Sea story: “Swim call!”


Here’s a frivolous topic for Thursday morning before the weekend.

A few weeks ago a shipmate asked a seemingly innocuous question:

Are there any rules or guidance on having a swim call on a sub? Can the CO take a swim? The Corpsman?

Submarines on local operations or doing exercises on weapons ranges occasionally have a few free hours before their next event starts.  If you’re shooting exercise torpedoes or entertaining midshipmen then (after you’ve run your weekly training drills and cleaned up the boat) you want to show everyone a good time.  When the weather’s good, the seas are calm, and the water’s warm, it’s a great opportunity for a re-enlistment seminar swim call.

Once the boat is on the surface, the OOD and the lookout take the bridge. A rifle-qualified crewmember is stationed as shark watch. Submariners don’t get a lot of practice time on firing ranges, so crew opinions are divided over whether the expended ammunition will end up in the shark or in the shark bait. But if you’re not afraid of the sharks (or the shark watch), then you can swim around the forward end of the boat. (Stay clear of the reactor compartment!) Of course if it’s a sunny day with calm weather, there may also be a topside BBQ and sunbathing.

I completed my submarine command qualification in the early 1990s and I’ve been assigned to a submarine staff HQ, but I don’t remember ever seeing any guidance on swim-call policy. So, I asked a submariner group on Linkedin:

Are there any current rules or guidance on whether the CO or the Corpsman can join the swim call? I never saw any of my COs or IDCs do it, but I don’t remember ever reading any rules against it. Sure, “good judgment” and all that, but I know headquarters staff was full of people who’d find it very hard to restrain themselves from providing a little friendly policy “help”.

If you’re not familiar with current guidance either, then feel free to share your own swim call sea stories…

I sparked some memories and got over a dozen responses. Their names and hull numbers have been omitted to preserve anonymity.

From way back in the “good ol’ days”:

“I was a department head on a boat off Vietnam during that war. Operations permitting we’d regularly surface about twenty miles offshore and hold a combination swim call/steak barbecue/beer drinking. (One can for nonrated, two cans for petty officers and officers.) Neither the CO or XO ever got into the water.”

——–

“It was a different life on diesel boats. Most of our operations and transits were in subtropical waters. On a surface transit, we would get ahead of our track and then stop for swim call while the track position caught up with us. Torpedoman with a rifle on top of the sail, extra lookouts, and I don’t recall the CO going in the water. We also retrieved exercise torpedoes at sea and loaded them into the forward torpedo room: we had swimmers in the water, but it wasn’t swim call.”

Here’s a couple of typical responses from more recent times:

“COs do not participate in swim calls. Not written but if something even small happens, CO’s days are numbered. My guess is that it probably started off as the admiral telling a new CO: “If it was me, I would never do it.” By the time the juniors officers became COs, having never seen the CO go in the water sent the message.”

———-

“When I was a department head my CO said no one on the Casualty Assistance Team could participate in a swim call. As such, no one at the department head level or above could ever participate because by definition we’re all part of the CAT. The CO had it in our shipboard instruction but I don’t remember if it referenced anything senior to him.”

This submarine had a bunch of good deals:

“I held two swim calls as CO. One right at the equator and one after leaving Singapore. I didn’t jump in the water because I was too busy being on the bridge biting my nails and letting the crew have a good time. To my knowledge, there are no rules regarding who can, or cannot, go in the water. I just enjoyed a cigar and made sure #in = #out.”

“For the first one the IDC definitely went in, since only shellbacks were permitted swim call. Come to think of it, everyone who was a newly minted shellback went in that day. It was a long swim call.”

———-

“My last swim call was a solo job. I had reported aboard in Santiago, Chile during UNITAS. When we crossed the equator northbound off the coast of Brazil, I was the only polliwog on board. I was the Navigator, but unfortunately for my polliwog status I couldn’t figure out a way to go home without crossing the equator again. I got a lot of individual attention that day.”

