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Underwater navigation round the World

By A.M. Chepurov, Doctor of Technical Science
(“Energy”, 1999 – N 3).

The year 1966 was going by, and it was the year enclosing the first decade of the Russian atomic fleet. By this time, our submariners had managed to not only acquire huge experience but also hone various practical skills of navigation in different latitudes, for example: submarine navigation to the North Pole, equatorial areas as well as voyage from the Northern Sea Fleet to the Pacific Ocean Fleet under the Arctic ice. The tasks and challenges, which the atomic fleet had to face, were becoming more and more complicated, range of activity was constantly broadening, and it is quite natural that all these factors resulted in the need of undertaking a circumnavigation.


It was decided that the accomplishment of this hard mission should fall on the part of the two serial nuclear-powered submarines: one was missile-carrying submarine while the other one – torpedo submarine. V.T. Vinogradov was put in command of the missile-carrying submarine while L.N. Stolyarov was to take command of the torpedo submarine. Rear-Admiral A.I. Sorokin, commander of the nuclear-powered submarines squadron, was appointed the head of the crew.

Missile-carrying atomic-powered vessel was our flagship. On board of this ship were the trip commanders, correspondent of the “Red Star” newspaper and several specialists- engineers of the most significant elements and components of the nuclear power installations including the author of these memoirs as a representative of the scientific adviser.

American nuclear-powered submarine “Triton” had undertaken an underwater circumnavigation before we did it. But it had been a one-submarine cruise. Its crew could always rely on the help of the fleet and aviation of the numerous American naval bases throughout the entire navigation route. Moreover, in the course of the cruise, “Triton” had been accompanied by the rear service ships which were capable of providing any kind of help in a case of emergency.

While we did not have any support bases of that kind on our way. We were expected to navigate the oceans and seas which had not been navigated by the Russian naval seamen for more than a century. No doubt, it is not at all easy to undertake a one-submarine circumnavigation but, believe me, it is even more difficult and challenging to make it in squadron when the crews are expected to display coordination of actions of a higher level as well as their team-spirit.

This circumnavigation was not accomplished for the sake of making a sensation. What the real driving force was was the desire to develop this new territory and make this unexplored, unknown underwater world habitable, to try and test those new complex nuclear power installations in different climatic conditions; to summarize the numerous hydrological observation results on undercurrents, water temperature and density as well as to obtain more specific information concerning the bottom topography. More importantly, we were to hone the crew coordination as well as master communications, control modes and tactics. Apart from the above-mentioned reasons, there was a political one, though, nowadays, it is not so actual: after the “Triton” circumnavigation there appeared a so-called “non-repulsed nuclear-powered submarine attack” conception.

We put to the sea on 1 February, 1966 at 18.30. 36 degrees of frost. Thick frog, zero visibility. Before the beginning of the voyage, the purpose and objectives were not clear. It is only after the submergence that the division commander declared that we were to undertake an extremely important and crucial voyage, namely: we were to accomplish an underwater navigation round the world. The submarine crew accepted this information with both restraint and delight: quite interesting but what awaits us all ahead?

There was nothing special in the procedure of this extraordinary voyage. Everything was as usual, including the functioning of the nuclear power installation. Nothing dramatic or unexpected was happening on the atomic-powered ships. The reactors were working on the capacity which was lower than the nominal one as the power it was generating was enough to secure the speed needed. Radiation environment within the compartments was normal; so was oxygen and carbonic acid gas content level, although many submariners, regardless of prohibition, were smoking, especially near the reactor block that was equipped with an autonomous ventilation system. Under different climatic conditions (despite the fact that the outboard water temperature was ranging from -2 degrees to +30 degrees), the air temperature within the compartments was maintained at the level of +20 to +23 degrees; at that, the air-conditioning system was sustained by the functioning of only one out of the two refrigerating units which, as a rule, was not operating at its full power. By the way, cold on the atomic-powered vessels was generated with the help of steam from the nuclear power installations.

All Russian atomic-powered vessels were equipped with comfortable cabins as well as air-conditioning system. Fresh-baked bread, meat and other products so customary to us, but of a higher quality, were available all the time. A wide variety of films was at the service of the crew.

