USS Albacore.

USS Albacore, Submarine in a Ditch

Field review by the editors.

Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Submarines on secret missions, at least in Hollywood, are the ones that come across the underwater UFO base or the island filled with dinosaurs. The USS Albacore may have never had such adventures, but we'll never know for sure since a lot of what the Albacore did is still secret. The sub has been retired since 1972, and the Navy still won't tell anyone how fast it could go.

The Albacore was a research sub, testing crackerjack Cold War technology such as underwater parachute brakes and "viscous polymer fluid coatings" on its hull. Its hydrodynamic blimpy shape was unique for its time (although it had been tried years earlier) so it could duck and weave and run away rather than fight.

Sleeping quarters.

And now the formerly swiftest sub in the sea sits in a ditch like a beached whale.

That's for the best, according to Jim Sergeant, the Albacore's no-nonsense curator and park manager. "Portsmouth has the second fastest tidal current in the country," he said. When we failed to understand why that was important, he added, "if it's not in the water, insurance and liability is a lot cheaper."

Fully exposed, the Albacore's somewhat lumpy black shape reminded us of a giant colon in Philadelphia (maybe a result of all of those polymers?). We tried to forget that as we ducked through a small hatchway into the hull. The secret devices that were once inside have been tucked out of sight, leaving what appears to be a regulation sub interior, at least from what we've gleaned from visits to other tourist submarines.

The driver's seat.

The Albacore's innards can be viewed as either a marvel of efficiency or a claustrophobic nightmare. 55 men somehow lived in it for months. Every curved wall and ceiling is covered with pipes, valves, knobs, dials, gauges -- head-lumps just waiting to happen. In one corner, twenty bunks are stacked five high in a space the size of a closet. "We started with tour guides," said Jim, recalling when the sub opened as an attraction in 1986. "But we couldn't fit all the people inside." Now visitors are left to themselves, guided by signs and big red buttons that they can push to hear former crewmen talk about life in the scullery or engine room.

Dining and recreation.

Mixing guide-free exploration with a feel-free-to-touch policy is fun for tourists (who can sit in the helmsmen's chairs or peer through the periscope) but it hasn't always been enjoyable for the Albacore's staff. "We haven't really had a problem since we bolted the seats down," said Jim, referring to the seats on the submarine's waterless toilets. "Before that there were several nights when we'd spend about five hours decontaminating and sanitizing and sterilizing." He added that the "problem children" visitors are always adults.

In addition to the submarine, Albacore Park contains a museum with a large model of the sub carved out of a big tree trunk, and a Memorial Garden with tributes to all submariners who've been lost at sea. But the primary draw is the Albacore, its long, trench-wrapped silhouette easily visible from US 1, like a 200-foot-long blackened sausage in a chunky bun.

Fallen submariners monument.

And despite Jim's explanation, we think the reason the Albacore is in a ditch is because if it were still in the water, someone would fire it up its engines, flip on its secret cloaking device, and, zip!, it would be gone.

USS Albacore, Submarine in a Ditch

Albacore Park

Address:
600 Market St., Portsmouth, NH
Directions:
I-95 exit 7. Turn east onto Market St. Drive a half-mile to the traffic light, then turn right onto Albacore Park Rd (If you drive under a highway bridge you've gone too far). Keep to the right on Albacore Park Rd into the park. Don't keep to the left or you'll end up on US Hwy 1.
Phone:
603-436-3680
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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December 20, 2014

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