Sunday, October 01, 2006

Submarine safety

On board HMS Vulnerable Somewhere in the north Atlantic
00.43hrs Zulu time. The giant sub had been sitting 40 metres below the churning
waves for eight straight hours. The crew were edgy, nervous, sweaty, knowing
that the fate of the nation and the free world was being discussed in the
skipper's wardroom. The order to fire the boat's nuclear weapons deep into the
heart of enemy territory had been received and authenticated at 08.00hrs. But
now it was gone midnight and still the missiles were in their tubes.

Behind the oak-panelled door of his cabin, Captain Clint Thrust was
listening wearily to his health and safety executive officer, Nigel Ormskirk,
who had read the risk assessment form and was not satisfied.

you say here that these missiles contain plutonium and you are proposing that we
detonate them over a city. Do you not realise people could be hurt here?"

Twenty-five-year-old Ormskirk had left Keele University with a third in
human resources, having impressed the examiners with his paper on the perils of
hand and arm vibration injuries among stone masons. Since being posted to the
sub fleet, he had chalked up a number of successes, chief among which was
changing his boat's name from HMS Vanquish to HMS Vulnerable. He was
particularly proud of his 1997 "Be Seen" campaign after which the sub had not
hit a single trawler. Thrust, the gnarled old salty sea dog captain, had
objected, of course, saying the point of a submarine was rather lost if it was
bright orange and had to spend its entire time on the surface. But what did he

"You see," Ormskirk was saying . . . But a shrill beep from the PA
system cut him off: "Con. Sonar. Contact bearing 270 degrees. It's a destroyer,
sir, and it's coming right at us." Thrust keyed the mike. "Stay calm, people.
We've plenty of air cover. They can take care of this."

On board the
aircraft carrier HMS Weak Somewhere near the Vulnerable 00.47hrs Zulu Time.
Veteran pilot Jack Kill simply could not believe what he was being told by the
Weak's health and safety officer, Ron Stapleford. "This is a Harrier GR7," he
screamed. "What do you mean by saying the wings don't look long enough?" "I'm
just saying," said Ron in his Brummie drawl, "that with all those bombs and
missiles, it really doesn't look very safe." "Look," said Kill. "We've just got
word from the Vulnerable that she's under attack. I have to get out there with
my cargo of death. I must spit fire into that enemy ship or the war will be lost
and your children will grow up speaking Russian." "Don't worry," said Ron.
"Ormskirk's on the Vulnerable. He's a good man. He'll make sure they're safe."

On board the Vulnerable somewhere in the north Atlantic 00.55hrs Zulu
time The depth charges were raining down, sending the orange sub reeling from
side to side. Thrust was barking orders to the helmsman: "Flood tubes one and
four." "Sorry, sir," said the burly helmsman. "New regulations from health and
safety. After the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster, the doors have been welded
"Oh, for Christ's sake," yelled Thrust as yet another depth charge
hammered the hull. "Where's Ormskirk?"

He was in the galley, a look of
abject horror on his face: "For crying out loud. How many times do I have to
tell you people that you must not store meat and dairy products in the same
fridge. Do you want to have tummy ache?"

Before they could answer, an
enormous explosion ripped the propeller from its mountings and a wall of
freezing sea water spurted into the engine room. "Close all hatches," yelled
Thrust over the PA system. Oh no, thought Ormskirk. Some of the men have
boyfriends back there. They must be allowed to try to save them.

Back in
the engine room, the trapped men were trying to open the hatch to get out before
the north Atlantic claimed yet another teenage soul. Some were screaming. Some
were praying. Some were struggling with the latch. But each and every one
breathed a sigh of relief when the man from health and safety appeared at the
window. "Do you need counselling?" he said. "No," they shouted. "We want you to
open this hatch. It can only be done from the outside." "Yes," said Ormskirk,
"that's a valid safety point and I'll be sure to file a report when we get
back." "Open the bloody thing," they shouted. "I can't," said Ormskirk. "You
know as well as I do that it's a two-man job. I could crick my back if I tried
to do it on my own."

But then he had an idea. He opened a secure channel
to Thrust. "Captain: there are men back here in water that's 4oC colder than we
recommend. I order you to surrender."

Gulag 43 Siberia,
Russia - Three months later.

It was a grey, misty morning and silence
hung over the prison yard like an old dishcloth as Nigel Ormskirk was tied to
the bullet-ridden post.

"Ready," screamed the Russian execution party
leader. "Take aim . . . "

"Hold on a minute," said Nigel. "You aren't
allowed to use loaded weapons unless there's a trained armourer on the . . ."


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