While changing the time zones, we did not set a clock backward or forward since we did not see either sunrises or sunsets. We just lived in accordance with the Moscow time. That means that we had breakfast, lunch and supper together with the citizens of Moscow as well as found out the latest news or went to bed at the same time as Moscow did. The news of the spacecraft having reached the Venus surface and smooth Moon surface landing was greeted with delight and enthusiasm by all of us. We envied those lucky men who were allowed to look at the ocean surface through periscope; and there were many of us who dreamt of this opportunity.

On the 23d of February we celebrated the Day of our Army and Fleet. On this festive occasion a concert was arranged and films were shown. An International Women’s Day on 8 March passed in a very touching manner. On this day every member of the crew heard the voices of their wives, children, parents and relatives through the local relay center – verses, songs and their best wishes…

We also celebrated personal occasions – birthdays of the members of the crew. Division commander A.I. Sokorin celebrated his 45-year anniversary on the board of this huge atomic-powered vessel. In honour of the person whose birthday was celebrated the ship even rose to the surface a bit. When the pointer of the depth indicator stopped at the mark corresponding to their ages, the commander heartily congratulated the hero of the occasion and presented him with a bottle of champagne and a pie baked right on the atomic-powered vessel board by the ship’s cook V.S. Voloshan specially for this occasion.

Each and every seaman has his own custom and traditions to which he strictly adheres. For example, this well-known funny ceremony concerning the first equator crossing. The tradition goes as follows: Neptune, the King of the underwater world, the Ruler of the oceans, wearing the traditional cloths and proper regalia, i.e., trident and crown, happened to be on the ship. Of course, he was not alone – a “charming” creature with little dark moustaches on the upper lip, known as mermaid, accompanied him. But no one was confused or embarrassed by this fact. Following the Neptune’s order, the tritons “christened” those seamen who had never crossed the equator before. They “christened” them with the help of the backpack degasser – a device that resembles a garden sprayer. And they did not spare water at all (I have felt this on my own back). After this “sacrament’, every “christened” seaman was presented with the diploma on the equator crossing.

The most difficult part of the route was, no doubt, the Drake Strait uniting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and dividing the Fireland Island from the Southern Shetland Islands.

Wide (approximately 900 km) and deep (up to 5 000 meters) as it is, numerous icebergs make the Drake Strait extremely dangerous, especially for submarines. Hydroacoustical equipment and temperature sensors helped us to orient ourselves in the underwater world. If the outboard water temperature fell abruptly (to -2 degrees), this fact put us all on alert, forcing to slow down the speed. And then an unusual strained silence reigned. By doing so, we worked out a special technique of “blind” deviation from icebergs. We could afford ourselves to breathe with relief only seven days after, when we crossed the iceberg boarder and head for home.

To tell the truth, I was surprised by the way the navigators did their work. All of them were up to the highest mark. For several days we had been navigating the open ocean at great depths, and they managed to make our atomic-powered vessels meet right on the date and time specified. But sometimes funny things happened. For example, having reached the marked point, our acousticians, instead of the standard ship signals, located some strange noises and squeaks. It turned out to be that we entered the area of killer-whales gathering, and they, apparently, became worried and nervous on seeing such a “congener” as our submarine. Their voices were recorded on tape, and many a time later we enjoyed listening to this extraordinary concert.

We surfaced near the shores of Kamchatka. The ocean was rough, our submarine was rolling and a high wind was rising. Sometimes it was so strong that heavy waves appeared; it was tearing off the wave crests and throwing them over the deckhouse. One of the waves tore the glasses off my face and buried them into the ocean.

On the 26th of March at 18.48, our atomic-powered vessel, having run approximately 21 000 miles, arrived at the base. After the voyage termination, a friendly supper was arranged where, according to the marine tradition, we were treated to a broiled pig as it becomes those who are the winners. Many of us were given awards while voyage commander A.I. Sorokin, ship commander V.T. Vinogradov and chief mechanic S.P. Samsonov were given the honorary Title of Hero.

I accomplished all my objectives and tasks on control of the reactors core regions, nuclear fuel burn-up rate, power installation thermophysical characteristics fluctuations in different climatic conditions and radiation environment. Nuclear power installations worked smoothly, with no failures, providing the ships with the proper speed and the crew – with light, warmth and comfort.

At the meeting, dedicated to the successful termination of our voyage, a high appraisal was given to the work of the scientists and engineers – designers and constructors of the Russian atomic-powered vessels whose contribution can not be overestimated as well as best wishes in the field of the further World ocean development were expressed.