Launch day for antique sub replica

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High school students test their working replica of the American Turtle, the first U.S. submarine

High school students test their working replica of the American Turtle, the first U.S. submarine

Egg-shaped and powered by a pedal-operated propeller, the American Turtle is not a vessel for the claustrophobic.

But that didn’t seem to bother Roy Manstan, a Navy-trained diver who gamely climbed inside the replica of the one-man antique submarine used briefly during the Revolutionary War.

Alumni and current students gathered at the Connecticut RiverMuseum in Essex, Conn., on a chilly Nov. 10 to see the submerging of their Turtle, built over a four-year period by students at Old Saybrook (Conn.) High School.

About 50 in the crowd had a hand in creating the odd craft under the supervision of woodshop teacher Fred Frese, who built the original replica, designed by Joseph Leary, at the museum in 1976.

“I did work on it a bit and it is great seeing it,” says Mason Hall, a junior at OldSaybrookHigh School. “Since freshman year I got to see it come from a frame to what it is now, and it is very cool.”

State Sen. Eileen Daily christened the vessel with a bottle of champagne, then Manstan shut the top and was hoisted into the water by a crane donated for the ceremony by Essex-based Connecticut River Dock and Dredge. The Turtle bobbed in the water for about 10 to 15 minutes, spectators snapping photos as the “Don’t Tread On Me” flag at the top of the sub waved proudly. Though it couldn’t submerge completely due to the windy weather, people still clapped and cheered.

The original American Turtle, named because it appears to be crafted out of two enormous tortoise shells, was built in 1776 by Yale graduate David Bushnell as a submarine torpedo boat. Big enough for only one person, the device submerged when water was added to the hull and surfaced when the water was manually pumped out.

According to the Connecticut RiverMuseum, the American Turtle was launched in the dark of night Sept. 6, 1776, into New YorkHarbor to attack the British flagship, the HMS Eagle, moored where the Statue of Liberty now stands.

The mission of pilot, Ezra Lee, of Old Lyme, Conn., was to make his way to the rudder of the Eagle’s hull and bore a hole in it with a long screw. He would then place the bomb in the hull.

With a compass and little else to guide him, he reached his destination only to hit metal instead of wood. After the second failed attempt, Lee began peddling away but was observed and chased by the fleet. Meanwhile, the bomb was released into the water and exploded, causing the British to recognize the threat and move the fleet.

“Unlike a boat, everything is within easy reach,” says Manstan. “It was made so even in the dark you would be able to find controls, because back then they wouldn’t have had lights, EPIRBs, GPS or anything like that.”

Of course, this version of the Turtle is better-equipped. Light sticks replace fire fox, a luminescent moss Bushnell used to see inside the vessel. A VHF radio operates by a small antennae attached to the hatch opening, and a GPS allows the Turtle to be tracked even underwater. A compass allows the pilot to find their heading, and the propellers can be hand-cranked or pushed with a treadle, like a spinning wheel.

“The U.S. Navy teched it out for us,” says Scott Schoonmaker, principal at OldSaybrookHigh School. “I would say $40,000 went into building this, and much of [the materials] were donated.”

Schoonmaker says watching the launch for him is a dream that is finally being realized.

“It has been quite a process,” says Schoonmaker. “The idea started back in 2000, but after 9/11 a lot of our funding opportunities went away.”

Schoonmaker says over the years the Turtle project began being picked up as a large interdisciplinary theme, with math and science departments helping with the design process and social studies using it as a history lesson. In fact, the original Turtle was tested in 1776 not far from where the Connecticut RiverMuseum stands in Essex.

“For the kids, it was a thrill for a lot of them,” says Frese. “I let the kids read the Bushnell description of the Turtle and we built it the way they interpreted it … they were so happy seeing it launched; they talked about it for days.”

As the crane fished the Turtle out of the chilly water, Manstan climbed out with a wide grin and a thumbs-up sign.

“I would’ve liked to have been out there longer, but it [was] so windy that it was hard to control,” says Manstan. “I ran this for two hours when I took it out three weeks ago to test it.”

Now that it has been launched, the plan is to take it on the road.

“We would like to take it to Newport, R.I., for additional testing,” says Schoonmaker. “We would also like to take it to the Newport and Hartford boat shows, and then it will eventually make its home at Leighton Lee museum in Westbrook.”

Frese says the next project for the students is to build a wet sub, a man-powered submarine that gets its propulsion from the pilot pedaling like a bicycle. They hope to enter it in a planned competition in Washington, D.C., 2009.

“I have been amongst a small group of Turtle fanatics for a long time, and this is fantastic,” says Jerry Roberts, executive director of the Connecticut RiverMuseum. “This makes history tangible to the next generation; a project like this shows it’s not dusty old books; it’s alive.” For more information, visit www.ctrivermuseum.org .