Around the World Beneath the Sea: The USS Triton Retraces Magellan's Historic Circumnavigation of the Globe

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Around the World Beneath the Sea: The USS Triton Retraces Magellan's Historic Circumnavigation of the Globe


The first known submarine was designed, but never built, by William Borne in 1578. From its early adventures (and misadventures) through the end of the twentieth century, the submarine played a vital role in both the exploration of the deep sea as well as the conquering of the globe. From the Revolutionary War to the Cold War, submarines made maritime history. In 1960 the USS Triton retraced the course of Ferdinand Magellan (c. 1480-1521) in a historic submerged circumnavigation of the globe.


In 1620 Dutch inventor Cornelius van Drebbel (1572-1634) designed and constructed an oared submersible, recognized as the first submarine. By 1775, when Yale graduate David Bushnell (c. 1742-1824) built the Turtle, a one-man, human-powered submarine, man's desire to explore the ocean depths combined with his desire for naval superiority. History's first submarine attack came in 1776 when the Turtle was used by the Americans to attempt a break of the British blockade of New York Harbor during the Revolutionary War. From the Turtle, Bushnell attempted to attach a torpedo to the hull of the HMS Eagle but was unsuccessful.

Using the same principles developed by Bushnell, American steamboat inventor Robert Fulton (1765-1815) built the Nautilus and successfully submerged and operated it on the Seine in France in 1801. Technological developments continued, and in 1864 the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley was the first to sink an enemy ship in combat when it rammed its spar torpedo into the hull of the Union sloop USS Housatonic off Charleston, South Carolina. In 1870, shortly after the Civil War, the U.S. Navy purchased its first submarine—a human-powered submarine called the Intelligent Whale, which failed during performance testing at sea and was never put into service.

Five years later John Philip Holland (1841-1914) submitted his first submarine design to the U.S. Navy, which rejected it as fantasy. Not discouraged, Holland went on to design and build a steam-powered submarine, the Plunger, according to Navy specifications, which also failed to pass tests. In 1900 Holland's John P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company completed his Holland VI, an internal combustion, gasoline-powered submarine, and after extensive trials, sold it to the U.S. Navy, which renamed it the USS Holland (SS-1), giving birth to the U.S. Navy's submarine force. (The idea for a submarine force came from the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, one Theodore Roosevelt [1858-1919], later President of the United States, who had seen its potential during the Spanish-American War.)

With its first seaworthy submarine, the U.S. Navy began focusing on design improvements. Following the lead of the French, who in 1904 built the Aigrette, the first submarine with a diesel engine for surface propulsion and electric engine for submerged operations, the U.S. debuted its first diesel-engine submarines in 1912. In 1916 the USS Skipjack (SS-24) became the first diesel-powered submarine to cross the Atlantic Ocean. During World War I submarines were put into service by both sides—and the superior German U-boats inflicted heavy damage on Allied ships. Following the war new design concepts were initiated when the U.S. had the opportunity to inspect conquered German submarines. Around this time, in 1917, the first passive sound navigation and ranging (sonar) technology was developed.

By 1941 new designs and technologies such as sonar and radar helped U.S. submarines in operations against the Japanese. Approximately five million tons of Japanese naval and merchant shipping were sunk, crippling that nation's economy and ultimately leading to her defeat. In fact, the U.S. submarine force caused 55 percent of Japan's maritime losses. Following the war, German U-boat technology again provided the U.S. Navy with technological improvements, including a snorkel mast that allowed for diesel operations at a shallow depth and battery charging while submerged. In the 1940s and early 1950s the U.S. Navy continued enhancing its underwater vessels, developing the teardrop-shaped hull that influenced all later U.S. submarines.

In 1951 the U.S. Navy signed a contract with Westinghouse and Electric Boat to build the first nuclear-powered submarine, the USSNautilus (SSN-571), which was completed in 1954 and launched in 1955. "Underway on nuclear power," the first message from the Nautilus, signaled a defining point in the history of the U.S. naval submarine force. (In 1958 the Nautilus was the first ship to pass beneath the North Pole on a four-day, 1830-mile voyage from the Pacific to the Atlantic.) Nuclear power allowed for a dramatic increase in range and operational flexibility. Nuclear submarines could remain submerged for nearly unlimited periods of time and, with the 1959 launching of the USS George Washington (SSN-598), could fire cruise or ballistic missiles at enemy land targets from a submerged position. The USS Triton (SSRN-586), the first (and only) dual-reactor submarine in the U.S. Navy, was also commissioned in 1959.

