BREMERTON -- USS Seawolf sailors will be shorebound during a two-year maintenance period, but they'll be buoyed by memories of a special deployment.
The fast attack submarine, which Tuesday entered a Puget Sound Naval Shipyard dry dock, returned Aug. 21 from a six-month voyage to the Arctic. The Seawolf navigated the Aleutian Islands and Bering Strait to get there. It made two under-ice transits, surfacing at the North Pole.
Arctic ice constantly is in motion, breaking apart and reforming into keels ascending as much as 100 feet, said Cmdr. Jeff Bierly, the Seawolf's commanding officer. A sensor on the boat read the thickness, and found a 5-foot patch to break through.
The sail, which is hardened for this purpose, struck the ice first. Crew members felt the bump, a thud and shudder as the 350-foot-long sub forced its way up.
"There was a lot of excitement when we finally got through the ice because it's actually very complicated," Bierly said from the control room Monday.
Once the Seawolf cracked the surface, sailors exited through the sail and dug, chopped and cut through ice to expose the hatches. About three-fourths of the 154-member crew climbed into the silent, white world. Ice stretched as far as they could see across the still, white plain.
"When we surfaced at the North Pole, I said, 'I wonder how many human beings have walked around here before,'" Bierly said.
The Seawolf, commissioned in 1997, was designed for the Cold War. Twenty-eight more were planned to follow. The collapse of the Soviet Union and budget constraints limited the program to just three boats. The others, USS Connecticut and USS Jimmy Carter, are based at Bremerton and Bangor, respectively.
Compared to previous Los Angeles-class submarines, Seawolfs are larger, faster and significantly quieter. They feature eight torpedo tubes instead of four and carry up to 50 torpedoes. They're built to hear and not be heard.
"That's what this ship was designed to do -- listen," Sonar Technician Jacob Stilling said. "Hunt Russian submarines and destroy Russian submarines."
Because they're so few and so capable, there is a special feeling about Seawolf subs, said Chief of the Boat Nicholas Wallace, who has served aboard all three.
They're the quietest, fastest, deepest-diving, most capable submarines ever, Bierly said. Because of their advanced design, however, Seawolfs were much more expensive, which led to their demise.
"I think there is a mystique," Bierly said. "These three ships are the most capable the Navy has ever built. There's no question about that."
For Bierly, at 44 the oldest on the boat, the Arctic trip was his last deployment. He'll be off to a bigger if not necessarily better shore assignment before the Seawolf returns to sea.
"It's absolutely the best job," Bierly said of commanding the Seawolf. "It's all downhill from here. I don't want to leave."
The Navy has been sending submarines to the Arctic since the Nautilus more than 50 years ago. It's part of a commitment to maintain access to all international seas.