Operation Sandblast: The First Submarine Circumnavigation

Mar 14, 2023 0 comments

In the early 16th century, Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan embarked on a historic expedition to the East Indies across the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans. After Magellan’s death in the Philippines, Spanish navigator Juan Sebastián Elcano completed the rest of the journey back to Spain to make the first circumnavigation of the globe. Four hundred years later, this novel voyage would inspire another landmark exercise in circumnavigation. Except, this one would be conducted in a nuclear-powered submarine and the voyage would be conducted wholly underwater.

USS Triton undergoing sea trials. Photo: U.S. Navy/Navsource.org

The impetus for this unique undertaking was the intense geopolitical tension between the United States of America and the Soviet Union which erupted after the end of World War 2 and continued until the 1990s, one which we call the Cold War. The launch of the first artificial satellite by the Soviet Union in 1957 was a big blow to the American prestige, and Captain Evan P. Aurand, President Eisenhower's naval aide, was afraid that the Soviet Union might pull another “Sputnik” on the Americans if they didn’t do something to establish their military and technological might.

Captain Evan P. Aurand was interested in launching a nuclear-powered submarine on a circumnavigation of the earth. The US’s first nuclear-powered submarine USS Nautilus had already demonstrated the ship’s ability to remain underwater for great lengths of time, compared to those powered by air-breathing diesel engines that require the submarine to frequently surface. In August 1958 the USS Nautilus had made a completely submerged transit of the North Pole. During the address announcing the journey, President Eisenhower predicted that one day nuclear submarines carrying cargo might use the route through the Bering Strait and under the ice sheets of the North Pole for trade.

Undersea route of USS Triton. Photo: U.S. Navy

So it was decided and Operation Sandblast was born. Aurand recommended USS Triton, which was the largest, most powerful, and most expensive submarine ever built at the time of her commissioning. She was 447 feet long and had a submerged displacement of nearly 8,000 ton. Her two S4G pressurized-water nuclear reactors produced a combined output of 34,000 KW, enough to push her at speeds “well in excess of” 30 knots underwater. Only a handful of submarines are capable of such speeds even today.

It was decided that USS Triton will follow the same route that Ferdinand Magellan and Juan Sebastián Elcano took during the first circumnavigation of the earth between 1519 and 1522. It was calculated that the trip would take no more than 80 days, but to be safe, the ship was loaded with enough provisions to last 120 days. Triton departed New London on February 16, 1960, under the guise of a “shakedown cruise”—a trip undertaken to test the performance of a ship after a major overhaul. It was only after they departed port that Captain Beach announced the true nature of their voyage to the crew.

Also read: The Filipino Hero Who Killed Ferdinand Magellan

The ship reached St. Peter and Paul Rocks in equatorial Atlantic ocean, passed along the east coast of South America, and after rounding Cape Horn, headed west across the Pacific. After transiting the Philippine and Indonesian archipelagos and crossing the Indian Ocean, she rounded the Cape of Good Hope and arrived at the St. Peter and Paul Rocks on 25 April—only 60 days and 21 hours after departing the mid-ocean landmark. She arrived back at Groton, Connecticut, on 10 May, having completed the first submerged circumnavigation of the earth. She had remained submerged for a total of 83 days 9 hours during which she covered 35,979 nautical miles (or 66,633 km).

Captain Beach using the periscope during USS Triton’s circumnavigation. Photo: U.S. Navy/Navsource.org

To stay true to the mission the ships avoided breaking the surface of the ocean, except on one occasion, when she transferred a sick sailor to USS Macon off Montevideo, Uruguay, on 6 March. To ventilate and replenish her shipboard atmosphere, she used a snorkel while staying at periscope depth and fixed her position using a built-in sextant in her celestial periscope. To remove trash without surfacing, the ship had a garbage disposal unit that ejected a weighted bag of refuse through the bottom of the ship. All repairs were conducted while submerged.

Keeping the crew busy during this long period had been the biggest challenge for the captain. Mondays and Tuesdays involved regular activities, with drills, lectures, school of the ship, and class programs. Wednesdays had the crew on reduced activities that is traditionally known as Rope Yarn Sunday. Thursdays saw a schedule of regular drills, and Fridays involved upkeep and general maintenance activities known as Field Day. Saturdays had regular activities with afternoon drills, and Sundays had reduced activities with normal watches and religious observances.

Keeping the ship clean itself had been a challenge. “It was 84 days of strenuous work just keeping the ship clean. It was amazing how much dirt we created, so I had a field day every weekend. The crew started objecting until they saw how much trash we kept getting rid of. Then they couldn't object,” Captain Beach said.

Captain Beach traces the route of Triton's submerged circumnavigation. Photo: U.S. Navy

In addition to the circumnavigation journey, Triton collected a wealth of scientific data on the oceans. The crew collected water samples throughout Triton's circumnavigation, which were tested for differences in chemical composition, salinity, density, and temperature. They also made a continuous record of variations in earth's gravity field throughout Triton's circumnavigation. The Triton also released over a hundred hydrographic bottles to track ocean currents, and mapped the sea floor, including coral reefs, and other submerged topographic structures using its fathometer and sonar systems. These scientific data gathered during Operation Sandblast continued to be invaluable in providing information on oceanic changes.

Science historian and engineer Bern Dibner later wrote in praise of the mission:

The epochal achievement of the fleet of Magellan in circumnavigating the globe was echoed in the magnificent accomplishment by the nuclear submarine Triton in 1960. Like the voyage of Magellan, that of the Triton created stirring philosophical concepts. It demonstrated that a company of men could live and work in the depth of the ocean for months at a time. It was shown that thru the new technology a source of power had been made in such abundance and so manageable that, without refueling, an 8000-ton vehicle would be driven thru the water around the world. It was also shown that the arts of observation, navigation, communication and control had reached the point where travel under the water was possible with pinpoint accuracy.


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