Probing a sea puzzle

Date: 1/8/2000

The recovery of a pioneering Confederate sub may reveal why it sank minutes after its great triumph. The Confederate submarine HL Hunley rammed a harpoon-like torpedo into the USS Housatonic, one of the Union ships blockading Charleston harbour on 17 February 1864. As the Hunley backed away under the power of its handcranked propeller, it triggered the torpedo’s charge, sinking the Yankee warship in about three minutes. Minutes later the Hunley unexpectedly sank, creating a mystery that has endured to this day.

Now it may finally be solved. Discovered in only nine metres of water some seven kilometres offshore, the Hunley’s remains will be hoisted from their muddy grave, if all goes well.

Although tilted on its starboard side, it appears largely intact except for a 90 cm hole in its riveted iron hull. Because both hatches were sealed, it probably still holds the skeletons of its captain and eight-man crew.

The Hunley, completed in July 1863 was despatched to Charleston, where it sank twice on earlier trips, killing 13 men, including one of its sponsors, Horace L Hunley, for whom it was named. It was nicknamed the ‘Peripatetic Coffin’, a fitting name as it was only 120cm wide and just over 120cm high, crewmen had to sit hunched, single file, each operating a crank attached to the propeller. Top speed was 4 knots.

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