Historicals Road Trip: Big Boat

I have a two year old at home. Somehow, despite my wife literally growing this child in her abdomen and then breastfeeding her for over a year, I’m currently the preferred parent. If I leave the room, or get up from the table while she’s eating, she will scream. I love my daughter, totally and without limits, but my back hurts and I never get anything done around the house, unless I can do it with one free hand and a squirming thirty-pound weight on my hip. I am beginning to understand why all dads eventually feel the call of the sea.  

So I drove to Philadelphia and looked at a big boat.

GREGNOTE: A quick aside here, that doesn’t fit anywhere in the narrative – we stopped for lunch on the way up, and parked outside was a late-model Chevy Camaro with the vanity license plate “PIZZA”, and that rules. It is among the most Dudes Rock things I have ever seen. Ok sorry, thank you for indulging me, let’s get back to the main idea of this thing.

The occasion this time was the dry docking of the battleship USS New Jersey. She’s known for a few things, mostly her youtube channel, but also for being the most decorated battleship in the history of the US Navy, as well as the longest, fastest, and most modern. She’s the coolest and most dangerous (but I repeat myself) 80 year old meemaw you will ever meet. 

None of this is why I have any particular affection for the ship. I do, but that’s not why. The reason she’s my favorite warship is simple geography: New Jersey is parked 90 minutes from my house. The other Iowas – or the Massachusetts, North Carolina, and god help me the Mikasa – take considerably more effort to get to. I actually tried to get on board the Missouri (known primarily for being the battleship in the movie Battleship, but also for participating in various Events of History) the one time I was in Hawaii, but the bus broke down and we had lunch reservations, so it didn’t end up working out. The fish tacos I had instead were very good, and I don’t want New Jersey to feel like she’s my silver medal, but she kind of is.

I’m not a historian. I’m barely an enthusiast. Like most people, I regularly stay up too late reading about ships on wikipedia, and have branched out into actual books, but I’m not an expert. I’m certainly not a sailor. Once you get past about waist-deep, the ocean is a spectator sport to me. I just think ships are neat.

The thing about New Jersey is that armored gun-toting battlewagons like her are obsolete now, in an age where all you really care about on a surface ship is the number of cruise missile launch tubes it has and whether it can function as an airport or not, but her designed mission was on the way out even before she launched. The stated purpose of this thing – to cruise up on someone else’s battleship and put holes in each other – was already being done more efficiently by airplanes even in the 1940s. She only fired her guns on surface targets once, on her first day on the job, and after that did anti-aircraft work and shore bombardment (16” gunfire to start with, augmented by missiles in the 1980s) intermittently until the early 90s. She was only shot at a handful of times, rendering all that thick armor into dead tonnage. Even in her prime, this was already a ship out of step with the times, built to win (and I believe she would have – in terms of surface combatants, the Iowas would have manhandled any other ship of their era) a fight that never happened. The fact that she stuck around and made a good account of herself for fifty years is a testament to the quality of the hull and volume of internal spaces, more than anything else.

None of that matters though, when you walk up and the scale of the thing settles in. An Iowa-class battleship is the size of a large office building, but differs in two crucial ways: it has to float, and it has to move. Dropping one-ton explosives on some poor conscript 25 miles away is quite a feat, but in some ways I’m more impressed by the engineering it takes to even get the guns there in the first place. There are bigger ships, sure, they crash into bridges and get stuck in canals every day, but I’m not sure there are cooler ships.

If you also want to go look at the big boat, you can probably still get tickets – I haven’t checked – but there are two caveats. The dry docking period ends in late May, so time is short. More importantly, and there’s no easy way to say this so I’m just going to put it out there: it costs two hundred and twenty five dollars. 

Battleship New Jersey in dry drock. Credit: Greg Chiasson

I’m not sure what I expected, exactly, but the reality certainly wasn’t transcendental, just very interesting. I’ve written before about how much I love old buildings, and in many ways battleships are similar – the institution and purpose of the thing is, ah, of mixed virtue, but as for the object itself I’m deeply obsessed. How it was built, and why. The finer points of the form and function. The closest I came to a moment of genuine awe was right after arriving on the floor of the dock. The tour route passes under the fantail (back) toward the screws (propellers), and to contain the powerwashing and spray painting the yard workers had suspended huge sheets of fabric around the rear of the ship. Walking through them, the curtains whipping gently in the breeze, it felt something like entering a secretive and powerful yurt. That, and when I saw keel block number 69, which had numbers that seemed better and more attentively painted than the other three hundred concrete-and-wood blocks holding the 45,000 ton ship off of the floor, and bailed on the tour guide to run over and take a picture with it. On my way toward the block I spotted another tourist – one of my friends that I’d made the trip with – doing the same thing. Dudes rock.

As usual for places like this, we exited through the gift shop. I could have bought myself a commemorative shirt or hat, shot glasses, and things of that nature. I didn’t. What I did buy was a 23 pound Zinc anode. Hundreds of these were bolted to the hull as an anti-corrosion measure, and since part of the maintenance procedure was to replace them with new Aluminum ones (New Jersey sits in freshwater, not the salt water where the Zinc is more effective, hence the change), they’re selling the old ones to raise funds. As the only legal way to leave with a piece of the ship, I was resigned to lug that stupid hunk of metal the quarter-mile back to the car. The lady working the store asked us how we liked the tour, and I, standing there with a huge piece of filthy metal in my hands, getting dirt all over myself, looked her dead in the eyes and said “it’s a very big boat”. She looked at me – correctly – like I was an idiot, but agreed. 

I don’t know what I’m going to do with this thing. It’s too heavy to hang on the wall, and I have a toddler, so I can’t just leave it lying around the house. Hours later, it dawned on me that I could have bought a piece of – cleaner, lighter, more aesthetically pleasing – used teak decking instead of 23 pounds of Zinc. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I’ll admit I don’t know how corrosion works, but it certainly feels like I just stole the catalytic converter off a battleship, which is a powerful way to feel.

Was the trip worth it? Unclear. This is actually a once in a lifetime opportunity. There aren’t many battleships still out there, the ones that are extant don’t get dry docked very often, and when they do it’s not generally accessible to the public. If you don’t go now, you get to wait 30 years for one of the other half-dozen museum ships to wind up on blocks like a Camaro in the yard, and then hope they let you in. 

The other side of the argument is that, even among history nerds, this is a deep cut. You can, when she’s back at her moorings, tour the inside and top half of New Jersey instead. In comparison, that would cost significantly less money, and you’d spend more time there, and learn more facts. Walking under the ship was extremely novel, but – and I say this writing on a warhammer website – probably one of the most niche interests in which I have ever indulged. This is the only time in your life that you’ll be able to climb down a thousand stairs and high-five the rudder of America’s Most Decorated Battleship, running your hand over the corrosion pitting the steel and maybe feeling a connection to the men (and maybe women, I’m not sure when the Navy changed that rule?) who sailed her into harm’s way in a different age, but also no one really needs to do that. 

It’s unique, and a capital-e Experience, but also not one that most people will be interested in, based on how often I excitedly told people what I was doing and was met with blank stares because those losers don’t understand how cool a battleship is. For an exceedingly specific type of person, this is absolutely worth it. For everyone else, grow up and get on my level.

They didn’t pay me to say any of this, if that weren’t obvious. Though if a few more anodes happen to fall off a truck in my driveway, I won’t object.