Sunday, January 01, 2006

Hunt begins for Civil War sub

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The News & Observer
By Jerry Allegood
August 27, 2005



OCRACOKE -- In the battle for submarine fame, the CSS Hunley has far outclassed the USS Alligator.

Consider their Civil War service: The Confederate Hunley was credited with sinking a Union ship. The Union Alligator aborted its first mission because it couldn't dive in shallow river water.

The Hunley was believed to have sunk in combat. The Alligator went down in a storm while being towed to Charleston, S.C. The Hunley sank with nine men aboard. The Alligator was unmanned when it sank.

The Hunley was the object of an extensive search and an eventual recovery in 2000. The Alligator -- until now -- had been largely forgotten.

On Tuesday, a research ship wrapped up its first 24-hour sweep for the USS Alligator, unseen since it sank in 1863.Over the next week, East Carolina University and federal researchers working aboard a 108-foot Navy research vessel will survey the trackless ocean floor with a metal detector called a magnetometer and a side-scan sonar that depicts an image on monitors.

"It's called mowing the grass," said Tim Runyan, director of the maritime studies program at the Greenville university.

"You create grid lines and the ship follows the track."When the Office of Naval Research ship, called the Afloat Lab, locates promising sites, researchers will send down a remotely operated vehicle to take photos and gather more detailed information. If a site seems particularly promising, divers could be sent.In its first sweep, the Afloat Lab made nine passes, each five miles long. Runyan said they got two promising hits. One showed up on a monitor as an indistinguishable mass -- it was later ruled out. Another object was apparently buried and will be studied further later.

The research team on Tuesday opened the boat to visitors to discuss the hunt. The wood-hulled, gray-topped vessel was docked alongside sailboats, yachts and trawlers. All day tourists and residents filed through the ship getting explanations of the equipment and the search techniques. On Tuesday evening, about 150 people crowded a nearby tent for a presentation.

The hunt, which also includes National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers, is concentrated southeast of Ocracoke, about 25 miles offshore, where the Alligator was believed to have drifted after it was cut loose by a tow ship during a storm in 1863.

Finding the Alligator will be a daunting task because the 47-foot craft disappeared between Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras -- the ECU program has found historical records on more than 2,000 shipwrecks in that area. Most are clustered near Ocracoke.

Even if the sub hunters don't find the Alligator, they say the search will raise a bit of submerged maritime history."It's a precursor of the later submarine fleet," said Runyan. "It's like finding a Wright brothers airplane."

Rear Adm. Jay DeLoach, deputy commander of U.S. submarine forces in the Atlantic, acknowledged Tuesday that the Alligator was not well known even to submariners. He said the recent attention was sparked when a rear admiral's wife pointed out a short magazine article to her husband and he suggested to his staff and others it was worth studying.

DeLoach said both the Hunley and the Alligator were important because they pioneered features later used in submarine warfare, including diving chambers and periscopes.

"The Confederate sub Hunley has sort of overshadowed it," he said. "Bringing the Alligator to life is opening a lot of eyes."

Runyan, who has researched and dived on shipwrecks in the Caribbean, in the Great Lakes and off Alaska, likes to speculate what would have happened if the Alligator had not sunk. "You wonder if it would have faced the Hunley," he said.

The tedious process of trolling through the so-called "Graveyard of the Atlantic" was also used in 1973 to find the USS Monitor, the famous Union gunboat. John Broadwater, head of NOAA's maritime history program, said at least four groups, two of them private, were trying to find the Monitor, which sank in a storm in December 1862.

Researchers aboard a Duke University vessel discovered the Monitor about 16 miles off Cape Hatteras.

Broadwater, who was involved with one of the unsuccessful private searchers, later worked on recovering Monitor artifacts and still supervises the preservation of the relics. He said the Alligator search was worthwhile for scientific and historical information.

"It's a little jewel there," he said.


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