Monday, October 10, 2011

A Day on the SS Jeremiah O'Brien

While it isn't much to look at, the SS Jeremiah O'Brien is something of a national treasure. It is one of just a handful of surviving "Liberty Ships", World War II cargo vessels that were built at an incredible pace to serve the shipping needs of the war. Nearly three thousand Liberty ships were built, but only a few survive (given that their original design only designed for a 5 year service cycle, it's astonishing that any survive!). Additionally, only two Liberty Ships are still operational; the O'Brien is one of those two, rescued after decades at rest in the "mothball fleet", restored and returned to service as a floating museum and memorial.

Although most Liberty ships served as cargo transports, some played multiple roles on successive missions, and the O'Brien had a storied career, including a role as one of the seven thousand ships that comprised the D-Day armada, delivering jeeps, trucks, and other supplies to Omaha Beach off the Normandy coast. This mission was memorialized 50 years later by an astounding visit by the O'Brien back to Normandy for the 50th anniversary by an all-volunteer crew of retired sailors.

This weekend, my father treated me to a special event, the 2011 Fleet Week cruise on the SS Jeremiah O'Brien. This is the 30th anniversary of San Francisco Fleet Week, as well as the 100th anniversary of Naval Aviation. Until this weekend, I hadn't realized that the first-ever landing of an airplane on a ship occurred right here in San Francisco Bay!

For the Fleet Week cruise, the O'Brien puts on a very special show:

  • The ship sets to sea, and steams out under the Golden Gate Bridge
  • She views the parade of ships as they pass under the bridge and into the bay
  • She joins the parade as the final ship in the parade; though she is a civilian cargo ship, she's granted this position of honor due to her long service and dedicated crew
  • She takes up station just off Alcatraz Island, and treats her guests to "the best seats in town" for the airshow
  • Then returns to dock, to return to being a dockside museum, until the next special event
This, of course, is not something that comes along very often, so I was pleased as punch to get the invite!

The cruise boards early; we were at the dock by 8:00 AM.

Boarding involves climbing the steep gangplank up to the main deck. After you board, there are donuts and coffee to get your day started.

We pulled away from dock shortly after 9:00 AM and headed out toward the Golden Gate. This seemed like a good time to explore the ship, so we did. Unlike some restored naval vessels, the volunteers on the O'Brien have done an incredible job making nearly the entire ship available for you to wander about and see, including:

  • The Flying Bridge, where the Captain and Pilot oversee the ship's activities
  • The gun tubs, with various guns of various types from the original ship's weaponry
  • The Radio Room, Mess Hall, Galley, crew quarters, etc.
  • The main cargo hold, which has been turned into a museum, gift ship, and exhibit hall
  • The engine room

Of all these, the engine room is the most exciting; it is a descent into a world of yester-year. You climb down 4 stories of steep stairs into the very bottom of the ship, where is located a single enormous 2,500 horsepower triple-expansion steam engine designed by North East Marine Engineering Co of Sunderland, England nearly 100 years ago.

The engine room, as a whole, is divided into three parts:

  • The boilers, where eight enormous furnaces boil enormous tanks of water to produce steam.
  • The expansion cylinders and their pistons. Since the three cylinders of the triple-expansion engine operate at different steam pressures, the cylinders and pistons must be of progressively larger sizes to produce the same pressure.
  • The propeller shaft itself, a 300 foot long immense shaft, which extends out to the stern where it drives the immense single propellor that powers the O'Brien.
The engine room is hot, loud, large, smelly, and oily, and is thrilling beyond description. It was definitely worth the short wait in line to go visit!

By the time we finished touring the ship, we climbed back up to the main deck, where we found that we were already well past the Golden Gate Bridge, and the parade of naval ships had begun. The first ship in the line was one of the jewels of the U.S. Navy fleet, and a ship with a long San Francisco history: the USS Carl Vinson. The Carl Vinson was followed by a number of other ships, including a naval minesweeper, an Aegis cruiser (the USS Antietam), several Canadian Navy vessels, and the Coast Guard's newest cutter, the USCGC Bertholf).

After the naval vessels passed by, the O'Brien swung around and took up her place at the rear of the line, and we steamed back under the Golden Gate Bridge into the brilliant sunshine of a perfect October afternoon. We had lunch on the main deck and found good viewing positions on the rail for the airshow.

The airshow lasted more than 3 hours, and included demonstrations by a USAF F15 Eagle, a USMC V22 Osprey, the Patriots jet team, the stunt plane flown by Sean D Tucker (as part of his show, he flew a circle around the USA 76 America's Cup yacht), but these were all just side-shows compared to the real stars of the show:

  • Canada's 9-plan 431 squadron, the Snowbirds
  • A surprise appearance by one of the most distinctive planes you'll ever see aloft, the USAF B-2 Bomber
  • And, of course, the best-known flight team of them all, the Navy's Blue Angels

It is an unbelievable thrill to be out in the middle of San Francisco Bay, on a beautiful autumn afternoon, as a squadron of F-18 jets pass barely 100 feet overhead, in perfect unison, barely inches apart from each other, two planes inverted and the other two standard, in the renowned Blue Angels Inverted Diamond formation.

Once the show was over, the hundreds (thousands?) of pleasure craft on the bay headed for home, and so did the O'Brien. Just another wonderful day on the bay!

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