Surface at the Pole
by James Calvert, USN
On a Sunday morning in August 1958, two groups of men clustered around instruments in the control center of submarine USS Skate. One group watched as a moving pinpoint of light shone through the glass top of the control center’s plotting table and the chart paper covering it, following the light's path with a pencil. The other group stood before a metal stylus drawing two irregular parallel lines across a moving paper tape.
Attending to both was US Navy Captain James Calvert, who didn’t dare show the crew how nervous he was.
The plotting chart indicated the Skate’s path under the Arctic ice pack. The stylus indicated the thickness of ice over the submarine. Calvert’s orders were to find a way to make the first surfacing of a submarine through the ice of the North Pole.
And, by the way, to surface without damaging one of the world’s first nuclear powered submarines. He could, of course, attempt ramming the underside of the ice pack with what the Navy oddly called the Skate’s sail – the fin-like projection at the top of the submarine that housed its sensory equipment, as well as the vents that allowed it to take on fresh air from the surface. Damage to the sail would leave the Skate to complete the rest of its voyage effectively blinded beneath the arctic ice.
At last, the stylus lines converged, indicating an area of open water – one of the polynyas (pronounced pull-een-yuhs) – the temporary lakes that open between ice floes during the Arctic summer.
But was the opening big enough to accommodate the Skate’s length and width?
Calvert ordered the periscope up. He turned it right, then left, hoping to see the edge of the ice. There was nothing in sight except a jellyfish, “waving his rainbow-colored tentacles in the quiet water of a sea whose surface is forever protected from waves by its cover of ice,” Calvert writes in his 1960 account, Surface at the Pole: The extraordinary voyages of the USS Skate.
The previous year had been one of embarrassment for the United States, pummeled by its Cold War rival, the Soviet Union, in the race for space. Worse, the USSR’s launching of Sputnik 1 happened during the International Geophysical Year (July 1, 1957 – December 31, 1958), which was supposed to mark a new rapprochement in the sharing of scientific information.
The USSR launched Sputnik 1 October 4, 1957, following it a month later with Sputnik 2. And for all that the less than two-feet across satellites looked more like toys than spaceships, there they undeniably were, visible to all as they orbited the Earth. What was the US to do? Launching the world’s third orbiting satellite (accomplished in early 1958) only gave it the equivalent of bronze medal. It needed something bigger, something – dare I say – splashier?
How about going low instead of high? Low under ice that is, at the top of the world? How about not only a nonstop voyage across the top of the world (accomplished by USS Nautilus in August 1958) but an actual surfacing at the North Pole?
Enter USS Skate, named for the fish, as were many of its sister nuclear submarines of the era, and captained by James Calvert.
The Nautilus’s name was a nod both to a marine life form and the heroic ship of 19th century science fiction writer Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. But though Nautilus grabbed the glory of the first naval transarctic transit, Skate managed the feat of first surfacing at the Pole. Its crew's’ work of mapping portions of the Arctic Ocean as well as doing extensive testing of the nature of the underside of the polar ice also tied in neatly with one of the IGY’s emphases on oceanography.
Reaching the North Pole by ship had been attempted for more than a century, never successfully. Even Australian adventurer Sir Hubert Wilkins’ expedition aboard the diesel-powered submarine, Nautilus, was turned back at the edge Arctic ice pack in 1931. Not until the post-World War II era of nuclear-powered submarines did venturing under the Arctic ice become feasible.
What was there to fear now? Nothing, except a virtually uncharted ocean and, oh, yes, the deadly ice.
(I’m never more enthusiastic about adventures at sea than during August in Texas, when temperatures below 100 degrees F. qualify as a cold spell. Hope you’re reveling too in the oh so cool adventure of Arctic submarines, which continues next Friday with more of James Calvert’s Surface at the Pole, as well as with photographer Paul Gierszewski’s glorious photo of pack ice which illustrates this post.)