NR-1's crew and capabilities were put to the test in February 2002 during a one-month deployment in support of the Navy Monitor Project, which ran in tandem with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) 2001 Monitor Expedition. The overall goal of this joint effort is to recover and restore key artifacts of the historic Civil War-era vessel. USS Monitor served as the Navy's first ironclad warship. Launched on 30 January 1862 at the Continental Iron Works on Long Island, New York, the ship is most famous for its confrontation with the Confederate ironclad, CSS Virginia, in the Battle of Hampton Roads on 8 March 1862. The battle ultimately turned out to be a draw - with both ships firing on each other at point-blank range but unable to inflict serious damage on the other. In the resulting stalemate, Monitor was successful in protecting the rest of the Union fleet lying off Fort Monroe, while Virginia delayed a further Union advance toward Norfolk. Monitor's Navy career was destined to be short-lived, however. Shortly after midnight on 31 December 1862, while under tow to Beaufort, North Carolina, she sank in a gale-force storm off Cape Hatteras. Later rediscovered, her sunken and rusting hull became America's first national marine sanctuary in 1975. Today, Monitor lies upside down at a depth of 250 feet, resting on the displaced and inverted turret.
The Navy has been deeply involved in all aspects of Monitor research and recovery, and the work-up for the Monitor Project has been extensive. Archaeologists, structural engineers, and corrosion experts have studied the wreck for more than two years. Prior to NR-1's arrival, Navy divers completed a five-month effort to recover the Monitor's innovative steam engine and a section of her hull. Operations are currently under way to recover other major components of the vessel, and the propeller has already been brought up.
NR-1's role in the most recent phase of the operation was to conduct a full visual and sonar survey of the historic ship, and her unique capabilities were well matched to the task. The endurance of nuclear power, and ducted thrusters fore and aft for maneuverability, are some of NR-1's most bankable features. Her box keel houses two retractable tires, which allow helmsmen to guide the ship along the contour of the ocean floor. [Editor's Note: See "NR-1 - Within Visual Sight of the Bottom," in the Summer 1999 issue of UNDERSEA WARFARE.]
Because of strong currents along the bottom, previous efforts to obtain extensive, detailed footage at the site had failed, but NR-1's exceptional stability made it possible to scan the entire hull and study the ship's structural integrity with relative ease. "Approaching the Monitor, you get a real sense of its historical significance," said ETC (SS/DV) Mike Uherek, NR-1's Chief of the Boat. "I've been on a lot of missions, but the experiences from this one are going to stay with me for a long time." According to Uherek, NR-1's sonar capabilities played a central role in this stage of the expedition. "Our side-looking sonar covers the ocean floor and creates a profile image of all objects on the bottom. But both crew and equipment had to perform at their best in our passes over the Monitor," he said.
"From a deep submergence vessel, we have the ability to actually look through the window and get a first-hand view of everything on the bottom of the ocean," said MM1 (SS) Mike Reilly, First Lieutenant of the boat. Reilly's duties as First Lieutenant include maintaining the submarine's hull systems and penetration ducts, line-handling, and other general tasks. He came aboard NR-1 just in time to deploy for the Monitor Project. According to Reilly, few ships rival the research submarine when it comes to "seeing" underwater. She is equipped with both side-looking and obstacle-avoidance sonars, three viewing ports, and a variety of cameras that record both stills and motion picture footage. The cameras, a total of 13 in all, are positioned around the ship's exterior and are capable of panning in almost any direction.
NR-1's ability to remain at one location and generate a comprehensive and accurate bottom map has been a valuable asset on several occasions. Its nuclear propulsion system gives NR-1 exceptional endurance on station, even in heavy weather. Some of the ship's more notable assignments have included participation in the investigation of wreckage of EgyptAir Flight 990, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off Nova Scotia on 31 October 1999. She also searched for, identified, and recovered critical parts of the Space Shuttle Challenger following the tragic shuttle disaster in 1986. NR-1 also performs military missions suited to her unique capabilities.
