Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Sea Breezes Editor, Hamish Ross

For those in peril – in the depths of the sea

In last month’s “Message from the Bridge” I mentioned that this year sees the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War (1914-1918), a war in which the battle for maritime power and control of the seas loomed large. One of the most dramatic developments in maritime warfare at that time was the increasingly high profile role of submarines, with Germany in particular deploying its famed fleet of “U-boats” to devastating effect. It was reckoned that these U-boats destroyed around one half of all the food and supplies carried by the British Merchant Navy during the war.

Although I served on various merchant ships during my deep sea career and then on short sea ferry services, and believe I could have served on many other different types of vessels, I am not sure I could ever have considered a career as a sub-mariner. The psychological make-up required to serve on a vessel underwater for such sustained periods of time always struck me as being so completely different, and in many ways more challenging than what was required to serve on more conventional vessels. In particular, I would always have worried about the total dependence on the technical reliability of the submarine once underwater, the potentially fatal consequences of any significant malfunction, and inability to evacuate the vessel.

Unfortunately, 2017 ended with a tragedy involving the ARA San Juan, one of the Argentinian Navy’s current fleet of submarines. The vessel was reported missing in mid-November in the South Atlantic with 44 crew onboard. It was on its way from Mar del Plata to Ushuaia (a city at the southernmost point of Argentina) following a military exercise and there were reports of an explosion being detected on the day that the vessel lost communications. As is almost always the case, the combined efforts of various countries were deployed on the search, with strong international co-ordination. The countries involved included the US and Russia, as well as the UK; notably, a RAF aircraft landed on Argentinian soil for the first time since the Falklands War back in 1982, bringing with it equipment and specialists to aid the search.

This has the potential to be the worst submarine disaster since the unbearably tragic tale of the Russian submarine Kursk back at the turn of the century. Following an explosion, the Kursk - a nuclear powered cruise missile submarine - sank in the Barents Sea in August 2000 with the loss of 118 crew members. However, there was much controversy at the time over Russia’s initially secretive approach to the unfolding tragedy and its unwillingness to permit other countries to assist on the search.

It is always dreadful to report any maritime tragedy in the pages of Sea Breezes, and it is hard to imagine the distress felt by the families and friends of the ARA San Juan’s crew members, particularly as the search efforts did not produce any immediate conclusions. Our thoughts and prayers are with all those involved.

HAMISH ROSS, EDITOR

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