Propeller Count
Up to Table of Contents

Propeller Count

We didn't talk much about this incident, but it included one of the most elementary mistakes that a person can make, and I still find it difficult to believe that such incompetence exists. It all started one time when we were cruising submerged in water six thousand feet deep. We were quiet, and we decided to descend from a keel depth of 120 feet, where we had been for some length of time, to a keel depth of 200 feet, to check for better acoustic conditions in the water, for our sonar. There was a loud bang, felt throughout the boat, and we started to vibrate in the stern. We were making too much waterborne noise to be of much value as a submarine, so we surfaced and made an unscheduled stop at the U.S. submarine tender in Rota, Spain on the Atlantic coast.

The elite nuclear-trained staff of the tender could not be bothered with an old diesel boat like ours, so they insisted that we did not have a problem. We even took some of their experts to sea with us and submerged to show off our symptoms, but they still insisted that we were OK. They sent messages to headquarters to that effect, and we were sent back out to continue the Nato exercises.

We were lousy for the next few weeks. We could never find anyone else on sonar, because we couldn't hear through our own noise. Everyone else could find us, though. The situation was reversed from normal.

After that experience, the admiral in charge of the carrier task force sent us in for further examination. This time we tied up outboard the U.S. submarine tender that was anchored in Holy Loch, Scotland. The nuclear-trained crew of this tender was also insulted at being required to put up with smelly sailors from our unfashionable conventional submarine.

We had learned from our experience with the previous tender, so before we described our problem we sent one of our own sailors over the side, with diving gear, to inspect our bottom. He found that the last ten inches of one blade of our port propeller was bent aft, ninety degrees from normal.

Based on such a clear description of the problem, the tender staff acknowledged that, yes, maybe we did have a problem after all. I checked the reference manuals, and I ordered a port propeller.

When we were in port we always relied on the base or the tender to handle our message traffic, so I got the skipper to sign the message, and I took it to the tender radio room for transmission. The next day I got my courtesy copy of what actually had gone out over the air. I noticed that they had changed the federal stock number of the propeller that I had ordered. When I questioned them about it, they said that I had mistakenly ordered a four-bladed propeller, and it should have been five-bladed, so they had corrected my error for me.

I had seen this propeller with my own eyes, and I knew that it had only four blades. I insisted, but I was not nuclear-trained, so they did not trust me to know how many blades there were on my propeller. The discussions got heated, and soon there were full commanders on both sides of the table, and there was much heat and little light. Finally the tender agreed to send their own diver into the water to count the blades, since he would have more credibility than our diver. He came up and said that the propeller had five blades.


If we were to go to sea with one five-bladed propeller and one of four blades, everyone in the North Atlantic would be able to hear us. We were getting desperate, when I finally realized that we had an ace in the hole. I remembered an incident several months before, when both of our fire control technicians had returned late from liberty one time when we were in the drydock. Rather than subject them to formal punishment, the chief of the boat had instead required them to polish our two huge bronze propellers, using brass polish and small rags. It took them two days. Our skipper made an extraordinary request to speak to the commanding officer of the tender, and he introduced the two FTs, who told their story. They both insisted that the propeller had four blades, and not five. The tender experts were still not convinced, so we talked them into putting us in the floating drydock for a few hours so we could all count the blades.

The propellers had four blades. We got the order changed. We were never forgiven for being correct.

Up to Table of Contents