Atomic Aesthetic: NS SAVANNAH, Part One

Peter Knego continues his Eastern U.S. romp with a visit to the world’s only nuclear-powered commercial passenger ship, the futuristic NS SAVANNAH of 1962.

NS SAVANNAH Association Website

NS SAVANNAH Virtual Tour

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All photos and copyright Peter Knego 2012 unless otherwise noted.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The weather pundits were predicting a convergence of two massive storm systems over the East Coast, threatening several inches of rain and “tornadic” conditions by late afternoon. We planned, accordingly, having departed Pennsylvania’s West Chester County in the early morning with a mid-morning arrival in Baltimore. A mere three hours to fully document the NS SAVANNAH would be a challenge, but that was the goal so we could get back to a safe haven before the worst of the storm hit.

Silo gate.

The NS SAVANNAH is tucked away at Pier 13 (Canton Marine Terminal), behind a rather grim but interesting silo in Baltimore.

Starboard Sharpness.

I last saw the SAVANNAH in 1998 on a similarly stormy day in the James River Reserve Fleet at Fort Eustis, Virginia. She was facing a very uncertain future and in shocking cosmetic condition, having been intermittently baked, steamed, frozen and drenched by the harsh weather and a minimum of maintenance. There were rumors that the waterlogged, mildewed and blistered ship might soon be scrapped, so her recent transformation into a vision of white-hulled sleekness is all-the-more inspiring. I would take it all in later but as soon as we arrived, I jumped out of the car and hopped onto the adjacent, wind-and-wave-whipped jetty to get some views of her before the anticipated deluge.

Early artist’s rendering. Peter Knego collection.

The SAVANNAH was conceived by President Eisenhower in 1955 as a showcase merchant ship for his “Atoms For Peace” program and approved by Congress in 1956 as a joint project of the Atomic Energy Commission and the US Maritime Administration.

SAVANNAH cut-away. Peter Knego collection.

The prolific-yet-underrated American maritime architect George Sharp was hired to design the ship. With Eisenhower’s urging, Sharp, a master of streamlined styling (MILWAUKEE CLIPPER, DEL NORTE trio, PRESIDENT JACKSON trio, AQUARAMA), created a futuristic, yacht-like vessel out of a standard C-3 hull. At the suggestion of maritime historian Frank O Braynard, The 60-passenger SAVANNAH took her name from the SS SAVANNAH (a hybrid sail/steamship that was the first to cross the Atlantic in 1819).

Builder’s plate replica.
The launch. Peter Knego collection.

Costing nearly $47 million, SAVANNAH was launched by Mamie Eisenhower on July 21, 1959 at the New York Shipbuilding Corporation of Camden, New Jersey.

Maiden arrival at San Francisco. Peter Knego collection.

The 596.5-by-78 foot ship was delivered in May of 1962 and embarked on her maiden voyage that August, taking her to her namesake port, then onward to Hawaii and the Pacific West Coast before heading to the Gulf States and Europe.

Fueling the reactor. Peter Knego collection.

According to Wikipedia, the SAVANNAH’s reactor is 17 feet high with a core that is 62 inches in diameter and 66 inches high, containing 32 half-inch fuel elements enriched with uranium oxide pellets.

Nuclear hold.

The reactor was designed with access from above for refueling. The 74 MW reactor is a tall, narrow cylinder, housed in a cylindrical containment vessel with rounded ends and a 14-foot diameter vertical cylindrical projection housing the control rods and refueling equipment.

Model of reactor. Peter Knego collection.

The 50-foot long containment vessel houses the pressurized-water reactor, the primary coolant loop and the steam generator. The lower half of the vessel is shielded by a 4-foot thick concrete barrier while the upper part is surrounded in 6 inches of lead and 6 inches of polyethylene.

American Export Lines brochure. Peter Knego collection.

For the first year, NS SAVANNAH was operated by States Marine Lines, then transferred to American Export Isbrandtsen Lines. In 1965, after having carried a total of 848 passengers, her accommodation was sealed off but she continued sailing for AEI on cargo service until 1971. SAVANNAH had a 652,000 cubic foot cargo capacity.

National Historical Landmark plaque.

After being decommissioned, SAVANNAH headed to Savannah for planned use as a museum and floating hotel but this never materialized and the ship was laid up at Galveston, Texas.  In 1981, she was chartered by the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum near Mount Pleasant, South Carolina and opened for tours. In 1982, she was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and became a National Historic Landmark in 1991. A lack of strong public interest, water damage from Hurricane Hugo and a needed drydocking terminated her charter and the ship was temporarily repaired before being laid up in the James River Reserve Fleet in 1994.

