Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Submarine Officer Basic School (SOBC) Rundown


New SOBC, same as the Old SOBC.

Ah, SOBC. That wonderful vacation in Groton, CT that you've been promised since day one in the nuclear pipeline. The "break" between the nuc world and the boat. Remember hearing about that place? Well it's gone. Kinda. On the first day they show a powerpoint slide that specifically states, "This is NOT a vacation". Also on that first day you sign agreements stating you will not publish information about SOBC in any public forum, i.e. blogs. Hmm. So we keep this very brief and vague.

The new curriculum presents more material, which is more applicable (advanced), in a shorter amount of time than the old curriculum. That's the semi-bad news. The good news is that the stuff you're learning is "applicable", which after going through some of prototypes is a beautiful thing. Also, at this point you've already made it through power school and one of the prototypes and are probably pretty outstanding at memorizing & regurgitating massive amounts of information. What this means is that while yes, the material is more difficult.. no, you shouldn't have a problem with it and you will still have lots of free time on your hands. The trainers you'll do are a good time and I found the lectures pretty interesting. I guess that's all I can say about that.

The Chalet

Your first stop upon arriving at New London Naval Submarine Base is the base hotel, the Groton Chalet. All SOBC students are required to stay at the chalet to satisfy some contract that was drawn up decades ago requiring a minimum occupancy at all times. Supposedly the chalet used to be kind of a dump. I didn't find that to be the case these days. It's a fully operational hotel with daily cleaning service, little plastic key cards, etc. I'm pretty sure they renovated within the last few years.

The Digs

You'll check into a decent sized room with a queen sized bed, a flat-screen HDTV, a fairly large mini-fridge, microwave, coffee maker, desk, office chair and another stuffed chair. Every room has a DSL connection that was very reliable the entire time I was there. I believe they also have wireless internet that can be accessed from the lobby. Cleaning staff were very friendly but the front desk staff were hit-and-miss. The lobby also has a very large flatscreen TV that is open for guest use. It has a DVD player attached and a bunch of couches/chairs so we'd go up there and put movies on or watch football games.

Food

Trying to eat in the chalet is sort of a pain. Hardly anyone at SOBC ever visited the galley on base. It's a bit of a walk, uniforms are required during the week, and those who did go had nothing good to say about the food. That leaves you with eating out in town, which can get pricey and unhealthy fast, or eating in your room. The chalet doesn't allow any heating devices in the rooms.. foreman grills, hotplates, etc. I brought my foreman anyways and hid it, but to be honest the smell of cooked chicken stuck around in the room for so long that I gave that up pretty fast. I'd still pull it out for grilled cheese sandwiches every now and then. This leaves you with the microwave as your only friend. I ate a lot of soup, cold cuts, and PB&J's. Augmented with some nights out in town, or a trip to the base Subway, and it's not too bad. Check out Paul's Pasta for some solid fresh made pasta, ravioli, lasagna, or a big slice of spaghetti pie. Pretty good.

Money

Just like a normal hotel, the chalet is pretty expensive. You'll be billed every single week of your stay and the bills start to rack up fast. Unless you've got a ton of buffer in your checking account, a credit card is a must in this situation. We put the charges on a card and were able to pay them off prior to interest accrual. I heard the chalet staff threaten to lock a guy out of his room when he was having a hard time coming up with the money (his words: "you're going to be sleeping in your car tonight, son"). Yikes. Supposedly he didn't want to open up a new credit card account with a mortgage approval pending. If you don't have a card, get one.

The Navy, in its infinite wisdom, pays you back thusly: Per diem is paid in lump-sum fashion in staggered amounts. Within a month or so of checking in you will receive 40% of the total, and a couple of weeks later you'll receive the other 40%. Upon completing SOBC and checking in to your *final duty station*, you'll receive the other 20%. The gap between checking in and receiving your first payment is where some people get stuck, like my friend that I mentioned above. Don't let this be you. Supposedly the reason they dole out the money in this fashion is due to the number of SOBC students who would receive 100% of their per diem in the beginning and quickly blow all of it at the local casino, leaving them with nothing. Don't despair, because your per diem includes allowances for food and whatnot, so at the end of the day you stand to make money (particularly single guys who continue to receive BAH! Cha-ching.). You just need to manage it a little bit.

