Like a phoenix rising from the waves – the sail rises once more

The phoenix is a mythical bird that derives from Greek mythology. It was described as a feathered creature of enormous size with talons and wings. The plumage was radiant and beautiful. The story goes that the phoenix lived for many years before it built its own funeral pyre, burst into flame, and died, consumed in its own fiery inferno.

Soon after, the creature rose out of the ashes, in a transformation from death to life. Yet the new life was not the same as the one that had just passed. It had a new purpose. As a sailor, I have always liked the lore of mythology. The sea and its creatures seem to be hopelessly intertwined.

A modern day Phoenix

It’s a short walk from the parking lot to the grassy hill where she stands. As you walk up the path, emotions come rising to the surface that I haven’t felt in years. Standing stately above the base where she is forever mounted, she looks smaller than what I remembered from so many decades ago. But there she is. Painted black as she was when she topped the submarine that I called home. Oddly out of place yet somehow exactly where she should be for this moment in time. Her plates of steel are not perfect. They seem dimpled and rough from so many days of being a working girl. In my heart, I am glad that the people who put her there left them that way. It’s the way I remember them from the very first time I laid eyes on her.

It’s bittersweet to see her again. I know that she is forever separated from the sea and no amount of wishing could ever take her back. She was always the first thing you saw as you approached her whether it was in port or underway. But she once held a lot of life pent up inside her shell. Thousands of pounds of hydraulic pressure surged through her veins waiting to respond to the commands of the men far below. Electrons flowed through her countless wires waiting to send or receive messages of national importance. High pressure air filled her lines leading to the single whistle hiding inside of her waiting to tell the world that she was coming. Or warning them to get the hell out of the way when they came too close. She was fickle like that.

Her planes are welded in place now. I suspect that they had to do that. The memory of where they had been might compel them to try and fly once more. But I know in my heart she’s been gutted. All of those lifelines are forever gone and recycled.

I can’t imagine a submarine without a sail.

Yet in the early days, they couldn’t imagine one with something so powerful. The early captains stood on a ladder with their heads just above the blister that gave them some protection. It was the need for better vision and equipment that drove the development of the protrusion that is taken for granted now. Periscopes. Masts. Antennas. Even a snorkel mast that plays such a crucial part in the life of a boat. With each new development, her purpose became more vital. Those additions helped to make the boat more efficient and more effective.

Today they are silent. “Do not raise, lower, rotate or radiate from any mast or antennae” are words relegated to the dust bin of history for this old girl. But so are other phrases that were so familiar. “Clear the bridge”. “Last man down”. “Chief of the watch, on the 1MC, Dive Dive Dive”.

As I look at her once more, I remember working inside of her. Access plates gave you a small way to go inside and do some minor maintenance. I’m pretty sure most of us were much smaller then. I can hardly imagine squeezing inside with all those obstructions now.

The trunk leading from the control room was littered with equipment and valves that grabbed at you as you climbed to the top. But it was a pathway to the world after being held below the waves for months at a time. It led to a sort of freedom. In my mind’s eye, I can still see myself climbing the ladder and rigging her for surface. I don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse but I have always had a strong imagination. Now in my advanced years, it plays back for me the many scenes that have been buried for so many decades.

Memories like no others.

Like the smell. It stinks a bit when you first get there. The boat had been under for so long, some of the growth has settled in places where there were voids. As the boat surfaces, the air hits that growth and starts a decaying process. You never forget that smell. Or the slimy feeling of the stuff beneath your boondockers as you try and move things to their proper place. As the clamshells are opened and you get your first look at the world, your eyes play tricks on you. You haven’t seen more than a few yards in front of you for months and now you have to look at an ocean with limitless boundaries. If the sun is out, it can actually be a little painful.

But there is not much time to look.

Equipment has to be set up and more men will join you quickly. It gets crowded up there. Another factor that makes an impact is the movement of the boat as it responds to the sea. For a long time, you have only felt the sea on an occasional trip to periscope depth. Now you are on top. The hull is essentially round. The boat rocks back and forth. Sometimes nicely like a gentle child’s ride in a county fair. Sometimes violently as an unexpected sea changes. In either case, the work must go on.

As I stand at the base of the landlocked giant, I think about what it would be like to ride on top one more time.

What would I see?

As a lookout, I would scan the blue-gray sea in front and to the sides for any threats. But truthfully, I was also being entertained by all that the ocean has to offer in a place that rides purposefully above as it slices through the water. The waves form a pattern both at the bow and at the stern. Waves so beautiful and skillfully crafted by the bulbous shape of the bow and the dagger like edge of the rudder. Glistening sea foam and iridescence reflecting the light of the moon or the sun.

At night, when the clouds are gone, a star show like none other on the face of the earth. I can imagine what it was like to be a sailing man in the earlier times looking up from the deck of a sailing ship. No surface light or sounds to distract a lucky sailor from seeing the ageless beauty of the heavens.

If you are lucky you see a dolphin or a school of them. They come to welcome you home or escort you to the dive point. These sea creatures have to wonder in their minds what kind of giant creature is this that glides so effortlessly through the playground of Neptune. Or maybe they are just hoping the creature will play with them along their way.

