Diving into the abyss aboard Britain’s world-leading submarine rescue system

Posted: 07/29/2011 in all marine news

By Andrew Preston – 

Eleven years after 118 submariners met a grisly death at the bottom of the ocean in the Kursk, a British team has developed the most advanced underwater rescue system in the world. Andrew Preston watches them go into action.

The British co-pilot of the rescue vehicle speaks slowly and deliberately into his microphone: ‘Lima, Lima, Lima.’

The signal is broadcast directly into the Mediterranean Sea via ‘underwater telephone’ using low frequency sound waves. The message is picked up in the control room of the Alrosa, a Russian submarine from the Black Sea fleet. The code words mean that the Nato rescue vehicle, known as Nemo, has successfully ‘mated’, or docked, with the Russian sub.

At the same time a diver clambers through a hatch in the floor of Nemo with a spanner. He follows up the message with two loud taps on the hatch of the submarine casing beneath him, then after a short pause taps a third time. This is the signal that it is now safe for the Russian crew to open the outer hatch. The two vessels have established a hydrostatic water-tight seal, and suction is now the only thing holding them together 300ft underwater.

All this is happening on the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea just off the coast of Cartagena in south-east Spain. Shortly afterwards the submarine hatch of the diesel submarine opens and a smiling Russian face appears. History has been made.

When it was built during the Cold War, the Kilo-class Alrosa was designed for anti-submarine and anti-ship warfare. Its mission was to snoop, avoid detection, and try to track and, if required, attack Nato forces. Now, for the first time, a Russian submarine is actually taking part in a Nato exercise.

Inside the rescue vehicle it is cramped and humid. In the forward compartment, with its bulbous clear acrylic nose on the front, the pilot and co-pilot sit surrounded by joysticks and a myriad of dials and switches. Behind them, a Navy diver acts as the operator for the rescue chamber, which in an emergency can deliver up to 15 people at a time to the surface, or two injured submariners on stretchers.

But today special guests are moving the other way. Squashed together in the back of Nemo, their heads bent forwards and knees touching from benches on either side, are military VIPs from Russia, the U.S. and other Nato nations, who cross from the module into the submarine, led by General Nikolai Makarov, Chief of Defence Staff of the Russian Armed Forces.

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