How the Big E ran aground in San Francisco

Back in 1983, I was a 23 year old Navy nuclear power plant operator. Most of us were early-mid 20’s, junior nco’s, operating and maintaining Navy nuclear plants. The most highly educated, highly trained bunch of smart asses you’ll ever meet. Most of the officers over us were ok, but some made sure that you knew THEY were the officers IN CHARGE of you. One such officer was LT.

This ship had 4 propulsion plants; each one had 2 reactors, a main engine, all the accessories that go with that, and a control room. It required about 1 dozen operators, overseen by a senior nco in the plant and an officer in the control room.

We were coming home to San Francisco bay after a very successful 9 month deployment. Normal deployments are 6 months, but we did some extra credit work and were coming home to a hero’s welcome. Big to-do, they even flew the cast of the Star Trek movie (the ones from the original tv show) out to ride us in. Big pr campaign, news helicopters, family waiting on the pier.

On the main engines, as long as you’re going faster than 10 knots, the water will flow through them and keep them cool. If you go slower than 10 knots, you have to start a big pump to flow water through to keep them cool. Gotta keep them cool or they won’t work.

We’re steaming fast under the Golden Gate bridge at low tide, coming home. Need to do this at low tide so we’ll fit under the Golden Gate and San Francisco/Oakland bay bridges. On number 2 main engine is Throttleman (TM). He actually controls the steam to #2 main engine. You’ve seen the movies where the captain pulls the handles on the engine controls, bells ring, and it goes to ‘all ahead full’ or whatever? He was at the other end of those, actually opening the steam valves to the main engine to do that. He was a little wiseass, and you wanted to choke him whenever he talked to you. He wasn’t a bad guy, he just exuded an aura that made you want to slap him.

As we pass under the Golden Gate bridge, faster than 10 knots, TM announces “Starting the main circ water pump.” He’s early, but he’s being cautious. LT snaps “I’M the officer, I give the orders, I will tell you when to start that pump!” “Aye aye sir.” This was heard by the entire watch team in the control room-TM, assistant throttleman, log recorder, and both reactor panel operators. All junior nco’s, none liking LT.

We start slowing down. We slow down more. We slow down more. TM announces every speed change, being a proper professional watchstander. At about 7 knots, the ‘main engine high temperature’ alarm sounds. TM announces “Main engine high temperature alarm, shutting the throttles and starting the main circ pump”, which is the exact right response. This changes #2 propeller from pushing the ship to being a drag on the ship.

The propellers on this ship are huge. They can push a 90,000 ton ship at highway speeds. Conversely, when they stop spinning, they are a tremendous drag. So now, with #2 propeller dragging, it drags the rear end of the ship to the right. The ship is still moving forward with a huge momentum, but now in an unexpected direction, and we get pulled up onto a sandbar and get stuck. We down in the propulsion plants all do our casualty actions, everything is good, no problems except we’re not moving anymore. Everyone else on the ship notices that we’ve stopped moving, and we’re all leaning due to the ship being tilted to the left. Our families on the pier are watching and wondering ‘wtf?’.

LT instantly has to deal with the casualty, which all of us watchstanders are doing, everything good. The uh-oh squad comes down, takes all our logs, gives us blank ones to continue with, notes everyone on watch, and hangs out to bother us.

Lunchtime comes, we all have lunch, leaning to the left, watching ourselves on tv courtesy of the news helos. Six hours later, at high tide, we float off the sandbar and make our way to the pier, heros with our tails between our legs.

The inquiry tried to pin it all on TM. His lawyer produced the depositions from all the control room crew that all said the same thing: LT said that he gave the orders, not to start the pump until he gave the order. It all bounced back onto LT; he got a formal reprimand in his record, which essentially ended his Naval career. TM was a celebrity among us for awhile. The ship was fine, no damage. The captain did make admiral, though he waited a couple more months for that to happen.

And that, kids, is how the Enterprise ran aground in San Francisco bay in 1983. Most embarrassing.

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