Story by PO2 Alfred Coffield on 07/02/2019Behind the dive school building at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center (NDSTC) in Panama City, Fla., is a training pool. At first glance, it looks like a normal swimming pool. The steam rises as hot air meets the chilled water and the heavy stench of chlorine stinks the nostrils. But this is not a place for recreation. This is a place where Sailors do push-ups until their muscles scream for relief. The sound of agonizing groans establishes a proving ground for U.S. Navy Sailors in this grueling five-week training certification that prepares potential divers to become proficient using a self-contained breathing apparatus commonly referred to as "scuba".
Each scuba class starts with roughly 20 officer and enlisted candidates. The course is intense mentally and physically, and the attrition rate is significant. Combined with the tests, exercises and physical training procedures, the mental strain is an unyielding, in-your-face process of strenuous military discipline. Even the notion of breathing through a regulator underwater can be a challenge to students.
Machinist Mate (Auxiliary) 2nd Class Nathan Hutches, a Sailor aboard USS Albany (SSN 753), is one of the few submariners to have gone through dive school and passed.
"Dive school was a completely different experience from anything I've ever faced," Hutches said. "In the mornings we'd do land based physical training like a three-mile run, but of course you would never just run. We would stop to do bear crawls, we'd do what always seemed like a million pushups, and sometimes we'd carry anchor chains on a run."
In order to be accepted to the course, candidates are required to pass as intense physical fitness and swim test at their home units that must be documented by their command. So, getting to dive school is only the beginning of the battle. For those who do make it into the course, many will not finish.
The route for submariners is no different for anyone hoping to go through Navy dive training. Many commands set up developmental training called "mud pupping". This training, which is spearheaded by qualified divers, prepares candidates for the rigors of dive school.
"There are one of two ways you leave dive school," Hutches explained reliving his own experience. "You either leave with a scuba bubble on your chest, or you drop on request and hope to try again."
Hutches is appreciative of his time in dive school. He says the school made it possible for him to perform underwater scuba-diving missions as part of a U.S. Navy submarine crew , an achievement very few can claim. Despite going to the vigorous training, however, submariners who make it through the dive school must also qualify to dive with their respective submarine command. Although volunteer based, not every dive school graduate will meet this requirement.
"When we get to the boat, for non-nuclear guys, we have to get qualified as radiation worker for diver, and pass a ship diver qualification," he said. "Basically, I have to show an understanding that some areas on the boat can't be touched until it is shut down and cleared. We have to be sure not to put ourselves at risk for abnormal levels of radiation. That rarely happens, but it keeps us safe. The boat leadership has to be confident in our ability to adhere to safe dive practices."
Dive divisions on submarines are responsible for maintaining security and maintenance for the boat. They look for damages, search for significant sea growth, inspect the hull, discharge valves for debris, and perform security swims while in port. The security swims allow each diver to examine the submarine, and look for anything that may have been placed on the boat that does not belong. Submarine scuba divers must also act as safety swimmers when personnel or supplies are loaded onto the boat.
As a Machinist Mate on Albany, Hutches must assist in preserving and repairing the boat at an organizational and intermediate level. He maintains damage control equipment and systems, internal combustion diesel engines and diesel engine support systems, hydraulic systems, atmosphere control and oxygen-generating equipment, refrigeration systems, compressed air and gas systems, potable water system, seawater systems, and sanitary and plumbing systems. All of this is done before volunteering as a diver with the submarine.
Hutches has done several dives on Albany. In an already small community, he feels diving builds a great deal of camaraderie between the submariners on the boat because they know the level of effort it takes to make it through dive school and the risks each dive can present.
Diving on a submarine can be a disorienting experience. Traditionally, when scuba divers descend underwater, they swim horizontal to the sea floor. The experience can be serene, mysterious and even eerie. Blue seas darken as sunlight refracts less in deeper water. In some instances, just 30 meters of depth can look pitch black to the eye. Diving from a submarine is no different, however, on a submarine a diver could swim in any positioning during an inspection.
"Diving on a submarine is really exciting because you don't have a lot of orientation," Hutches said as he diagramed the positioning with his hands. "Sometimes you'll be hanging upside down, sometimes you're vertical, and sometimes you could have no clue which direction you're facing at all. It's really free form as compared to other forms of diving."
Following the seams of a submarine that is more than 360 ft. long, Hutches says diving along the Albany in Norfolk, Virginia adds an additional challenge.
"Diving here is interesting. The visibility in the water is so low that you just have to have a feel for where markers are when inspecting or cleaning the sub."
USS Albany was launched on June 13, 1987, and commissioned on April 7, 1990. It is the 43rd Los Angeles-class attack submarine built by the Navy, and is part of a class of submarine that forms the backbone of the U.S. Navy's submarine force. With 41 Los Angeles-class attack submarines still in service, this class contains more nuclear submarines than any other class in the world.
Living and working on the submarine can be challenging; but working under the water can be even more unforgiving. For the Sailors who navigate under the waves, not just on top of them, the notoriety that comes after diving from a U.S. Navy submarine is well worth the difficult training offered at NDSTC.