Diving into Local History: USS Albacore

If you’ve ever wondered if you are claustrophobic, I’ve got a great way for you to find out. Visit the U.S.S. Albacore submarine in Portsmouth, NH.

The Albacore
The Albacore

I don’t recall having issues with closed spaces as a child. I know that over the past decade, a no-big-deal MRI resulted in full on panic attack. I was fine. And then the physician asked how I was doing. Right on que, my heart started racing. I got hot, then I got cold. My heart kept pounding. Deep breaths were completely useless. Then I was like, “GET ME THE HELL OUT OF HERE.” That test was done.

But this was all a distant memory when Mr. Os announced he wanted to visit the Albacore during a recent trip to New England. In the 20+ years growing up in the area, I’d never actually done this and happily agreed to a mini-adventure.

There are a few things you should know about visiting the submarine, if you aren’t from the Portsmouth/Seacoast area. The Albacore is a submarine with significant historical significance for the United States and our Navy. From the USS Albacore’s website:

“Albacore served as a sea-going test platform from 1953 to 1972. Albacore’s teardrop-shaped hull was the prototype for the Navy’s nuclear powered submarine force and was the first boat built specifically to operate underwater. Prior to Albacore, submarines had been characterized as surface vessels that could submerge.”

And, it’s also the stuff of (local) legends. You see, and the park kinda glosses over this, the Albacore wasn’t actually in New Hampshire when a local elected official came up with the idea of a park. As I recall it was years of negotiating, bickering and fund raising before the sub was moved to the area. Even moving the Albacore to it’s permanent home wasn’t easy. After months of planning, a quick change in tides resulted in the sub being grounded in the Piscataqua River for several hours.

This happened pre-Internet, making it tough to search out the nitty-gritty gossip in today’s world. (Hint: pay close attention to the briefing introductory video before touring the submarine. A few bits about this are buried in the piece.)

A tour of the Albacore is self-guided. Outside the welcome center, you’ll see standing grey boxes with red buttons offering commentary about where you are and quotes from now retired crew. Inside the sub, look for large red buttons.

These are the audio boxes outside of the submarine. Personally, I thought they were set up backwards. Don't you want people on the footpath, not on the grass?
These are the audio boxes outside of the submarine. Personally, I thought they were set up backwards. Don’t you want people on the footpath, not on the grass?

Visitors enter the sub in the forward area, right next to the crew’s bunk beds. I stepped in and looked around. Then Mr Os stepped in. And, again right as he was opening his mouth to ask how I was feeling, my heart starting racing and my vision started to shrink. I shoved him onto a bunk bed, declaring “I gotta get outta here.”

You might be claustrophobic if looking at these offices quarters is making you queasy.
You might be claustrophobic if looking at these officers quarters is making you queasy.

Thankfully, I didn’t pass out or flip my noodle completely. The entire tour, for me, was one heart-pounding step after another. I could barely look at the shower facilities because they were so tiny and cramped. To think service men and women live like this for days on end. Wow, I salute you.

As for me, I've never been so happy to see an exit sign. Seriously.
As for me, I’ve never been so happy to see an exit sign. Seriously.

I enjoyed our little excursion, but overall, I found the submarine under-whelming. Given that my hometown is Washington DC, my family immediately labeled me a museum snob. I’m not sure I agree but they are entitled to their opinion.

Here a few things about the Albacore that bummed me out.

1. The audio tour, part one. I’m normally a fan of audio tours. I enjoyed the crew member commentary but it was almost always inconsistent with what we were looking at. I’d like to see the Albacore Park reedit or redo the audio component of the tour so the commentary aligns better with the tour. The crewman’s voices and stories are history, I really felt the tour doesn’t do enough with these testimonials. Better yet, reach out to the crewman and do a StoryCorp.

2. The audio tour, part two. Outside the submarine, the audio element of the tour is housed in grey steel boxes. The audio feed faces away from guests so they have to stand on the grass to hear the commentary. This disrupts foot traffic and is also killing your grass.

3. Non personalized tours. The volunteers we encountered were ridiculously welcoming. I don’t understand why they are only manning the museum and check-in. I’d like to see them giving a once/daily tour. As veterans, their first hand perspective is invaluable. In fact, as this Greatest Generation passes on, it’s literally an opportunity that is dying right before your eyes.

4. Introductory video. I like the introductory video but it’s too long to hold visitors attention. I’d like to see this edited into smaller segments so people will be more likely to listen to it. In an ideal world, tour guides (see above) could stream short segments while giving once daily tours.

If you are history buff, you’ll enjoy visiting the Albacore. Like I said the staff at the entrance is retired Navy and incredibly welcoming. Even if you read everything on the submarine, it’s a brief tour. But all in all, I’d like to see the Park’s Staff do some fund raising to up their game.