An Albacore Accident With A Happy Ending
By Steve Cuff
As a young newly minted Ensign EDO, I had the honor and privilege of serving as the Ship's Superintendent for ALBACORE (AGSS 569) from 1955 to 1956. During that time, besides my Ship's Supt. duties, I was also responsible for supervising the installation and removal of various pieces of instrumentation and other apparatus.
The incident in question occurred during the time when the yard installed boundary layer test equipment for the BuShips engineers. ALBACORE was high out of the water on the blocks in Portsmouth's floating dry dock. "Wings" were welded to the outer hull on each side approximately amid-ships. They extended outboard about 5 feet, were about six inches in width and an inch to an inch and a half from top to bottom. Equally spaced along the leading edge facing forward were flow/pressure transducers that were to measure the velocity of the water outward from the hull. From the data gathered, a boundary layer profile could be plotted to compare with the David Taylor Model Basin data taken with a scale model of ALBACORE.
In conjunction with the boundary layer transducers, a few pressure transducers were installed in the surface of the horizontal "wings" of the Phase 1 aft cruciform configuration of ALBACORE forward of the movable control surfaces. These transducers had to be pressure tested and passed before we could undock ALBACORE and do the requested boundary layer testing.
During the afternoon shift, we had one transducer that was not passing the pressure tests and would have to be reset and retested. The shift ended before that was accomplished so it looked like we would be stuck until the following morning which would hold up our undocking schedule.
After the plumbers had left at midnight, I was considering how we could make up some of the time and came up with the less than brilliant idea that I could do the job myself and have it ready to test the next morning. I went to my car and picked up my toolbox. After all, I was a recently graduated Mechanical Engineer and a small plumbing job shouldn't be beyond my skill level.
It was now about 0100 and a fog-fed mist had covered the already slick, with traces of oil, surface of the outer hull. There were safety lines/cables on stanchions along the deck but they ended at the aft mast where the ensign flew. From there, a 5/8" line had been tied running aft about 25 feet to the vertical fin of the cruciform. That line was used by crew and yard workers to walk aft outside the safety lines (pre OSHA days to be sure). During the day I had often taken this route aft and jumped down on to the horizontal surface of the cruciform so I thought I would do the same with my toolbox in my hand in the blackness of night.
Well, it was a bad idea to begin with and it got worse as I neared the jump off point because my feet slipped out from under me as I reached a point about ten feet from the end of the line. Below me in the bottom of the dry dock was a jumble of blocks, angle iron, scaffolding and various pieces of equipment. As I slipped I dropped the tool box and flung my free arm out in the direction of the 5/8" line. I was lucky enough to get my arm over the line and get a grip on it. In high school I had been a gymnast and was able to do one handed chin-ups. All that training came to the fore and I was able to hoist myself back up on to the deck.
With shaking legs I walked slowly to the gangway, took the stairs to the bottom of the dry dock, recovered my tool box and tools which were scattered here and there, walked back up the stairs, got into my car and drove home for a fitful night's sleep.
It was a dumb thing to do but being young and as most youngsters are, indestructible and immortal, I had taken a short cut and the associated risk. There was no one else around topside or on the dock at the time so if I had fallen I would have lain there 'til dawn with, if I was lucky, a few broken bones.
The next morning I was back on the job, we got the transducer reset and passed and went on with the undocking and testing ready for the next challenge for ALBACORE and for me, ship's company and the yard. Undocking was delayed slightly but I was alive and the testing got done.