Day to Day

Like I mentioned earlier, if you play your cards right you should have a good bit of free time on your hands (I had a lot). So, what to do with it? Groton gets a pretty bad rap as being "rotten groton", the boring place that no one wants to be stationed at. This is partially true in that there is no bar scene to speak of, so nightlife is sorely lacking. However there are plenty of restaurants, major retailers, and a nice mall in the area... so there's that. As a lame married guy, I liked it and wouldn't mind being PCS'd here.

Work Out

Working out is a must in my opinion. You've got nothing else to do, so why not spend an hour or two getting fit before you head to the boat and it all goes downhill. There are two gyms on base. The "man gym" and the "wives gym". Pretty self explanatory. Go to the man gym. It's a warehouse-style building with freeweights and treadmills on one end, and 4 or 5 full basketball courts on the other. There's an indoor track upstairs that is something like 9 laps to the mile. There is also a small lap pool on base which has an underwater speaker playing music, which I found pretty cool. Lastly you can hit the pavement and run. The base is essentially one big hill that terminates at the waterfront, so it's not that great to run around. It's great if you want to do some incline running or to hit some stairs, but it's not ideal for racking up the mileage.
Side note: Behind the chalet there is a massive set of stairs which cut through a wooded area leading up to the branch medical. It's about 150 steps and is perfect if you're looking to do a stair workout
Fortunately for jogging, a friend recommended this website to me: JogNewLondon.com and we really enjoyed hitting up a lot of those routes. They're all scenic jogs that gradually increase in distance. Our ultimate goal was to do them all.. we made it to about 6 miles. Oh well.

Casinos

There are a couple casinos nearby, most notable are Mohegan Sun (really close) and Foxwoods. I don't know how they stack up to other major casinos, but they're popular and were a pretty good time when I went once or twice. Plus, think about how much money you could win!!

Travel

One nice thing about Groton is its proximity to NYC and Boston. Heading to the city is the thing to do on the weekends, because why not? NYC is about 2 hrs away by GPS, but closer to 3 hrs in reality, with $6 or so in tolls each way. It's the city, so it's almost always worth it.

Read and Drink in your room

You can also read and/or drink in your room. I polished off several books and several six-packs.. not at the same time.

Wrapup

It's pretty hard not to like SOBC at least a little bit. There's really nothing not to like. Some guys complain of boredom. Yep. Enjoy it while you can, because after this lies the boat.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Navy Prototype Rundown (Ballston Spa version)

Although I have not actually graduated from prototype yet, I figured I'd give a quick rundown of what to expect. The site up here in NY has gone through a couple shutdowns and as a result there has been a major training holdup. But I've been here long enough to easily lend insight. This is going to be focused on the MARF plant (vice S8G, the other plant on site) but will be similar to your experience in NY.

First 8 Weeks

The first eight weeks you are in the Off-Crew Training Group. The very first week starts on a Monday and is somewhat similar to power school: lots of briefs, lots of waiting. You'll be given a small packet to memorize so that you can take a test on that Wednesday or Thursday. Passing the test (and everyone does) certifies you as a limited rad worker, grants you your TLD and with it access to the plant. You'll also be given your qual standard this week. The qual standard is a 2" binder filled with signature blocks. Basically, once you have every signature, you're qualified and graduate. Each signature is worth a certain number of points which vary with the difficulty of the subject and/or depth of knowledge required.

Weeks 2-8 begin the qualification process. Hooray! The good news is that you work Monday-Friday. The "bad" news is that you're on 12 hour days. There is the potential of getting put on reduced hours for above-average performance and typically Friday is an 8.5hr day, but this will depend on the officer in charge and how he likes to run things.

