Packed like sardines into a room just larger than the average American’s living room, the 17 Sailors, in full battle dress, were receiving their latest in a series of damage control training classes, a walk-through of a replicated submarine space known as the “wet trainer.”
In mere minutes, these same Sailors would be locked in that same space, fighting leaks from pipes and flanges, along with a rapidly rising water level, in a frantic effort to “save the boat.”
The Story Unfolds
Just a quick turn down a winding road from the wet trainer, another group of Sailors prepared themselves to save the ship as well. Only, their potential danger would not be water; these eager Sailors would face a dark room full of smoke and scorching, blistering fire.
Soon both sets of students would be struggling to accomplish two completely different tasks. There may be nothing as out-and-out diverse as fire and water, but in completing their independent tasks, the Sailors are working toward one common goal–attempting to move on.
As students at the Navy’s Basic Enlisted Submarine School (BESS), students have long been faced with the stress and strain of this final week of training. The trainers serve as the final obstacle for the wannabe submariners before BESS graduation, capping off a month-long learning process.
The day’s importance is not lost on the students, either. “It’s definitely a nervous day for all of us,” said Seaman Brandon Nims, as he awaited fire extinguisher training. “It really has some guys losing sleep. I know I was very nervous, just knowing that this is the end of it for BESS. It’s more than just training for us.”
Adding to the stress of the event is the jam-packed aspect of the week’s training schedule. Prior to the groups’ final scenario, they spend two days training and performing in the wet trainer.
The relatively quick pace of the hands-on training proved to be another barrier for the students to cross.
“I thought everything was going to be a bit slower,” Electronics Technician Seaman Recruit Joseph Drawns said after wrapping up his time in the wet trainer. “You had to really be on your toes. (The instructors) had to fit a lot of information into a short period of time, so they just kept cramming stuff into our heads. When it came time to perform, sometimes it was difficult to remember everything right away.”
The pace of the final week seemed to mirror the prior three, in which Sailors–most straight out of boot camp–began to lay the groundwork of becoming a submariner.
The path starts just before classing up for BESS when potential students are made to endure the submarine escape trainer. The trainer, which simulates the general arrangement of a 637-class submarine escape trunk, allows students to apply the egress training they learn in a basic classroom environment.
This involves the Sailors forcing themselves, four at a time, into a cramped escape hatch that soon fills about neck-high with water. Then they each don a “Steinke hood,” an inflatable mask of sorts that allows the prospective submariners to breathe while ducking underwater to escape the tank from a watertight hatch that opens to a swimming pool. Once there, the Sailors assemble in a tight huddle pattern before making a final swim across the pool. One thing is for sure–if anyone in the class is claustrophobic, it won’t take long to find out.
“That’s the last thing you want on a submarine,” said Information Systems Technician 2nd Class (DV) Curt Ramsey, one of the escape trainer instructors. “This ought to identify those who may have a problem with it. Between having the hood close over your face and the tight environment of the tank, no one should be able to fool us.” Despite the gripping fear caused by claustrophobia, Ramsey said most people who panic in the conditions are able to “rally up and finish the training.
The escape portion of the school was a surprise to many of the students. “I had no idea it was even possible to escape a sub,” Drawns said. “I figured it was pretty much over for you if your boat went down. I was really paying attention in that class.”
And that classroom instruction kicked in for most students in the pool, Seaman Recruit Joshua Henderson said. “The escape was pretty intense, but it was explained to us very well before in the classroom. So we knew what to do when we got in there.”
Students closed a successful day at the escape trainer by performing a two-man escape that culminated in learning to use a single-man raft. “Everyone was pretty fired up after we were done,” Henderson said. “We were all happy to get it over with.”
The sense of accomplishment is not allowed to last long, however. The following week, the escape trainer students class up for their official BESS kickoff.
What follows is a three-week period of intensive classroom study that challenges students on a daily basis. “It was much harder than I ever expected it to be,” said Machinist’s Mate Fireman Michael Bybee. “The information was crammed into your heads so that you had no time to breathe. It took up nearly every second we had here.”
True to Bybee’s word, the typical day of instruction ran from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m. with an hour for lunch. During that time, the instructors made sure to pack as many lessons as possible in the student’s day.
“It’s something we really have to do,” said MM1(SS) John Roberts, one of BESS’ instructors. “Three weeks seems like a long time for some people, but when you have as many things to teach about as we do, you need all the time you can get. We practically go through every system and major piece of equipment on the boat. It’s a lot of info.”
Learning all that information requires a longer than average school day for students. After taking a break around 4 p.m. to relax and eat dinner, nearly all students return to the schoolhouse at 6 p.m. for three hours of night study. Rare exceptions to night study are given to students who are excelling in the classroom.
Add that to a 5:15 a.m. muster for breakfast, and BESS students know they are in for a long day.
“For those couple of weeks, the day was nothing but school,” Drawns said. “Then you throw in night study, and you have only a little bit of free time during the week. But no matter how much you hate night study, you really need it.”
That night study comes in handy for the students during each of their three major tests during the course of the school. All Sailors in the school must pass the tests to complete the submarine school training.
It’s only after conquering the escape trainer and running through the schoolhouse that the students are able to challenge rushing waters and burning fires.
It’s a moment they are more than happy to see. “After doing nothing but sitting in a classroom for a few weeks, it was welcome,” Bybee said. “The entire time you’re just looking forward to the trainers. You almost sit there and dream about fighting fires and patching up leaks.”
When the class reaches that point, the group splits into two and alternates a two-day period in each trainer. For each, the first day is purely a classroom day. Instructors use this time to go over basic scenarios and rules with the students. The second day of training is when all the action takes place.
For students in the fire trainer, that means dressing out in full battle dress and going through several different firefighting scenarios, including the use of fire extinguishers, hoses, and self-contained breathing apparatuses.
The entire time, the Sailors are fighting actual fires limited to a control room. “That added a new twist for us,” said Bybee. “The heat coming off of those fires was great. It was simulated, but it was real. We had faced nothing like that before.”
The heat from the fire may have been real, but instructors are nearby to ensure each evolution is conducted safely. “We want the students to get a real feel of what would happen in an actual submarine fire,” said Firefighting Instructor MM2(SS) Laurence Georghan, “but, with BESS classes, everything is very structured and rigid. We need to make sure everything is done without anyone getting injured.”
While ensuring safety, the instructors build the training to a peak with a scenario that tests what the students have learned in the day’s earlier sessions. “After we take them in and let them know what they are using,” Georghan said, “we hit them with a situation where fire will break out, and they must decide what kind of agent to put the fire out with. We’re there to make sure nothing goes wrong, but in that situation, the BESS students are definitely more in control than before.”
By the time the day is finished, the students should be able to combat the flames of various types of fires if the need ever arises.
Those finished with the firefighting portion are only half done with the week, however. What awaits them in the wet trainer is more than 20,000 gallons of water spraying out of 12 leaks in a simulated arrangement of an SSBN 650-class lower-level engine room.
For those not used to waist-high water, the damage control exercise can be a harrowing experience. “The water level rises so fast,” Nims said about his time in the wet trainer. “It definitely opens your eyes about what could happen down there. You know it’s all controlled, but it can get pretty scary.”
But in the end, the young BESS Sailors know it is training they may eventually use, whether they want to or not. “We definitely need to know it for when we get out to a boat,” Bybee said. “I’m hoping I never get to use it, but knowing my luck, it will come in handy.”