THE SINKING OF THE USS GUITARRO – WELL THERE GOES THAT WEEKEND

By Ron Munden

At 0730 on the morning of May 16, 1969, I was driving to work at Mare Island Naval Shipyard.  All my thoughts were on plans for the up-coming weekend.  Little did I know that was all about to change.

As reported in the press:

Napa River Sinking

On May 15, 1969, Guitarro’s construction was still underway when Guitarro sank while moored in the Napa River. Guitarro had taken a sudden down angle causing most of her forward hatches to go underwater. Massive flooding occurred through the large open hatches and attempts to close large watertight doors and hatches were largely unsuccessful due to various lines and cables that ran through the doors and hatches, thus preventing them from closing. Three days later the ship was refloated, with damages estimated at between $15.2 million and $21.85 million USD.

By the time I reached the shipyard the place was operating in what could be described as panic mode.  Sinking a ship at dockside is not good!

Even though I recognized that the shipyard had a big problem I did not think I would be involved in any way.  By noon I recognized that I was wrong about that also.

I was told that shipyard workers planned on pumping the water out of the ship and bringing it to the surface as quickly as possible.  Before they could begin pumping, divers had to weld hull patches on all the openings and make each compartment airtight.  They expected this would take an additional 24 hours so pumping could start by noon on Saturday.

 There was one very big concern – ship stability.  They feared that if the submarine was partially pumped and rose to the surface the free surface effect of the remaining water would give the ship (technically submarines are called boats) a negative stability and it would capsize and bury the conning tower in the mud.

Management had selected a seasoned naval architect who normally worked on research projects to develop a pumping sequence that would ensure the ship maintained positive stability at all time. I was very surprised to learn that this engineer had specifically asked that I be assigned to assist him.  To this day I have no idea why he selected me.

This was not a simple problem and the pump sequence calculations had to be completed in 24 hours in order to support the schedule for raising the ship.

Prep work began. The 20 or so drawing boards in the area where I worked were all cleared off.  The lead engineer began making a list of drawings that would be needed to make the calculations.  Other people were sent to plan files to collect the drawings.  This began a series of trips to plans files.  When a person looked at one drawing it often referenced other drawings, so people were sent to retrieve the reference drawings.   By 4pm, the end of the day shift, most of the drawing boards were holding a collection of drawings.

Then it was quiet.  It was just Bill, the senior naval architect, and me.  We were looking at a stack of drawings.  To be honest it was Bill and his handy man.  By this point I had been reading the Principals of Naval Architecture for about a year and had taken two quarters of Naval Architecture classes at Berkeley.  I had no idea how to solve this problem.  Fortunately, Bill did.  So, we started the process one step at a time.

I was never one of those students that stayed up at night studying for a test in college.  In fact, I never did it.  But fueled by coke, and candy bars I worked through the night and never thought about being sleepy.   By late morning on Saturday we delivered the pumping sequence to the salvage officer’s team.

By 2pm I was in my car ready to drive home.  It had been an interesting day and a half.

I decided to sleep-in Sunday morning.

That was not to be the case.

At 6:30 Sunday morning I received a call.  I was told that the salvage team had raised the sub and were preparing it to go into drydock.  Someone had decided that they may be able to save more equipment from salt water damage if they filled some compartments with fresh water, added soap and pumps, which in effect, made these compartments a washing machine.  This would significantly change the submarine’s configuration. So, they needed another set of stability calculations.

I’ll save my Sunday adventure for another day.

GIVE US YOUR FEEDBACK.  CLICK ON “COMMENT” TO TELL US WHAT YOU THINK or use one of the alternative methods for providing feedback.

click here to CLOSE THIS PAGE