Sea story: “Secure blowing sanitaries!!!”

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Let’s take a break. The last couple weeks of posts have covered some pretty heavy topics, with some pretty intricate HTML formatting, and maybe it’s time for a little levity around here.

To many submariners, “levity” means “potty jokes”. In fact, about the only unclassified sea stories we’re allowed to tell are the ones involving toilet mishaps. When you spend your time on submariner websites and discussion boards, you begin to wonder if there’s a rule requiring every sea story to begin with the sober affirmation “I was there and this is a no-sh!tter.”

Well, I wasn’t exactly right there on the scene for this one– thank goodness. Unlike other sea stories this one was definitely full of fecal matter, and I felt pretty fortunate to be outside of what we weaponeers refer to as the “blast radius”.

Those of you aboard USS NEW YORK CITY (SSN 696) in early 1990 will recognize the participants. I may have forgotten a name or two in the ensuing years, but let me just mention up front that the commanding officer at that time was a legendary yet extremely forceful and somewhat intimidating character with a fiercely bristling mustache. Whenever he was angry (which was a dozen times a day) his face used to clench up in a squinty-eyed glare with a clenched out-thrust jaw that made you instinctively take a step back out of karate range. His upper lip would be literally trembling with rage and those mustache hairs would seem to be moving all by themselves. His mustache wasn’t as flamboyant as the cartoon character Yosemite Sam, but this CO was at least as explosive. A few of my shipmates are reliving the nightmare memories right now, but the rest of you should just try to hold on to this image– we’ll get back to it in a few paragraphs.

We were returning to Pearl Harbor one early morning after a long 55 days of “extended operations at sea in international waters for crew training” (yet another classified mission), we had kicked some major submariner butts, and spirits were running high. I had just surfaced the sub as Officer of the Deck and the final 40 miles to Oahu were lookin’ mighty fine. I was standing on the bridge (which is actually a two-person cockpit at the top of the sail with a chest-high coaming) and enjoying my first fresh air in nearly two months. I’d ordered a standard bell but the throttleman had probably added a few extra “liberty turns” so a brisk 20-knot tropical tradewind was blowing in my face. The rest of the crew was too wired to sleep and everyone was getting a head start on the hundred-and-one things to take care of before entering port. People were dashing enthusiastically to & fro taking care of the housekeeping while sharing their liberty plans with each other.

One of those housekeeping details is to empty all of the sub’s sanitary tanks before getting close to land. By “sanitary” tanks, I mean the ones containing the most unsanitary of substances– the holding tanks from the toilets. Federal regulations allow the Navy to discharge these tanks directly to sea while outside certain limits (the fish love it), but once you’re in the harbor you have to connect discharge hoses and avoid spilling a single drop. Or chunk. Or whatever’s been composting away in there. It’s much easier to take care of it at sea, so you try to get rid of every last gallon before returning to port.

At sea, submarines could empty these tanks using one of two systems– the sanitary tank discharge pump or high-pressure air. When the submarine was submerged, the discharge system would have to raise the tank’s pressure above sea pressure. At 44 pounds per square inch of pressure for every 100 feet of depth, this could easily be 100-200 PSI before the tank’s contents would exceed backpressure and depart the submarine. The NYC’s pump had a lousy mechanical reliability and was perpetually leaking into the torpedo-room bilge, so the preferred method by far was to use high-pressure air. The Auxiliaryman of the Watch, a teenage mechanic who might have been in the Navy for all of 12 months, would shut all the toilet flushing valves and then slowly bleed high-pressure air into the sanitary tank. Once the air pressure inside the tank was greater than sea pressure outside the hull, he’d open the hull isolation valve and commence blowing sanitaries. On NYC it had become the standard practice to do so at 150 feet of depth, so the Auxs of the Watch were accustomed to blasting 75-100 PSI of air into the tank. They’d whip open the hull valve and depart the vicinity to take care of other business while the tank contents were going overboard.

I should mention that on NYC the sanitary tank discharge piping exited the hull about 40 feet forward of the sail. When the submarine was on the surface, the piping was just above the waterline on the port side. You submariners have probably already figured out what’s coming next…

As I was finishing my OOD watch up on the bridge, I gave the order for the Aux of the Watch to discharge sanitaries overboard. I knew it would take him 15-20 minutes to get ready to actually be discharging, so I planned to turn that item over to the relieving OOD. I won’t reveal the name of my relief because he’s since gone on to a very successful career as a senior officer. But back then we were a little concerned about his lack of command presence and his tendency to be somewhat hesitant & inarticulate in his orders, hence his nickname “Mumbles”.

I conducted the OOD turnover with Mumbles, who responded with his usual phlegmatic absence of enthusiasm (or any other signs of life), and I got ready to go down below. As I approached the bridge hatch (about a foot away from the edge of the cockpit) the CO was coming up the bridge trunk. (His mustache wasn’t bristling so I knew it was going to be a good day.) I reported my relief as OOD and we exchanged a few pleasantries while Mumbles used the bridge public-announcing system’s microphone to order the control room to begin discharging sanitaries. A few seconds later I went down the trunk ladder– thereby avoiding the ensuing gory fate of the remaining bridge personnel. (Nice foreshadowing, huh?) As I descended into the control room the Aux of the Watch was heading forward to the sanitary discharge hull isolation valve to begin purging the tank’s contents.

