Tacos at Two Hundred Feet
by Neal Stevens             San Diego, CA     Sept. 24, 1999

The dream of every civilian subsim player is to catch a ride on a US fast attack submarine. I've been aboard a half-dozen subs, from Sturgeon class to Ohio class boomers. Of course, they were all moored securely to the dock. When the lines are taken in, it's the Navy boys who get to ride the black beasts to sea.

Well, this time when the USS Houston SSN-713 put to sea, they brought along a SUBSIM Review journalist to watch and learn how the real deal works.

688 Hunter/Killer- USS HOUSTON

688 Hunter/Killer- USS HOUSTON

The submarine, with unmatched stealth and first strike capabilities, is the ultimate war platform. I've written and photographed subs, read libraries on them, and climbed all over them. All that has been missing is an actual ride on one. And I don't mean tied up to a pier. I want to feel the tugs push us out to the middle of the channel. I want to see the hatch close and feel the deck tilt as we start down beneath the surface. It has been a life-long goal to go deep in a military sub. One summer afternoon I discovered a crisp white envelope in the mail with the marking "COMMANDING OFFICER USS HOUSTON" in the return address. That was the first sign my goal was nearing fulfillment.

I made reservations on Southwest Airlines. This was it--the big one. I was invited for a day cruise aboard the USS Houston SSN-713 along with Rod Paige (superintendent of Houston Independent School District) and some other Houston area VIPs. If you've seen the film "Hunt For Red October", then you know the Houston. She made the emergency blow surface as the film sub Dallas. The Houston is a distinguished boat, winning the battle E for the Pacific Fleet. I was not only going on a ride on a fast attack, I was going on the star of the Pacific Fleet.

After ten lifetimes, the day arrived. XO Phil McLaughlin met me at the dock and we went aboard. I made my way down the hatch and met CDR Mike Zieser in the galley. CDR Zieser greeted me. "We hope you have an excellent trip, Mr. Stevens," he said. "With the Cold War over and the domestic economy the focus of the government, Houston is on the slate to be decommed in three years." That's true. The economy is going gangbusters but without an overt threat from the Soviet Union, Washington is trimming the sub fleet down. Houston is due for a recore and the decision has been made to take her out of service and save a few dollars.

XO McLaughlin, a new qual,  and Capt.Zieser

XO McLaughlin, a new qual, & Capt.Zieser

The first thing I noticed about the ship was its superb condition. Her keel was laid the year I graduated high school-1979-and believe me, that was quite a while ago. Yet she was clean and well maintained, in obvious places as well as the nooks and crannies. I was impressed with the level of housekeeping, too. It was obvious that the crew really loved their boat.

Lt. Adam Plumpton gave me a tour of the forward spaces. We examined the air recirculation system and the crew's quarters. While he was explaining the ship's laundry system a gentle side-to-side rocking became noticeable. We were on our way to sea.


Who wants to fire this baby? I do! I do!

I passed into the torpedo room. The Chief explained how the wire-guidance operated. You may have seen a cable dispenser on the aft end of a Mark 48 ADCAP and inside you can see the 3/8" thick braided cable. That's just the part that attaches to the torpedo. The cable, as the Chief showed me, is very fine and nearly twenty miles long. The Houston had a half-complement of warshots, long, green shafts of lethal steel. Not unlike the action cutscenes in Fast Attack.

The Captain announced on the 1MC that the Houston was preparing to dive. The deck gently inclined as we proceeded to 200 feet. It was lunchtime. I met with Capt. Zieser and Commodore J.J. Thompson in the officer's wardroom. It was bedecked with a host of Texas and Houston memorabilia. What class! Lunch was tacos, fajitas, Mexican rice, and refried beans. Perfect! These guys know how to live.

Then began one of the most fulfilling and interesting conversations of my submarine experience. Ever wonder why modern subs don't carry some kind of defense against helicopters and ASW aircraft? Just how do sub skippers use the thermals to their advantage? What are the advantages and limitations to titanium hull technology? Does Russia have a fast attack that matches the Los Angeles class in stealth? These are topics that may only be shared at depth, not on the Internet. One thing was clear--the US Navy will continue to dominate the subspace of the world's oceans.

