Historic 1907 submarine found ‘hiding in plain sight’ off of Connecticut coast

Since he was young, Rick Simon was intrigued by stories of sunken submarines in Long Island Sound that were still down there. This week, Simon became part of one of those stories.

Simon and friends took out his boat — RV Integrity, based in Noank — on Sunday and found Defender, an experimental 93-foot watercraft built in 1907 by sub pioneer Simon Lake.

It was found about 180 feet below the surface, he said. “You could say Defender was hiding in plain sight all this time in a waterway I’ve traveled for years,” Simon said.

Simon, of Coventry, Connecticut, co-owns Shoreline Diving Services, which does underwater surveys, dam inspections, bridge and dam repairs and ship husbandry. Simon also appeared this year on four episodes of Discovery Channel’s show “Sewer Divers.”

Diving is both his profession and his passion. In his youth he hung around the Connecticut Underwater Archaeology Society to hear about diving adventures. Then he embarked on diving of his own, culminating in the discovery of Defender.

Several friends helped him in this mission. Steve Abbate and Joe Mazraani dove to the sub while Simon oversaw the deck operations. Others who helped were Bob Foster, Jeff Goodreau, Wayne Gordon, Austin Leese, Kurt Mintell, Harold Moyers, Kevin Ridarelli, Jennifer Sellitti and Eric Simon.

The forward hatch on Defender, a 1907 submarine that was found in Long Island Sound on April 16, 2023. (Joe Mazraani / Use granted by Joe Mazraani)
The forward hatch on Defender, a 1907 submarine that was found in Long Island Sound on April 16, 2023. (Joe Mazraani / Use granted by Joe Mazraani) 

Seeking for years

Defender was built in 1907 and never was adopted by the Navy. It sank in 1946, either on purpose or by accident.

“I don’t know 100% if it was scuttled or if it sank in tow. We’re trying to get the ship logs of the ship that was towing it,” he said.

Simon had looked for Defender for years, using data from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that charts underwater wrecks and obstructions.

“I started with finding out where it wasn’t and narrowed it down to where it is,” he said. “I found a shipwreck labeled as something else that had never been looked at.”

He intensified his search about two months ago when he thought he was close to finding it.

“I had a job that had me going up and down every day from Noank to Branford. On the way down and back I would spend an extra couple hours looking,” said Simon. “It took a while. I found a couple of targets that weren’t it. I was confident last month that I had found the right spot.”

He was proven right in his Sunday mission, which was postponed from Friday due to weather conditions.

Simon was not specific about the location of Defender. “Once the research documentation is finished, we will publicize the exact location,” he said.

Rick Simon (center) with divers Steve Abbate (left) and Joe Mazraani shortly after their dive to find Defender.(Jennifer Sellitti / Use granted by Jennifer Sellitti)
Rick Simon (center) with divers Steve Abbate (left) and Joe Mazraani shortly after their dive to find Defender.(Jennifer Sellitti / Use granted by Jennifer Sellitti) 

Sub to stay in water

Simon said he will not bring the sub up to the surface.

“It’d be almost impossible,” he said. “Nothing would make me happier than to have a kid walk through it and think of Jules Verne and ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,’ but in reality my best hope is to inspire the next generation of explorers.”

Lake’s great-grand nephew Jay Jeffries tried to find Defender himself. He is happy for Simon. “I think it’s great,” he said.

He agrees that the craft should stay underwater. Previous attempts to bring up and preserve subs proved problematic and expensive, Jeffries said.

“They’re iron. They’ve been underwater a long time. The longer they’re down there, the longer it takes to get the salt out of it,” he said.

Submarine design pioneer Simon Lake, who created the Defender sub.
Submarine design pioneer Simon Lake, who created the Defender sub. 

Simon Lake

Simon Lake (1866-1945) grew up in New Jersey. He moved to Connecticut in 1907 and lived in Milford the rest of his life. He designed subs and held more than 200 sub design patents.

Lake also founded Lake Torpedo Boat company in Bridgeport in 1912 to build subs. He competed with John Holland, whose sub designs were manufactured at Electric Boat in Groton. While Electric Boat thrived, Lake Torpedo floundered, dissolving in 1924.

“He was an entrepreneur but he was not necessarily a great businessman,” Jeffries said.

Jeffries said his great-great uncle built his first sub out of wood when he was a teenager. Lake built his first real sub in 1897 and built Defender in 1907.

“The interior was finished really nice. It had a Victorian salon with wood, button-leather upholstery. He used it to woo clients. But it didn’t sell,” Jeffries said.

Simon pointed out that Lake adapted Defender to do underwater rescues, Arctic expeditions and salvaging gold from wrecked ships. But he still never found a buyer.

Defender was docked in New London and once was beached in Old Saybrook. It sank the year after Lake died.

The U.S. Navy had a submarine tender, the USS Simon Lake, in service from 1964 to 1999. An elementary school in Milford was named after him; it closed in 2010.

Archaeological find

Catherine Labadia, staff archaeologist in the State Historic Preservation Office, called Simon’s discovery “a major find.”

“We are getting together soon to talk about the preservation of this wreck, and what it looks like, and designating it as a state archaeological preserve,” she said.

She said preservation would seek to protect the site from damage by treasure hunters and others. “We would frown upon moving things from the site,” she said.

Another “submerged asset” in the state, which was named a Designated Archaeological Preserve in 2003, is the Cornfield Point Light Ship. That Coast Guard ship, a floating lighthouse, was hit by a barge and sank off the mouth of Connecticut River in 1919.

She said unlike archaeological preserves on land, submerged historical assets face a logistical challenge: movement.

“If something is on land, the site stays where it is. But if it’s in water, it can move around a bit,” she said. “We need to see how stable it is in the location it’s in, how accessible it is.”

Susan Dunne can be reached at sdunne@courant.com.

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