But the emotional draw of that sail is so much more than the fear and excitement of the first time you see her or the sadness (or relief) on the last view of her in the rear view mirror.

She is the last part of the world you see before you dive and the first reminder after you surface that your time at sea is drawing to a close. She is the impressive tower that every other ship sees as you make turns for home on the surface.

She is the projection of power for a great nation that built her and sends her sons and daughters down to the sea below her. She is the modern symbol of achievement that demonstrates man’s ability to overcome great odds to guarantee peace in a troubled world.

And now she sits on a hillside or in a park far away from her beloved sea.

No more will waves part (out of fear or maybe respect) as she glides through the water. No more will men eagerly climb her ladders anxious to see the world that has been hidden from them for so long. Her days of protecting the people back home are done.

There was probably a ceremony with speeches the day they set her in place. Maybe even a band playing sailor songs and patriotic melodies that gave her life once upon a time. If any of her old friends were there, they probably shed a tear or two. That is as close to salt water she will ever be again.

She is just an old sentinel now. Nearly lifeless, bound by welds and braces unseen to the eye. Instead of a powerful sleek hull of magnificent steel, she sits atop a concrete slab with bolts holding her in place. I wonder if they are worried that she will try and escape. No inclinometer is needed since the sea can no longer push her in any direction.

If she could speak, she would tell you of the many trips around the oceans of the world she took or the thousand dives she helped to make. She would brag about the fine garments of flowers and decorations she wore as she brought her sailors safely home. She might even weep a bit for the ones we lost along the way. Their memories will forever live inside her hollow shell.

As time goes on, the ones who sailed in her will pass from this earth. Their stories will as well. The only physical reminder left will be this collection of steel that forms a memory for the world to see. I wonder if the people who pass by her or take a picture of her will ever really know what magnificent things she did. Will they understand that after being forged, shaped and hammered by both the builders and the sea, she stands here as a testament to all who served on her? Maybe for most it won’t matter.

But for those of us who put our faith in her to always get us home, she will forever be a way to return to the sea once more, even if only in our dreams.

There is a sad realization that the boat that she once adorned is no longer around. Like the sail, she has been gutted and repurposed or recycled. The places where we worked, slept, ate and grew older no longer exist. Maybe that is the saddest part of seeing the old girl again. Its the realization that all of that is gone forever.

I am grateful to all those who have done so much to preserve our history. Sometimes it can feel like the work you do has so little impact once the crowds move on to the next stop on their tour. But I can assure you that for an old sailor, there is more value than my words could ever explain. It reminds me that the unseen and unknown things we did will never truly be forgotten.

Mister Mac

7 thoughts on “Like a phoenix rising from the waves – the sail rises once more

  1. I was a fledgling IC3 aboard the USS Compass Island EAG-153 in the early sixties and we were tasked as the launch area support ship for a 4 missile launch of A-2 Polaris missiles from the USS George Washington (SSBN 598) off the coast of Western Africa with a target area off the coast of Florida. The Washington surfaced after the launch and VADM Grenfell, the current COMSUBLANT, was ferried over to us by one of our motor boats for a lift back to CONUS. Was an exciting experience for a young sailor . Perhaps it was one of the reasons I stayed for 30 and became a Submariner in the early seventies and serving on 4 attack boats retiring in 1989 off the USS Jack (SSN-605).

  2. George Washington’s sail was removed prior to disposal and now rests at the
    Submarine Force Library and Museum at Groton, Connecticut.
    But do you remember that sail was original the sail on USS Scorpion SSN-590
    Yes, because before the 589 hull could be finished, it was cut in two and missile
    compartment added and renamed and numbered USS GW SSBN -598

    1. The story of her original construction has been covered pretty well in other articles on theleansubmariner. https://theleansubmariner.com/2011/12/29/uss-george-washington-ssbn-598/

      However, the sail that sits on the hillside has another story to tell. The GW had a collision later in its life that impacted the sail. On 9 April 1981, George Washington was at periscope depth and was broadsided by the 2,350 long tons (2,390 t) Japanese commercial cargo ship Nissho Maru in the East China Sea about 110 nmi (130 mi; 200 km) south-southwest of Sasebo, Japan.

      The real question is, how was it repaired? After the collision with the Nissho Maru, the damaged sail was repaired with parts from the sail from the USS Abraham Lincoln which was waiting for disposal at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.

      Mister Mac

      1. I was aboard when the GW had the incident in the South China Sea. We weren’t broadsided by the Nissho Maru. We actually came up under the ship and stuck our sail into it’s engine room.

  3. I’m a former crew member of Lewis & Clark (Blue – 1983 – 1987), and I can definitely relate to this story. I first saw the sail of my Qual Boat, the Lewis & Clark, in October, 2015 as I was attending a Ship’s reunion. I could only stand in silence for a few moments, as I looked at the L&C’s sail rising out of its landscaping. Yes – I got a little emotional.

    Thanks for posting.

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