Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Subron 8: Black Smoker

Another in the ongoing "Subron 8 Sea Stories" series.

Maneuvering room, first dog watch, steaming on the surface, five days out of home port New London. The 7MC squawks, “Maneuvering, bridge,”

I reach up and press the lever, “Maneuvering, aye.”

“Maneuvering, this is the Captain on the bridge. Who’s on the motor controls?”

“Bridge, Maneuvering. EM1 Heffner speaking, sir.”

“Okay, Heffner, what’s your engine lineup?”

The Captain is a little lax on comms protocol, but I don’t think I’m going to set him straight on that. He’s asking me about the engines, even though I’m an Electrician and am on motor controls rather than in the engine rooms, because the engines on a submarine do not directly provide propulsion for the boat. Each engine is permanently coupled to a generator, which provides electricity to charge batteries and to turn the motors which drive our propellers. Once the engines are started by the Enginemen, they are controlled by the EM’s in the Maneuvering Room. The Electricians even decide, for the most part, which engines will be used.

The Captain can see from the bridge which engines are running, the exhausts and engine cooling water discharges are clearly visible from there, but he doesn’t necessarily know what the engines are doing.

“Bridge, Maneuvering. I have engines one and two on battery charge, Captain, and number three on propulsion. Engine number four is idle.”

I probably should have said that number four was out of service, but I was trying to keep heat off of the Enginmen, who were working furiously to get it back up; something to do with injectors. It had been out of service since we left port and was supposed to have been running by today, and was not.

“Is number four in service?”

Well, so much for covering the Enginemen’s asses. “Bridge, Maneuvering, negative sir. They were working on it when I came on watch. Said they should have it up sometime tonight.”

“What’s the state of your battery charge?”

“Bridge, Manuevering,”
Just because the Captain blows off comms protocol doesn’t mean I’m going to, “both batterys are at about 80% sir. I need about another hour with two engines.”

“Okay, Maneuvering, we can live with 80%. Number three is smoking like a bitch. Shut it down and use a single engine on charge. Tell the Enginemen to clean their damned injectors. Bridge out.”

“Bridge,Maneuvering, Shut down three, one engine on charge one on propulsion. Aye aye sir. Maneuvering out.”

I begin the modestly complex process of moving the levers, called “sticks,” which control the routing and amount of electrical current to motors and batteries and, when the timing is right to do so without stopping the propellers, reach up and hit the kill switch for engine number three.

I kind of want to tell the Captain to talk to the Enginemen about the injectors himself, because they don’t work for me, although when we want to get on their nerves we tell them they do because of the way the engines are managed. If it had been the Engineering Officer I might have done that, but not the Captain. So I get on the “growler” and call the after engine room. “The Captain says that engine #3 is smoking and suggested that you might need to clean the injectors.” How’s that for diplomacy?

“The effing injectors are effing fine,” I’m told, “and smoke is the least of our problems. The effing engine is not shutting down.”

What? I look up at the rpm indicator for number three. Sure enough, it’s really low, but it’s not zero. “Have you manually pulled the fuel racks?” I ask. Stupid question, and not very constructive, as all it does is piss them off. The engine is not getting any fuel, and it’s still running. Weird.

“Maneuvering, Bridge.” Shit, he sounds pissed.

“Maneuvering aye.”

“What the hell’s with number three? It’s not shut down and it’s smoking even worse.”

“Um, we’re working on that Captain.”

“You’re working on that?”
Yeah, right. I don’t blame you for not believing that Captain, I don’t believe it either. “What does that mean?”

I was hoping he wouldn’t ask that, because I have no idea what it means, and I'm the one who just said it. It is not uncommon to have trouble starting an engine, but no one has ever heard of not being able to stop one. “Seems the engine isn’t shutting down, Captain. We’re working on it.”

As I’m speaking I see the rpm indicator drop to zero. I take a chance and tell him the engine just shut down, and hold my breath.

“I see that. Bridge out.”

So how was the engine running without fuel? Well, the Enginemen use something called “cotton waste” for cleaning. It looks rather like shredded cloth or balled up twine, and it turns out they had been tossing it into the bilge when they were done with it. It had been sucking up against the engine air intake and had clogged it up, so the engine was sucking air in through the crankcase. The air was picking up lubricating oil vapor, so the engine was running on its own lubricating oil. Which is why it was smoking. They got the engine to shut down by removing all of the crud from the engine air intake.


  1. I assume they were smart enough to stop tossing the "cotton waste" in the bilge?
    Did the Captain ever find out what really happened? My guess would be: NO.

  2. Well, making any assumptions about the intelligence of Enginemen is unwise.

    As as to the Captain finding out what happened... The Captain knows everything.