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Operations officer Lt. Michael Ward stands by the sail of the nuclear research submarine NR-1 as it undergoes repairs.
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Cables and scaffolds extend from the floating drydock Oak Ridge.

Featured in the New London Day [ Military Section ]
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All Wrapped Up In Repairs

By Robert A. Hamilton
Published on 1/20/2001

Groton--Chief Electronics Technician Guy C. Calkins can recall a few freezing-weather repair periods on the research submarine NR-1, when he would be trying to connect some video cables, and finally have to remove his gloves.

His bare fingers did a better job on the delicate connections, but the cold steel did a number on his bare fingers.

Similarly, there were always problems with hydraulic fittings contracting and expanding as the temperature changed, and the difficulty of following detailed technical requirements governing how much electric wiring could be bent under cold conditions.

Not this time, though. When the NR-1 pulled into the dry dock Oak Ridge at the Naval Submarine Base this winter, one of the first jobs was to erect a giant cocoon around the submarine, which allows the crew and waterfront employees to work in heated comfort.

“It's a pretty neat concept,” said Lt. Michael Ward, the NR-1's operations officer. And not just for the comfort, but because experience has shown that shipyard tasks done under these kinds of factory conditions is generally of higher quality. If workers are bundled up against the cold, and rushing to get through a task, there are more mistakes.

“Now, the guys can walk in, take their jackets off, and start working,” Ward said. “It's very comfortable.”

The 32-year-old NR-1 goes into drydock about once every couple of years for major repairs, maintenance and improvement of its equipment. The schedule is one of the reasons the sophisticated, deep-diving submarine, with more than a dozen video cameras, grappling arms for recovering objects off the deep sea floor, and other special gear, has lasted so long.

Right now, the crew is readying the ship for a busy summer: joint missions are planned in the Mediterranean and Atlantic with the Institute of Nautical Archeology, the University of Connecticut, and Robert Ballard's Mystic-based Institute for Exploration.

Repair periods are a little more tricky on the NR-1 because so much of its cabling, cameras and other equipment is on the outside of the pressure hull. And it is at the mercy of the drydock in terms of when there won't be an attack submarine in the basin.

“Especially a major repair period like this, it's scheduled years in advance, whenever they can fit us into the rotation,” Ward said. “We have to do it when the dock is available.”
Elliot, Sean
A cocoon-like covering offers protection against the elements.

But the NR-1 is also relatively small – 140 feet long and 400 tons, as opposed to 360 feet and 6,900 tons for a Los Angeles-class boat – which means an encapsulation strategy is possible.

So for the first 10 days after the submarine went into drydock, crews assembled a skeleton of steel staging around it, capped it with a plywood roof, and wrapped the whole structure in a strong plastic insulating cloth. A giant electric-powered heater blows air into the enclosure constantly, maintaining a comfortable shirtsleeve temperature.

“It's like working inside a tent,” joked Calkins. But it's nice, he said, when you go to put a hull fitting back into place, and even if it is damp, “at these temperatures, you're dealing with water instead of ice.”

Five levels of catwalks, and a sixth along the superstructure, put every square inch of the NR-1's hull within easy reach. Ladders allow easy movement between the different levels, and dozens of droplights illuminate the exterior of the submarine.

“We can get anywhere we want to, to do any kind of work we have to do,” said Ward. “It's worked out very well.”