Book: Dark Waters by Lee Vyborny and Don Davis

Interesting but not exciting

Lee Vyborny and Don Davis
Dark Waters: An Insider's Account of the NR-1, the Cold War's Undercover Nuclear Sub
New American Library, 2004
ISBN: 0-451-21161-8
228 pages
Out of print; used copies in good condition seem to be available for about $6.00, somewhat under the cover price of $14.00.

Lee Vyborny was born in California and grew up in the town of Merced during the 1950s. In 1963 he enlisted in the navy and signed up for its nuclear power program. He did well in the various sorts of training he was assigned to and in 1966 he was assigned as a member of the commissioning crew of a one-of-a-kind submarine that didn't even exist yet. That submarine was the blandly-named NR-1 and Dark Waters is the story of that submarine by Mr Vyborny and co-author Don Davis.

NR-1 is a remarkable submarine. Despite being powered by a nuclear reactor, it's tiny. Its pressure hull is less than 100 feet long. It's around half the size of a second-world-war era Gato class submarine and less than a third of the size of a modern Los Angeles class sub. It can dive to more than 2000 feet (perhaps twice or three times the depth that a modern Ohio or Los Angeles class sub can manage). It also has viewports, exterior lights, a manipulator arm, and wheels for driving across the sea floor.

If that sounds like a submarine that would be useful for clandestine purposes and for oceanographic research, that's what it has done. Because NR-1 was a one-off design, there were considerable challenges in its design and construction and in its crew's learning the practicalities of operating it. And all of that is pretty interesting in a geeky way as Mr Vyborny tells us about it. The missions he describes are interesting as well. What the book doesn't have is much in the way of excitement.

There are probably several reasons for the lack of excitement. One of them is surely that much of what NR-1 has done is still secret. Mr Vyborny doesn't mention that there are things that he wasn't permitted to write about, but I'd be very surprised if there weren't some. Another reason is that for clandestine activities, information is surely highly compartmentalized. In a spy novel, we'd hear about information that someone needed, see the tiny submarine go and get it, and see the results that having it produced. But Mr Vyborny is a real sailor in the real world and so that's not what we get. NR-1 goes and pokes around some underwater sonar installations or something and that's all we know.

Another reason that there's limited excitement here is that Mr Vyborny wants to give a pretty complete story of the submarine, including its origin. It's about a third of the way through the book that sub actually goes in the water and it's about halfway through the book that the sub goes on its first mission. Mr Vyborny is admirably thorough, but submarine construction isn't going to be exciting.

The last reason for the lack of excitement is Mr Vyborny's narration. There are a couple of dangerous situations that Mr Vyborny gets into in submarines and his narration is not especially vivid. Take, for example, this passage from the first chapter:

    Neither our captain or the executive officer could reach
    the control room because of the sharp angle and force
    of the dive had pinned them against the walls of their
    cabins. I glanced at the large digital depth indicator,
    where the numbers were changing so fast that they
    were a blur. In a matter of seconds, the ship drove
    herself down several hundred feet and the bow angle
    was greater than ever. The Sargo was out of control
    and heading toward her crush depth, the point at which
    the outside water pressure would crumple the hull. Ted
    Ardell, a sandy-haired young officer not long out of the
    Naval Academy, had to act immediately and instinctively,
    for if he hesitated, we would all be lost. (p. 7)

That wouldn't be mistaken for Tom Clancy. But again, Mr Vyborny is a real sailor in the real world. People who are chosen to run nuclear powerplants inside little submarines thousands of feet under the surface of the ocean aren't picked for their sense of drama. As Mr Vyborny says shortly after that passage, "Responding to emergencies is part of life underwater" (p. 8).

Since nobody but someone in Mr Vyborny's position could have written a book like this one and anyone in that position would have the same limitations, there's not much point in complaining about them. The book is no spy novel, but it's an interesting story about a unique submarine.

Posted: Tue - June 3, 2008 at 04:14 PM   Main   Category: