The NR-1 was assigned both military and scientific missions over the last 30 years and routinely deployed with her support ship for a five-month mission every other summer. During her submerged tow to the operational site by the Carolyn Chouest, NR-1 was operated by two five-man watch sections, which rotate port and starboard six-hour watches. Since there is no room on board for a real galley – much less a billet for a mess specialist – the JOOD takes food orders about an hour and a half before each turnover and prepares meals for his section from a 30-day supply of frozen chicken, “Tater Tots,” “Eggo” waffles, burritos, and “Budget Gourmet” meals, cooked up on a transplanted P-3 Orion convection oven.
Deployments on board NR-1 are akin to college or family road trips in an old Jetstream mobile home, and the amenities are Spartan. Although the hull is 145 feet long overall, the operations compartment and Engine Room combine for a total of only 58 feet, making the ship’s interior less roomy than a 737 airliner’s. Abaft the conn are equipment racks for computers, sensor electronics, and data-handling hardware. Next come the “mess decks” with a sink and one-gallon hot water heater, the convection oven, frozen and dry food storage, and a small entertainment center with a card table and book lockers in the overhead. These are followed by atmosphere control equipment and general storage, a head – without a shower – to port, and a set of bunk beds stacked four high to starboard. A bulkhead separates the operations compartment from the Engine Room and propulsion plant astern.
Since its maiden voyage in August 1969, NR-1 was always manned by top-notch Sailors, all of whom are carefully screened because of the broad responsibilities each must carry. With such a small underway watch team – only five men in each section – each man must be fully qualified for control of the ship’s one-of-a-kind reactor plant and all aspects of the challenging operations the ship conducts near and on the ocean floor. NR-1’s underway crew is entirely nuclear-trained, and each man qualifies as Engineering Officer of the Watch, while serving also as a division officer or in some other major role, such as 3M Coordinator.
The civilian-owned and operated Carolyn Chouest was NR-1’s dedicated support ship and tow vessel. Contracted for in 1994, the Carolyn Chouest was designed and built by North American Shipbuilding specifically for service as NR-1’s mother ship. Her own civilian crew of 15 personnel was augmented by the NR-1 support crew, who perform all the navigation, communications, and logistics readiness tasks required to keep NR-1 at sea. Like their nuclear counterparts, they are all submarine qualified and also serve three-year tours at the command.
In contrast to the NR-1 crew, however, they spend their underway time on board the support ship. In addition to routine navigation and radio room watch standing duties, all members of the support crew serve essentially as boatswain’s mates aboard the SSV for the small boat transfer, towing hookups, and mooring line operations required by the ship. Thus, they gain experience and perspective unique in the Submarine Force. A critical complement to the NR-1 underway crew, the support crew enables the submarine to sustain long-duration search and recovery missions while maintaining full connectivity to shore sites and operational commanders.
When NR-1 recovers a target or archaeological artifact, it is frequently necessary to transfer the object to the Carolyn Chouest for immediate inspection and analysis. For large object search and recovery, the NR-1 locates the object using its onboard sensors, then attaches a lifting line from the support vessel, using its hydraulically operated manipulator arm. NR-1 can also recover objects of up to several hundred pounds directly using either the work module or the forward grapnel. Because all recovery points are below the waterline, scuba divers are required to transfer material from underneath NR-1’s hull to a small boat.
The scuba divers are normally NR-1 crewmembers, and they are transferred to the SSV by small boat to change into scuba gear before splashing into the open ocean alongside NR-1 for recovery operations. This additional tasking demands the utmost flexibility from the crew, especially during high tempo operations. In fact, on a typical day during the 1997 Mediterranean deployment, crewmembers would very frequently dive under the boat for recovering artifacts in addition to rotating through every watch station in just a six-hour period.
NR-1’s unique capability to remain at one site and completely search or map an area with a high degree of accuracy had been a valuable asset on many occasions. In 1976, NR-1 was employed by the Navy to recover an F-14 fighter aircraft and a Phoenix air-to-air missile that had been lost from a carrier in the Atlantic. Similarly, in 1994, to support an accident investigation, the ship recovered the ejection seats and other mission equipment from an Air Force F-15 lost off the US coast.
Following the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, the NR-1 was used to search for, identify, and recover critical parts of the Challenger craft. NR-1 conducted many underwater searches, underwater repair and salvage operations, including the recovery of critical wreckage from an Air Force F-14 lost off the coast of North Carolina. As part of a survey of Norwegian fjords and harbors, NR-1 discovered the USS O-12 (SS-73), renamed "NAUTILUS", and 25 other shipwrecks in a 12-hour period. The ship routinely supported requests for service from both military and scientific customers.
In returning to the Mediterranean for the Roman Shipwrecks Expedition in 1997, NR-1 teamed with a highly skilled group of scientists, engineers, and archaeologists, who embarked on board both the submarine and the Carolyn Chouest. Operating in tandem with the JASON Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) from Woods Hole Oceano-graphic Institution, Woods Hole, Massachusetts, NR-1 performed wide-area search to identify promising shipwrecks, while marine archaeologists conducted detailed site surveys with the ROV. Working in an area crossed by the early trade routes between Rome and Carthage, NR-1 discovered five previously unknown ancient shipwrecks in water so deep that the remains were only slightly buried by sedimentation. Although the hulls themselves had largely rotted away, the ships’ cargoes – of amphorae, cookwear, and building stone – remained undisturbed on the bottom.
A small sampling of these materials was brought to the surface for scientific examination and historical analysis. Because deep ocean bottoms have been largely unexplored until now, there are certain to be many other such sites along ancient sea routes, with well-preserved and hitherto inaccessible nautical artifacts. Historians and archaeologists are increasingly excited by the resulting prospect of a whole new frontier in maritime exploration.
During the expedition to find Roman shipwrecks, the divers logged more than 50 dives for maintenance or object recovery. After the ship charted the area of the remains at depths greater than 2,800 feet and performed some careful excavation, the divers recovered wood planking and three 250-pound lead anchors to the Carolyn Chouest for conservation and study by the archaeologists.
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.
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