March 16, 2018

Thoughts on Tour Guiding

This post was written in April of 2017, while I was still an active tour guide on the Iowa. I've left it intact, as it remained accurate up to the time I left, and I didn't want to mess with tenses or the like.

My first look at Iowa

This time, I’m going to do something that takes no research at all. Instead of talking about battleships, I’m going to discuss my experience as a tour guide.

I started volunteering because, on my first visit to the ship, all the really interesting bits had ‘authorized access only’ signs on them. I asked how I could get authorized, and was told to volunteer. I picked Tours over Operations because I figured it aligned more with my current skills, and I’m really glad I did. Telling people about the ship is so much fun. That’s also why I’ve been doing the battleship columns here.

Iowa's quarterdeck, where guests come aboard

I volunteer about every other Saturday, usually for 4-6 hours. I usually spend an hour or so on the quarterdeck, welcoming guests aboard, telling them about our app (which also works away from the ship and is free), and reminding them that if they get into a fight with the ship, they will lose unless they are made of steel. Some days, I end up getting to do a private tour, taking a group all the way through the tour route. I enjoy those, as it’s a lot of fun to get to construct a narrative across the 90 minutes-2 hours of the tour, and try to tie everything together. But the majority of my time is spent roaming the ship, ambushing visitors and asking if they have any questions.

And I get all sorts of questions. A lot are basically just logistics, the location of the restrooms (if you come to visit, go before you get aboard) and where the next dog picture is for the kid’s scavenger hunt. Others are the usual stuff, length, width, crew size, and dates for various things. But I do get some really interesting ones. I’ve been asked how the ship floats if she’s made of steel (seriously) and also about riveting vs welding in WW2 shipbuilding (by a high schooler, which made it more impressive). I’ve met people who served aboard the ship, and people who don’t know the difference between a battleship and an aircraft carrier.

Visitors in Iowa's superstructure

But a lot of people simply say “Not really” or “Not yet” when I ask them if they have questions. A lot seem to do so in a tone that suggests they don’t want to bother me. This is mildly annoying, but it’s part of the job. But my favorite thing is when people say “Not really. Tell me about something.” I love that. It’s the fact that someone gets that I’m here explicitly to tell them more about the ship, and is interested enough to basically give me a blank check to explain something to them. I usually lurk on the 05 level, and tell them about fire control, but I pretty much have a spiel down for anywhere I lurk and ask for questions. (There are some areas I don’t spend much time in, because it’s hard for me to talk intelligently about (say) berthing in a more than superficial way.) So I encourage you, next time you’re at a museum and a wandering guide asks you for questions when you don’t have any, to say ‘tell me about something’ instead of just saying that you don’t have any.

The other nice thing about tour guiding is that it legitimizes battleships as a hobby even outside of the ship. Before I started, if I’d been in a conversation with someone and just started talking about battleships, I’d have gotten the usual “you’re being weird, please stop” look. Now, instead, they listen and usually find it interesting. I’d highly encourage anyone who’s in a similar situation to find a similar way to legitimize it.

One question that I also get a lot and won’t be able to work into a column is if the wooden decks on the ship are original. They are, although a lot of them are covered in plywood. There are several reasons for this:

Planked wooden deck and the channel of San Pedro Harbor

1. Wood is a good insulator, and the ship was built without air conditioning except for a few electronics spaces. If you go forward on the second deck, it gets probably 10-15 degrees warmer on a sunny day when you come out from under the wood.

2. This was the era before good synthetic nonskids, and wood is less slippery than steel when wet.

3. It was traditional at the time, and the US Navy has been described as 240 years of tradition unhampered by progress.

The deck in question was originally teak, but was repaired in the 80s with fir. I don’t know how much of what’s on the ship now is which.


  1. March 24, 2018KM said...

    "Tell me something" or "what question are you hoping you'll get" are two of my go-tos for tours. I also like, "how long have you been a tour guide?" plus a follow-up like "How has it changed in that time?" or "How did you decide to do this?"

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