Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Tour of USS California (SSN-781), Part One

I remember the cold January afternoon when--on a whim--I simply walked up to the pier sentry of a foreign ship and asked for a look aboard. The ship was the Spanish Oiler Teide, a small, ungainly-looking tanker based at the Armada Espana base in Rota, Spain.  Her watch, and subsequently her Captain, were a little surprised, I think, to have a Sailor from an American frigate choose their ship to visit, but I was welcomed aboard with enthusiasm and enjoyed a splendid afternoon's exploration and conversation with the ship's officers and crew.  After a delicious evening meal in the wardroom--and a few beers in the crew's mess--I departed the ship with some small souvenirs (All these years later I still have my Teide tie-clasp), a greater appreciation of an allied navy and it's Sailors, and a new interest and intent--to visit ships of our own and of foreign navies at every opportunity in future.

Spanish Oiler Teide underway in 1982
That Winter day in Spain was nearly 32 years ago.  Since then I have often shown the flag in my own fashion, visiting ships and submarines of most of the world's navies, walking their decks and meeting my "opposite numbers" from around the globe.  I suppose I COULD review my journals and provide a more precise figure, but at a guess I would say that I have toured nearly three hundred vessels of all types, from Australian coastal interdiction craft to Russian "rocket cruisers", Turkish frigates to Belgian minesweeps, British 100-gun ships of the line to American amphibious assault ships.

Seeing the ships, meeting their crews, spending time comparing experiences with them, has been--and continues to be--one of the most enjoyable parts of my naval career.  Rarely turned away from a quarterdeck, and often welcomed in the spirit of the shared adversity and comradeship of Sailors, I find the experience of nautical 'cultural exchange' to be immensely fulfilling; as Sailors and Mariners we all do the same things--standing watches, carrying out maintenance, dealing with the loneliness and separation of our chosen lifestyle, and of course representing our respective nations--BUT we all do them differently, with distinct traditions and cultures, and therein lies the true pleasure of this "hobby" of mine; the joy of discovery.

Every time I board another ship, greet a new shipmate, whether they sail beneath our own flag or that of another land, I gain a little more insight, a better understanding of the true, universal meaning of this vast brotherhood of the sea; a small glimpse of what the word "Sailor" really means.  And that makes it all worthwhile.
Submarines are a fascinating type of warship, submariners a unique breed of Sailor.  "Boats" that dive deep and cruise stealthily beneath the waves; officers and crewmembers who man them, to whom silence is the greatest of all virtues.  Certainly there is a mystique surrounding these undersea warships and warriors, and while I can honestly say that I have never entertained the first thought of serving in this field (the idea of having a thousand feet of water above me is a bit chilling) I have a high level of respect for those who do, and I never miss a chance to board and study a submarine, whatever the type or nation.

Such an opportunity presented itself only a few months ago; when Arctic returned to Naval Station Norfolk from a week at sea we found ourselves sharing a pier with the slim black cigar-shaped hull and art-deco "sail" of a 'Virginia'-class nuclear attack submarine (SSN).  Simply being in close proximity to such a craft is a rare event--submarines have their own enclave on the base and are rarely seen moored outside their heavily-guarded pier complex--but this particular boat was fully-dressed in patriotic bunting, and evidenced such an aura of newness that it was plain to all that she had only just been accepted from her builders and commissioned into the Navy.

Only brief inquiry was necessary; she was USS California, and only the day before she had been placed in commission.  Eighth of the Virginia class submarines, built just across Hampton Roads in my home town of Newport News, she represents the state-of-the-art of American undersea warship development and construction.  Of course, to me, that made her quite the irresistible target for my particular brand of tourism!

USS California on Pier 12; note USNS Arctic in BG
SILENCE IS GOLDEN—Motto of USS California
I presented my Navy Employee "CAC" card to the sentry, explained that I was a crewmember of the rather large gray ship moored across the pier, and asked if it would be possible to have a look around his submarine.  At the time I was not counting on getting aboard; I fully expected to have my request refused outright by the boat's Officer of the Deck (OOD).  Usually the "Silent Service" doesn't give tours.  Imagine my surprise and excitement, then, when permission to board was granted...

My volunteer guide was a fellow First Class Petty Officer (I MAY be retired, but I'll never stop being a Sailor), one of California's IT gang, responsible for maintaining and if necessary repairing the boat's sophisticated computers and communications systems.  As a former SSBN Sailor he wore a 'Patrol Pin' with four stars, denoting his completed patrols in our nations' Trident ballistic missile sub force; I suspect he knows what he is about!

We began our tour, naturally, with actually boarding California; this was accomplished with due ceremony.  My guide led the way across the gangway (a "brow" in navalese), pausing as he crossed his vessel's side to face aft toward the national Ensign and render a sharp salute.  He then turned toward the armed "topside" watch, saluted again, and then reported his return aboard.  I followed suit, but as a "civilian" I rendered honors by facing the flag and doffing my cap; then I requested permission of the watch to come aboard.  As is proper, he verified my CAC and authorization to before granting me permission, and I stepped onto the boat's outer hull, or casing.