First launched in August 1958, the Triton carried a forward reactor that supplied steam to the forward engine room and drove the starboard propeller; a second reactor powered the after-engine room and port propeller. Packed with new technologies—from a periscope for navigating via the altitude of celestial bodies that was as accurate as through a sextant, to a Precision Depth Recorder, which would take soundings of the ocean floor and record them graphically to show its virtual shape—the Triton was a masterpiece of technology and innovation. Designed for high speed on the surface as well as below it, the Triton was 447.5 feet (136.4 meters) long—in her day, the longest submarine in the world—and the fifth nuclear submarine built for the U.S. Navy. The Triton began sea trials in September 1959, by which time some of her crew, including her captain, Edward Latimer Beach (1918- ), had been involved in a rigorous nuclear submarine training program for a period of a year or more. In November 1959 the Triton was officially commissioned into the U.S. Navy.

After commissioning, the Triton began torpedo trials and other special tests. Then, on February 4, 1960, in a secret Pentagon conference, Beach learned that the Triton's "shakedown" cruise, the final test of a commissioned naval vessel, would be to circumnavigate the globe in a voyage called "Operation Sandblast" (Beach's code name was "Sand"). To follow the track of Ferdinand Magellan (c. 1480-1521) and his crew's globe-circling voyage from 1519-22, the Triton would remain submerged for the journey, a feat never before attempted. With less than two weeks to make final preparations and under top secret conditions—the only men told of the planned operation were Triton's officers and one enlisted man, the navigational assistant—provisions and equipment for 120 days were loaded onto the Triton, including 77,613 pounds (35,236 kg) of food. On February 15, 1960, a 24-hour, preshakedown cruise run turned up a number of small malfunctions, which were quickly fixed before her February 16 departure.

On February 24 the Triton reached St. Peter and St. Paul's Rocks, the official departing and terminating point of her circumnavigation voyage. She also made her first of four crossings of the equator. The crew occupied themselves with daily drills and exercises, and a doctor was aboard to study the psychological effects of long cruises, with volunteers completing daily questionnaires regarding their habits and other matters such as their general feelings and moods. No real problems surfaced until March 1, when the fathometer, vital to the soundings being taken in the uncharted waters through which the Triton was voyaging, experienced difficulties, a reactor problem was noted, and the chief radarman was diagnosed with a kidney stone (on March 5, the Triton partially surfaced—she remained 99 percent submerged—to transfer him to the USS Macon off Montevideo, Uruguay). The problems were fixed and on March 7, 1960, the Triton passed Cape Horn off the coast of South America (and went back and forth five times to allow all crewmembers the chance to view it through her periscope). On March 12 additional fathometer problems were discovered, and the Triton was forced to rely on her search sonar and a gravity-metering device being tested for the remainder of the voyage.

Part of the Triton's assignment during her voyage was to conduct undetected photo reconnaissance—which she accomplished on March 13 off Easter Island and later on March 28 off Guam, where she observed navy planes taking off and landing. On April 1, while at periscope depth in Magellan Bay, the Triton's periscope was sighted by a young man in a small dugout. This was the only unauthorized person to spot the Triton during her voyage, a 19-year-old Filipino named Rufino Baring who was convinced he had seen a sea monster.

Triton's course took her from the mid-Atlantic around Cape Horn, through the Philippine and Indonesian archipelagoes, and across the Indian Ocean. She rounded the Cape of Good Hope on April 17, 1960, and arrived back at St. Peter and St. Paul's Rocks on April 25, following her fourth crossing of the equator. With the circumnavigation voyage of 60 days, 21 hours, and 26,723 nautical miles (49,491 km) behind her, the Triton's shakedown cruise wasn't yet over. Following an April 30 photo reconnaissance of the city of Santa Cruz on Tenerife, Canary Islands, and a May 2 transfer to the USS Weeks of the official mission photographer (and the boarding of a medical officer), the Triton finally surfaced on May 10 off the coast of Delaware, having been submerged 83 days, 10 hours. On May 11 she arrived in Connecticut after a journey of 36,335.1 nautical miles (67,329 km) and 84 days, 19 hours, 8 minutes—having accomplished a spectacular submerged retracing of Magellan's historic circumnavigation.


Application of nuclear power to submarines reinforced the image of the United States as a superpower and leader in technology. Many of the Triton's innovations and technological advances in naval nuclear power—as well as in the design and construction of submarines—were subsequently used in other industries. Civilian as well as naval submarines became an essential part of the science community; there were numerous expeditions in the oceans of the world where submarines participated in studies of marine life, collected oceanographic data, and made detailed studies of the ocean floor. The achievement of the USS Triton was an important part of that scientific milieu. It may also have improved American morale, which suffered after a U-2 spy plane was downed by a Russian missile on May 1,1960. This disaster that cancelled a summit conference between the U.S. and Russia, delaying the cause of world peace for years.


Further Reading


Beach, Edward Latimer. Around the World Submerged: The Voyage of the Triton. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962.

Beach, Edward Latimer. Salt and Steel: Reflections of a Submariner. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999.

Parr, Charles McKew. Ferdinand Magellan, Circumnavigator. New York: Crowell, 1964.

Internet Sites

New Horizons.

U.S.S. Triton (SSRN-586).

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Around the World Beneath the Sea: The USS Triton Retraces Magellan's Historic Circumnavigation of the Globe

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