By the early 20th century, naval warfare was undergoing drastic technological changes. Ships were getting better and faster engines and were being outfitted with wireless communications, while naval aviation was coming into its own. The most dramatic changes were taking place below the surface of the ocean, though, as brave men stuffed themselves into steel tubes designed to sink and, usually, surface, and to attack by stealth and cunning rather than brute force. The submarine was becoming a major part of the world’s navies, albeit a feared and hated one.
For as much animosity as there was between sailors of surface vessels and those that chose the life of a submariner, and for as vastly different as a battleship or cruiser seems from a submarine, they all had one thing in common: the battle against the sea. Sailors and their ships are always on their own dealing with forces that can swat them out of existence in an instant. As a result, mariners have a long history of doing whatever it takes to get back to shore safely — even if that means turning a submarine into a sailboat.
Pigs of the Sea
The first generation of militarily important submarines were, to modern eyes, terribly primitive affairs. Compared to surface vessels of the day, they were tiny, had little in the way of armor, had a limited range, and were not particularly fast. They also spent comparatively little of their time submerged, mostly operating on the surface until it was time to attack. Before periscopes were introduced, this meant a commander would need to surface his sub enough to pop the conning tower above the water to get a bearing before submerging again. To surface mariners, this looked like the swimming of porpoises, which they called “sea pigs”, so they dubbed submarines “pigboats.”
Despite their image, the submarines of the US Navy were quite sophisticated by the time World War I came around. This was the era of the R-class boats, built for coastal defense and harbor patrol. These boats, like most submarines at the time, had hybrid propulsion: diesel engines turned generators to charge massive battery banks for submerged operation, with electric motors turning the screws. They carried four torpedo tubes and had a deck-mounted 3″ gun for surface attacks, could make 13 knots (25 km/h) on the surface, and carried enough fuel to cover 3,700 nautical miles (6,900 km).
The R-14 (submarines were not given proper names at the time) was one of the 27 boats of the class. Built in 1918 and based out of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, the boat was used to train crews in submarine warfare and to conduct search and rescue missions. It was on one such search mission that the R-14 would test the limits of the boat’s theoretical range as well as the seamanship of her crew.
On May 2, 1921, R-14 was dispatched to search for a missing vessel, the USS Conestoga. The ocean-going tug had set sail in late March from Mare Island off the coast of California, destined for American Samoa with a barge full of coal. She was supposed to make a port of call at Pearl Harbor but had never been heard from, so R-14 and a flotilla of other subs were sent to look for her.
After days of fruitless searching, R-14 turned back to Pearl. By May 10 she was 100 nm (190 km) southeast of the big island of Hawaii when things started to go sour. The executive officer and acting commander of the boat, Lt. Alexander Douglas, was informed by his engineering staff that the boat was inexplicably out of fuel. By all accounts, she had 10,000 gallons of diesel in her bunkers when she left Pearl eight days before, and should have had plenty left. But she was now suddenly adrift.
Make It So
The skipper ordered a distress call sent. The call was received by sister boat R-12, also on the search and rescue mission, and relayed to Pearl Harbor. The distress message was received, but R-14 never received the acknowledgment. As far as they knew, they were alone and adrift.
Lt. Douglas took stock of the situation. The batteries were partially charged, but even fully charged they’d never get the boat back to Pearl. They had provisions for only five days, and they appeared to have a dead radio and could expect no help. Things looked dire, and like sea captains before and since, Lt. Douglas turned to his chief engineer for solutions.
Lt. Roy Trent Gallemore was a US Naval Academy graduate at the start of his career. Perhaps because of his youth, and perhaps because of his relatively recent experiences at the Academy, Gallemore came up with an unusual idea: turn the submarine into a sailboat. They could rig masts and arms to the superstructure of the boat, and make sails out of the crews’ hammocks. It wouldn’t be pretty, and it wouldn’t be fast, but it would get them going again.
Lt. Douglas gave the go-ahead to the unconventional idea, and all hands got to work. Some sewed hammocks together to make sails, other found whatever they could to rig them. The torpedo loading crane was brought on deck and assembled; it would serve as a mast for a foresail made of twelve hammocks. Bunk frames were disassembled to make the yards, and the motley assembly was unfurled. The sail caught the wind, and they started slowing making way. It was only 1 knot (1.8 km/h), but it was enough for steerage, and a lot better than being becalmed.
The crew continued putting on sail. Six blankets were stitched together to make a mainsail that was rigged to the apparently useless radio antenna mast on the conning tower. That added another 0.5 knot (0.9 km/h) to their speed, but Lt. Gallemore wasn’t finished yet. He ordered a third sail rigged, this time of eight blankets and rigged to a third mast by the stern. With a foresail, a mainsail, and now a mizzen, the R-14 was a three-masted square-rigged sailing vessel, the first and only submarine to be so rigged.
All for Naught
The R-14 continued under sail for four days, making 2 knots (3.7 km/h) at best. It was enough, though — they sighted Cape Kumukahi on Hawaii on May 13, and two days later they made it into Hilo Harbor using battery power. They topped off their fuel and fresh water tanks, serviced the batteries, and set sail to their home port of Pearl Harbor, arriving safely on May 17.
Thanks to Lt. Gallemore’s ingenuity and the seamanship of her crew, the R-14 survived the ordeal. That’s more than can be said for the Conestoga; the tug they were looking for was found in 2009 off the Farallon Islands, not far from San Francisco and thousands of miles from where the subs were searching. They had been on a fruitless mission to rescue fellow mariners long since claimed by the sea, but their seamanship and willingness to do whatever it took got the R-14 and her crew safely home.