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An Atomic Day on NS SAVANNAH - May 21, 2011

Greg Fitzgerald - Member, WSSPONY

It was mildly concerning to spend the purported day of The Rapture (Judgment Day) onboard a nuclear-powered ship. The timing of the WSSPONY trip to visit the Nuclear Ship SAVANNAH in Baltimore for National Maritime Day coincided by chance, but the two dozen members who got to Baltimore either by motorcoach from New York or by their own means were certainly glad that they had gone to view one of the country’s maritime treasures fully decked-out on a gorgeous day instead of preparing for the end of the world.

The SAVANNAH (1962) is a showpiece of the Atomic Age. The first civil nuclear-powered ship in America, she was built at the New York Shipbuilding Corporation in Camden, New Jersey as part of President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” initiative. Everything about SAVANNAH evokes the optimism and scientific progress of the late 1950s, from her Jetsons-like décor to her nuclear reactor. Operational for State Marine Lines from 1962-1965 in passenger-cargo service, and then leased to American Export-Isbrandsten Lines for cargo-only service from 1965-1972, she has been in perpetual layup since. Partially water damaged by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 while berthed in Charleston, she is now in a state somewhere between restoration and time-weathered artifact.

The shape of SAVANNAH is captivating, most notably because her power plant dictates that she has no funnel. As we approached her on the coach, the flare of her bow, the shear of her cargo deck, and her streamlined superstructure stood out amongst the containers of the Baltimore cargo terminals. After a brief health and safety briefing, we were onboard SAVANNAH, in her shockingly sparse, modern Purser’s Lobby. Dominated by a large curved orange sofa, the space evoked immediately that this ship was a product of the Atomic Age. A combination of modernism and utilitarianism defines the public spaces throughout the ship, with motifs throughout reflecting the wonders of her power plant.

Before the National Maritime Day ceremonies on the aft decks, I took some time to explore SAVANNAH with some other WSSPONY members. Every space onboard had a cohesive and futuristic theme, put together by Jack Heaney and Associates of Wilton, Connecticut. Echoes of the Purser’s Lobby were seen in the Verandah, the ship’s large, light-filled main lounge, where sleek orange leather stools sat in front of a bar with a molecular motif lighted in red, white, and blue behind. The passengers’ dining room, almost completely untouched since SAVANNAH’s launch, was a temple to formica and vinyl, with the wall behind the captain’s table dominated by a plaster bas relief entitled “Fission,” evoking the process that propelled SAVANNAH.

At 11:30, we made our way to the aft decks for the National Maritime Day celebrations, with several dignitaries of the Port of Baltimore, MARAD (Maritime Administration), the Merchant Marine Academy at King’s Point, and the Baltimore Fire Department in attendance, among others. After several speeches outlining the efforts and successes of the port as a commercial hub, supporting everything from container shipping to Royal Caribbean’s ENCHANTMENT OF THE SEAS, the pomp and circumstance began, with military salutes, a bell tolling, a moment of silence, and a final salute by fireboats from the Baltimore Fire Department and a Moran tug to the tune of SAVANNAH’s whistle. To the crew of the arriving container ship MSC CARLA, it must have been quite a shock to have such a welcome.

After the ceremonies adjourned, we proceeded to the port enclosed promenade to enjoy a crab cake lunch, provided by local eatery Buontempo Brothers. This being the Chesapeake Bay, the meal was fantastic and the proceeds from it would go to benefit preservation projects onboard SAVANNAH throughout 2011.

For WSSPONY members, the day concluded with a private question-and-answer session in the Officer’s Mess onboard with Erhard Koehler, Manager of NS SAVANNAH’s Programs. Like a land-based nuclear power plant, SAVANNAH is held to strict standards regarding the decommissioning of her reactor, which must be completed by the end of 2031—sixty years after she reached criticality on 21st December 1961. This situation puts SAVANNAH in a curious situation between preservation and managed layup, with the bureaucracy entangled with being a federally-funded active ship causing even greater issues. We discussed these issues at length with Erhard Koehler, enjoying the insight into the management and preservation of such a unique ship.

After making one last run around the ship for photos of spaces I had not visited yet, it was time to gather the WSSPONY group to head back to New York. Disembarking SAVANNAH, a ship which I had spent only a few hours on tied to the quay, I felt a definite attachment to the ship. Though she will never sail again, uses an unromantic power plant, and was in service for an extremely brief period of time, she had taken me by the heartstrings like only a select few ships do. Locked in time, she still carries the spirit of post-war American optimism.

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Detail of SAVANNAH's streamlined superstructure.

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A side view of SAVANNAH.

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The spartan Purser's Lobby of SAVANNAH.

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National Maritime Day celebrations from the decks of SAVANNAH, with Moran fireboat and MSC CARLA.

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The futuristic passenger dining room of SAVANNAH.

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The entrance to the sealed reactor of SAVANNAH.

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Cabin A3, a passenger cabin restored for interpretive use.

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WSSPONY members enjoying a Q&A on SAVANNAH.

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The bar of the Verandah on SAVANNAH, showing her atomic-influenced decor.

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The bridge console of SAVANNAH, with the scram meter for the reactors notable.

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A view of the bridge of SAVANNAH.