By Rosemary Heiss
MSC Public Affairs
|NR-1 pulls into Submarine Base New London after completing its final scheduled deployment.|
U.S. Navy photo by John Narewski
Military Sealift Command rescue and salvage ship USNS Grasp conducted a special mission in December — to tow the U.S. Navy's one-of-a-kind, nuclear-powered, deep-submergence submarine NR-1 for the final time. The submarine was inactivated in a Nov. 21 ceremony at Submarine Base New London, Conn. For nearly 40 years, the 146-foot-long vessel, with only an 11-passenger capacity, has been used to provide underwater search and recovery, oceanographic research missions, and installation and maintenance of underwater equipment, to a depth of more than half a mile.
Civil service mariner Capt. Jose Delfaus and Grasp's crew were proud to be a part not only of the first submarine tow by Grasp since its transfer to MSC in January 2006, but also to be part of NR-1's long and unique history.
First conceived in 1964 by the father of the nuclear Navy, Adm. Hyman Rickover, NR-1 launched in Groton, Conn., Jan. 25, 1969. During its long service, the sub conducted multiple missions to search for artifacts and wrecks and mapped the ocean floor.
|Grasp tows NR-1 leaving Groton, Conn.|
U.S. Navy photo by Bill Cook
One of the submarine's most noteworthy missions followed the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986. Because of its ability to remain on the sea floor without resurfacing frequently, NR-1 was a major tool for searching deep waters. NR-1 remained submerged and on station even when heavy weather and rough seas hit the area and forced all other search and recovery ships into port. The submarine was used to search for, identify and recover critical parts of the Challenger craft.
NR-1 also recovered weapons from the ocean floor in 1976. The vessel discovered three wrecks along the Mediterranean trade route in 1995. In 2002, NR-1 also surveyed the remains of Civil War-era USS Monitor, the Navy's first ironclad warship, and USS Akron, a Navy dirigible that crashed in 1933. Its final mission in 2008 was to search for the wreck of Bonhomme Richard, the flagship of naval hero John Paul Jones.
The final tow
Shortly after NR-1's last mission, Grasp began the task of taking the submarine from Groton to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, to start the inactivation process.
Grasp arrived in Groton Dec. 1. That day, the crews of the MSC ship and the submarine loaded gear for the voyage to Portsmouth. In preparation for the tow, Grasp's rigid-hull, inflatable boat was lowered into the water to carry the towline and a unique ball coupling used to hook up NR-1.
Grasp's Deck Machinist Joel Tano, Able Seaman Marlon Andries and two NR-1 crew members were responsible for the hook up. From the RHIB, the four-man team wrestled the ball-coupling device — about 12 inches in diameter, made of steel and weighing more than 100 pounds — into its socket on the front of the submarine.
With the towline in place, Grasp began the two-day tow. Though rough seas plagued the mission, they didn't hinder the ship's progress. One thing did however — the towline separated from NR-1.
|Rescue and salvage ship USNS Grasp’s Deck Machinist Joel Tano and Able Seaman Marlon Andries assist NR-1 crew members with the towline hookup.|
U.S. Navy photo by Bill Cook
Civil service mariners had been constantly monitoring the towline via sensors in the tow booth.
"While constant booth monitoring is not mandatory, I sleep better at night knowing it's watched," said Delfaus, no stranger to ship towing, as a fleet ocean tug captain from 1999-2005.
"Normally with line deterioration, the break is spread out," he said. "This one was an anomaly — a clean break without signs of abrasion or cutting."
"The RHIB crew did all the work getting us reconnected," he continued. "We initially lost about four hours, but we made that up once we got back underway. In fact, we had to slow down or risk getting into port too early."
MSC and NR-1
Just as MSC was instrumental in the last chapter of the submarine's life, the command has supported the small submersible's mission for years.
Though NR-1's last tow was a first for USNS Grasp, the submarine was accustomed to being towed by another MSC ship. The submarine was too slow to travel between job sites on its own, according to Navy Lt. David Nesbitt, an NR-1 crew member who had been with the submarine for five years and was aboard Grasp for NR-1's final tow.
MSC's relationship to the unique submarine dates to the mid-1990s when the command chartered submarine support ship MV Carolyn Chouest to provide towing, communications, supplies and researcher housing for the submarine.
|NR-1, being towed by Grasp, approaches Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Kittery, Maine.|
U.S. Navy photo by Bill Cook
In 1995, Dr. Robert Ballard — the man credited with discovering the Titanic wreckage — used the NR-1 and Chouest to explore the wreck of the HMHS Britannic. Sister ship to the Titanic, it was the third and largest of the Olympic-class ocean liners, but it struck a mine and sank off the coast of Greece while serving as a hospital ship during World War I.
Chouest supported NR-1's 2002 exploration of Monitor. Aided by Chouest, NR-1 conducted a full visual and sonar survey of Monitor that sank in 1862 and lay undiscovered until 1972.
NR-1's powerful camera and sonar equipment took the closest image ever of the sunken vessel.
In 2007, NR-1 and Chouest, again working with Ballard, began mapping the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico to help scientists determine where early Americans might have lived when, at the height of the last ice age, sea levels were nearly 400 feet lower than they are today.
Chouest completed its service to NR-1 Aug. 31, 2008, and was returned to its ship-operating company in September.
NR-1 will eventually go to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Wash., where it will be dismantled.
No matter how significant their accomplishments or unique their structure, like NR-1, many Navy vessels reach their final destination the same way — towed with pride by the crews of MSC ships.