Lost at Sea
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Lost at Sea

Soon after we arrived at our new home base of Key West, Florida, we went out on a weekly training exercise. This was quite a comedown, since we had just finished six months of exercising against the best that NATO had to offer, and we were back to what seemed like grade school busywork in comparison. Except . . .

We got underway on Monday morning, and we proceeded perhaps fifteen miles due south of Key West. We submerged, and we got our first taste of tropical snorkeling. The warm, calm southern waters were a delight! We could rumble along for hours without encountering a sea or swell, and without cycling the head valve shut and open again. We went over a lot of basics, again and again. The LORAN-A coverage was not the best, and our electronics was as flaky as it always was, but what trouble could we get into in such calm water?

Wednesday evening we quit snorkeling and we went deep. We slowed to 1.6 knots. We turned off all unnecessary equipment. We just practiced being quiet. There were no surface combat ships in that part of the ocean, so there was no active sonar noise. It was very quiet. We turned off one air conditioner, and turned the other one down low. An absolute minimum of ventilation fans were running. The mess cook who was washing dishes by hand seemed to be the loudest thing aboard.

The air got stale, then foul. Oxygen content was getting down around 17%, and carbon dioxide was getting up over 1.5%. The carbon dioxide was giving me a headache. After twelve hours, we banned smoking. We recorded ourselves, through various test transducers mounted on the hull. We felt pretty good about the condition of our boat and our ability to get quiet. We surfaced on Thursday at mid-day, and we headed north.

As usual when we surfaced, we spent an hour or more trying to get the antenna connections dry. The only mechanical thing on our boat that never seemed to work right when we surfaced was the sea water that always shorted out our antenna connections. We finally got one antenna dry and connected it to our communications radio to send off the mandatory message telling the squadron office that we were safely back on the surface. We never managed to get another antenna connection dry to hook up the navigation equipment.

The signalman began pulling out the charts for our return to Key West. We were new in town, and we did not have the channel memorized yet as we would in the following months. Things got very busy throughout the boat. We were getting ready to return to port that afternoon, and to see our families that evening.

As soon as we surfaced, we started all of our engines, and we started a battery charge with one of the engines. This engine gave us 3,000 Amps into our 250 Volt batteries. The other two engines were switched to the main motors, 2,200 Amps each at 400 Volts D.C.

We had been running a dead reckon since Monday morning, and we set our course due north, looking for the Key West light tower. At about the right time, we spotted a light tower, exactly where we were looking for it. We were feeling good.

About that time, a lookout asked me, "What is that bridge to the west of Key West?"

Well, there is no such bridge. Using my binoculars, I also could see the highway bridge, and I knew that something was badly wrong. I called the navigator, disturbing him from whatever he was doing, and told him what was bothering me. I was the most junior qualified deck officer, and he was the most senior watchstanding deck officer, and he tried to bully me into admitting that I was simply confused. Finally he came to take a look.

Sure enough, the light tower was not Key West light, but Sand Key light.

We had been submerged for four days in the Gulf Stream, and it had not occurred to the navigator to correct for it.

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