Submarine’s commander misread chart and steered vessel into a rock

By Calvin Palmer

It sounds like a script for a 21st Century version of the BBC Radio comedy show The Navy Lark. The commander of a Royal Navy nuclear-powered submarine read a one on a chart as a seven with the result that it crashed into a pinnacle of rock in the Red Sea.

I can almost hear the voice of Leslie Phillips saying, “Left hand down a bit,” and then Jon Pertwee saying “Everybody down,” followed by the sound of a shuddering collision. The ensuing moment of silence being broken by Phillips saying, “Oh lummee!”

A court martial today at HMS Nelson, in Portsmouth, heard that Cdr Steven Drysdale, the man in charge of HMS Superb, misread the pinnacle as being marked at a depth of 732 meters instead of its actual depth of 132 meters.

Cdr Drysdale, officer of the watch Lt Commander Andrew Cutler and navigation officer Lt Lee Blair all admitted at a previous hearing an offence of neglecting to perform their duty.

Capt Stuart Crozier, prosecuting, told the court martial at HMS Nelson, in Portmsouth, the submarine had been suffering from technical problems, causing it to lose speed, at the time of the incident in May 2008. He said there was pressure on Cdr Drysdale to ensure the submarine arrived in the Gulf on time for planned operations.

Capt Crozier said Cdr Drysdale ordered a new route to be plotted that cut about four miles off the previous plan. He also ordered the submarine to dive deeper to where there was colder water, allowing it to travel faster.

“The three defendants all looked at the chart and the sub was taken to 250 meters,” Capt Crozier said. “No thorough check was made to establish whether this depth was safe from obstacles.”

Because the submarine was unable to keep to its intended speed of 18 knots, Cdr Drysdale told Lt-Cdr Cutler to “save every mile he could”.

Capt Crozier said: “Officer of the Watch Cutler instructed the plot officer to draw a new line on the chart. However, Lt-Cdr Cutler did not check the depth around this new track.

“Unfortunately, this new track went directly over a pinnacle which showed only 132 meters of available depth.

“This was not seen by the plot officer, or the Officer of the Watch, who had ordered the change of course.

“At 10.01 on May 26, 2008, the sub collided with an underwater obstacle and decreased speed from 16 knots to three knots in very short order.”

The vessel suffered “significant damage” to the nose.

Cdr Drysdale, from Miskin, near Cardiff, told an investigation that he failed to read the chart properly. Capt Crozier said: “He admitted he had missed the 132 meter pinnacle and said he must have read it as 732 metres.”

Cdr Alison Towler, for Drysdale, told the court that the commanding officer had since been moved to a desk job. She said the service had also stopped Drysdale from taking up the high-profile position of Royal Navy staff officer submarines in Washington DC shortly after the incident.

She said Drysdale, who has served in the navy for 25 years, had inspected the chart but had misread the depth of the pinnacle.

“Cdr Drysdale wishes to express his deep remorse and regret in relation to the incident which has led to this court martial. He fully accepts his responsibility in relation to this matter,” she said.

Commander Joe Turner, representing Cutler, said: “He regrets the incident and fully accepts his responsibility. He will have to live with what happened for the rest of his life. He expresses his full remorse.”

Commander Stuart Wright, representing Blair, said the navigation officer was “fatigued” at the time of the crash having lost his signal communications officer to illness.

Judge Advocate General His Honour Judge Jeff Blackett sentenced Cdr Drysdale to a reprimand to stay on his record for three years.

Lt-Cdr Cutler was given a severe reprimand for three years and Lt Blair received a reprimand for two years.

From an early age, I think it was after reading a story about U-boats in The Victor comic, I started using the continental seven, which has a bar through its stem. Doing sevens in this manner avoids any possible confusion with the number one.

The editor on my first newspaper berated me once for using the continental seven, I pointed out the reason for me doing so and also that I had been doing it for more than 20 years, it was not a sudden affectation. He grunted, like editors do, and said no more about the matter.

I cannot help feeling that this Royal Navy commander’s career would still be intact, if the charts he was reading had utilized the continental seven.

[Based on reports by The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian.]

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