Monday, March 12, 2007

Submarines, and a new show

Well, I managed to fill in my March 7 date, at practically the last second believe it or not. Check out Stephanie Romano at MySpace -- she's a regular on the Cape Cod karaoke circuit, and while in general I'm not a big fan of the country music she likes to sing, she's a hell of a singer and I'm more than happy to give her any exposure I can.

So we took my nephew down to Providence to visit the Juliett 484 Russian Sub Museum -- it's a real, honest-to-Marx Soviet Navy missile sub of early 60s vintage; due to an interesting string of ownership changes it is now the sister ship of the retired aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, which it is thought to have shadowed on several occasions in its Soviet naval career. It's in a sleepy little riverside park on the Providence River, in the shadow of the new I-195 highway bridge. While it doesn't seem to be as popular as its down-the-highway WWII ship museum at Battleship Cove in Fall River, MA, it's still worth the trip.

The Juliett class (the NATO name -- the Russians called it Project 651 according to Wikipedia) was an interesting one -- designed originally to carry and potentially deliver nuclear-tipped cruise missiles to American cities, the class seems to have settled into a jack-of-all-trades role after being obsoleted by later nuclear-powered subs. The hull is covered with thick rubber plating to muffle operating noise, and while it's over 300 feet long with several decks, you wouldn't know it once you were inside the crew compartment.

The thing that struck me most about it was the hatch design. See, it's a generally accepted truism about the difference between Soviet and American engineering (at least when the Soviet version wasn't a blatant ripoff of the American version) that while American engineers try to design elegantly (and a result, often temperamentally), the Russians have a habit of using brute-force solutions that are less likely to break under pressure (as a result, it's been said that Russian cars, while by and large crappy, tend to be very good at starting in cold weather). In this sub design, nothing shows that so much as the way the ship is compartmented -- eight sections, separated by round watertight hatches no more than three feet in diameter that sometimes require a bit of ingenuity to get through. For several of them (though not all), I found the best way to get through was to grab a handhold near the hatch and swing through feet-first.

Quarters are tight -- even the captain's room is barely larger than a standard office desk, and the galley is comparable to that on an airliner, only with a full complement of cooking equipment. The officer's mess doubles as an operating room, and the doctor's office (the Soviets put real doctors on their boats, as opposed to the American practice of putting what were basically specialized EMTs on board) doubles as the infirmary and the doctor's quarters. The entrance to the sonar room was so closed in with equipment that I had some trouble squeezing through -- no fat people in the submarine service. And the worst luck went to the 40 enlisted crew (out of a crew of 82) -- they had to share 20 hanging cots wedged carefully into what was essentially the forward torpedo bay. Showers once a week, and three toilets for 82 men. Truly it takes a special kind of person to work in a submarine -- one with no personal space or sense of shame and a strong tolerance for bad hygeine.

J484 (or, to give it its Soviet designation, K-77) is a rather interesting boat historically as well -- after a decidedly shadowy service record (it wasn't until it was sold to the Saratoga museum people in Rhode Island that its Soviet Navy designation was even known for certain), it spent time as part of a restaurant in Finland, was used as a movie set for "K-19: The Widowmaker", and then changed hands between a couple of different preservationist groups until winding up in Providence. It's definitely worth a visit for anyone interested in naval history, as well as a rather chilling reminder that, given the events in world politics that transpired from the end of World War II to the end of the Cold War, we're lucky to be here to see it at all.

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