While in off-crew you DO NOT stand watch. You are encouraged to go to the plant often to trace out systems, see the plant in action and to touch nothing. You do, however, start knocking out signatures. This brings up two major topics:

The Curve

As I mentioned earlier, each signature has an associated point value. This is intended to give the Navy a baseline view of your progress. Based on past data points of student performance, a curve was developed to let you know exactly how much progress you need to make a day to (theoretically) graduate on time. Your status above/behind the curve is posted daily and is a huge motivator. Those who fall way behind are penalized with plus hours (typically "plus twos", two extra hours a day..14hrs of fun). Conversely those who are ahead of the curve can be rewarded with reduced hours. It can be frustrating on days packed with training events where you receive no points and the curve moves on regardless. Don't worry, everyone is in the same boat, and these days typically average out with days you bank tons of points.

Earning Points

Signatures (and the points that result from them) can be earned in many forms. Some training events are worth points, exams are worth points, standing watch is worth points and finally getting "checkouts" are worth points. Obtaining checkouts is your major objective in off-crew. It breaks down like this: you pick a subject in your qual standard to study. You are provided packets full of summarized notes on each subject, so you study those notes. Then you go to the off-crew library and check out the reference books on that subject and look through them. After that, you go to the computer lab and take a quiz on that subject. If you pass the quiz successfully, you print out the page and now you're ready to obtain a checkout on the subject. Checkouts must be given by a staff member qualified in that subject. These staff members can be tracked down in two ways: One, by placing your name in a time slot on a "cube list" first thing in the morning. Two, by asking staff members during their free time.

Side note: This is where your ability to finesse the system comes into play. Staff members are there 'for you' but in general want nothing to do with you. Persistence is key, but you have to toe the line a little bit so you're not obnoxious and annoying. The best advice I can give is to have several subjects ready to go so you can hit up multiple staff members. You'll get alot of "come back in X minutes" or "X hours". Do so.

Checkouts consist of you (and often a partner) standing in front of a whiteboard. You'll be asked to draw things, explain things, discuss things. If you have "2.5 knowledge", they sign your book and off you go. Every checkout is different based on the subject, the staff member's mood and your level of knowledge. Checkouts start out a little nervewracking but are pretty fun after you get used to them.

Side note: Staff members are almost entirely enlisted sailors. Half of them are first class sea returnees. The other half are student pick-ups. Enlisted students who show above average proficiency at prototype can be picked up as staff. They are promoted to second class and get a couple years tacked on to their time in NY before they go out to sea. Look for most of the staffers to treat you pretty much like crap. You are at their mercy and to be honest there isn't much you can do about it. Some guys just take it and some guys (especially the O-2 SWO nukes out there) really rile against it and occasionally get burned big time. Try to hit a happy medium.

At the end of your 8 weeks in off-crew you will take the off-crew exam. This exam is a few hours long, broken up into an electronic portion and a written portion. If you fail it (below 2.70), you will no longer be eligible for checkouts with a partner. 2-on-1 checkouts are not a benefit so much for the extra brain standing next to you as for the way they reduce competition for checkouts. One or two people failed the off-crew exam in our class. It's not the worst thing in the world and shouldn't really be stressed about. So, the exam is done and you're off to your new home, in Section.


In-Hull / On-Crew / In Section

During the end of your time in off-crew you'll be given the current schedule at the plant. There are several sections whose schedules are slightly different so that the plant is manned 24/7. You'll have the opportunity to request the section whose schedule (or whatever) appeals most to you. Some people requested the same section as their roommates to allow them to carpool, some people chose a section whose days off better coincide with when they'd like to visit family. Most people got their selection, plus or minus. I did.

The Schedule

One of the "worst" parts about prototype is the schedule. It's pretty intense and a little hard to explain. But here goes. Basically you work 12 hour days, 7 days straight, rotating shift work, with a varying number of days off in between. A typical cycle is shown below:

Day 1-7 : Swing Shift, 1130-2330
Day 8-9: OFF (However, you start night shift at 1930 on Day 9. Essentially 1.5 days off)
Day 9-16: Night Shift, 1930-0730
Day 16-18: OFF (In this case, you get off at 0730 the morning of Day 16. Kinda like 3 days off.)
Day 19-26: Day Shift, 0730-1930
Day 27-28: OFF (Always a "normal" weekend. Off on Friday night, return Monday morning)
Day 29-32: T-Week, 0730-1930 (No watchstanding, staff goes through training. You study. Note the four day work week.)
Day 33-37: OFF!!! (This is your 4-day. It is glorious.)
Repeat.

