Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Replica Of First Sub Passes 'Sea Trial'


By Eileen McNamara
October 23, 2007

Essex — True to its name, the Turtle moved slowly through the murky waters of the Connecticut River, its rear propeller spinning smoothly on the manual power supplied by sole passenger and operator Roy Manstan.

On the dock above, Fred Frese, the principal builder of the unwieldy-looking contraption, looked on as it moved along, a wide grin on his face.

“It works,” he declared after the little boat turned around and made its way back to its starting point.

Frese was among some 25 people who turned out Monday morning for one of the first test launches of the Turtle, a reproduction of the first American submarine, which was built in 1776 by Old Saybrook patriot David Bushnell to help Colonial forces sink British warships.

The Turtle, so named because the 7-foot-tall, slightly egg-shaped ship resembles a turtle that's standing on end, was built over the last four years by Frese, the technology education teacher at Old Saybrook High School, with the help of two retired engineers and at least 50 of his students.

This is the third Turtle reproduction Frese has built. He constructed the first in 1976 for the country's bicentennial after learning about Bushnell and his unusual invention.

Frese's first Turtle is currently on exhibit at the Connecticut River Museum in Essex. His second Turtle is on display at the Submarine Force Library & Museum in Groton.

When completed, this latest Turtle reproduction will go to the David Bushnell House Museum in Westbrook, owned by the Lee Co., which has helped finance the current Turtle's construction.

The submarine has spent most of its four years of development in the shop area of the high school, where students taking courses in technology education have assisted in various aspects of its unusual design.

The submarine is made from planks of white oak held together by bands of iron that are wrapped around its oval frame. The sub's single propeller is powered by a foot-operated interior treadle similar to the ones used on manual sewing machines. A rudder, also operated from inside, steers the boat.

A rudimentary depth gauge and a compass tell the sub's captain roughly where he is and in how much water.

The submarine's interior is barely large enough to fit a single occupant. On Monday that occupant was Manstan, a retired engineer and U.S. Navy diver who was conducting the tests with the help of several active and reserve Navy divers. Manstan and Ken Beatrice, also a retired engineer and Navy diver, have assisted Frese and his high school students with the Turtle's construction.

Manstan had to carefully fold his 6-foot-plus frame into the cramped interior of the submarine. The Turtle was then lifted by crane and gently dropped into the waters of the Connecticut River at the Essex Boat Works shipyard.

Almost immediately Manstan reported tiny leaks in its hull.

That's to be expected, Frese said, from a wooden boat. One of the few changes Frese and his team made to Bushnell's original design was the inclusion of a battery-operated bilge pump inside the sub. While Manstan bilged out water from the slow leaks, Frese and his team came up with a centuries-old technique to plug the leaks — sawdust. Rubbed on the outside of the hull it will get sucked into the tiny holes and “stop leaks dead,” Frese said.

Minutes after Navy diver Jim Dennison applied the sawdust, the most serious leaks were plugged and Manstan took the submarine on a short but successful test run. He did so with the Turtle's hatch above water, his head poking out of the top.

With two Navy divers swimming alongside, Manstan steered the ship about 20 feet, turned it, and came back. The Turtle, bobbing like an oversized cork in the river, was pulled slightly off course by the tide and Beatrice pulled it back toward the dock with a rope that was attached to the submarine.

“This is a huge deal,” said Scott Schoonmaker, the high school's principal. He and Tara Winch, the school's associate principal, turned out to watch the tests. “It's been a long time in the making.”

Also attending was Jerry Roberts, executive director of the Connecticut River Museum. Roberts said the museum is set to kick off a program of events focused on the Turtle. They will include a christening of the submarine next month and a research project with participation by high school students from the region to determine what became of Bushnell's original invention.

The first Turtle was designed as a means for colonists to sneak up on moored British war ships and plant explosives on their hulls. Although Colonial forces tried to do that several times with the Turtle, they were never successful, Roberts said. The submarine worked, Frese said, but usually either the attachment of explosives on the ships' hulls failed or British sailors spotted the sub before it got close to their ship.

Bushnell, it is believed, hid the Turtle in his brother's barn in Old Saybrook, but what became of the submarine after that is a mystery, Roberts said. Trying to find out, he said, should prove instructive for students and adults.

“It's a good history lesson for everyone that the first submarine ever built was built about 20 miles away from where they are still being built today,” he said.



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