Throughout history, civilization has been fascinated with what lies beyond what the eye can see. This idea that there is always more to explore led many explorers to the edge of the earth- and beyond. When Galileo announced that the world was round and not flat, a new challenge came into existence. The race was on to see who could circumnavigate the globe and in the fastest time. In 1960, a newly built nuclear submarine followed in the steps of explorers like Magellan to become the first nuclear submarine to circumnavigate the globe.
Born in 1480, Ferdinand Magellan is known for being the first to circumnavigate the world. The Portuguese explorer was living in Spain in 1519 when King Charles I of Spain agreed to fund Magellan on his mission to explore the world. On September 20, 1519, Magellan and his fleet of five ships and 200 men set sail. By November 20th, the crews had crossed the equator and stopped in Brazil to resupply in December. In a search for a passage that connected oceans, Magellan’s fleet continued down the coast of South America. The trip was a difficult one with food and water scarce at times. While in port at St. Julian, in April of 1520 three of the captains on the mission called their crews to mutiny. Magellan crushed the rebellion with the loyal crew continuing the journey. Near Santa Cruz, one of the vessels was wrecked during a scouting mission. On October 21, 1520, Magellan found what he was searching for. A passage that would connect the oceans. The passageway would eventually be named the Strait of Magellan at the tip of South America. Another ship was lost at this time when it deserted the mission after entering the passage. By this point only three of the five ships remained, the Trindad, Concepcion, and Victoria. On November 8, 1520, the three ships reached the “Sea of the South” now known as the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, Magellan would not get to see his journey come to fruition. It is recorded that, “Throughout the Philippine Islands, Magellan and his men regularly interacted with the natives. At Cebú. The native chief, his wife, and several of the natives were baptized and converted to Christianity. Because of this, Magellan thought he could convince other native tribes to convert. But not all interactions with the natives were friendly. Chief Datu Lapu Lapu of the Mactan Island rejected conversion. So, Magellan took a group of about 60 men to attack Mactan. The Mactan’s had about 1500 men. On April 27, 1521, Ferdinand Magellan was killed during battle on the Philippine Islands. The Trinidad and Victoria soon made it to the Spice Islands. The Trinidad needed much repair. So, the Victoria, captained by Juan Sebastian Elcano continued on. On December 21,1521, the Victoria sailed across the Indian Ocean to Spain. September 6, 1522, they arrived with only 18 men at Sanlúcar de Barrameda on the coast of Spain.” Despite Magellan’s death, the trip was completed in his name, leaving him as the first explorer to circumnavigate the globe. His discoveries during the voyage allowed for a greater understanding of the earth, new passageways, and the understanding of “trade winds” that allowed for better and safer voyages.
After Magellan’s journey, the question went from wondering if one could go around the world to how fast one could do so. Jules Verne addressed this question in his 1873 work, Around the world in 80 Days. It would be less than a century later, when the U.S. Navy would once again use something of Verne’s as a milestone. First, they named the first nuclear submarine Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. In 1960, the U.S.S. Triton would beat Verne’s time of 80 days – and do it entirely underwater.
The U.S.S. Triton was commissioned in 1959. At the time, she was the largest, most powerful, and most expensive submarine ever built. She was 447 feet long and powered by two nuclear reactors. SSRN-586 would leave for an assigned shakedown like no other in 1960, named Operation Sandblast. Following the path of Magellan, Triton would map the ocean floor during her journey as well as deploy small buoys in order to trace the currents. Triton left her home port in New London on February 16th, 1960 with a stop at some small islands to mark the exact beginning of the trip. In just 60 days and 21 hours, Triton would make history, becoming the first submarine to circumnavigate the globe completely submerged. During the journey, the boat had to poke its sail out of the water just enough to let a sick crew member to be taken off. Despite this, the hull remained completely submerged during the entire trip.
Because it was known that his shakedown cruise would be different from others, the crew was given special instructions to document the trip in non-restricted and non-technical language. Efforts were taken to include descriptions and conversations of the crew’s morale during the trip- including stories about birth announcements received by crewmembers while away. These notes were donated by the family of CAPT Carl E. Pruett, USN, MC to an archive in order to preserve the historic journey. Below are two passages from the transcript:
Wednesday, 24 February 1960 (All times Papa, Time Zone Plus 3)
Today we expect to make our first landfall. This also will be the spot to which we shall return upon completion of our circumnavigation of the globe. Though the Sailing Directions describe St. Peter and St. Paul Rocks as bare and useless, interest has run high anyway.
Monday, 25 April 1960 (All times Zulu, GMT Zero) 0754
Crossed equator for the fourth and final time this cruise at longitude 28°-03 ? West. 1200 Position 00°-53’ North, 29°-01 f West. We are within a few miles of St. Peter and St. Paul Rocks, at which point we will have completed the first submerged circumnaviga- tion of the world. It has taken us exactly 60 days by our reckoning, though as pre- viously stated a person marooned here would have counted 61. But the number of hours would have been the same. 1330 St. Peter and St. Paul Rocks in sight, bearing due west. 1500 First submerged circumnavigation of the world is now complete. We are circling and photographing the islet again, as we did just two months ago. The weather is nice and the sun is shining brightly. Our mileage (Rock to Rock) is 26,723 nautical miles and it has taken us 60 days and 21 hours (days calculated as 24 hours each). Dividing gives an average overall speed of just over 18 knots. No other ship – and no other crew could have done better. We are proud to have been selected to accomplish this under- taking for our Nation. Our total mileage for the trip will be a little more than 36, 000 nautical miles (including the 2, 000 -mile mercy mission for our ill crewman) and it now looks as though our over- all time since departure from New London will be 85 days (New London computation). We have been instructed to proceed to a rendezvous point off Cadiz, Spain where the destroyer WEEKS is to meet us. WEEKS will send aboard the completed bronze plaque we designed in tribute to Magellan, but it is our understanding it is to be presented at a later date, possibly by the U. S. Ambassador. For the time being we are still to avoid detection, making our rendezvous off Cadiz beyond sight of curious onlookers.
U.S.S Triton’s submerged circumnavigation stood as a testament to the ongoing military dominance of the U.S. Submarine Force. It also showed the scientific and engineering superiority that had been created by the nuclear propulsion program. Following in the footsteps of the brave explorers from centuries before, Triton’s mission takes its place among the true adventurous stories of sailing around the world.