Accelerating on Nuclear Power

I sailed on the USS Bainbridge (DLGN-25) for a total of four years (two tours). During my time on-board, she built up a reputation as the fastest ship in the Pacific, mainly because her captain ("Wild Bill Sheridan") loved to race against other ships and beat them all. Bainbridge was called "The Gray Ghost" because she was fast enough to get over the horizon and hide from everyone. I have to imagine that Truxtun (DLGN-35) would be as sneaky, (except for that awful lattice mast) but we never sailed with her.

However, Bainbridge was really not a fast ship. Many ships were much faster, particularly conventional destroyers. It is very important to note that the only races she won were cross-Pacific races and those requiring great acceleration. Bainbridge could accelerate at a greater rate than any ship in the fleet in the 1960s, because she didn't have boiler limitations and was not a heavy ship for the size of her power plant. Her only limits were shaft torque, which we measured in turbine chest pressure, and steam generator levels. Many ships simply pulled away from her in short high speed races (that Captain Sheridan avoided, of course). Many ships could run at greater sustained speeds. So how did she win so many races across the Pacific? Simple: She could cruise at a constant 25-30 knots indefinitely. As she was nuclear powered, she didn't have boiler limitations and she didn't need refueling.

For security reasons, I can't tell you why she couldn't run at maximum speed for extended periods. Neither can I tell you what her maximum speed was. Sorry about that. I can tell you that she set a cross-Pacific record that to my knowledge has never been broken (for a military ship). I'd like to say that it was a great feat, but it was really only applied science.

Unfortunately, after Vietnam, things changed for Bainbridge. She couldn't keep up with the Constellation after her Post-Vietnam redesign (extra top-hamper, lots of extra weight and a protruding sonar array). A Spruance-class ship (DD-963) could pull away from the Bainbridge with no effort at all. For the first time in the Bainbridge's long career, another ship (USS Leftwitch DD-984, which was a Spruance-class) easily out accelerated the Bainbridge. We didn't look impressive at all compared to the Leftwitch.

But Bainbridge still never lost a race across the Pacific. For example, she raced against Sacramento (AOE-1) and two Spruance-class ships in different races. All three ships were beaten by the Bainbridge. By rights, the Spruances should have won, except they didn't have the fuel capacity for a high speed run from the Philippines to Hawaii or from Hawaii to the US. The Sacramento should have won also (no lack of fuel there), but she had boiler limitations. At the start of the race, all three ships disappeared over the horizon in front of us in a matter of minutes. But like the tortoise, we passed them by before we made port.

Now, I've heard all those wild Enterprise (CVAN-65) and New Jersey (BB-63) super-speed stories during the eight years of my enlistment. The Enterprise could certainly outrun Bainbridge and we never sailed with New Jersey. But, I have to say, I never saw any ship run away from us like the Sacramento did that day. She was running light (she looked like she was hydroplaning, because her hull bends were showing), and she ran like a deer. I've never seen anything like that in my life. A Spruance is said to be faster, but it didn't look like that to me. Sacramento just ran by us like we were standing still. We still beat her to San Diego, but only by a few hours. That ship really impressed me. Her sister ship Camden (AOE-2) was just as fast, of course. She once ran by us while fully loaded, trying to catch Kitty Hawk (CVA-63), which all of us in the formation were having trouble keeping up with (except the two Spruances).

Speaking of the Enterprise, she left Bainbridge behind just as she did to many ships during the Vietnam War. When she was launching planes, she accelerated very quickly and kept at high speed for hours on end. Those techniques made her look much faster than she actually was. To really understand this, you have to be along side Enterprise (or a Nimitz) when they accelerate. It is impressive. The Bainbridge could out accelerate the Big E easily, but no conventional steam-powered ship has a chance. You see, you just can't wing the throttles open in a tin can like you can in a "nuke." Heat input is too low. Steam pressure falls off, you lose critical heat, the boilers depressurize and cool down, and the steam bubble collapses... nastily. You have to increase speed slowly on a conventional critical steam plant. You have to build up heat (actually heat flow), and maintain temperature and pressure as you slowly accelerate in a tin can.

