For the next five days, I’ll be playing Silent Hunter III with the Grey Wolves mod, which fixes lots of bugs from the original game and tweaks tons of environmental values, ranging from visibility and detection ranges in low light to crew fatigue factors. The result is the most solid, real-feeling submarine experience, and the only way to play Silent Hunter III.

For this patrol, our destination grid is the farthest I’ve ever been. Even the letters look unfamiliar. I’m used to AM, AN and the Bs but this is what? DJ? Where is that? I’ve taken my little Type II boat all over the North Sea and the coast of Great Britain. With my fancy new Type VIIb, I ranged that coast and beyond numerous times in a single patrol. But this DJ18 — this is serious. This is the Atlantic. This is international traffic and massive convoys. This is deep waters and vast hunting grounds with no land in sight. This is… beyond our range at standard cruising speed.

Scheisse.

After the jump, 40 kilometers of nailbiting tension

Without the ability to refuel — not modeled in the game — we’re going to be straight out short on diesel this run. I huddle with my navigator and we plot out the course and run some calculations on fuel usage and ultimately settle on 1/3 being the optimum speed for this trip. That will give us plenty of allowance for flank speed as needed, and of course to get there and back — but it cuts our outward speed by 50%. On the other hand, the odds of running into something interesting are very nearly 100%.

The departure from Wilhelmshaven on August 31, 1940 is routine; we’re buzzed by some BF109s and wave hello/goodbye to an incoming Type II. I know those bathtubs well, and seeing one returning is always a cause for cheer. Soon after we leave friendly port traffic behind — trawlers performing their endless back and forth at the outlet — and in no time flat it’s nothing but open seas. After clearing the traffic at full speed I reduce to 1/3 as planned and … it’s naptime, to make that 800 miles to Der Kanal pass faster. I make sure that the watchtower is fully staffed, as my XO tends to nap as well during cruise — but he can boost my sighting efficiency by ~50%, so no naps for him! I determine to wake when we get within 50k of Der Kanal entrance in anticipation of the traverse.

The Strait of Dover is 40 kilometers wide — which means 20km to either side if I go through the middle to reduce the chances of being sighted from land, which in turn means that any single ship in there potentially reduces maximum contact range to 10k. Ten kilometers is one half of the range that our screws can be heard underwater, and that’s just one ship. Anything else patrolling in there and things get positively crowded.

But now it’s time for that nap. I bring up the map screen and prepare to accelerate to warp — i.e., engage time acceleration by a factor of 1024. A successful sub simulator captain knows when to spend an hour staring through the periscope and making minute course adjustments, and when to hit that 1024x switch and retire to the captain’s cabin.

As expected since we’re hugging the coast of friendly territory, not a lot happens on the way. One report of an engagement on the other side of Great Britain, and a notice of a friendly warship operating in an area we’re nowhere near. My pulse quickens for a moment as I get a report of a “warship sighted”, but it is once again my lookouts playing silly buggers and it is one of our own coastal patrol motorboats. I make note of the former and cut the lookout’s schnapps portion about the latter, and continue my (very long) nap.

Day two, about 300 miles out and this slow speed is driving everyone nuts. I pop quickly to the conning tower to check the weather, and it is perfectly clear. Since in this type of weather we can get some decent speed I order cruising speed for the day. This will get us to the Straits near night fall and will give us ample time to negotiate it in the dark. Everyone perks up as we surge from 10 to 15 knots, and I put the gramophone on for some appropriate accompaniment. Much better.

Right before we enter the truly dangerous area we get news of a convoy a measly 150 kilometers northwest of us. Unfortunately it is moving away, and in the wrong direction, and orders are orders — at least for now. If we have fuel left on the way back we may come back and play, but for the moment we must wave them farewell. The weather’s picking up; good, perhaps we’ll be able to traverse the Straits at night after all. Only a hundred klicks remain. I restore that watchman’s schnapps portion; I don’t need anyone nursing even a tiny grudge right now.

At 30KM out I hit full speed; the conditions couldn’t be better. It’s pitch black with a low and complete cloud cover, but still only light chop so that we can wring 17 knots from the engines. Ideally I’d be playing Ride of the Valkyries here, but I’m too busy watching in every direction at once. I always get nervous when we’re in sight of land, and now we’re in sight from nearly all directions. I don’t want to spend any more time here than I have to, and within a few hours we are through. Have I mentioned that through most of its length, the Channel’s depth is around 20, 30 meters? That’s barely enough to keep our conning tower submerged!

Day breaks and thunder rumbles somewhere in the distance but the seas remain surprisingly calm and quiet. We have another 400km — the better part of a day to traverse the shallow portion until Cherbourg, and then we hit substantially deeper waters as the Channel eventually leads to Gulf of Biscay and the Atlantic. Grid BF, which we’re entering now is the farthest I’ve ever been; grid DJ is two more grids farther out. In about 500km we shall be halfway there; at least the fuel gauge is behaving and remains quite high as we leave the shelter of the Continent and head out to sea. Despite Der Kanal being a convoy route we don’t encounter a single ship, friendly or otherwise. The men pretend to be absorbed in the tactical possibilities of enemy traffic that isn’t there.

According to my chart of naval traffic in this area … there is none. There is only one thing to do: gramophone, and naptime. On a whim, I take a depth reading — over 1000 meters. Well. We’ve certainly left known territory now.

Tomorrow: a love affair with the navigational chart

Marcin Manek has been playing games since Pong and BASIC programs from the back of magazines on the ZX Spectrum. He now codes, reads, plays games and explores Oregon with his wife and 1 year old.