If things are running smoothly and you graduate on time, you should complete this cycle 3-4 times. Aside from working ALOT, part of the stress comes from constantly adjusting your sleep schedule. You'll figure out what works for you.

Sweet bonus: There's a bar, called Trotters, in downtown Saratoga. After the last day of swing shift you'll find half of your section there, finding some liquid motivation to stay up all night/day to transition to the night shift. Pretty good time. Also, after your last night shift, Trotters opens at 7am for the Navy guys. Again, liquid motivation to stay up all day and attempt to get back on day schedule. It can kind of mess with your head, but so can ten pots of coffee and endless movies.

Watchstanding

I won't go into watchstanding too much other than to say it happens. As an officer, you'll try and complete all of your subordinate watchstations before you move into the Box. Watches are 4 hours long, you'll have an overinstruct, and you'll probably get yelled at alot. It's the nature of the business. Some days you might get put on "backers", where you'll stand 4 hour watches back-to-back. Exhausting but productive. That is the maximum hours of watch you are allowed to stand in one day as a student. For the rest of your day you will study and/or obtain checkouts.

Other Major Evolutions

In addition to checkouts and standing watch, there are a couple other big-ticket items. You'll take a 4-hour "50% Exam", stand a practice oral board (lovingly dubbed a 'murder board') and take an 8-hour "100% Exam" (broken up into 2 days, 4 hrs each). Once everything else is complete, your last two hurdles to qualification are your Final Oral Board and your Final Watch Board. Your oral board is more theory (remember power school??) and plant-systems oriented (draw this system, sketch this valve, explain this component, explain the reason for that), and it's done in front of 3 of the big-timers in your section. Your final watch is a 2-hr watch where you perform drills as EOOW and answer rapid-fire questions from the NR personnel present. After passing both, you are qualified EOOW at the plant and can then graduate. Hooyah.

I'm sure there are a few things I left out, but that is the big picture stuff. I'll edit it as I see fit, and answer any other questions I can in the comments. Overall, even with all the BS we've been going through up here, I've enjoyed prototype. It's much more dynamic than power school and, while it is certainly very challenging, it is "easier" in that you can throw verbatim memorization out the window. It's amazing how often I'll remember a paragraph of information I memorized in power school, but realize I had no idea what it actually meant until prototype. That's the nice thing about it: application of that knowledge. And the snowboarding in NY is great too.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Navy Nuclear Power School rundown

Power school was pretty much what I expected. With proper security kept in mind, here is the rundown of what YOU can probably expect:

First week
Orientation, lots of waiting around for briefs. Short days. Thumbs up.

After first week
Classes all day, Monday through Friday, with a couple study halls thrown in for good measure. Typically 3 subjects a day are taught, consisting of 2-3 hour lectures each. These days it's all power-point style and whiteboards. You can also look forward to an exam or two almost every week. Exams are 2 hours each (with a 3 hour final in each subject) and are time-intensive. Go go go.

What's required
The hours you spend at power school in excess of an 8 hour day are logged. The amount of "extra" time you spend at school depends on how adept you are at memorizing large amounts of information. Most officer students had around 10-25 extra hours at the end of the 7-day week. (hrs logged Monday morning-Sunday night). I typically averaged 17 hours a week and did well.

The exams focus on what we liked to call "verbatim understanding". It's intimidating and frustrating at first for people like me, who don't memorize something the first couple times they read it, but the vast majority of people get used to it. We only had a couple people wash out of our class of around 80. The material is covered quickly and delivered in large amounts. Again, you'll get used to it.

Exams are typically graded the same day they are taken, which eliminates any need for overnight anxiety about a test. Grades are posted in the back of the room and in our class the person with the highest grade bought bagels/donuts for everyone the next morning.

At the end of it all there is a comprehensive final, which is about as fun as it sounds. The good news is that "comp party" occurs directly afterwards at a bar of your choice. Someone in your class will organize it, usually collecting money for an open bar. Staff and students go and comp grades are announced there. Great time.