For the crew, NR-1 duty is almost as unique as the submarine itself. The craft carries a complement of 11 submariners, all of whom are nuclear-propulsion certified. Aside from the traditional command structure of Officer-in-Charge, Executive Officer, and Chief of the Boat, the rest of the crew is almost entirely enlisted, usually ranking between E-6 and E-7. All crewmembers are also qualified to stand duty as Officer of the Deck and Officer of the Watch.
Because of the limited space available for onboard equipment, NR-1's galley is really no more than a sink, a small oven, and a single cold-storage unit. The lone washroom aboard conspicuously lacks any shower facilities, and even on a ship manned by only 11 people, the crew must still eat and sleep in shifts. But in spite of the close quarters and lack of creature comforts, NR-1 is never far away from a warm meal and more modern conveniences. The submarine is usually towed to and from remote locations by a chartered commercial vessel, the Carolyn Chouest, which serves as both an auxiliary research platform and submarine tender for NR-1.
"We have one of the best support ships in the entire fleet in Carolyn Chouest," said MM1 (SS/DV) Bryan Wallace. "The crew is very squared away, and they take very good care of us while we're underway. The food is a lot better over there, too," he added. The Carolyn Chouest also supports the crew by serving as a communication link to friends and family during NR-1 deployments. Twice daily, the Chouest downloads e-mail for the crew and relays it to the boat by radio. The crew can respond in the same manner.
Submariners who apply to serve aboard NR-1 undergo a rigorous selection process, including a personal interview with ADM Frank L. "Skip" Bowman, Director of Naval Reactors. Once selected, the new crewmembers begin a thoroughgoing orientation and training program before taking on their unique and often challenging new duty.
"NR-1 is not easy duty. It's definitely not for the faint of heart," said MM1 Wallace.
During his years in the Submarine Force, Wallace gained the kind of broad-based work experience that NR-1 requires, including tours on the fast-attack submarine USS Miami (SSN-755) and the Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) Virginia. "Although our primary crew is made up of senior enlisted nuclear-trained personnel, we occasionally receive junior Sailors who are sent here for a nine-month tour," Wallace said. "And we tell them, 'By the time you leave, you will do more and see more than you will in a full tour on any other ship in the Navy.'
" NR-1's youngest crewmember, ET1 (SS) Jeff Schwamb, was quick to back up that assertion. As a junior Sailor, his first orders after nuclear-power training sent him to a nine-month stint on NR-1. Following that assignment, Schwamb went on to serve on the fast-attack submarine USS Seawolf (SSN-21), but two years later he came back to NR-1. Onboard, he is responsible for the operation of the camera equipment and the condition of the ship's internal forward computer systems. And like the rest of the crew, he enjoys the challenge and the uniqueness of his work.
"Everything they say about the amount of work here is true," he said. "Each division on the ship has a maximum of three people - but you still have the same amount of work and maintenance to do as you would on another boat with a bigger crew. But the thing about working on a submarine with 11 people - as opposed to 120 - is that everything you do here is a lot more hands-on. You definitely know that you're making an impact," Schwamb said.
Although her participation in the effort was completed in just three days, the contributions NR-1 and her fast-working crew have made to the Navy Monitor Project will continue to reverberate over the long term. Later this year, the Navy and NOAA plan to go after Monitor's turret, the largest piece of the ship to be raised thus far. And now, thanks to NR-1, they know exactly where to find it.
JO3 Bilyeu works in the Public Affairs Office at Submarine Base, New London.
Active in Long-Term Monitor Recovery Effort
The Navy has been deeply involved in all aspects of Monitor research and recovery. Over the past three years, Navy divers have assisted NOAA with the recovery of key artifacts from USS Monitor - and gained some valuable deep-diving experience in the process. Prior to NR-1's arrival, project engineers completed a five-month effort executed by Navy divers to recover the Monitor's innovative steam engine and a section of her hull.
The goals of the 2002 mission are to complete the evaluation of a com-mercial saturation system, as well as to recover the armor belt, the well-known turret, and other artifacts, which will later be displayed at the Mariner's Museum in Newport News, Virginia. More information on the Monitor can be found at (clicking these link open in new window and take you outside of the USW Magazine site):