When a Submarine Sunk our Sailboat
By Bill Revkin (written in 2018; published here by his son Andy)
I am truly an old salt now, in my 90s, and that allows me to reflect on a remarkable span of activities on and around the sea, both cruising and racing in pleasure boats and stints in the Merchant Marine and boatbuilding and marine industries around Rhode Island.
There are stories of all kinds to tell, from boring — like standing watch in the oven-like engine rooms of 10 merchant ships — to truly terrifying — as when I was almost run down by a tug-pushed barge that overtook me from astern as I was at the wheel of a salvage vessel on an inky night on Buzzards Bay.
This tale is in the category of its own.
When I recount that we once had a little yacht that was sunk by a submarine, people generally react with expressions hinting that they think I’m a little strange. Yet it’s true, and it was a United States World War II-era sub, no less.
The story starts with our first little sailboat, Frolic. She was a True Rocket, built by A. R. True, in Amesbury, Mass., in the middle of the last century.
She was 23 feet in length, cedar planked over oak, cuddy cabin. For accommodations, she had two and a half berths below and two more people could sleep in the open cockpit. She was actually overpowered, with a used Universal Utility Four engine — predecessor to the Atomic Four. No head, just a couple of buckets, not uncommon in those days. And steadied by a steel-plate centerboard.
Back in 1960, we moored Frolic in the Providence River, off the Edgewood Yacht Club. She was hardly a rocket ship in performance — more like a solid mini motor sailor. And a reliable, safe little ship.
In early September, 1960, news reports indicated a severe hurricane was coming up the East Coast, so I went out to Frolic and set out a 13-pound Danforth anchor to the south as insurance if the mooring failed.
On September 12th, the storm, Hurricane Donna, hit with a vengeance. I called someone overlooking the mooring field and the word was Frolic was not to be seen.
Late in the day after the storm abated I went down to the yacht club and walked the waterfront searching to the north, as the storm had come in heavy from the south, tearing apart docks, sinking boats, and swamping many craft whose moorings held. Piles of wreckage, dock planking, ruined boats, and all manner of debris covered the whole shoreline.
Finally, I got to Fields Point, a promontory that jutted out to the east, where even more wreckage had piled up, catching everything that drifted up in the southerly blow. There, to my astonishment, was a gigantic submarine, its huge bow stuck into the sandy beach at an angle, and furthermore, amazingly, a slender wooden mast was canted over the bow of the sub. It was Frolic’s mast! I’d know it anywhere.
The next day, at low tide, I rowed the pram over to Field’s Point and the sub was gone, the only evidence was a deep V cut into the sandy shore. There were lots of kids rummaging around picking over the debris
The tide being quite low at that time, a little of Frolic’s rail was showing above the surface. I was able to free the mast halyards, tie them end to end and bring the bitter end to shore. Gathering a few of the kids together I swung the mast around with the dinghy toward the deeper water. At my instructions the boys hauled in on the halyard lines, using the mast as a lever to roll Frolic toward the beach, then had them let up until the mast went vertical. The boat bobbed slightly and I nudged it toward the beach. Repeating the operation multiple times I was able to work the boat further onto the beach until we were able to clear her of enough water to finish the job with buckets.
Frolic was a mess. The whole hull was covered with a film of diesel oil. Her engine had rolled off its bed timbers and the exhaust pipe was pulled out of its exit hole in the transom. Water flowed in through that orifice so I quickly stuffed it with rags to staunch the leak. All the wooden hatches and the mattresses had floated away. Amazingly her basic hull looked largely intact. Pushing her back off the beach I found she could float!
After promising my young helpers a sailing trip I took Frolic under tow behind the dinghy and beached her by the yacht club. I soon found that she was taking in water with every tide. Water was coming in through a cracked garboard plank. I rolled the boat to one side and tacked canvas over the leak and called my insurance provider. After long delays, a surveyor unhelpfully replied, “I have lots of bigger claims than yours.”
My reply was, “You will always have bigger claims than mine!” Finally, we got a settlement but still had to buy Frolic from the insurance company for the grand sum of $500.
We had Frolic trailered to our little back yard in Cranston, and engaged Ellis and Creelman, two skilled boat carpenters. They showed me how to make templates for repairing a number of cracked frames so that they could steam bend sister frames to reinforce them. I also removed the cracked garboard plank so that they could fashion a replacement, started work on wooden hatch replacements and made a wooden replica of our broken stemhead fitting for a bronze foundry to duplicate.
The engine was another problem. It was only under water overnight. I flushed the starter, ignition, and generator with fresh water, then dried them out in the clothes dryer (back then the tumble setting was optional). I checked the fuel tank and fuel lines to clear out any water. Miraculously I was able to crank over the motor and start it within about a week. Universal, back then, printed a manual showing how to do a valve job on their Utility Four engine, and that winter I did the job and had that engine running better than ever! In 1961 we had Frolic looking better than before and my young helpers got their sailboat ride after all.
Now, about that submarine. In the days after Hurricane Donna struck, the papers described hundreds of damaged homes, businesses, waterfront docks, sunk and damaged boats, ships and flooding. But no mention of a submarine! It was almost as if I’d imagined that great gray hull and gash in the sand. It was our private disaster.
Of course, I was more than moderately curious about how the sub had ended up on top of our boat. From what I learned, the sub had been pounding against a concrete dock at the height of the storm and other vessels attempted to take it under tow.
Meanwhile, Frolic’s mooring line parted and she’d started to drag that Danforth anchor and line toward the north. Finally the anchor took hold when our boat reached the shallower water near Field’s Point. When no progress was made towing the sub she was let go and drifted to the north right over our anchor line and pulled our Frolic to the bottom. It’s truly a miracle that the little sailboat wasn’t crushed like a bug.
Thanks to the Internet, I recently found some details about the sub that caused us such grief. She was the Lionfish, SS-298, which had served in the Pacific during World War II. There is lots of background on the submarine from the Historic Naval Ships Association and Wikipedia, and she is on display now at Battleship Cove in Fall River, Mass., along with other historic ships.
After the war, Lionfish was re-commissioned on 31 January, 1951, and sent to the East Coast for training cruises. After participating in NATO exercises and a Mediterranean cruise, she was decommissioned at the Boston Navy Yard on 15 December, 1953. In 1960, just before her encounter with Frolic, the submarine was re-commissioned a second time and towed to Providence, R.I., to serve as a naval reserve training vessel.
After rebuilding Frolic, we enjoyed sailing her into the summer of 1961. Then came Diana, not a hurricane, but our beautiful first daughter, our third child. Our little yacht was starting to look a little crowded for a family of five, so some changes were made.
We sold Frolic and bought Wanderer, an Oxford Cruisken, 30 feet in length, much roomier, on the promise to my wife that I’d build a doghouse to provide full headroom in the galley.
Also, a change in locale was in order, we resigned from Edgewood and joined East Greenwich Yacht club, both for professional obligations and a very sheltered cove and the hope never to battle such a storm again — and to keep clear of any further encounters with submarines.