instead his quick thinking resulted in an early promotion.
Without knowing, of course, I suspect this skipper grew up in New England. As a boy who grew up there myself, I can recount many occasions where, in the face of a looming storm, we sank our small boats - sailboats, dinghies, and skiffs, to protect them from the winds. After the storm passed, we had only to bail them out and we were ready to go. I can recall no one losing their boat when they followed this procedure.
Good luck to any of our readers who have lives or interests in the path of Hurricane Irma. Stay safe.
Until next time,