Other good deals:

“We only had one liberty port during my command tour, so swim calls were held at every opportunity. I would stay on board if the XO went in and vice versa.”

———-

“As CO I joined a swim call once. We had a SEAL Team and their boats with us so I felt we had lots of safety coverage. Besides that is what the XO is for: to take care of things when the CO is busy.”

———-

“Like some other COs who commented on this, when I was in command there were no written rules or verbal policies on this subject. Either the CO or XO remained on board and the couple of times I went into the water it was only for a few minutes and I remained close aboard. However, in today’s Navy with skippers being fired for things that seemed trivial years ago, I would not go for a swim.”

Other experiences:

“We had swim call and the CO went in for a dip. I also recall that he got caught on the windward side and needed help getting back aboard. It felt like a close call.”

———-

“I recall my one and only swim call as a junior officer. We surfaced at the weapons range after a torpedo proficiency shoot. Swim call and BBQ on the fantail. We played “King of the Bow” and I have to tell you that HY-80 hull steel does not give a millimeter when you fall. It leaves big, dark bruises.”

Some locations seem to be more dangerous than others:

“In command during the mid-90s, I joined our swim call off the coast of Okinawa. We had the advantage of a platoon of Marines and two RHIBs on deck. Another time and place we had the unique opportunity for a fresh water swim call while delayed by traffic during a transit of the Panama Canal.”

———

I guess he hadn’t heard this story:

“I grew up on Okinawa, and I remember the time some fishermen caught (or rather, beat to death with oars) a 15-foot tiger shark that had gotten caught in the reef when the tide went out. Marines or not, a swim call would have made me a tad nervous around there.”

———-

“In the summer of ’85 we were waiting to go to the shipyard for a refueling overhaul, and so we would carry other crews for torpedo firings or for what seemed like hundreds of midshipman cruises. The CO and the XO would join in, but not at the same time. At every swim call the crew would ask to jump off the fairwater planes and the CO would always say no. Until it was our last swim call before a change of command and the yards. CO said (literally): “What the hell, why not.” He was the first off the fairwater planes with the rest of us right behind him! We were under constant watch by a torpedoman with a rifle as our shark watch on the fairwater planes. A TM with gun…I can still see it in my mind!”

———-

“In the Caribbean, we had swim call or shark fishing depending on whether the sharks showed up. The fishing was really fun one time with someone who went on to become an admiral. No one was hurt. If it was too rough for swim call and there were no sharks when we surfaced, we would blow sanitary tanks– and then lots of sharks would show up. The CO never went over the side– he was head cheerleader.”

And finally, the unintended consequences of submarine swim calls:

“Never saw any written rules- pretty much up to the CO. I heard a great swim call story, though– a commercial airliner was flying into Honolulu (90’s, I think) and called the tower to report a sub was surfaced, on fire and had people jumping off of it. After a whole lot of frantic communication (you can only imagine) it was determined that the boat in question was snorkeling while conducting a swim call.”

———-

“As Engineer, I convinced the CO that we should do our nuclear reactor rod control programming change during free time on the transit between Santa Catalina and San Diego. We surfaced, started the diesel, shut down the reactor, and began the procedure. It was a nice day, but the water was so cold that the CO limited us to a “sunbathing call” instead of a swim call. Soon there were a lot of sailors laying on the hull with diesel exhaust coming out of the sail. Someone (we heard it was a Navy jet) called in a submarine in distress, surfaced and on fire with mass casualties. Next thing we know a Coast Guard helicopter was hovering overhead and radioing to ask what assistance they could provide. I don’t know what the Squadron Commander said to the CO, but all I know is that I got a tremendous earful for the mixup. Not sure how it was my fault!”

It’s been over 25 years since my last swim call, but I think you appreciate it more when you’ve been underwater for a few weeks. These days I’d rather be surfing.

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WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

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