Lunch ended with a toast to the people of Houston, Texas and the crew of the fine ship that bears the city's name. Next, Capt. Zieser ordered me to the sonar shack. It was my watch on the broadband.

 HOUSTON'S Sonar gang

HOUSTON'S Sonar gang

Curtained off from the control room, the sonar shack accommodates three operators and one chief. The waterfall displays were similar to those in Jane's 688(I) and Fast Attack only with more function and detail. I didn't need any coaching and grabbed a set of phones. Being a long-time subsim jockey, I know how to listen and classify targets in a sim. I admit I know nothing about passive sonar in the real world but I know how to look good doing it.

Scanning the water around us, I could make out biologicals and ships but that's the extent of it. The operator next to me listened for a brief pause and casually made out the exact classification. Impressive! Where is he when the Russkies are blasting down 53cm torps in the Sea of Japan on Jane's 688(I)? The amount of gear crammed in the shack is serious. A roll of toilet paper hung from the center of the panel. "What's this?" I asked. "Diplomas from Cal Tech?" No, I was told they use it to wipe the greasepencil markings off the screens.

A tap on the shoulder meant it was time to do what I came for. Time to rock and roll.

Standing behind the chief of the boat and the two seated planes operators, the XO suggested I find something solid to hold onto.

"Officer of the deck, make my depth 800 feet; 30 degree down bubble!" the Captain ordered. Immediately, the Houston swept down and forward, drilling a hole through the ocean.

I promise I won't sink anything!

I promise I won't sink anything!

"Make my speed 25 knots." A remote strumming was perceptible through the deck. Houston was beginning to assert a military presence in the waters off California. I imagined a shrimp boat far above us, with two fellows kicked back, drinking a couple beers, feet propped up on the sideboard, never aware that hundreds of feet below them was a 360 foot black submarine racing through the depths.

"Right rudder, 25 degrees." Houston did a funny dip to port and then canted over in a sweeping starboard turn. "Bring the ship to 500 feet, 35 degree up bubble!" Whoo-boy, up we came. We increased speed and the aura of sheer horsepower was remarkable. This 7,000-ton undersea battleship was cranking the "angles and dangles". The crew wore masks of professional cool. This was their game. It wasn't played on a beige PC seated in a highback leather chair. This was the starship Enterprise in real life! Powerful maneuvers in an unforgiving, hostile environment.

The captain ordered reduced speed and had the ship slowly decrease depth until we were nearly at periscope depth. He consulted with sonar about any contacts in the near vicinity. They reported a Perry class frigate six miles ahead, bearing 340 and a pleasure craft off starboard. Capt. Zieser angled the scope upwards to the underside if the surface. I could see the ripple of the waves, from below them in the monitor.

Aboard the USS Houston

Aboard the USS Houston

After reaching PD and confirming it was safe to surface, the captain ordered the Houston to descend deeper yet and make maximum knots. Once again, the ship accelerated and started down. When we reached a depth surpassing 800 feet (and then some), he ordered the ballast tanks blown and we started a rapid ascent to the surface. Gripping a stainless rail, the deck raring back beneath my feet, the Houston came roaring to the surface at full speed. We were executing the emergency surface I had seen so many times in The Hunt for Red October. Sean Connery, take that!

As the depth indicator neared fifty feet, the boat pitched forward in a lazy surrender to gravity. We were on the surface again. The Houston had shown her muscle. She had demonstrated why the United States was secure and prosperous. Houston was an unquestionable military deterrent to any nation seeking to increase its share of the world through a military solution.

I ascended the bridge, decked out in a Coast Guard orange floatation jacket. Standing next to the lookouts, I watched as Houston's long, black bow curled back the ocean. Off in the distance was the Perry class frigate. She was merely a target. We were more than a match for a fleet of frigates. One thing playing subsims taught me was that one submarine was a battle fleet in itself. The Houston and her efficient, capable crew were hard evidence. And her game was for keeps.

Special thanks to CDR Mike Zieser and the crew of the USS Houston, Carter Conlin, Capt. Zeb Alford, and The Navy League

Update 7-00: Word is the Houston is one of a select group of 688s that will be refueled and continue to serve the US Navy. Salute!

©1999 SUBSIM Review

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