I know I say this a lot around here, but last weekend I was finally able to achieve a dream and visit the NS Savannah! Look, I know I in fact already made a big deal about seeing the Savannah just a few weeks ago, but this time I got to actually go on it. And it was everything I had hoped and dreamed it would be.
I have known for a few years now that they open up the NS Savannah for tours once a year near National Maritime Day. Since I have known that I have been consistently thwarted in taking advantage of this awesome knowledge by the fact that I have either been like in Zambia or else there has been a pandemic, and then I was nearly thwarted again by not being able to find any details about the open day. But now I am here to save you: go to the Baltimore & Chesapeake Steamship Company website at bayheritage.org. They will have all the info and they are also super responsive on email and extremely nice to boot!
This year’s open house/boat was on Sunday and I arrived right at 10am when everything was kicking off. I walked as quickly as I could to the end of the pier where the gangway for the Savannah was and I was one of the first people onboard after a quick safety brief. I was also quickly one of the first offboard because you had to go back down to the pier to start the guided tour of the reactor compartment and engineroom, which of course are the coolest parts of the ship! Holy crap I love steam power.
Anyways on our tour we were led around by one of the extremely friendly and knowledgeable reactor techs that normally work on the ship. The Savannah is actually well on its way to being a regular museum ship, and the largest chunk of that works seems to be sufficiently dismantling the reactor compartment so that the public can just wander around willy-nilly. In only the last couple of years they have cut a big hole in the side of the reactor compartment so they could more easily extract some of the components. The coolest effect of that is we got to see the cross-section of the secondary shielding, which was primarily composed of several feet of concrete and then several feet of wooden boards.
Inside the reactor compartment the primary shielding is half gone and the reactor vessel itself is long gone. I commented (lightheartedly!) that the place could use a paint job, and apparently it will get a paint job in the bright primary colors that turns out characterizes the engineering components of the ship. In addition to the remnants of the primary shielding, also easily visible was the pressurizer and the steam dryer, along with the hatch at the top of the ship that was used for refueling. If you peered down through the grating, you could also glimpse the U-shaped horizontal steam generator, which is pretty wild.
From there we got to go to the control room. The control room was staffed by a man who was actually a reactor operator on the ship back when the reactor needed operating, so he had first-hand knowledge of all the workings of the place (detail I asked about is that it was normally manned by just two reactor operators, a primary and secondary). Reactor control panels are always very fun because they are designed to be the opposite of inscrutable (scrutable if you will), so everything is laid out in very logical orders and you can glean a lot of the reactor and steam plant operation from the layout of the control panel. I spent the whole time admiring rod control switches and coolant pump switches and scram buttons and the like.
Just behind the control room is the engineroom itself, separated by just a window. On the submarine you could sense the engineroom around you from the control room, but you couldn’t actually see it, so this must have been pretty wild. The engineroom is museum-ready with a very colorful paint job. The Savannah only had one screw, so the engineroom only had a single high-pressure turbine and a single low-pressure turbine. We got to admire the emergency propulsion motor and off in a corner were the backup diesel generators. Another very knowledgeable docent pointed these all out to us.
From there we were let loose for the unguided part of the tour. Let me tell ya, the Savannah is a mid-century dream. The ship was meant to distill every hopeful aspect of the atomic age and it absolutely nailed it. Totally perfect, no notes. For the first few years of its life it was a passenger ship in addition to being a cargo ship, so its entry lounge is dominated by a huge orange couch and a magnificent stairway leads you to the various decks. I’ll have to let the pictures speak for themselves, but when I showed her the pictures even my super amazing wife wanted that dining set. It also wasn’t until I was reviewing the photos that I noticed the recessed lights in the dining room were also atomic symbols. Perfect and gorgeous!!!!
Much of the rest of the ship was pretty ship-like (shipshape?). The bridge looked pretty much like a standard bridge and fairly sparse, so much so that I forgot to look for the scram button the bridge crew had up there (not to be trusted with actual reactor operation, the bridge’s scram button only functioned to turn on a light in the reactor control room that said “bridge scram;” the operators could do with that what they thought best I suppose). Topside was, you know, topside. However I couldn’t leave the ship without visiting the other biggest celebrity onboard, the Radarange!
I had been under the impression the Radarange on the Savannah was the first commercial microwave oven ever put into service, but some quick Googling does not seem to back me up on that supposition. It was still an early model and meant to show the true wonders of the future. I mean not only were we splitting the atom here but we could also harness the rotational spectra of O-H bonds to heat up dinner. Truly the embodiment of a world where the promise of clean and abundant energy would solve all humanity’s problems. If only we had kept at it.
I managed to visit the gift shop where I resisted buying a whole lot of swag, but I soon had to literally run off because it came over the ship’s speaker system that I had illegally (though accidentally) parked my DeLorean and if I didn’t hustle it would get towed (speaking of visions of the future). I am so glad I got to finally visit the NS Savannah, especially its super cool reactor compartment, engineroom, and microwave oven, and I am very much looking forward to it being finished with its museum ship conversion so the whole world can see it more than once a year!
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