There she blows!–there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!
“Some of the subtlest secrets of the seas seemed divulged to us in this enchanted pond. We saw young Leviathan amours in the deep. And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures [mother whales and their babies] at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yea, serenely reveled in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still forever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy”
In the classic novel Moby Dick, Ishmael has a mystic vision of the peaceful center of whale life in the deep that mirrors the deep calm in his own being. This vision of the whale as a symbol of peace contrasts with Ahab’s interpretation of the whale as evil and the agent of destruction.
Submarine development has been a progressive journey. In the earliest days, man dreamed of being able to travel under the water in a self-contained vessel. The journey would sustain life while allowing the operator to operate unencumbered and protected from the forces of the open oceans. Man had learned early in his evolution that traveling over the seas was a quick way to trade with far away nations. Plus, in at least one culture, the ability to explore new worlds for riches became an almost unstoppable motivation.
Early submarines had so many things to overcome. Technology and materials stood at the forefront. How could you build a vessel that could operate submerged and resist the increasing pressures found at deeper depths? New materials would have to be developed and then methods for adhering the metals had to be perfected. Rivets were the standard for many surface ships made of steel but rivets would be subject to the pressures of the depths.
Each phase of submarine development added another triumph. Better engines (diesels) that used less volatile fuel certainly was a game changer. The electric systems that were more reliable helped the emerging boats to do things never before possible. But from the early 1900’s to the mid nineteen fifties, the hull design was a limiting factor. Diesel boats were designed to travel on the surface and operate submerged. The hull shape was designed to maximize the sped on the surface.
The advent of atomic power gave the designers a brand new opportunity. Looking at a fish, their body shapes are designed for movement at high speeds under the water in most cases. That allows them to survive the predators that are not in short supply. Even the giant whales are shaped in such a way that they can achieve very impressive speeds.
The Skipjack Class
The Skipjack class was a class of United States Navy nuclear submarines (SSNs) that entered service in 1959-61. This class was named after its lead boat, USS Skipjack. The new class introduced the teardrop hull and the S5W reactor to U.S. nuclear submarines. The Skipjacks were the fastest U.S. nuclear submarines until the Los Angeles-class submarines, the first of which entered service in 1974.
The Skipjacks’ design was based on the USS Albacore’s high-speed hull design. The hull and innovative internal arrangement were similar to the diesel-powered Barbel class that were built concurrently. The design of the Skipjacks was very different from the Skate-class submarines that preceded the Skipjacks.
Unlike the Skates, this new design was maximized for underwater speed by fully streamlining the hull like a blimp. This required a single screw aft of the rudders and stern planes. Adoption of a single screw was a matter of considerable debate and analysis within the Navy, as two shafts offered redundancy and improved maneuverability. The so-called “body-of-revolution hull” reduced her surface sea-keeping, but was essential for underwater performance. Also like Albacore, the Skipjacks used HY-80 high-strength steel, with a yield strength of 80,000 psi (550 MPa), although this was not initially used to increase the diving depth relative to other US submarines. HY-80 remained the standard submarine steel through the Los Angeles class.
Another Barbel-like innovation was the combination of the conning tower, control room, and attack center in one space. This was continued in all subsequent US nuclear submarines. Combining the functions in one space was facilitated by the adoption of “push-button” ballast control, another feature of Albacore. Previous designs had routed the trim system piping through the control room, where the valves were manually operated. The “push-button” system used hydraulic operators on each valve, remotely electrically operated (actually via toggle switches) from the control room. This greatly conserved control room space and reduced the time required to conduct trim operations. The overall layout made coordination of the weapons and ship control systems easier during combat operations.
Much of the overall internal arrangement was continued in the subsequent Thresher- and Sturgeon-class submarines. The Skipjacks’ five compartments were called the Torpedo Room, Operations Compartment, Reactor Compartment, Auxiliary Machinery Space (AMS), and Engine Room. With the addition of a missile compartment, the arrangement of the first 41 US nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) was similar. The design was primarily single-hull, with a double hull around the torpedo room and AMS for ballast tanks.
The design was improved on the Threshers, the one-off Tullibee, and subsequent attack submarines by relocating the torpedo room into the operations compartment via angled midships torpedo tubes to make room for a large sonar sphere in the bow. The George Washington class, the first SSBNs, were derived from the Skipjacks, with USS George Washington (SSBN-598) rebuilt from the incomplete first Scorpion. The hull of Scorpion was laid down twice, as the original hull was redesigned to become the George Washington. Also, the material for building Scamp was diverted into building Theodore Roosevelt, which delayed Scamp’s progress.
The bow planes were moved to the massive sail to cut down on flow-induced noise near the bow sonar arrays. They were known as sail planes or fairwater planes. The Skipjacks were the first class built with sail planes; they were later backfitted on the Barbels. This design feature would be repeated on all U.S. nuclear submarines until the improved Los Angeles-class submarine, the first of which was launched in 1988. The small “turtleback” behind the sail was the exhaust piping of the auxiliary diesel generator.
The Skipjacks also introduced the S5W reactor to U.S. nuclear submarines. It was known as ASFR (Advanced Submarine Fleet Reactor) during development. The S5W was used on 98 U.S. nuclear submarines of 8 classes and the first British nuclear submarine, HMS Dreadnought, making it the most-used US Navy reactor design to date.
Skipjack was authorized in the FY 1956 new construction program and commissioned in April 1959. Each hull cost around $40 million. Skipjack was certified as the “world’s fastest submarine” after initial sea trials in March 1959, although the actual speed attained was classified. The Skipjacks remained the fastest US nuclear-powered submarines until the first of the Los Angeles class entered service in 1974. This was due to the increased size of the Thresher and Sturgeon classes, which retained Skipjack’s S5W power plant, plus the introduction of the skewback screw, which was quiet but mechanically inefficient. The Skipjacks saw service during the Vietnam War and most of the Cold War.
The Skipjack-class submarines were withdrawn from service in the late 1980s and early 1990s except for Scorpion, which sank on 5 June 1968 southwest of the Azores while returning from a Mediterranean deployment, with all 99 crewmembers lost.
Type: Nuclear-powered fast attack submarine
Surfaced: 3075 tons (3124 t)
Submerged: 3513 tons (3600 t)
Length: 251 ft 8 in (76.71 m)
Beam: 31.5 ft (9.65 m)
1 S5W reactor, geared steam turbines (15,000 shp (11,000 kW)), 1 shaft
Speed: 15 knots (28 km/h; 17 mph) surfaced
33 knots (61 km/h; 38 mph) submerged
Range: unlimited except by food.
Test depth: 700 ft (210 m)
Armament: 6 × 21 inch (533 mm) torpedo tubes (bow)
24 × Mark 37 torpedoes, Mark 14 torpedoes, Mark 16 torpedoes, Mark 45 ASTOR nuclear torpedoes, and/or Mark 48 torpedoes.
I never got the chance to ride a true Skipjack Class boat.
But being a crew member on the USS George Washington, I am reminded of how close I came.