More than a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, a Soviet sub crept into San Diego Bay, but instead of playing a game of naval cat-and-mouse, the boat’s arrival in 2005 was welcomed: It was about to become the latest addition to the Maritime Museum of San Diego’s collection of naval artifacts.
Over the years, thousands of children of all ages scampered down the ladder to peek behind the Iron Curtain and take in the utilitarian underwater craft.
Fast forward to Feb. 7, 2022, when the Soviet B-39 submarine left her berth along San Diego’s Embarcadero, towed out to sea, making her way to a scrap yard 70 or so nautical miles south, to Ensenada, in Baja California.
Sadly, the last visitor to the NATO-named Foxtrot Class submarine in San Diego went below on March 15, 2020, the day before the pandemic forced the mandatory shutdown of the the boat and, well, many, if not most, of the fun things to do in San Diego.
Also known as “Black Widow” and “Cobra,” the 299-foot sub’s keel was laid down in February 1962, and a little over five years later, she began to play a role “in many of the Cold War’s most tense moments, including the Cuban Missile Crisis," according to the museum’s website. The diesel electric submarine could dive, thanks to its nickel-steel hull, to a depth of nearly 1,000 feet. At its height, it sailed with a full complement of 78 sailors and carried “24 torpedoes while she was on patrol — some capable of delivering low-yield nuclear warheads,” according to the museum.
Originally, museum staff only planned on berthing the B-39 for two years, but her popularity persuaded them to extend her presence ... until this weekend, that is.
At one point, a storm “tore away portions of the metal fabric and exposed additional bare metal to” the elements, officials said. While the nickel-hull was undamaged, the top of the sub’s exterior began to rust.
“The skin visible to the public is not part of the vessel’s pressure hull, which remains in good and stable condition, so that materially, the vessel is no less seaworthy than 15 years ago,” a museum official said on Monday.
In the end, the museum decided to not restore the sub, choosing instead to spend its scant resources on the maintenance of other seagoing vessels, including the Star of India, that are in its collection.
The Soviet B-39 stood in stark contrast to its berth-mate, the USS Dolphin, a seafaring contemporary the museum describes as the “deepest diving submarine in the world.” The B-39 was a stripped-down affair, no interior walls covering its cabling and pipes, as compared with the Dolphin, which was spic-and-span, freshly painted and finished looking. Despite being half its size, the Dolphin, which remains as part of the museum and is again accepting visitors, easily outshown its pier-side competitor.
One unforgettable story visitors aboard the B-39 were told: Alcohol was not permitted on the Soviet boat, but all those hiding places were perfect for clandestine liquor bottles, dozens of which turned up when the sub tied up at the museum and its staff methodically cleaned the boat.
In the end, it was a sorry affair, the sub towed out ignominiously by a tug boat, a second apparently on hand for contingencies. Charles Ryan, who had a view from his nearby residence and shot video he shared with NBC 7, described the scene.
“Slow going,” Ryan said. “Nothing but a bucket of rust, but I guess it was significant here.”
The Maritime Museum of San Diego has three other sailing ships, as well as the Star of India, in addition to the steam ferry Berkeley, steam yacht Medea, PCF 816 Swift Boat and a San Diego Harbor pilot boat. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $20 for adults; $15 for seniors over 62, those with a military ID and children between the ages of 13 and 17; and $10 for children 12 and under, though kids under 2 are free.