Walking the curved deck, I had a quick introduction to that small part of a submarine that languishes above water when the boat is surfaced; the bulge of the towed-array sonar housing stretching from sail all the way aft along the starboard side which deploys a long cable festooned with incredibly-sensitive underwater microphones ("hydrophones") to act as her 'ears'; the sail itself, from which the boat is navigated on the surface, a vertical black tower curving forward into the hull with a graceful arc; the 12 vertical-launch missile hatches forward of the sail ready to salvo 'Tomahawk' cruise missiles from hidden launch positions undersea; the retractable mooring bitts and cleats that withdraw into the casing to reduce resistance and flow-noise as the vessel moves at speed through the depths.  And of course the three hatches abaft the sail to access the interior, only the second of which was open and covered from the weather by a black awning decorated with a drawing of a snarling ursid.

At this point I must admit to a weakness.  I have been aboard dozens of submarines during my career, and aboard each I have faced one particular challenge; getting inside the thing!   The hatches of these craft, massive circular structures that they are, conceal tiny, narrow vertical ladders that lead some ten feet to the deck below; since it would be impractical (and even dangerous) to block the rapid closure of the hatch, stepping down the gap and reaching the top of the ladder requires a bit of gymnastic skill and fine balance.  Unfortunately, I have neither of these in great measure, and am reduced to slowly groping down the trunk with one foot whilst desperately clutching the awning frame.  Of course, the sense of clumsiness can only be exacerbated by the sight of my guide's easy jump into the abyss, and by the queue of Sailors that builds up behind me as I defy gravity in my own rather less confident way!  I have no problem with heights—it’s ladders that get me every time...

Once through this trial, with feet safely on the deck below, I was allowed a moment to recover some dignity and then we continued our tour.


The first thing that struck me about SSN-781?  Head room.   After decades of stooping supplicant-like through the interiors of submarines, always on watch for the inevitable overhead projections--valve wheels, junction boxes, even canned goods stowed in rope netting--I was able to stroll through a sub without worrying for the safety of my close-cropped scalp.  Perhaps I exaggerate somewhat; I know that the past few U.S. Navy boats I've visited (USS Newport News, SSN-750, was the latest) were relatively roomy, but I'm equally certain that I spent a fair amount of time avoiding contact with overhead obstacles aboard them.  But aboard California?  Even with my 6'1" cranial altitude I cannot recall having to "duck" even once.

This is more than just a matter of personal comfort or convenience.  The fact that I was never menaced by "death from above" aboard during my time aboard California speaks volumes to me about her layout and design.  A conscious effort has been made by this class's architects to design a submarine that could perform her duties efficiently but also making her "user-friendly" and less of a safety threat to her own crew--especially during radical maneuvers ("30-30s"--thirty degrees of rudder whilst traveling at thirty knots--are an extreme example) when many shipboard injuries occur.  I certainly appreciated this consideration.

Commenting on the boat's cleanliness and good condition seems a waste of keyboard time.  California is a newly-commissioned warship in a Navy that raises the act of tidying-up to the level of fetish; had I seen a single dust-bunny or coffee-ring I'd have been truly shocked.  And she is far too young a ship to have accumulated the many nicks and scratches that add character to an older vessel--this patina of service will come only with time and hard voyaging in our nation’s service.

Submarine living conditions are notorious; we've all seen photographs or scenes in war films wherein Sailors "hot-bunk", two men taking turns sleeping in a single uncomfortable-looking rack, or live and sleep atop the long cylinders of stowed torpedoes.  I'm happy to say that those days are long gone (at least in the nuclear subs of the U.S. Navy), and though one cannot by any measure refer to California's crew quarters as luxurious they are at least less Spartan than their "pigboat" forebears.  Glancing into a typical crew berthing compartment I could see stacks of three “racks”, much as I once slept in during my destroyer days, though submarine bunks appear to be somewhat less roomy than I remember aboard "tin cans".  Mattresses are thinner as well, and locker space negligible; each enlisted Sailor aboard stows all of his gear (shoes, uniforms, civilian clothes, and personal items) in approximately the space of a kitchen cabinet back home.  Nothing can be left un-stowed, of course—in an emergency such “gear adrift” could cause injury or even threaten the safety of the boat.

Junior Officers and Chief Petty Officers live in somewhat more comfort, but only relatively so; the Chief’s Mess and Wardroom each are about the size of a large walk-in closet!  The two roomiest and most comfortable living quarters, of course, belong to the Executive Officer and Captain; I got a brief look into the CO's stateroom (roughly the size of a large closet) as we headed aft into the "habitability" module.

My guide informed me that California's complement was, at that time, 135 officers and enlisted, but this number was expected to be reduced to roughly a hundred after a suitable "breaking-in" period.  On acceptance trials, only a few weeks before my visit, the boat had sailed with over 160 aboard, including inspectors and shipyard engineers--imagine trying to find a seat for dinner!

End of Part One

Evening Meal at 100 Fathoms; the Red "nonskid" arrows on the deck
indicate the locations of emergency breathing air manifolds in the overhead.


  1. Tom,

    I'm a little jealous. I always enjoyed touring other people's ships while I was in the Navy. I still do now, but don't get much opportunity to go on tours now. I haven't had the opportunity to tour a Virginia class sub yet. Did they let you bring a camera or did one of the crew take the photo for you? Looking forward to part 2.


  2. I enjoyed very much this post. Greetings from South America.