Nuclear power plants simply don't have those limitations. When Big E had to launch on short order, she just ran away from her escorts. Conventional carriers just couldn't do that! Therein lays the seed of deception and myth. Enterprise looked fast, because fast destroyers couldn't catch her! By the time they got up to speed and began closing distance, Big E was back down to what appeared to be normal speed (though she was still at her maximum speed). Sailors that didn't know better (we can go 34 knots, and Big E just ran away from us... we couldn't catch her until she slowed down!), thought that Big E had to be able to achieve speeds of 36-40 knots to do the things that they all saw with their own eyes. In fact, her throttle-men were not limited by fire rates, fuel pumps, or critical boiler conditions. Steam generator temperature was controlled by a reactor, and it could change heat rate in a heart beat. She was limited by steam generator water levels (more power, more bubbles, higher water levels even though mass is constant, chance of dreaded carry-over, oops! Turbines don't like water!). And water levels were easy to control. And that's how the myth became an assumed fact. She was miles down the course before the destroyers could even get speed up. It took hours to run her down, because they were only three to five knots faster than she was. By the time they caught her, flight ops were over, or she was in transition from launching to receiving planes. She only appeared to be going more slowly at that point, but the reality was that she was cruising along at or near her top speed.

A sea-story

My brother was an Engineering Electronics Technician on the Leftwitch (DD-984, Spruance Class), and we were on a West Pacific Deployment (1980-81 I believe) at the same time. The Leftwitch raced us at some point on that cruise. Cushing (DD-985, Spruance Class, and still in commission) rounded out our three-ship group. A Canadian frigate joined us later, to make us a foursome. Cushing never raced us. The Sacramento raced us home.

The Leftwitch (actually the whole Spruance class of ships) maneuvered better than any ship I knew. When we got back from a deployment at Gonzo Station, which is in the Arabian Sea, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, to replace England (DLG-22), which had broken down, we met up with Leftwitch, Cushing, and the Canadian frigate, sailing with about six Japanese destroyers and frigates. A Soviet cruiser was shadowing Bainbridge wherever we went. So, we staged a fire drill, and dropped back from the group (on a pretence of being dead in the water, with smoke bombs going off in after steering). I was on one of the fire hoses (we thought it was a drill, not a real smoke screen), and my team made our way out of the after steering hatch to the after flight deck (fantail) to ventilate. There sat this big Soviet cruiser, not a half mile off, curious as hell. Leftwitch interposed between us, and very adeptly outmaneuvered the Soviet ship with ease, keeping us well screened. I never saw anything like that, either! Probably the best sea-keeping class of ship ever!

Suddenly, we opened up both throttles and high-tailed it away from the Soviets, and away from the allied surface group, hoping the Soviets would follow. The Soviets blew black smoke and tried to come after us. Leftwitch had to literally let them go. The Soviet ship couldn't get by her. We lost the Soviets in the fog (snuck over the horizon), as usual, and circled back. It took several days (and a Soviet Bear turboprop bomber/patrol aircraft) to find the surface group. The group had finished all their secret stuff by then. Bainbridge took off for Subic Bay, Philippines, while the rest of the group trolled through a fishing field, tearing up Japanese fishing nets. The Japanese were very unhappy, but I got to watch Leftwitch dance with a bear and win.

About the author

Bob Clark was an Electrician's Mate First Class, Nuclear Field, who worked in Bainbridge's forward engine room as the No. 1 Engine Room Lead Electrical Petty Officer. He stood watch as a Throttleman, (steam generator) Feed Control, Electric Plant Control Panel underway, and Shutdown Reactor Operator in port. As the throttleman, he always knew how fast his ship was going. He says that since he was the best degausing operator (nobody else bothered to learn anything about it), he always knew where the ship was.

Page History

16 September 2003