A boat’s life
First comes the crash followed (hopefully) by the splash
The keel was laid what seems like years ago. Bit by bit the submarine starts to come together. The process has evolved over the generations to include changes in all kinds of technology. The boats needed to go deeper and faster so better ways of welding were developed. The propulsion has changed to adding new levels of complexity. Miles of piping and wiring will drape the insides of her. These pipes and wires will transmit the power and energy needed once she is brought to life. Equipment that will clean the air and feed the crew is set in place. When she is ready, many of the men who will take her to sea stand topside while the builders and families watch.
The sponsor, one of the most critical parts of the process stands on a platform with a bottle in hand. At just the designated moment, the crash of the bottle symbolizes the christening of the new vessel. The splash comes as the boat slides down the ways to cheers and the blowing of horns. The band plays Anchors Aweigh and everybody holds their breath for just a few moments. If everything goes exactly according to plan, she settles in the water.
Ceremonial ship launching is the process of transferring a vessel to the water. It is a naval tradition in many cultures, dating back thousands of years. It has been observed as a public celebration and a solemn blessing.
Ship launching imposes stresses on the ship not met during normal operation, in addition to the size and weight of the vessel, and it represents a considerable engineering challenge as well as a public spectacle. The process also involves many traditions intended to invite good luck, such as christening by breaking a sacrificial bottle of champagne over the bow as the ship is named aloud and launched.
The water will be her home for years to come. This new creature is now in her element. The designers who dreamed her, the builders who put their labor and passion into her, the first sailors to step into her not yet filled hull all have waited for this day.
There is work yet to be done. More equipment will come aboard in a carefully designed plan. Equipment and systems will be brought to life and tested. Testing includes pressure testing to find the flaws. It is rigid and it is lengthy. More crew are added. More training. More testing. Sleepless nights as the schedule shrinks. Everything, including the crew is tested to the breaking point. I have often felt that the reason I loved my third boat so much was because of that. We were tested and both we and the boat passed the tests.
The Crash Back
Now we take her to sea. Before she is accepted into the fleet, she has one bigger test. After all the training, after all the work, after all the preparation, will she operate the way they designed? There is only one way to find out.
You run her as hard and fast as she will go. Every system is stretched almost to the breaking point. So it is with the sailors and officers. You get very little sleep on sea trials. For the enlisted, there would be very few places to sleep even if you had time. The boat is filled with the builders and strangers from the Navy. In the old days, you even had a diminutive man who some claimed was the devil. Rickover. The final test will find out if the operators and the machinery understand each other. The depths and the angles are exciting and terrifying at the exact same time. Every little creak and groan are heard and felt. But in the end, she rises to the surface in a storm of rushing water. The last test is done. We have proven her ability. She is now ready.
The day she comes alive for real is a day of great pomp and circumstance. She is about to join the fleet and she will be dressed up in her finest. She bears the burden of a speaker’s platform on her deck and men with gold on their sleeves will come to pay her a call. The families and friends will gather pierside and bands will play. The crew stands ready in their best uniforms. Then, the order is given to man the ship and all race across the brow to join the duty section already on board. No one involved will ever forget this day. It is burned into their memories.
There is a story about the marking on a grave. The birth and death date are listed on many gravestone and between them is a “dash” The story goes on to talk about what the dash represents. It truly means every moment between life and death. This is the first day she will begin to have a history.
The frustrating days of shipyard duty are over. Now she is a US Navy fighting vessel. She will take her place with the greatest Navy that has ever sailed the oceans of the world. For decades to come, she will make stories. Some will become legends. The crew’s lives are forever intertwined with her. She becomes “Our Boat”. Captains will come and go. Crews will change. The Plankowners slowly transfer to new duties. Some will go on to build other boats. Some will go ashore. Some will leave the Navy. But the Navy will never leave them. Neither will the life they had with that boat.
In the end though, reality comes to find her. She was built by men. Her materials are only as strong as the technology that existed at her birth. Her machines can only be repaired and used for a time. Even the inventiveness of her creators work against her. While she was once the queen of the ball, now she is showing her age.
In her day, she out drove and out dove most anything that set to sea. Her teeth were sharp and her mind was clever and strong. Sometimes things just wear out. Sometimes they get tired.
I watch my Mom age when I go to see her now. She will be 88 years old in a few weeks. I remember the woman who chased five children around the house trying to get them ready for a trip to church or Grandmas house. Her eyes saw everything. She could detect trouble a mile away and an hour before we dreamed it up.
Her life was vibrant and beautiful. She was beautiful. I inherited her wedding album when we closed her house down. I can understand why my Dad fell in love with her.
But her race has been fairly run. I try to spend as much time with her as I can. We share some great memories. She came to the commissioning of my submarine with my Dad. She was so very proud. Not much later, she and many of their friends went to the commissioning of the USS Pittsburgh. A proud ship that bore the same name as the one who fought in Dad’s war. A name that stands for steel.
Mom and I will sing together like we try to do every Tuesday. Our “Singers” are all in their golden years. We sing the classics and I hold her hand. All of our days are numbered. I don’t know if I want to know how many more. So today, we will just celebrate this day.
Tomorrow I will fly out to Washington State. I am going to say goodbye to an old friend. I never sailed on the Pittsburgh but I have tried to add my service to the support “crews” from Pittsburgh who have served her from afar. The Pittsburgh Council of the United States Navy League had something called a Relief Crew and that organization has faithfully remembered Christmases and arrivals and long deployments for the life of the boat. It is my sad duty to be the last President during her lifetime.
The ceremony on Friday will mean we have reached the other side of the dash. The boat will finally get a break from a very long and arduous career. The name USS Pittsburgh will be returned to the US Navy for use on another vessel at another time.
Friday will be tough for all those who have served on her and all of us who only had the privilege to serve her from the shore. But Friday will be just one more memory, one more chance to salute the boat, the builders and the amazing crew.
Speeches will be made to commemorate her glorious life. She was a combat veteran. She kept the peace. She served a nation that barely understood what she was doing. To the men who served on her, however, the lasting influence is who they became. Some became submariners for the very first time. Some went on to lead others in increasing levels of rank and responsibility. All were changed by service on board. No life is ever untouched on a ship or submarine.
Long after the boat is gone, stories will still be told. As a warning to the crew who are now saying goodbye, the stories become longer each year and when you have your reunions in years to come, you may find that not everyone remembers things the exact same way. I am not sure if its age or the alcohol that gets consumed, but I love hearing each tale.
Every story will take you back. You will feel yourself holding onto the nearest stable object as the boat dives and rocks in a storm. Maybe you will even see it in your dreams at night. But once the boat is gone, it can never come back again.
Say a prayer this Friday for the old girl. She has done her part. She can be proud of every moment she was with us. The world was changed because of her service.
But it’s time for her to rest one final time.
I’ll think of Mom and Dad standing out in the cold of New London when she came to life along with so many others. Hopefully I will remember to have some Kleenex with me as the last words are spoken. Hey, even old Chief Warrant Officers can have a broken heart sometimes.