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On the road again

This week finds me in Cambridge Mass.; across the river from Boston. Cambridge is the home of Harvard and MIT. But that’s not why I am here in Cambridge; it is OMG (Object Management Group) week. I am here to chair the C4I Domain Task Force as we work on Software standards.

But this week, I thought I would talk about one of my sea tales.

On a sea trip during the 1970’s (once again to the North Pacific), we were testing out how to keep a mile long acoustic array straight (straighter is better for tracking far off sounds). For this trip, we brought along a set of tubes (12’ plastic pipes) to act as a buoy and parachutes to attach to the end of the array cable. The idea was that the parachute would put tension on the cable array as the current flowed into the parachute. The parachute was attached to an explosive bolt and by rope to the buoy. When we were done with the trial, we could blow the explosive bolt, release the parachute and buoy. Once released, the ship will pull away, wind in the cable and then turn around and go back to retrieve the buoy and parachute. Great idea; right?

We were scheduled to make four deployments and brought along three sets of buoys and extra parachutes. But we were confident we would not all of them, we would just need one set.

After three days out from San Diego, we arrived on our first site and in the early morning as the sun would soon rise, the team had finished breakfast and was at the aft of the boat as the array with buoy and parachute were deployed. Once in the initial work was done and the array was in the water, the front end armored cable began to be let out driving the acoustic array deep under the ocean surface. Some of us headed to the electronic vans to bring up the computers and begin our data recording and analysis work.

Work with the array continued for three days. Finally it was time to blow the parachute and buoy and collect the array to move to another area. The command was issued and the array went slack as expected. The team moved to the aft of the boat and began the three hour process of pulling in the cable and eventually the array. As the array was retrieved, there were modules that needed some grooming. Eventually done, the boat turned around and headed back to retrieve the buoy and parachute.

Reaching the location where the buoy should be, we couldn’t find it. A search ensued for two hours, but there was no sign of the buoy. After a few hours search, we decided it must have been pulled under by the parachute.

After a two day transit to the next site, the process was repeated. We again prepared to recover the array confident that the first happening was a fluke. After retrieving the array, we again returned to the site where the buoy should be waiting for us, but again, no sign of the buoy after another two hour search we had only found a number of glass ball floats (we were at a point in the mid Pacific where currents come together and glass ball floats from the Japanese fishing nets would collect along this position).

At this point, we had two more deployments but only one set of buoy/parachute to execute our testing.

Again a transit for about a day took us to a position where we were in the mid Pacific Ocean, approximately four hundred miles north of Hawaii, far away from any land.

Again, we repeated the deployment sequence and began to gather data. After a two day data collection, we were ready to retrieve the acoustic array. This time, we decided we needed to protect the buoy. We had a spare parachute on the assumption that one may rip, but not a spare buoy. Since the crew of the boat could not be spared and many of the on-board engineering team were needed to deal with the array retrieval, that left about five of us that were “spare”. The chief engineer had decided we needed to be at the buoy when the explosive charge was set off to insure that the buoy would not be sucked under by the parachute. The job needed three people to sit in a zodiac; one to handle the engine, one to handle the radio and one to be positioned with a knife to cut the buoy free if it started to sink.

Out came a set of straws and the five of us drew one each…mine was the short straw. That meant I was to be the knife person and the next two shortest became the driver and the radio person. A zodiac was lowered over the side. The three of us put on our life vests and entered the zodiac. I was a handed a chief’s knife to use, one very sharp knife.

Off we went to the mile plus needed to reach the end-of-array buoy. Once there, we could only see the boat when both of us were at the top of a wave. Once on station, I leaned over the edge of the zodiac to grab hold of the rope which tied the buoy to the parachute, deep below. Once we radioed that we were ready, the signal was sent and the explosive bolt was triggered. At once I knew it had been released, but instead of it pulling the buoy down, the rope appeared to slacken.

So here I was, holding onto a sharp knife, bobbing up and down in three foot swells, four hundred miles north of Hawaii, in a rubber boat only eight feet in length and our only communications waiting to see if the buoy sticking six feet out of the water would sink; and if it started to sink, could I save it.

There were points where only having my feet wrapped around some rope inside the zodiac that kept me from being pulled out while I tried to hold onto the buoy.

As we continued waiting, we could see the ship begin to fade over the horizon as it moved to pull in the cable and array. Eventually we lost sight of the ship and the chill ran through me as I realized that if something happened, we would be lost. There was nothing in sight as far as we could see, except some thunder clouds that seemed to be heading in our direction. We felt that the wind was picking up and were worried that we might get caught in a storm.

Word eventually came over the radio that the array had been retrieved and they were headed back to pick us up. After a time, we could see the 180 foot boat headed in our direction.

Once the boat pulled up to our location, we were able to tie a rope around the buoy and they engaged a small winch as they began to pull the buoy on-board. When they were done, they had retrieved the buoy and parachute. We now had what was needed to execute our last deployment. Our small team were brought back on-board and had a good fan-tail cookout with steak dinner that night.

Eventually our third deployment completed without incident. We did not return to pick up the buoy and parachute after the last deployment so what happened to it we will never know.

After forty five days at sea, we were able to return to San Diego where the next phase of the effort began, analyzing all the data collected.

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