Socially
Being one of the few married guys in my particular class, I didn't get out much. But most of my fellow classmates went out quite a bit. Charleston is a beautiful place and the downtown area is awesome. PT time is built into your schedule everyday (this is a relatively new thing) and once a week your class will have group PT. We played a lot of team sports. That PT time is GREAT because they don't offer it when you go to prototype and it is sorely missed.

My impressions
I have to say that I didn't really like power school too much. In retrospect most of it was my fault. Having an exam every week was like having a dark cloud over my head constantly. But it was all artificial stress. Towards the end of my time in Charleston I learned to relax, prepare as much as I could and trust my abilities. My advice would be to work hard, but don't let a single exam get you down. It's not worth it. Also, try to get as much done as you can during the week to minimize the amount of time you have to spend at school during the weekends. That was also something I didn't get the hang of until the 2nd half of my time in Charleston. Once I got the hang of those two things, my life improved quite a bit. For most people this was not an issue.

Towards the end of power school you will put in a request sheet indicating your preference of which prototype you would like to go to. There is one in Charleston and one in Ballston Spa, NY. Most people get what they request. Married guys with families typically request to stay in Charleston and 95% of the time get their wish. I, however, fell into that 5% category and was moved to NY. That being said, Ballston Spa (Saratoga Springs) is a beautiful area and we are very happy with how things turned out.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Jogging in Chucktown

Got a chance to run the Ravenel/Cooper River Bridge the other day and man was it beautiful. The bridge spans from the northern portion of downtown Charleston eastward to Mt Pleasant. A separate path was created for biking, running and walking along with two observation points at the peak of the bridge. The view was spectacular and the breeze felt great. The path is 2.7 miles long from Patriots Point in Mt Pleasant to East Bay Street in Charleston, making it a shade under 5 and a half miles for my round trip. For now, parking is in Mt Pleasant, at the intersection of Patriots Point Rd and W Coleman Blvd. I highly recommend it.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Mandatory OCS Post, Part 1

So it seems I should touch upon my experience at OCS somewhat... especially considering it's the only true Navy experience I've had thus far. In some ways I wonder if it is even a Navy experience, considering the majority of your interaction is with US Marine Corps drill instructors.

I don't know what the Naval Academy is like and I don't know what various ROTC programs are like. I'm certain they are both stressful and difficult in a myriad of different ways, particularly over the course of four years. However, I can say with some degree of certainty that what OCS lacks in length, it makes up for in intensity. Something near half my class was comprised of prior-enlisted sailors, all of whom went through enlisted basic training. The phrase "boot camp on steroids" came up several times in reference to officer candidate school. That being said, I think that the qualities which make a good officer (in addition to a good man) are likely much deeper than any of this. But I digress..

Upon returning from Pensacola, I have been asked by several friends of mine what the "funniest moment" was. I think this expectation comes from R. Lee Ermey's character in Full Metal Jacket and of his off-the-wall (and effing hilarious) remarks to his Marines in training. What I found was, not unlike life itself, different from the movies. The Drill Instructors themselves occasionally made funny remarks, but focused primarily upon weeding out the weak. Some OCS moments were pretty humorous, but not like I expected.

Candidates arrive on a Sunday to start the party and are initially taken care of (i.e- yelled at) by "Candidate Officers" who are in their last couple weeks of training. They are essentially just babysitting until the class meets its Drill Instructor on Wake-up Wednesday. But at first the presence of Candidate Officers is somewhat stressful. One of the first things we were told to do upon arrival was hydrate, and hydrate we did.. "The water you drink today will save you tomorrow". After stripping out of civilian clothes and putting on the green poopie suits and silver spray painted chrome-domes that signify new "indoctrination candidates", we were taken straight to chow. Let the hydration begin: cup after cup of water until I was silently thanking Penn State for teaching me how to chug. Some of my fellow IC's didn't have this training and weren't so fortunate. Standing at rigid attention as chow hall employees looked on with amusement, I began to hear splashing water. Unable to take the pressure in their stomachs, kids were unloading the fruits of their labor all over the linoleum floor of the mess. Marching back from lunch chow, the candidate officers yelled "Where are my pukers??" and made these unfortunate IC's lead the formation home with poopie suits soaked in recently swallowed water. For some reason this struck me as pretty funny and it was hard to hide a smile at the time.

As new Indoctrination Candidates, you are told that Wednesday morning is a special time and to be prepared. It's no secret the real fun begins that morning. Candidate Officers can't make new IC's push, bearcrawl, or do anything else physical so all stress up until that point had been mental. So my class woke up around 4:30 (a half hour before reveille) to prepare. Shave, brush teeth, put on PT gear, and set shoes out on the blue line that runs around the rectangle that was our open-air barracks. Then it's back to the rack to wait for 5am to roll around.

At this point, I'm pretty nervous. But not everyone in the class was a know nothing non-prior like myself. In fact, we happened to have two former enlisted SEAL's (now officers) in our group. True warriors who had seen and done it all already. So it's 4:59 and I'm laying in my rack, in the darkness, senses heightened, ears listening for the sound of combat boots approaching.. but only hearing my own heart beating through my chest. Then I hear something else: snoring. One of the SEALS had fallen asleep in the ten minutes we had been laying down, completely at peace with what was to come. I laughed out loud this time, amazed at the disparity between our states of mind.

Then *beep*, my watch shows 0500, *crash* the door to our barracks flies open, and five of the United States Marine Corps' finest rush through the door, screaming beneath the tilted rim of their smokey bear covers. The next few hours were pretty memorable and in retrospect, pretty awesome. The picture above is taken from Heath Alvarez's detailed (although now outdated) page describing the OCS experience.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Movin' South

Finally got down to Charleston after recruiting duty in the Harrisburg area. The drive down was smooth via I-95. We finally have an internet connection, although not much else.

Power school is based at the Naval Weapons Station in Goose Creek, SC. My first impressions of the NWS are pretty positive. The PSD, commissary, Navy Exchange, etc are all outside the gates and along one road (Red Bank Rd), which is convenient. We chose to live in on-base housing and have been pleased so far. Married officers receive 3-bedroom, 2-bath houses in a quiet area next to the base golf course. There are plenty of available houses and if the past is any indication, this won't change.

In the military, service members receive a basic allowance for housing (BAH) when they live off-base. This is a set amount of money added to your paycheck to cover rent. If your rent is below BAH, you pocket the rest. When living on-base, you forfeit BAH completely. Most people opt to take the cash and live elsewhere. We're pretty happy with our decision, at least as far as NWS Charleston is concerned. The house we received is spacious, has a modern kitchen and is well maintained with a lawn, driveway and carport. We pay no utilities except for add ons like cable and internet. There is a gym within easy walking distance, sidewalks for jogging and even small outdoor fitness areas for pullups, dips, etc. Also power school and prototype are only two miles away. Not too shabby.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Opening pitch


Hello,

My name is Chase. This is my introductory post and my first foray into the world of blogging. I've really enjoyed reading other people's blogs, Bubblehead's in particular, and thought I could bring a unique perspective to this world.

A little bit about me. I am a 2005 Penn State grad with a degree in engineering. If you ever have the chance to visit Happy Valley, do it. Undoubtedly one of the best experiences of my life. Beautiful campus, amazing night life and of course, Beaver Stadium. Nothing like Saturday afternoons with 108,000 of your closest friends.

Following college I married my beautiful wife, also a PSU grad. After working in the consulting world for a brief period of time, a variety of influences led me to the Navy. After passing through two technical interviews with engineers at Naval Reactors and getting grilled by a four-star admiral for the fastest 5 minutes of my life, I was accepted into officer candidate school as a prospective submarine warfare officer. Off I go to OCS in Pensacola, FL and three months later I emerge a brand spankin new ensign.

Next up: 6 months of nuke power school (learning text-based fundamentals), 6 months of prototype (training on operating reactors) and 3 months of a submarine basic course. Best part? After 15 months of training, a wide-eyed junior officer is only qualified to step foot on board the boat... and not much else. Look out world!