As the skies cleared, Cmdr. Jeffrey L. Fowler saw what looked like a giant freighter headed straight toward his fast-attack submarine, which had surfaced in a blizzard in the roiling Japanese Sea.
He quickly declared a "back emergency," and the USS Charlotte made an abrupt right turn, just missing the ship.
Disaster narrowly averted, Fowler and his crew completed their emergency trip to the Persian Gulf in 1998 -- and were hailed for being the only sub team to get there on time.
Quick reflexes, and not a small amount of luck, will be needed now more than ever by Fowler, a rear admiral who adds a third star to his uniform Friday when he becomes the new Naval Academy superintendent.
The naval college in Annapolis has found itself in a squall of its own in recent years, mired in numerous sexual assault cases that paint a dark portrait of the institution.
Also, the attempts of Fowler's predecessor, Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, to reform the school and make it more hospitable to women have led to a mutiny among some alumni, who have frequently expressed their hope that Fowler would come in and "right the ship."
But the career submariner, who granted his first interview to The Sun last month as he prepared to report to the academy, said he doesn't plan significant changes right away. In fact, Fowler declined to discuss any potential new direction, saying he needed time in the job to get his bearing.
"I don't want to project too much into the future," he said, adding only that he strongly believes the academy should challenge midshipmen. "It's not good enough to do it right 99 percent of the time. That would mean every 100 flights or dives, we lose an aircraft or submarine. We have to be above the normal human error that's considered allowable."
At 50, the admiral is 11 years younger than his predecessor and comes to Annapolis with no administrative experience in higher education, although the international stops in his career complement new efforts at the academy to prepare midshipmen for a broader, more complex world. He graduated in 1978, two years after women were admitted to the naval college, making him the first superintendent to attend the school with female students.
Fowler said raising his children -- two daughters, ages 19 and 17, and a 13-year-old son -- combined with his recent three-year tour leading the Navy's recruiting command in Millington, Tenn., taught him about leading "the next greatest generation."
He learned a lot about how young people use technology and how to enlist the support of eager volunteers, and came away impressed with the thousands who decided "to volunteer to serve their country during a war."
But the job wasn't without its tough decisions, including one indicative of what he might face at the Naval Academy.
After local prosecutors in Tennessee decided to drop charges against an assailant who had allegedly sexually assaulted a female sailor, because they couldn't afford to bring her and other witnesses in to testify, Fowler decided the Navy would do so.
The man -- Fowler would not say whether he was a sailor -- was convicted and sent to prison.
"All of the people who knew the facts in the Navy thought she had a valid case," said Fowler. "I decided that the right thing to do was to spend the money to bring these people in, regardless of how the trial turned out, because this case needed to be heard. Now, it certainly didn't eliminate the fact that this assault happened, but somebody was held accountable."
When he talks about his reasons for joining the Navy, Fowler sounds very much like a former recruiting commander.
"A big part of what intrigued me and got me interested in the Navy was the chance to ... see the rest of the world," he said. "Now, 30 or 40 countries later, and probably as many states in America, I've achieved all the goals I ever could have had when I was 17 going on 18."
Fowler said he developed a strong work ethic in Bismarck, S.D., a relatively small town that's also home to two other Navy admirals, including William A. Owens, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Before starting plebe summer in 1974, Fowler and a friend ran 18 miles twice a week to build endurance.
Once at the academy, Fowler did well academically and as a leader, becoming a four-striper, one of the highest ranks in the midshipman chain of command.
Standing at attention in the dining hall and having to shout menus, movie times or obscure facts about the Navy at any upperclassman's request had unexpected applications on submarines, where there wasn't always time to write down bearings or contacts in the right sequence.
"There was always something that challenged everybody," he said. "Sometimes, the people there who are the strongest and most athletic get in a swimming pool and sink to the bottom like a rock. That part of the academy is very important."
Fowler went on to complete three submarine tours and two master's degrees -- one from Harvard University -- before taking command of the USS Charlotte in 1994, the defining period of his career.
"He was the kind of submarine captain you would see in the movies," said Cmdr. Howard W. Goldman, a Baltimore native who served as a junior officer on the Charlotte. "No matter what would happen, he had the same look on his face. I never saw him sweat, really. He was very pensive, a sort of typical plainsman, you know, few words and deep action."
Cmdr. Todd Cramer, a 1987 academy graduate who served as the engineer during Fowler's command, said Fowler was almost obsessive about details, often pointing to a plaque in his quarters that outlined Murphy's Law, asking, "What would Mr. Murphy say?"
"I would present repair plans or safety plans," Cramer said, "and he would ask, 'Well, what if this or that happens, or what if this breaks down?' And I would say, 'Captain, you're such a pessimist.' He'd say: 'No, I'm a realist.'"
Sometimes, his subordinates would find out about repairs they had to make or chores that were left undone from a dry-erase board that he posted. The slight embarrassment and gamesmanship kept them sharp, several said.
Fowler also had a passion for vanilla ice cream, even waking up his engineering officer to fix the ice cream machine. In an operational report to his fleet commander, he once wrote: "Please send commercial-grade vanilla ice cream." He hated the military variety.
"I would look at him and say, 'Are you sure you want to send this?'" Goldman recalled of the ice cream request. "And he was like, 'It's got to be commercial grade. We've got to have commercial-grade vanilla.'"
A 'really bad' day
He commanded the Charlotte for a marathon 40 months, traveling 100,000 miles submerged, with more than 100 dives and surfaces all over the Atlantic and Indian oceans and the Persian Gulf. Of 1,000 days, only 10 were "really bad," he said, and among those, the worst came off the coast of Yokosuka, Japan.
Winds were at about 50 knots, and fog was so thick, his sailors had to navigate almost exclusively with radar. Everywhere they turned, it seemed, they had a giant cargo ship to avoid.
Fowler had decided to direct the ship from the bridge, standing in the submarine's tower with his head and torso outside.
"He knew that if a split-second decision had to be made, a career-ending decision, he wanted to be the guy who made it," said Goldman, who was in the control room that day. "He wanted to put himself in the eye of the storm."
Fowler acknowledged that the academy is a very different place from a submarine, but said he feels confident he will make his way in Annapolis.
"As a junior person looking up at my immediate boss, in most cases, I did not think I could do that job. With the academy, I'm barely thinking I can do it now. But the Navy, and the people in the Navy, entrusted me," he said. "I plan to go in and listen to what went on, understand the mission and do what's necessary to carry it out. It's served me well during all my tours."