Sunday, January 01, 2006

Clues tantalize in hunt for sub - "Alligator"

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Manscripps Howard News Service
By Lee Bow
September, 2004

Searchers end this year's quest off the Outer Banks for Civil War craft
Their work cut short by tropical storms, government researchers still came away pleased with their initial search for the U.S. Navy's first submarine, which sank in a storm off North Carolina's barrier islands during the Civil War.

"Conditions got too rough from Gaston and Hermine for us to deploy our equipment the last two days, but the good news is that we were able to survey a larger area of the ocean floor than we had originally planned," said Catherine Marzin, an archaeologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and coordinator of the mission, dubbed The Hunt for the Alligator.

The Alligator, built in Philadelphia as a possible defense against Confederate ironclads, was never committed to battle by Union naval commanders, who were unsure of what to do with the craft. The sub sank off Cape Hatteras in April 1863 while it was being towed to join an attack on Charleston, S.C.

Although it lacks the war record of either the USS Monitor, a gunboat that sank in the same waters four months earlier, or the Confederate submarine Hunley, which was recently raised near Charleston, the Alligator may have been the most technologically advanced weapon in the Union naval arsenal.

The search team worked around the clock during the first two days of the weeklong expedition off Ocracoke Island, which was hit hard by Hurricane Alex in early August. "We were worried that the hurricane might have shifted the sand in the harbor, so our research vessel couldn't put in there," Marzin said.

But the 108-foot ship operated by the Office of Naval Research, the YP-679 Afloat Lab, was still able to dock at the tiny fishing village. That made for a relatively short commute 20 miles offshore for the scientists during the survey, which ended Sunday.

NOAA researchers had calculated the likely resting place of the sub by using a combination of historic reports of the 1863 storm and a computer program that factors winds and ocean currents to track the likely path of oil and chemical spills.

Out in the Atlantic, the team used side-scanning sonar, a metal detector and other high-tech gear to note several possible targets for further investigation.

However, a remotely operated diving sled fitted with a video camera became disabled soon after the expedition began. Several promising targets could only be checked out with a camera dropped over the side of the research vessel.

"We couldn't get the views that we ideally would have liked," said Cmdr. Jerry Stefanko, project officer for the Office of Naval Research.

Members of the expedition will spend the next weeks and months going over the data they gathered to try to spot more possible locations of the sub, which could be explored by robotic or even human divers next summer.

Aside from the historical significance, the search for the small vessel, just 47 feet long and about 5 feet wide, is a testing ground for naval technology that may eventually be used to defend U.S. coasts against terrorist mines or stealth attacks.


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