Wednesday, June 27, 2007


Another story from my Navy days.

A co-worker's wife worked for the Undersea Warfare Center on a small torpedo retriever. The boat was used to launch and retrieve test torpedoes. It was a small, fast boat, less than 40' long, with powerful outboard motors.

The boat usually carried a torpedo out to a practice area, launched it, and waited. A submarine generally monitored the event, and acted as a target. Needless to say, the torpedoes weren't loaded with explosives, they would just drive to the sub at full speed, hit it, and bounce off.

The test torpedo was designed to deactivate after hitting the sub, so it would just float and send out a beeping signal. At that point, the small torpedo retriever would pick up the spent torpedo, and take it back to the lab for repair and refueling.

One day they were testing a new torpedo, a very "smart" torpedo, and the deactivation system didn't work correctly. The torpedo stopped after hitting the sub, and the sub drove away, but when the torpedo retriever motored up to the torpedo, the torpedo re-activated, and acquired the retriever boat as a target.

Even though the torpedo had no explosive charge, it was still dangerous to a small boat, and could easily sink the boat if it hit it at high speed. Thinking quickly, the crew headed off at full throttle, which was just a little bit faster than the torpedo. When they turned, the torpedo cut across the angle, and gained on them. Their radio was either not powerful enough to reach their base, or nobody was listening, so they were on their own.

They knew that the torpedo would eventually run out of fuel, but weren't sure that they had more fuel than the torpedo, especially since they had to run at full throttle. Adding to their misery, the wind came up, and the sea became rough. Can you say "The tiny ship was tossed?" Shutting the engines off, they drifted on the sea, watching. The torpedo stopped, and began circling, looking for them. Eventually it pointed straight at them, and dove for an attack. Hitting the throttle, the little boat scampered away, just in time.

As it turned out, they played this cat and mouse game for over 6 hours. The torpedo ran out of gas before they did, and they still had enough gas to limp into port, 6 hours late. The crew was doubly insulted: nobody had missed them(!) and the torpedo engineers were elated at the torpedo's behavior, considering this the best test of all. The only positive result for the crew was a more powerful radio for the boat, and assurances that the base station would be manned in the future.

No torpedoes at Rockhoppers Coffeehouse and Folk Art Gallery in Clinton, on beautiful Whidbey Island.

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