INSIDE THE SEAWOLF: 9 reasons she’s the Navy’s ‘most capable’ submarine

USS bremerton
Larry Steagall photo.

The USS Seawolf is the fastest, quietest, deepest-diving and most capable submarine the U.S. Navy has ever built. And she happens to call Bremerton her home

On Monday, the Kitsap Sun got a rare treat, going aboard the Seawolf for a tour right before the boat headed for dry dock. So what makes the Seawolf so special? Here’s nine things that differentiate her from the pack.

LARRY STEAGALL / KITSAP SUN
The Seawolf on Monday. The algae around it is because the vessel has largely been unloaded and is floating higher. LARRY STEAGALL / KITSAP SUN

1. The Seawolf emerged at the tail end of the Cold War

There are only three vessels in the Seawolf class — The USS Jimmy Carter, USS Connecticut and the boat itself — because, frankly, they were too expensive with the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the final chapter of the Cold War, the three vessels were designed to outpace the Soviets, particularly in the “acoustics” realm, or how quiet they could be. 

Along with the Soviet Union’s collapse was the derailing of a U.S. plan to build 28 Seawolf-class boats. Today, the three “most capable” submarines are based in Puget Sound waters, with the Seawolf and Connecticut in Bremerton and the Jimmy Carter at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor.  

The torpedo bay, emptied as it prepares for dry dock.
The torpedo bay, emptied as it prepares for dry dock.

2. The boat’s armed to the teeth 

Stocked with twice as many torpedo tubes as the preceding Los Angeles-class submarines, the Seawolf can carry around 50 torpedoes, fired from eight different tubes. 

“It was built to hunt Russian submarines, and destroy Russian submarines,” Seawolf Sonar Technician Jacob Stilling told us. 

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3. The Seawolf is speedy — but just how fast is classified 

Officially, the leaders of the Seawolf can say the boat can reach a speed greater than 20 knots. How fast the vessel is actually capable of going remains classified. 

150730-N-ZZ999-003 ARCTIC OCEAN (July 30, 2015) The fast attack submarine USS Seawolf (SSN 21) surfaces through Arctic ice at the North Pole. Seawolf conducted routine Arctic operations. (U.S. Navy photo/Released)
U.S. Navy photo

4. The Seawolf has a hardened sail 

You might think that the submarine’s sail — that protruding stack toward its bow — would only be used for communications and reconnaissance. But the Seawolf, like some other submarines, can use it for something else: penetrating the ice in the coldest places on Earth. 

During the most recent deployment, the vessel sailed its way through the Bering Straight and underneath the ice-covered environs at the top of the Earth. While there, its sensors found a section of ice just five feet deep in a land where its breadth can reach 100 feet. 

The sail pierced through the ice and most of the crew even got a chance to go “ashore,” taking photos and filling condiment bottles with North Pole ice water. 

“It wasn’t that cold,” said boat commander Jeff Bierly. “It was like a cold day in Connecticut.” 

While the Seawolf isn’t the first to do this — the Nautilus did it way back in 1958 — it’s still an important skill set in an area of the world where the powers-that-be are becoming increasingly territorial.

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5. Her backup’s called Beth

Plus, if the vessel’s nuclear reactor ever goes out under that ice, the Seawolf must find a way to surface so it can power on its backup diesel generator — something that the Navy’s fleet of submarines still carry in case of emergency. The one aboard the Seawolf is called “Beth.” 

It can not only dive the deepest, but it can last down there a long time

While not unique to the Seawolf, the boat’s personnel take seriously its life system that keep it inhabitable for its 154-compliment crew. The carbon dioxide we all breath out is “scrubbed” and expelled from the boat. New oxygen is made by taking water (H2O) and separating chemically its two hydrogen molecules from the oxygen — and viola. The crew must also ensure carbon monoxide (CO) does not build up on board, and does so by chemically adding an additional oxygen molecule to it (CO2) which turns it into carbon dioxide. That carbon dioxide is then scrubbed off the ship with the rest.

