USS NAUTILUS (SSN-571) may have proved the value of nuclear power to naval propulsion, but her hull shape reflected the traditional surface-ship design that worked well for vessels that spent most of their time atop the waves. It was USS ALBACORE (AGSS-569) which pioneered the teardrop-shaped hull that, when combined with nuclear power, would revolutionize the submarine force. Today, learn how the boat ended up high and dry in a concrete cradle in New Hampshire.
In 1972, ALBACORE’s tetchy diesels finally gave out and there were no more TANG-era engines left to be cannibalized. A plan to replace the engines was deemed too costly, so on 1 October she was decommissioned. Shortly thereafter she was towed to the Inactive Ship Facility at Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, where she would remain for more than a decade. But the boat was not forgotten: forces were at work to bring her back to her birthplace, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
ALBACORE began her journey home, under tow, in April of 1984. The Navy had not been able to schedule one of its tugs for the job, so the sub was turned over to the Army Reserve tug Okinawa for the 575-mile, 70-hour trip up the U.S. east coast. It was not an easy journey. Whenever the tug slowed down, ALBACORE, lacking brakes and with a fantastically hydrodynamic hull, would attempt to zoom past. Okinawa’s crew must have been relieved to hand the boat back over when the two vessels arrived in Portsmouth.
But ALBACORE’s odyssey was not over yet—she still had to move a quarter mile inland and up 27 feet from sea level. Experts decided the best method of conveyance would be a railway system, but preparing to get the boat to the spot where a specially-made car could pick her up was a herculean task all its own. Workers had to completely remove a railroad trestle, slice through a four-lane highway, and dredge a special channel. The entire process required 20 separate permits. Finally, on 4 May 1985, the move began.
Nothing had gone quite right for the small sub since she left Philadelphia, and this leg of her journey was no exception. She made it through the gap in the railroad only to run aground before she could reach the highway. When she finally got to the head of the railroad, she didn’t fit quite right on the car. The decision was made to haul her out anyway, but the winch failed. After it was fixed, it managed to get ALBACORE all the way out of the water before her weight broke the cradle in which she was lying and the entire car derailed. Given the frustration everyone involved with the project must have been feeling, the next move is not surprising: the boat was re-floated at the next high tide and then pushed into a mud flat. She remained there for months as officials tried to figure out what to do with her.
The answer was as unique as the boat herself: workers would build a huge coffer dam—basically a giant bathtub—around the sub, fill it with water, and float her to the concrete cradle that would serve as her final resting place. Private companies provided, free of charge, twelve industrial-size water pumps and the fuel that would keep them running for 72 straight hours. (Each pump had to be refilled every three hours.) It took three separate floods and lifts to move ALBACORE, as if she were transiting a canal, from the mud flat to the cradle. She arrived late in the afternoon on 3 October 1985, much to the relief, one can imagine, of everyone involved.
Now it was time to get her ready for the visiting public. Entry and exit doors were cut, modifications were made for shore power, and the entire boat was repainted. Volunteers, many from the shipyard that had brought the boat to life originally, did all the work necessary to ready her for her new role. The Navy contributed a working periscope to the effort. ALBACORE was opened to the public on 30 August 1986, just over four months after her younger sister, NAUTILUS, began receiving visitors here at the Submarine Force Museum.
ALBACORE has been designated a National Historic Landmark, a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark, and a Historic Welded Structure; she is also a member of the Submarine Hall of Fame. Every five years volunteers, many from modern-day subs that are being overhauled at the shipyard, give her a new coat of paint. Roadside America, the “Guide to Uniquely Odd Tourist Attractions,” refers to her as the “Submarine in a Ditch,” a whimsical moniker that surely draws a number of curious adventurers to the site each year, few of whom realize that they are looking at the tiny sub whose teardrop-shaped hull helped to revolutionize the American submarine force.