Hunley on a slow roll
Cramer Gallimore/Friends of the Hunley
Staff members at Clemson University’s Warren Lasch Conservation Center rotate the Civil War submarine H.L. Hunley by releasing tension on chain hoists.
The H.L. Hunley was never a fast boat, but it probably never moved this slowly.
On Wednesday, engineers and scientists at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center began rotating the Confederate submarine into an upright position -- 3 millimeters at a time. The pace was plodding, the progress barely visible, but then speed wasn't the objective. The idea was to right the sub without putting any stress on its iron hull. This was accomplished by slowly adjusting the 15 straps that cradle the Hunley, and keeping a laser sight running from stern to bow that would detect any twisting of the hull.
"We're just trying to be cautious," said Paul Mardikian, senior conservator on the Hunley project. "The movement was very smooth. The laser was perfectly aligned."
Barring any complications, the rotation should be finished sometime today.
This is a major step in the Hunley project, one last engineering puzzle before conservators put the sub through the restoration process. The move attracted the attention of myriad people who have had a hand in the project, from State Archaeologist Jonathan Leader to former Friends of the Hunley Chairman Warren Lasch.
"This is the culmination of a lot of work by a whole lot of people," Lasch said.
The Hunley has rested on its starboard side since it was recovered from the Atlantic Ocean in 2000. Archaeologists wanted the sub lifted in the position it was found to avoid moving artifacts inside the sub. The Hunley has remained in that position ever since.
But now the entire hull needs to be exposed so that conservators can remove the crusted sand and shell that covers the hull in preparation for the Hunley's restoration.
For more than a year, engineers and scientists worked on the plan. Basically, the straps used to lift the sub were replaced, one at a time, with new slings with load cells and handy controls that allow for minute movement. The idea is to lower the port side, allowing the port side to drop slowly until the sub is standing upright.
The Hunley started the day at roughly a 45 degree angle (49.3 degrees if you want to get technical). Two Hunley lab workers began ratcheting down the slings one at a time. In the first hour, the sub had moved about 2 degrees.
"It's a little slower than we'd like, but everything is behaving as predicted," said Michael Drews, lab manager for Clemson University, which runs the Warren Lasch Conservation Center. "It's going as planned."
But as one scientist noted, moving as planned meant the speed was akin to watching grass grow.
By early afternoon, more than a dozen workers were stationed along the strap controls and the sub really started to move -- 4 millimeters at a time. Shortly after 4:30, Drews called for a stop and the crew broke into applause. The Hunley had moved nearly 20 degrees, which was a matter of feet.
That made a huge difference in the submarine's appearance. Lying on its flank, the sub always has looked wider than it is. Standing much closer to upright than it has been since 1864 was a shock to onlookers.
Michael Scafuri, a Hunley archaeologist, stood at the tank's rim, looking stern to bow, and said, "Wow."
"It looks smaller," he noted.
Mardikian said the rotation is going to give everyone a completely different perspective of the sub.
"We've been looking at the submarine in that same position for a long term," Mardikian said. "It's going to be amazing."
Reach Brian Hicks at 937-5561 or follow him on Twitter at @BriHicks_PandC.