Lost Boats – An occupational hazard in 1920


Lord, your sea is so great and my boat is so small

A hundred years ago, the relatively young US Navy Submarine service was still experiencing a lot of growing pains. Technology had already evolved enough to provide a better means of propulsion (diesel engines) and recent upgrades in battery technology were certainly great improvements over the early models.

But submarines still lacked any sort of advanced navigation technology. To be fair, the original use for most submarines was for coastal defense and harbor defense. The boats were too slow to keep up most of the sustained fleet operations in the open sea. Speed, fuel, habitability and the sea itself all conspired against the boats.

But visionaries in the Navy still saw a day when technology would catch up with desire. By 1920, submarine school graduates were sailing and commanding the boats in larger numbers. Even the Academy science and engineering programs were emphasizing more of the core principles needed to operate these machines. Most importantly, lessons learned in World War 1 about extended operations of individual submarines was changing the way planners saw the future.

The reality in February of 1920 was that even with these advances, it was still possible to lose a submarine in the ocean. Lack of radar or even radios that could operate under such harsh conditions was a reality they had to deal with.

Anyone who has ever been to sea in the North Atlantic during a storm knows that the placid waters can suddenly turn into large canyons of forceful blue and grey danger. High winds mixed with an unsettled sea present challenges to even the largest ships. I remember well riding a rising storm on a submarine tender in November. The ship tossed and turned and I did the best I could with all six main engines churning at their highest RPM just to keep from losing way. Those few days will forever be in my memory as some of the most interesting I can imagine.

So it was in a fleet operation in February of 1920. Five little submarines of the Atlantic fleet braved five days of storms with nothing but the sheer guts of the crew to help them survive. This is their story.

Headline: Five United States Submarines Safe in Port After Battling With Storms For Five Days

The Washington Times. February 11, 1920, FINAL EDITION

Crews of Submersibles Fight Storm Five Days; Fresh Water Gives Out

“Their crews exhausted by a five-day battle with storms, during the last few days of which they were without fresh water and had little food, five American submarines that have been missing between the Bermuda Islands and this coast have arrived in ports, the Navy Department was advised today.

N 2 Reaches New London.

The N-2, the last of the undersea crafts to report, is anchored off New London, Conn., having been driven there by the storms, a dispatch to the Navy Department said. The other submarine, the L-2. L-3, L-4 and L-11, arrived safely at Hampton Roads today.

The submarines, which were on a training cruise, left Bermuda on February 4 and 5, and under normal conditions should have arrived at Hampton Roads about four days later.

The Eagle 17, mother ship of the submarines, arrived at Hampton Roads yesterday.

Other Craft Went To Their Aid.

Immediately upon the arrival of the Eagle 17 a search was started for the five submarines. Two destroyers the Doyen and the Moody, went out from Newport News, and the minesweeper Red Wing left Hampton Roads, according to the reports to the Navy Department here. The Eagle 17 was to have joined the search today.

The arrival of the Eagle 17, cheered Navy Department officials who had been experiencing considerable anxiety over the fate of the long overdue vessels although the news of their being missing was not made public until this morning. The submarines were rated as seaworthy as the Eagle 17 and her safe arrival gave fresh life to the hope that they, too, would win to port despite the fierce storms raging over their course.

Most alarm was felt over the water and food supplies of the ships. Suffering from lack of water was a foregone conclusion, as the vessels can carry only very limited stocks of water, provisions and fuel and only little of the fuel could be spared for the water condensers while the engines battled with wind and waves.”


The L-class boats designed by Electric Boat (L-1 to L-4 and L-9 to L-11) were built to slightly different specifications from the other L boats, which were designed by Lake Torpedo Boat, and are sometimes considered a separate class. But even with the advances in technology, the boats became blind in an ocean that was being tossed in storms.

The Electric Boat submarines had a length of 168 feet 6 inches (51.4 m) overall, a beam of 17 feet 5 inches (5.3 m) and a mean draft of 13 feet 7 inches (4.1 m). They displaced 450 long tons (460 t) on the surface and 548 long tons (557 t) submerged. The L-class submarines had a crew of 28 officers and enlisted men. They had a diving depth of 200 feet (61.0 m).

For surface running, the Electric Boat submarines were powered by two 450-brake-horsepower (336 kW) diesel engines, each driving one propeller shaft. When submerged each propeller was driven by a 170-horsepower (127 kW) electric motor. They could reach 14 knots (26 km/h; 16 mph) on the surface and 10.5 knots (19.4 km/h; 12.1 mph) underwater. On the surface, the boats had a range of 5,150 nautical miles (9,540 km; 5,930 mi) at 11 knots (20 km/h; 13 mph)[1] and 150 nmi (280 km; 170 mi) at 5 knots (9.3 km/h; 5.8 mph) submerged.

From 1919 to 1922, The L-1 operated along the Atlantic coast experimenting with new torpedoes and undersea detection equipment. The technological advances through tests performed by L-1 and her sister submarines during the post-World War I era added to the strength and quality of the U.S. submarines that contributed to the defeat of Japan in World War II.

100 years later, our submarines operate in every corner of the earth’s oceans. The newest boats are built for endurance and missions that dwarf their ancestor’s abilities. Even though a few of my early submarines often had to go on “water hours”, the latest technology ensures a crew that is able to have habitable conditions while performing amazing operations in a still hostile sea.

One condition that never changes. The ocean will always be larger than the boats that sail on her. And have just as many surprises.

Mister Mac



3 thoughts on “Lost Boats – An occupational hazard in 1920

  1. Enjoyed reading about the old boats.
    I was only on one diesel boat, Bonefish SS-582, but considered it a luxury boat compared to the WW2 boats. And then the Seahorse SSN 669, and Pintado SSN 672, I enjoy your site. Hope you keep writing and posting.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s