I’ve realized that we don’t have a single unified thread for us to tell our collective “there I was” stories. I know that we’ve all had our chances to intersperse them into the various threads, and even given how much we all enjoy derailing threads, I figure there are some good stories that deserve to be shared for posterity (at least the versions that we can share publicly). So with that in mind, I figure maybe it’s time to start a separate thread for this!
I’ll start off with the Time the Reagan Raced Her Battle Group.
Summer of 2004. The Reagan was in the middle of her transit from her construction yard in Newport News, Virginia to her new homeport of San Diego, California. This was early July, and was the day before we crossed the equator for the second time (on the Pacific side). At the time, we were steaming with the destroyers Mustin and Benfold, and the oiler Camden. We’d just finished playing with the Pacific Fleets in Summer Pulse '04, and were in our final preparations for our arrival party at our new home. Morale was at an all time high, and the command had decided that we’d have a steel beach picnic on the flight deck for the crew the next day.
Word had filtered down to Reactor and engineering the week before that the CO and XO were interested in doing a race of some kind with the ships we were sailing with, and our reactor officer, an old cruiser guy (who I think was one of the last nuclear cruiser CO’s left in the fleet at that time) was very, very visibly excited by the challenge, and making sure that not only would we win, but that we would win by a lot. He immediately started huddling with the technical section heads and they got to work on devising a plan.
I should probably explain that due to the unique intricacies of nuclear reactors and steam plants, getting up to speed as quickly as possible isn’t just a matter of winging open the throttles as quickly as possible and holding on. Because of how a pressurized water reactor’s power level in the application of a propulsion plant is directly affected by the steam demand on the system (here’s a link explain a bit better: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pressurized_water_reactor#Control), there are careful parameters that have to be followed to ensure that no protective safety systems kick in from the lag and overshoot that result from the way reactor power level changes. In addition, the effects of shrink and swell in a boiler (which is basically what the steam generators are) also plays a role in limiting how fast throttle changes can happen (that last part will be important a bit later- we’ll come back to it). Add in all the various pieces and parts of supporting equipment, controls, etc, and there’s a lot to do.
The Reactor Officer and other department heavies developed a plan, and the RO passed it on to us personally, a gleam in his eye even brighter than the one when he’d been acting CO in Rio de Janiero a month prior (that’s another story). We didn’t know then exactly when the race would be taking place, so just to be on the safe side, all the watchteams were briefed, even going so far as having each one step through and simulate what needed to be done when and in what order the next time they were on watch.
Race day finally came, and I was lucky enough to be off watch. We all came to a stop and the smaller ships maneuvered into position alongside us, and we waited for the official start to kick off the race. I stopped through Central Control, where the Engineering Officer of the Watch and his team keep an eye on both reactor plants, as well as topside engineering monitoring a lot of other parameters from around the ship (and where I stood my senior in rate watches as well). The RPM indicators for all four shafts would jump from time to time, as the throttlemen in each plant would roll over the mains to keep the turbine rotors from bowing- basically revving the engines.
I went up to the flight deck and grabbed a spot on the starboard side forward and waited for the race to start. Benfold and Camden were off on that side, and Mustin was off to port.
At the sound of our saluting cannon, the race began. I wish I could’ve been a fly on the wall in either of the plants or central to watch how they did everything, but the view was much better topside.
Both of the DDG’s took early jumps as their gas turbines were a bit faster to spin up, and the Camden stayed about even with us for the first little bit, before we saw a sudden large burst of smoke from her stack, and she began falling behind us pretty quickly. Within a couple of minutes we had caught back up with the two destroyers, and we watched and waved as Benfold’s prow slid past our view, then behind us and behind our fantail. On the other side, Mustin was doing the same. We kept going for a bit longer, until all three ships were rapidly receding dots in the distance, before we again fired our saluting gun, and coasted and slowed to a stop. When it was all said and done, it wasn’t even close.
We found out later that in their rush to accelerate and keep up with us (Camden may have had a shot, as the Sacramento-class AOE’s were specifically designed to keep up with fast carrier groups), she’d managed to blow out the fire in one of her boilers, and it took a while to get it re-lit. We’re thinking that it was probably due to a swell condition. Basically, the sudden drop in pressure inside the boiler and steam header due to the massive change in steam demand from winging open the main engine throttle led to a huge inrush of feedwater. This may have led to overflowing the high side of the water drum, and put out the fire. So that was what happened.
Our honor safely intact, we continued on our way, before stopping the next day for a great party topside. The Reagan family and Santa Barbara Navy League had flown out steaks and chefs to cook them (to order) for the crew (MAN those people had deep pockets), and a couple of buddies of mine had started a punk band with a couple of other folks aboard, and they were invited (along with the detachment of Navy Band Southeast who was riding with us) to perform for the crew. Needless to say, a good time was had by all.