The Submarine Birthday Ball: 5 Things to Know

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jimmy Ivy III

The Submarine Birthday Ball is one of the most time honored traditions of the submarine community. National Submarine Day falls on April 11. On that date in 1900, the United States government procured its first modern commissioned submarine, the USS Holland (SS-1). Every year, wherever submariners congregate, there is sure to be a Submarine Birthday Ball.

If you’re new to the submarine force, around this time of year your sailor may tell you that “sub ball” is next month. But in the years since the COVID-19 pandemic, many bases are just now hosting balls again.

So whether you have never been to one or you just need a refresher, here are five things to know about the Submarine Birthday Ball:

The ball is typically held between March-May

Sub ball is typically celebrated in the springtime, close to National Submarine Day. Some bases host one big night, while others break up into two nights for officers and enlisted. At time of publication, here are the 2023 dates we could confirm:

Bangor (Enlisted) – 4/15
Bangor (Officer) – 4/29
D.C. – 3/31
Groton – 3/18
Guam – 4/22
Kings Bay – 4/29
Monterey – 4/22
Norfolk – 4/14
Pearl Harbor (Enlisted) – 4/14
Pearl Harbor (Officer) – 4/15
San Diego – 4/15

If you have any specific questions about your base or celebration, ask your sailor or contact your Ombudsman or FRG.

The ball celebrates the birthday of the Submarine Force

First, a little history.

Each duty station has their own traditions of how the sub ball is celebrated, but all are very similar. The black tie evening typically begins with a cocktail hour (it is a long night so pace yourself, folks… ) and guests proceed into the seating area. Typically, you are seated with others from your boat or command.

The ceremonial portion of the evening begins with a speaker and opening remarks. There is a solemn portion of the evening, the Tolling of the Boats. which recognizes the lost boats throughout history. A bell is tolled for each boat on its eternal patrol. Guest speakers continue throughout the night, and they are always entertaining. I love to hear their stories. Another great tradition, one of my favorite parts of the evening, is when they have all the retirees stand and identify the submariner who has been qualified the longest. The sailor who has had their submarine qualifications for the shortest period of time and the sailor who has had their submarine qualifications for the longest period of time cut the events cake together. And after dinner, the dance floor opens. 

The event is formal

The evening is a formal dress code. For sailors, they typically wear their Mess Dress uniform. Some sailors (depending on rank) wear a bow tie or cumberbund in their boat “color.” Ask your sailor if this is part of their uniform and if so, what color they are wearing. You may consider getting a coordinating pocket square or tie. Gents: a tux or formal suit is appropriate.

For women, formal, full length gowns are appropriate. I have also seen some fabulous formal rompers.  You will likely be meeting your significant other’s co-workers and superiors, so keep that in mind when deciding on an outfit. Some women use ”Rent the Runway” and rent a one-time only dress. Others find success with Lord & Taylor, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Macy’s, Lulu’s and more. Be sure to check out spouse pages and Facebook marketplace, as well.

For more tips on what to wear, click here.

Plan ahead for accomodations & transportation

Plan ahead folks. Most of the time you can get a hotel room at the venue at a discounted rate. I’ve done it both ways. Personally, I prefer to get a room at the venue so my husband and I can make a night of it. Schedule your Uber/Lyft ahead of time or establish who is going to be the designated driver and hold them accountable. 

Pace yourself

Sub Ball is such a fun occasion and a time to let loose. It is a long evening, so plan ahead and pace yourself. Do not drink too much before or during the event. Everyone has a story to tell. Several years ago someone at the table behind us was vomiting under the table. Have a good time and enjoy a few drinks (if you drink) but make sure you drink water, eat and pace yourself!

For the spouses who have been to sub ball before, what are your favorite moments? Do you have any favorite memories? What do you wish you knew before you went for the first time? Comment below! 

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