A DEPENDENTS CRUISE-ON A FLOATING DRY DOCK?
Thought you’d heard everything, have you? Well, I’ll wager you haven’t run across this one before.
It was late spring of 1977 and I was eight months into my tour as CO of WEST MILTON (ARD-7), one of two floating dry docks (WATERFORD (ARD-5) was the other) at the Subase in New London. We’d had a busy winter of dry dockings behind us and a full schedule of more dockings loomed ahead with no down time (no pun intended) to rest and recover. I was looking for something to do that would pick up sagging spirits.
I had participated in several dependents cruises in previous duty stations-one a destroyer and two others in submarines. So, why not hold one on the dry dock? Who doesn’t like to show off their work place and let the family see what they do? I canvassed the wardroom and goat locker and got “never done that before, Captain, but sounds interesting” type responses. I think this was their polite way of saying I was slightly crazy. How do you hold a cruise securely fastened to the pier? But, ignoring their less than enthusiastic comments, I went ahead and floated my idea past the CO of the Naval Submarine Support Facility (NSSF) and then lite Commodore of Squadron TWO, the immediate upper links in my chain of command. No one posed an objection, but both wanted to know how I planned to pull this off safely before giving their final OK.
In my experience, a typical dependents cruise consisted of getting underway, proceeding to sea, demonstrating how the ship worked (firing guns, formation steaming/changing station, running man-overboard drills, activating the NBC water wash down system, diving/surfacing, firing water slugs-those kinds of things) and putting on a good meal. Obviously a floating dry dock couldn’t do most of those things, so what could we do? After considerable discussion with the wardroom and chiefs, we decided to hold a cookout while actually docking a submarine. Back to my bosses with our plan and got the OK to proceed. During the docking conference with the next boat on our schedule, I told the CO what we planned to do and asked if he had any dependents that might like to watch and join in our cookout. I got a “you’re doing what?”look and a polite “no thank you”.
We borrowed chairs and tables from NSSF and set them up under canvas awnings on our large, open upper deck. Docking day was sunny and warm and all our guests were aboard by mid-morning as we began ballasting down in preparation for the noon slack water docking. The chief mess management specialist had prepared a menu consisting of barbecue chicken, charcoal grilled hot dogs and hamburgers, potato salad, tossed salad, hot veggies, rolls, a frosted sheet cake, ice cream, and plenty of coffee, soda, and juices. (Not bad considering we were feeding on a skimmer ration rate.) He and the cooks and mess cooks set up the grills and got the food going as we lowered the stem gate and prepared to receive the sub. Right on time the sub appeared off our stem, lines were passed, and we began drawing the boat into dock. Once the sub was positioned above the blocks and we began deballasting, we relieved all hands on station so everyone had a chance to eat and spend time with the family/friends. It was late afternoon before The sub was on the blocks and the dock pumped dry. By the time the food was all gone, all our guests had been given the opportunity to have a guided tour of The interior spaces of the dock.
We had two more dependents cruises before I left WEST MILTON. When offered the chance, the same sub CO who was the guinea pig for our first cruise sent some of his dependents over on a subsequent docking of his boat. He commented That we looked like we were having fun and he wanted to give his dependents a chance to experience a docking evolution. He provided some of his good submarine food to augment our menu and contributed mess cooks to help us out.
Our cruises got some good local notices, but never to my knowledge became popular outside of New London.
NOW you can say that you’ve heard everything!