Carolyn Chouest and NR-1 explore naval history
By JO3 Braden Bilyeu
The U.S. Navy used one of its most technologically advanced ships to search for one of the most technologically advanced ships of yesteryear in February 2002. The Navy's special purpose research submarine NR-1 and Military Sealift Command's chartered submarine support vessel MV Carolyn Chouest aided archeologists charting USS Monitor, the Navy's first ironclad warship.
Monitor fought the Confederate ironclad, CSS Virginia, March 8, 1862, in the Civil War battle of Hampton Roads. The battle ultimately turned out to be a draw - with both ships firing on each other at point-blank range, but unable to inflict serious damage on the other. In the resulting stalemate, Monitor was successful in protecting the rest of the Union fleet lying off Fort Monroe, while Virginia delayed a further Union advance toward Norfolk.
Monitor's Navy career was destined to be short-lived, however. Shortly after midnight on Dec. 31, 1862, while under tow to Beaufort, N.C., she sank in a gale-force storm off Cape Hatteras. Later rediscovered, her sunken and rusting hull became America's first national marine sanctuary in 1975.
Today, Monitor's hull lies upside down at a depth of 250 feet, resting on the displaced and inverted turret. When the ship sank, the turret shifted from the center of the ship toward the stern of the ship's port side, producing an exaggerated starboard list.
The nuclear-powered, 150-foot-long NR-1, supported by 238-foot MV Carolyn Chouest, conducted a full visual and sonar survey of Monitor as part of the Navy Monitor Project, which ran in tandem with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's 2002 Monitor Expedition. The goal of this joint effort is to recover and restore key artifacts of the historic Civil War-era vessel.
Preparations for the project have been extensive. Archeologists, structural engineers and corrosion experts have studied the wreck for more than two years. Prior to NR-1's arrival, Navy divers completed a five-month effort to recover Monitor's innovative steam engine and a section of her hull. Operations are currently under way to recover major components of the vessel. The propeller has already been brought up. However, all previous efforts to obtain extensive, detailed footage at the site had failed because of strong currents along the bottom.
NR-1 is exceptionally stable, making it possible to scan the entire hull and study the ship's structural integrity with relative ease.
"Our side-looking sonar covers the ocean floor and creates a profile image of all objects on the bottom," said ETC(SS/DV) Mike Uherek, USN, NR-1's Chief of the Boat. "But both crew and equipment had to perform at their best in our passes over Monitor."
NR-1 also has viewports that enable the crew to get a first-hand view of everything at the bottom of the ocean. According to crewmember MM1(SS) Mike Reilly, USN, few ships rival NR-1 when it comes to seeing underwater. She is equipped with both side-looking and obstacle-avoidance sonars, three viewports and a variety of cameras that record both stills and motion picture footage. The cameras, a total of 13 in all, are positioned around the ship's exterior and are capable of panning in almost any direction.
Another key to NR-1's success is her exceptional endurance on-station, even in heavy weather, thanks to her nuclear propulsion system.
"We have one of the best support ships in the entire fleet in Carolyn Chouest," said MM1(SS/DV) Bryan Wallace, USN. "The crew is very squared away, and they take very good care of us while we're underway." Chouest supports the 11-member NR-1 crew as well by serving as a communication link to friends, families and home life during NR-1 deployments, downloading e-mail for the crew and relaying messages to the submarine by radio. The NR-1 crew can respond in the same manner.
Although NR-1 and Chouest participation in the effort was completed in just three days, their contribution to the Navy Monitor Project will continue to reverberate over the long term. Later this year, the Navy and NOAA plan to raise Monitor's turret, the largest piece of the ship to be raised thus far. And now, thanks to NR-1 and Carolyn Chouest, they know exactly where to find it.