Last Voyage of the USS Sunfish: The Closing of a Circle

September 27, 1996, nearly 28 years after her first sea trial, Sunfish's low black silhouette hunkers beside a concrete pier at the Ballast Point Naval Station in San Diego. For the first time in more than a quarter century the warrior is unarmed, stripped of the torpedoes she carried through much of the cold war.

The crew of the Sturgeon class nuclear-powered submarine is the last of a line of sailors that threads back through time to the day her keel was laid in 1965. Most are seasoned submariners with time in. A few have orders to new commands. Others will remain with Sunfish for a time, watching over her final days as she is dismantled piece by piece. For now their job is to accompany this proud and noble warship to her final resting place, to close the last chapter of a story that spans four decades. If there is sadness in their souls I cannot see it. Some have put boats to rest before. For them this is just another job. For me it is the closing of a circle. I was part of the commissioning crew that took her on the first sea trial.

The crew treats me like a V.I.P. The XO shares his stateroom. He lets me use the upper bunk. I recall that Admiral Rickover slept here during the first sea trial. As a young seaman, I stood watch outside the door just in case the admiral needed something.

The maneuvering watch is set. On a sun-splashed San Diego afternoon Sunfish gets underway. I get permission to go to the bridge. As Sunfish heads out of the harbor, a fishing boat is in her path. The officer of the deck calls to the boat on a marine radio. We are a U.S. warship outbound, he says. A warship! I like the sound of that. It has been a long time since I was underway on a warship.

The status board above the quartermaster's station says Sunfish's next dive will be number 1022. I am in the control room to watch. The diving officer asks me if I would like to take the helm for Sunfish's last dive. I think I am speechless, but I hear myself say, "yes!" I am nervous as I mark the course and speed and request permission from the officer of the deck to relieve the helm under instruction. I slide into the helmsman's seat and grip the wheel with sweaty hands. The officer of the deck gives the command to dive. The helmsman leans over my shoulder, instructing me as I push the stick forward. Sunfish and I slip beneath the waves together for the last time.

The crew settles smoothly into underway routine. The captain has cleared me for "confidential" sea stories. It says so in the plan of the day. I am allowed to visit every part of the ship. I put on my old, faded Sunfish sweatshirt and wander around the boat, shooting the breeze and reminiscing.

Dinner is served and the line forms, beginning aft of the crew's mess and winding down the stairs into the torpedo room. I take a place at the end of the line. A sailor offers to let me move ahead. I decline. I am not a member of the crew, only a rider. I say let the workingmen eat first.

Watches are relieved. Sailors head to the mess deck or to the rack. Today's sailors still have the same preoccupations: food and sleep. The perennial topics of discussion are what's for dinner and how much rack time they will get. I try to sleep, but I am too excited. I get up and wander around the ship. I drift into the sonar room. I hang out in the control room. I peek at the chart and listen to the banter and good-natured insults. I go down to the crew's mess. I sit at one of the padded benches at the forward, starboard corner. The movie screen used to hang here. Now there is a TV built into the forward bulkhead. I rest my back against the starboard bulkhead and stretch my legs on the bench. Just like old times, I get sleepy and nod off.

I head for the rack. I lay in the XO's upper bunk with the privacy curtain drawn listening to the sounds of the ship and feeling her vibration. She feels the same, smells the same. She's humming and thrumming, lulling me gently into sleep. I fluff the pillow and roll over, pulling the blanket around me like a cocoon. At last, I relax and let sleep overtake me. I have come back to snuggle like a child in the bosom of my beloved boat.

As Sunfish nears the coast of Washington her license to run submerged expires. Her last trip from the depths will be an emergency surface from 400 feet. I ask permission to take the helm. Permission is granted. Slowly, cautiously, Sunfish climbs to periscope depth. The sea is choppy. Sunfish bucks and I struggle to control her. I do not want to broach. It would be embarrassing - for me and for Sunfish. Having confirmed that the coast is clear, we get the order to take her deep. Some of my new friends have come to the control room to watch me bring Sunfish up. At 400 feet the order comes to surface. On command I pull back the stick. Sunfish points her prow upward and shoots to the surface for the last time.

Nighttime, transiting on the surface, Sunfish makes her way along the coast of Washington. The control room is rigged for black. I stand under the trunk and look up at the dark circle of the upper hatch. "Can I go up to the bridge?" I ask the Chief of the Watch. He reaches for the microphone and asks, "Permission for the only plank owner onboard to go to the bridge." A response comes that will resonate within my soul forever: "send all plank owners to the bridge!"

The waves rock her relentlessly. Her prow dips beneath the froth, cutting through the cold, black water. The breeze wets my face with salty spray. A large wave licks up her sail and splashes me. That's it, I say, I'm going below. In the crew's mess, the cook has served up a cream soup. Grey and oily, it sloshes around in the big pot. I fill a bowl and grab some crackers. In spite of its appearance, the soup tastes good! I scoop myself a second bowl. I surprise myself by taking the rough seas like a seasoned sailor. Some in the crew are not faring as well. In a scene reminiscent of the first sea trial, the quartermaster throws up on the chart table.

The following afternoon, the last maneuvering watch is set. It is a clear sunny day. I stand on the curved deck with the line handlers as the proud warship sails into her last harbor. Her job is done. It is time for the warrior to sleep.

Tony Robles