New American Library, 2004 paperback reprint of 2003 original, 243 pages, C$21.00 pb, ISBN 0-451-21161-8
Like submarines, some military projects can stay submerged a long time, occasionally appearing on the radar come procurement time, but otherwise remaining away from public view, conducting operations that may not be revealed publicly for years or decades.
So it is that Dark Waters takes us behind the scenes for a look at the NR-1, one of the most unique craft in the US Navy’s fleet. Designed to operate at depths far below other submarines, only one NR-1 was ever built: the cost overruns, technical complexity and limited uses for the craft basically made the construction of a second one unthinkable. (Interestingly enough, the craft was never formally commissioned by the Navy: By keeping it on a special status, it freed up a spot in the Navy’s counted inventory and allowed the craft to avoid official scrutiny). What a unique submarine it is, through: Resistant to pressures that would crush other submarines, the NR-1 could go explore the seabed by sinking to the bottom and then driving on the ocean floor using the special tracks it had been built with, grabbing things with a claw for retrieval. Even at times where weather would drive away ships and submarines relying on surface assistance, the NR-1 could continue to operate.
Designing such a craft takes a special kind of madness, especially during the sixties, a time where computer-assisted design was still notional and material science wasn’t nearly as powerful as it is now. The NR-1 came equipped with a mind-bogglingly primitive Sperry computer, had to be tested in dangerous conditions (nearly being hit by other US Navy crafts during testing in shallow domestic waters), often suffered from its own design compromises and demanded much of its sailors.
It’s one of those sailors, Lee Vyborny, who tells us of his time aboard the NR-1’s inaugural missions in Dark Waters. Working with journalist Don Davis, Vyborny tells the biography of a unique machine, halfway between national security asset and scientific instrument. Given Vyborny’s career path in and out of the NR-1, most of the details in the book are about the submarine’s first few years when he was a crewmember: the rest is covered less precisely, via official reports, recently-declassified documents, personal recollections and interviews with other crewmembers. But even chunks of the book excerpted from the official record are fascinating, in no small part due to the role that the extraordinary admiral Hyman Rickover played in the NR-1’s conception and construction.
Some of the book’s best moments come when Vyborny describes some of the close calls encountered by the NR-1 crew during the early years of the project. Whether it’s nearly being rammed by a friendly aircraft carrier, or encountering such a catastrophic equipment failure that the sub looked destined for a one-way trip to the bottom, Dark Waters gives us a sense of the dangers faced by men aboard semi-experimental crafts. The other big thrill comes when Vyborny tells of actual military operations undertaken by the NR-1: There’s a gripping chapter about the recovery of a downed F-14 fighter jet and its precious munitions, while another chapters describes how the US Navy was able to sneak the NR-1 in the Mediterranean, past active Soviet listening posts, by smuggling it within another US warship. Later in the book, we get to see how the NR-1 was used to re-write oceanography textbooks, scientists being amazed at the amount of new data they could see with their own eyes while aboard the submarine.
It’s not entirely true to say that the NR-1 was a national secret (it featured in a number of press reports), but it’s correct to say that until recently, much of its true covert nature was left unspecified to observers. Starting in 1995, the Navy started letting go of a few secrets about the NR-1, helped along by the growing popularity and scientific worth of its non-military missions. This increased publicity continued well after Dark Waters‘ publication: We barely get a mention of the NR-1’s involvement in the recovery of the Challenger debris, whereas the topic is now well-covered on-line. Still, Dark Waters is likely to remain the definitive book about the NR-1 (which was deactivated in 2007 and is currently awaiting scrapping): Don Davis’ prose ties up Vyborny’s recollections, making the book just as interesting to read as countless fictional submarine thrillers. A number of novelists could use it as reference and inspiration, not only in historical terms, but also for details of daring experimental projects and the ways they can (almost) go wrong. It’s also a fascinating look at a footnote in the complex history in the Cold War, and how fascinating stories are still lurking in the archives… just under the surface.