A FREAK wave in the dead of night triggered one of the most serious and sensitive accidents in the recent history of the Royal Australian Navy.
The rogue wave crashed into the side of the Collins Class submarine HMAS Farncomb, sweeping five crew members off the top of the boat and into stormy seas.
Those involved knew immediately this was no ordinary naval accident and that it would be no ordinary rescue. HMAS Farncomb was far from home on a covert intelligence-gathering mission in Asia.
What happened next has been held closely by the navy's top brass for more than two years.
Now the extraordinary tale of what unfolded on the night of March 19, 2007, can be told after the navy confirmed publicly it will award bravery medals to three of Farncomb's crew - the first such medals given to submariners in a generation.
The accident occurred during Farncomb's deployment in 2007 through Southeast Asia and the western Pacific.
Like many submarine missions, this five-month deployment was partly a chance to conduct joint training with the US navy in Guam, and partly an intelligence-gathering exercise where the submarine hugs foreign coastlines listening to communications, paying special attention to suspected regional terrorist networks.
Defence will not comment on Farncomb's precise location and activities at the time of the accident, although it says it took place in international waters.
The deployment was going well until Farncomb's sonar operators noticed that fishing lines had become entangled in the submarine's propeller.
"We could hear it through the sonar - it was a bit like a submarine dragging wedding bells," said Petty Officer Greg Langshaw, who was Farncomb's sonar supervisor. "Submarines try to remain stealthy, so dragging wedding bells behind you isn't part of that."
Farncomb could not continue to make such noise without risking detection, so the captain, Commander Mark Hammond, tried to shake the fishing lines off by changing the speeds and angles of the submarine. But still the line would not budge.
"So a decision was made to try to cut it off,' said Petty Officer Langshaw.
The operation to remove the fishing lines would require the submarine to surface at night to reduce the chance of detection.
In calm weather on a moonless night, the sub surfaced and opened its hatch, allowing a clearing party of five sailors to climb out, including two divers who would swim to the propeller and cut the fishing lines.
They started work, but the weather suddenly worsened, whipping up the ocean and tossing the submarine about.
Inside the boat, Petty Officer Langshaw could feel the change.
"We went from millpond conditions and in the space of no time the boat started rocking. Then I felt a big wave, and I said to the bloke next to me 'There goes the party'."
Petty Officer Langshaw was joking, but it was true.
Shortly before the wave hit, the line-clearing party had been ordered to abandon the operation because of the worsening weather. But as the five men walked back along the top of the sub towards the hatch, they were hit by the wall of water, throwing them into the ocean.
Cries of "Man overboard" echoed through Farncomb's PA system as the captain called for volunteers to rescue the men.
Petty Officer Langshaw, a 15-year veteran of submarines and the father of a baby girl, put his hand up.
As the rescue party was preparing to go outside, Commander Hammond was glued to the periscope, using night vision equipment to try to keep track of the five men being tossed around in the black ocean.
"As soon as we stepped out onto the casing (the top of the submarine) the first thing was self-preservation,' recalled Petty Officer Langshaw. "The waves were crashing over the sub, it was very choppy and there was a fair bit of wind."
Through the gloom, Petty Officer Langshaw could see the five men overboard had managed to swim to each other and tether themselves together, several hundred metres from the sub.
He ordered one of his crewmates, dressed in wetsuit and flippers and attached to the sub by a line, to swim out and bring back the men one by one.
"But he wasn't as strong a swimmer as we hoped,' said Petty Officer Langshaw. "He went out there but with rough seas he was out of breath too quickly. So we dragged him back on board using the lines."
Another volunteer, Leading Seaman Steven Rowell, then jumped into a wetsuit and dived into the ocean. He swam hard into the black night, towards the five men, and when he was within earshot he began teasing them about having fallen overboard.
Leading Seaman Rowell reached the group, put one of them in a harness and then swam his way back to the sub.
But when he got his mate back alongside the sub, the man was too spent to lift himself up on to the boat.
"He had full diving equipment on and he was very, very heavy and he had exhausted himself," said Petty Officer Langshaw.
"I looked down and thought I could make the job a bit easier if I removed his dive gear. So I jumped into the water and took his dive gear off."
As Petty Officer Langshaw was trying to undress his stricken crewmate, the sub was heaving up and down in the choppy seas. He was slammed against the side of the boat several times, breaking one of his ribs.
He and Leading Seaman Rowell eventually lifted their exhausted crewmate on to the sub, but the effort meant all three men were spent.
With four men still bobbing in the ocean, a new volunteer swimmer was needed.
Chief Petty Officer Rohan Pugh put up his hand. The 40-year-old Pugh was a veteran lifesaver and father of two from the coastal town of Secret Harbour, south of Perth.
Knowing time was running out for a safe rescue as the conditions worsened, Petty Officer Pugh did not bother with a wetsuit.
Instead, he put on his Speedos with Secret Harbour written on them, slipped on some fins, hopped out of the hatch and into the swirling ocean.
He said he didn't think twice about the risks.
"We're all mates plus we just go and do it," he said.
By this stage, the swell had risen to about two metres and the men had been in the water for more than an hour.
"The adrenaline was pumping," Petty Officer Pugh said.
"It was about a two-metre swell, very choppy and the wind was coming up. As I was swimming, I got mouthfuls of water - it was rough out there. It would have been a big day at Secret Harbour."
He battled through the swirling waves before eventually reaching the group.
"The first reaction I got from those guys was 'What are you doing here?' I told them I just felt like a swim."
Petty Officer Pugh grabbed the most exhausted member of the group and slowly swam him back towards the sub. But the waves were causing the boat to heave up and down by several metres with each wave, making it a dangerous job to lift the man back on board.
"That was an interesting task," he said. "We met the metal hull a couple of times, and we learned steel doesn't flex no matter how much you put your shoulder into it."
Petty Officer Pugh eventually got the man back on board and then swam back out to the last three. He placed a fixed line on one of the men and asked the crew members on the submarine to slowly reel in the line.
Those on the sub then threw a big cargo net over the side to help those still in the water to climb back on board safely.
Petty Officer Pugh grabbed the last two men and the three of them slowly kicked their way back to the sub. "It was hard work, it seemed to go on forever. The guys in the water were exhausted, but they were doing their bit."
Finally, the three men clambered back on board. The ordeal was over.
"I went back down into the sub and thought 'That was pretty interesting'," said Petty Officer Pugh. "I was shaking a bit, the adrenaline was still pumping, but everyone was happy."
The medics on board treated the men for bruises, but there were no serious injuries.
However, the captain ordered the submarine to go to the nearest friendly port to give his crew a break. Farncomb completed its mission, returning to Perth to tell its Boy's Own tale of courage and survival.
Friday, September 18, 2009
Courage and survival
I have been away to attend a meeting. On my first day back from the trip, the Australian published this great inside story by Cameron Stewart: "How freak wave hit secret submarine mission of HMAS Farncomb." This wave and freaque wave story is so realistically good that it needs no further commentary and I have to copy the whole thing here for completeness. They could make a movie from this. I took the last two words used in the article for the title of this post here: