The Australian submarine HMAS Dechaineux nearly sank in 2003.
The near-tragedy has forced the navy to permanently reduce the diving depth of its fleet of six Collins-class submarines for safety reasons – a move that has weakened their military capability.
An investigation by The Weekend Australian has revealed that an accident on board HMAS Dechaineux on February 12, 2003, was more serious than the navy has publicly admitted.
“I don’t think there was anybody on our boat who wasn’t shit-scared that day,” said Able Seaman Geordie Bunting, who almost drowned in the flood and who has now spoken about it for the first time.
“Another five seconds and we would have been in big trouble … another 10 and you have got to question whether we could have surfaced.”
Mike Deeks, the then commander of the navy’s submarine force, said: “We were talking seconds, not minutes. It was a very serious, significant flood.”
The depth at which the accident occurred and the maximum depth to which the submarine fleet is now capable of diving is classified information. All operational details about the vessel are classified because they could aid an enemy.
The accident happened about 40 nautical miles off Perth when a sea water hose in the lower engine room failed just as the Dechaineux, the fourth of the navy’s six Collins-class submarines, was at its deepest diving depth.
I don’t recall hearing anything about this near-tragedy.
At the time of the accident, the navy admitted Dechaineux had taken on water but hid the true gravity of the situation. It would have been Australia’s worst military disaster since the 1964 HMAS Voyager tragedy near Jervis Bay on the New South Wales South Coast, which left 82 sailors dead.
The navy responded to the crisis by ordering the submarine fleet back to port and conducting exhaustive tests on the hose that failed.
However, it was never able to find a fault with the hoses, which are still used.
Instead, the navy has reduced the diving depth of the submarines, and as a result the pressure placed on the seawater hoses. There has not been a major flooding incident since.
Despite teething problems, the six Collins submarines have performed above expectation in operations, becoming one of the nation’s most valuable military assets.
Like helicopters, submarines have inherent dangers. But they can do things nothing else can.