USS Seawolf culinary specialist Marcus McConnell makes meat loaf for dinner. LARRY STEAGALL / KITSAP SUN
USS Seawolf culinary specialist Marcus McConnell makes meat loaf for dinner. LARRY STEAGALL / KITSAP SUN

6. The vessel can last only as long as its stock of food

The submarine’s most precious commodity? Its nuclear reactor can run for eons and we’ve already learned how they keep breathing down there. The thing that runs out first is the boat’s supply of food.

At the start of deployment, areas of the ship are stacked deep with canned goods, making it possible to go up to 120 days.  

When you consider that the crew — most of which is aged between 18 and 25 — eats around 850 pounds of food every day, that amount adds up fast on board a 350-foot-long sub. 

This past deployment’s favorite meal was probably Asian food, namely sweet and sour chicken, according to Kip Farrell, the boat’s leading culinary specialist. (Farrell, I might note, is from Silverdale.) 

USS Seawolf sailor Garrett Guglielmetti at the bottom of a narrow passage with steep stars on the boat. LARRY STEAGALL / KITSAP SUN
USS Seawolf sailor Garrett Guglielmetti at the bottom of a narrow passage with steep stars on the boat. LARRY STEAGALL / KITSAP SUN

7. All that equipment and food makes for tight quarters

Submarines aren’t known for being roomy to begin with, but that’s especially true for the Seawolf. Crew members routinely “hot bunk” to save space, meaning one submariner will take a bunk when he comes off shift for someone who just finished sleeping in it. It works out to about three people sleeping in a space of two bunks as shifts are divided. 

“Space is a high commodity onboard a submarine,” said Chief of the Boat Nicholas Wallace. “It’s like a giant Tetris puzzle in here.” 

They make it work. At times, submariners bunk with the torpedoes. The vessel’s wardroom, where officers dine and meet, doubles as a medical facility when a submariner needs treatment of some kind.

The boat's sanitation systems.
The boat’s sanitation systems.

8. Yes, sometimes it smells

With all that equipment, food and people, the Seawolf has never been able to install a sanitary pump aboard like some other subs have. That means that even when “blackwater” — the effluence on board — is expelled via pressure, some lingering smell can waft through the submarine. 

It’s really not that big of a deal, the crew said.

“You just get used to it,” Bierly said.  

BREMERTON, Wash. (Aug. 21, 2015) Sailors assigned to the fast-attack submarine USS Seawolf (SSN 21) return home to Naval Base Kitsap-Bremerton, following a six-month deployment. Seawolf is the first of the Navy’s three Seawolf-class submarines, designed to be faster and quieter than its Los Angeles-class counterpart. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Amanda R. Gray/Released)
The fast-attack submarine USS Seawolf returns home to Naval Base Kitsap-Bremerton Aug. 21, following a six-month deployment. U.S. Navy photo

9. Time for an upgrade 

The Seawolf on Tuesday headed for dry dock, the start of a two-year overhaul. New sonar and combat control systems will be added, Bierly said, making the vessel all the more advanced when she goes back to sea in 2018.

“We’re gonna get the latest and greatest,” Bierly said. “And we’re pretty excited about that.” 

USS Seawolf Commander Jeff Bierley in the chief petty officer's quarters on the Seawolf. LARRY STEAGALL / KITSAP SUN
USS Seawolf Commander Jeff Bierley in the chief petty officer’s quarters on the Seawolf. LARRY STEAGALL / KITSAP SUN

8 thoughts on “INSIDE THE SEAWOLF: 9 reasons she’s the Navy’s ‘most capable’ submarine

  1. Who painted the diesel that color? And her name is not “Beth” There is a qual question for the Auxiliary division…What was her original name and color?

    Glad to see my old boat still cruising…Best Submarine I ever served on!! Take care…….

    Sincerely,

    SFFSFO

  2. It was a very big mistake to build only 3! 28 was the correct number and would have very useful today against China and Russia.

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