Upon subsequent investigation after the casualty (Yikes, more foreshadowing!) it turned out that the Aux of the Watch had set up the discharge evolution with his brain on autopilot. It was the 40th or 50th time that he’d blown sanitaries so he knew the steps by heart. He still referred to the procedure card but he neglected to consider the fact that, for the first time in nearly eight weeks, the submarine was on the surface– not at 150 feet of depth. The pressure needed to discharge the tank would only be about 20 PSI… not the 100 PSI he’d already charged into the system to make it “go faster”.

I stayed in the control room to talk with the watchstanders. The Aux of the Watch smartly proceeded to the valve as ordered and whipped it open to start the discharge. He turned away to pick up his logsheet to record the event. As he took pen in hand, suddenly the ship’s public-address system keyed on and a loud, firm, clear voice urgently enunciated: “SECURE BLOWING SANITARIES!!!”

The entire crew’s surprised reaction was “Holy crap (no pun intended), was that Mumbles?”

The Aux of the Watch froze at the announcement like everyone else, then belatedly realized “Hey, he’s talkin’ to me!” and turned to shut the valve. It took a few seconds, and as he shut it I walked over to the base of the bridge access trunk to look upward. My timing was still perfect– just before I got there, a thin brown rain started coming down the trunk accompanied by a gosh-awful stench. As I backpedaled it occurred to me that it smelled quite a bit like the contents of a sanitary tank.

The “rain” stopped in a few seconds, and in a few more seconds the CO practically teleported down from the bridge into the control room. I’d never seen him so angry, and I never want to again. From his waist to the top of his ball cap he was covered in, well, a serious coating of sanitary-tank discharge. He saw the Aux of the Watch at the hull valve and immediately started bellowing at the top of his lungs, er, I mean, at the Aux of the Watch. The poor sailor snapped to attention, his eyes locked to the CO, and all hands within two decks of hearing knew that there was big trouble.

As I gazed upon this high-decibel leadership seminar, I noticed that a small piece of toilet paper had somehow alighted upon the CO’s mustache and was stuck there– no doubt by an all-natural “adhesive”.  As the CO warmed up to his tirade, his mustache began its famous bristling movements and the toilet paper began waving in the breeze of his fervent exhalations directed at the petrified Aux of the Watch. To my horror, the young watchstander also noticed the piece of toilet paper flapping away and began staring at it– and suddenly had to control his laughter from breaking through his frozen facial expression. He wasn’t going to make it, and I could see that his remaining lifespan would be measured in seconds.

Luckily (for everyone) another crewmember handed the CO a towel. He paused in mid-rant to wipe his face, the toilet paper disappeared, and everyone got serious again. After another 30 seconds or so of bellowing he stomped off, inviting the Engineer to his stateroom to discuss sanitary-discharge procedures. The Aux of the Watch unfroze and began to contemplate what was left of his naval career. A firehose team mustered topside to wash off the sail– and everything else that had been downwind of the sanitary discharge piping.

Later that day, “Mumbles” was complimented by the rest of the wardroom on his newfound ability to issue a clear order. He said that a few seconds after I’d left he’d heard a muted detonation and had looked forward to watch the sanitary tank’s contents absolutely explode out of the piping in a gigantic mushroom cloud and hit the 20-knot crosswind. He’d used the term “sh!tstorm” many times before without actually seeing one, and now he understood the metaphor. He said that he had ducked down below the bridge cockpit coaming to grab the announcing system microphone, so when he shouted his order the only exposed person was… the CO. The boss had been looking aft when he also unexpectedly heard Mumbles’ commanding voice, so he’d turned forward in surprise and opened his mouth to make a comment– just as the “storm” slammed into the bridge.

The CO enjoyed a long shower (which drained into another sanitary tank, but that’s a different sea story) while the Engineer personally arranged for the CO’s khakis to be cleaned. The Aux of the Watch survived his “counseling” (and remedial laundry duty) to tell the tale to thousands of admiring mechanics over many frosty beverages. Mumbles gained new respect and confidence and that day he became the submarine force’s newest steely-eyed killer of the deep.

Luckily for me, the incident was the only actual fecal storm I had to avoid during the rest of my tour. But every other time I was on the bridge while we were discharging sanitaries, I made sure to receive a report of the tank’s pressure before we started the process…

I’ve recently learned that a new generation of the Nords family is considering joining the submarine force. Hopefully she’ll check this story with her friendly Navy ROTC submarine officer before making a commitment!

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WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

  1. I just read this and it had me in tears. I came aboard in 1990 just after this mission (M-div). I had heard of this story but the way you articulate the details is phenomenal. Took be back a few years and was a great “no sh*t” story.

  2. You know what they say about sea stories: every one starts with the disclaimer “This is a no-sh!tter”, when in fact it turns out to be the main subject…

  3. UR KILLING ME! LOL! I got a few “sanitary” stories of my own!

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