The approach to the USS North Dakota in the Annapolis naval anchorage. Photo: James Ronayne

Lucky Few Get to Tour Submarine Anchored off Annapolis

Every once in awhile, something unexpected pops up in the Chesapeake Bay off Annapolis. It has an unusually low profile—so low that you might miss it, if not for the 500-yard Coast Guard security perimeter surrounding it.

It’s a U.S. Navy submarine, which appeared on the Bay last week and was still there as of Monday. More specifically, the USS North Dakota (SSN 784) was anchored in the Naval anchorage just south of the Bay Bridge. What is it doing there? According to U.S. Naval Academy public affairs, “midshipmen who are interested in learning about or joining the submarine force are able to tour the boat,” but it’s not open to the general public.

The Coast Guard enforces a naval protection zone around the submarine. Photo: David Sites

The Naval Academy was generally tight-lipped about the visit, saying they couldn’t tell how long the submarine would be in Annapolis because it’s classified information. A spokesperson did say that all U.S. Navy vessels have a 500-yard naval vessel protection zone around them, enforced by Coast Guard security boats. Recreational boaters in the area have seen firsthand the armed Coast Guard enforcement. Boating photographer David Sites took photos of the zone in place.

But some lucky civilians were able to get a closer look at the USS North Dakota. James Ronayne, a local high school student and oyster conservationist, got to tour the sub thanks to a connection at Watermark Cruises in Annapolis. Watermark shuttled the midshipmen back and forth, and Ronayne got to tag along. Ronayne says he wasn’t allowed to take photos inside this active submarine, and some of the information he asked about while aboard was also “classified”.

This barge serves as a landing spot for people boarding the submarine and holds freshwater containers. Photo: James Ronayne

Visitors on the Watermark boat first disembarked onto a barge tied up to the submarine. Besides being a landing spot, the barge also held large containers of freshwater for the crew aboard the sub. Visitors entered the sub through a hatch on the surface. The high school junior says space was tight inside the submarine. At 6’3″, he says, “I definitely banged my head on some things.”

Ronayne tells Bay Bulletin the coolest part was the submarine’s scope. He says it’s controlled by what is essentially an Xbox controller. With powerful zoom capabilities, Ronayne was impressed by how clearly he could see through the scope.

He also heard a demonstration of the sonar the submarine relies on to navigate. It picked up a pod of dolphins traveling down the Bay off the starboard side of the boat with remarkably clear audio. He says, “By hearing what is around, it is able to launch attacks on enemies and navigate without crashing into any unsuspecting fishermen.”

The USS North Dakota is based at Naval Submarine Base New London in Connecticut, and played host to a traditional change of command ceremony for Submarine Squadron (SUBRON) 4 just a few days before it made the trip down to the Chesapeake. Ronayne says the trip took roughly three days, but the crew wasn’t allowed to share any details about the speed, route, or cruising depth.

The 377-foot-long Virginia-class fast-attack submarine can travel faster than 25 knots. It is armed with Tomahawk missiles, designed for various open-ocean and littoral missions. It was commissioned in 2014, replacing older Los Angeles-class submarines, 29 of which have already been decommissioned.

USS North Dakota is reportedly due for some maintenance and will be headed to drydock in a few months, Ronayne learned during his tour.

-Meg Walburn Viviano