Real Sub vs Movie Sub

I’ve always been fascinated by submarines and all things underwater. Lately I’ve been reading a book called The Ice Diaries, by William R. Anderson & Don Keith. Anderson was captain of the world’s first nuclear submarine, Nautilus, when it completed the first trans-arctic voyage from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic, straight across the North Pole under the polar ice cap. That was in the summer of 1958. Captain Anderson tells a fascinating story of the work—and the setbacks—that went into this super top-secret mission. They sailed by special order of President Eisenhower, at a time when America was still reeling from the Soviet Union’s firsts in space and badly wanted a first of its own. (For you young’uns, this was during the Cold War, and these things mattered.)

Much of the passage was tricky to execute, because of the boat’s being sandwiched between shallow bottoms and down-plunging ridges and keels of overhead ice. Both posed a hazard to the boat, which was vulnerable to damage, especially to her periscopes and sail. It had not been built with this mission in mind, and her first forays under the ice cap had resulted in bent periscopes and a bashed-in sail. Little was known about these waters, inertial navigation was difficult close to magnetic north, and instrumentation for scanning overhead obstacles was still in its infancy. It was an impressive achievement! Here, from the book, is Nautilus returning to visit New York City.

That got me thinking about an old movie called Ice Station Zebra, from 1968, with Rock Hudson as skipper of a nuclear sub called upon to go under the polar ice. (In this case, they were to deliver some important people carrying guns to an outpost far up in the arctic.) Turns out I have a copy (I collect movies, probably more than I should), and I started watching it to see how the fictional sub sized up against the real one. The answer, to my surprise, is it sized up pretty well!

The sub in the movie looks a lot like the Nautilus, actually. (That’s a snapshot from the movie, above.) The scenes in the control room felt more realistic to me than I expected—not that I would know—and some of the instruments they showed for scanning the ice looked just like what Captain Anderson described in his book, including a monitor showing TV images from the sail. I’m going to guess that these exterior underwater shots of the sub showed it closer to dangerous ice than the real people would have liked to go, but hey, it’s a movie. As a film, it’s just so-so, but as a depiction of what that voyage might have looked like, I give it a thumbs-up!

I should ask my niece’s husband Steve about it sometime. He’s a real-life sub captain. I wonder if he ever went under the ice.

By the way, you can go aboard the real Nautilus at the Submarine Museum in Groton, CT. I’ve been; it’s very cool.

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