James River is a very unkind place for any ship and before long, SAVANNAH was in need of another drydocking and much steel work. Even though the fuel in her reactor had been removed, there are traces of radioactive water and other elements that can be safely removed in 2031, at which time the ship will be up for disposal or hopeful continued preservation. In the interim, she was drydocked at Colonna’s Shipyard in Norfolk in August of 2006, receiving repairs to her structure, deck areas, interiors and electrical systems. In January of 2007, she was towed to her current location, where she will remain until at least 2016.

SAVANNAH superstructure.
Sharp bow.

Jack Heaney and Associates of Wilton, Connecticut are largely credited for working with George Sharp to give the SAVANNAH her streamlined appearance, including the exaggerated flare of her bulwarks and the teardrop superstructure.

Under the nose.
Sleek and secured.

I worked my way quickly against the wind and horizontal rain gusts to capture as much of the SAVANNAH’s exterior glory as I could. Even in the gray backdrop, her paintwork was remarkably clean and bright.


Across the basin, the likewise-all-white, modern hospital ship USNS COMFORT looked especially boxy by comparison.


As we worked our way to the stern of the SAVANNAH, I was amused to see that the name MONTEREY seems to be enjoying a new incarnation in the MSC container fleet.

Sharp stern.

Although MARAD is restricted to funding no more than the maintenance of SAVANNAH, the ship has been beautifully preserved with a good deal of help from the NS SAVANNAH Association
and its dedicated team of volunteers.

Red rudder.

The SAVANNAH’s racy stern shares a bit of the NORMANDIE’s angularity and foreshadowed that of the “new” KUNGSHOLM of 1966.

Atomic flanks.

Were it not for their attention to detail, the ship would probably have re-emerged from her recent drydocking in a drab coat of gray. Now, even her stylish embossed atom symbols are painted in their original colors.

Entry doors.
Linoleum entry.

We entered on A Deck into a sea of polished linoleum through brushed steel doors.

Flared fo’c’sle.

With the threat of worsening weather, we immediately headed out to the fo’c’sle to begin documenting the ship’s exterior areas.

Swoop of bow.

Seen through the starboard hawser, the stormy Baltimore harbor waters for a moment made the bow look as though it were cutting through the sea, “bone in teeth”.

Circular sleekness.

Up on forward Promenade Deck, there is a magnificent view of the rounded portion of the teardrop superstructure and its striking circular windows.

Reflections on the Lido Deck.

We worked our way aft past the Promenade Deck public rooms to the open lido where the pool is now plated over. At the aft end of the terrace, signal flags spell S-A-V-A-N-N-A-H under the ship’s bell and a facsimile builder’s plate.

Screw on the hatch cover.

From the aft docking wing, there was a nice, gusty view of the back of the “teardrop” and the ship’s single screw, which has been mounted atop a cargo hatch.

Aft from starboard wing.
Inboard from starboard wing.

We then headed to the top of the ship from Promenade Deck and its now empty davits up two levels to Bridge Deck where the wheelhouse is fronted by a semi-circular shell.

Searchlight and flying bridge.
Flying bridge, facing forward.
Over stern from top of dome.

I managed to get out onto the flying bridge for some final exterior views between gusts of rain.

Wheelhouse, facing port.

On Bridge Deck, we began inside the wheelhouse. On my last visit in 1998, it was mildewed and littered with debris. Today, it is beautifully maintained and looks almost ready to command the SAVANNAH back into service.

Polished brass gauges.

No detail has been overlooked, including the the polished brass gauges.

Chart room.

The Chart Room is located directly aft of the bridge on the port side.

Radio room.

And on the starboard side, aft of the wheelhouse, the Radio Room has also been beautifully restored.

Bridge Deck Lobby, facing starboard.

It was wonderful to see the forward stairtower bathed in light and cleaned up with its distinctive linoleum decking polished anew.

Forward stairs, facing down from Bridge Deck.

We headed down to the Officers’ accommodation on Boat Deck.

Captain’s quarters, facing forward.

On the starboard side, the captain’s quarters have been cleaned up and put on display. Like most American ships’ officers’ accommodation, it is rather spartan but there are some nice traces of “atomic style” in the details.

We continued down to Promenade Deck…

End Of “Atomic Aesthetic: NS SAVANNAH, Part One”

Much More To Come…

NS SAVANNAH Association Website

With Very Special Thanks: Martin Cox, Rob Di Stefano, Erhard Koehler


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