U.S.S. Albacore

April 10, 2010 — If you ever get the chance to enter a military submarine, I highly recommend it, even if it is decommissioned, dry-docked, and has a parking lot attached to it. And not because submarines are wondrous works of human ingenuity and engineering, but merely to emphasize the fact that there is a segment of the population vastly different from you. These not-you’s can live underwater in extremely cramped spaces chest-to-chest with scores of unshowered crewmen for weeks and months at a time, comfortable with the knowledge that a mere hull-plate and ballast tank away is the pitiless blackness of ocean sinisterly waiting for the slightest seam to enter and kill them all in a dark, liquid nightmare of chaos, pressure, and suffocation. Hold on. I need to open a window.

Of course, when that submarine is a family tourist attraction whose hatches open to brightest day, it’s a lot of fun to visit. Quite a few waterway-accessible places have tourable military submarines, but in this case, I’m referring to the slick, black beast that is the U.S.S. Albacore (AGSS-569) in Portsmouth, NH. The Albacore was an experimental Navy vessel in service from 1953 to 1972, the entire purpose of which was to test out various ways to make submarines faster and more maneuverable than their previous WWII counterparts. Although the Albacore was powered with a diesel-electric engine, it ushered in the modern era of sleek teardrop-hulled nuclear-powered monsters that these days we buy in brightly colored plastic form for our children to play with in the bathtub.

This 200-foot-long National Historic Landmark somehow housed a crew of more than 50 during its tour of duty. Actually, housed seems an inaccurate verb for what it did to the poor sailors trapped within its metal ribs, but we don’t have a word for forced mass spooning in our language. I checked a long time ago for reasons unrelated to this photo essay.  Well, supposed photo essay…I’ve spilled way too much pixel ink introducing these pictures. The Albacore also once held the record for fastest underwater speed at 40 mph. I think fleeing giant squid was the circumstances for that feat.

At Albacore Park, you get the opportunity to self-tour through this thing, pushing buttons for audio information as you go, but mostly you’ll just marvel at the abovementioned population segment, who spent their time lying in bunks mere inches apart, walking sideways down corridors, and caring for voices hoarse from having to say “excuse me” all the time. There’s also a nearby building where you can look at pictures, scale models, and artifacts from the history of the Albacore and submarinery in general.

As much fun as it was clambering through hatches, sitting at the controls, and peeping through the working periscope, by the end of it, I couldn’t stop imagining what it would be like stuck fathoms deep with the equivalent of a small grocery store crowd. Although it was just my wife and I (and apparently that little boy in the periscope picture whom I don't remember being there) and we spent less than half an hour in it, by the end I wanted to move to the nearest uninhabited mountain peak that I could find. I only ever want to be surrounded by a sky full of air.

I don't know what this equipment does.

I don't know what this equipment does.

I don't know what this equipment does.

Vaguely familiar with this equipment.