The Shinnecock Canal was closed to marine traffic for more than four hours today as the Hamptons Police Department struggled to free Jaws VIII, the agency’s military surplus submarine, from the canal locks.
Locks use a series of gates and sluices to manipulate and control the water level so boats may navigate canals. As the Hamptons P.D. found out the hard way today, the Shinnecock Canal locks were not designed for subsurface watercraft.
Frustrated yachtsman, sailors and fishermen wishing to pass through waited on either side of the canal—on Peconic Bay to the north and Shinnecock Bay to the south—until police officers, with the aid of bay constables, were able to pull the decommissioned U.S. Navy Virginia-class submarine out of the narrow waterway.
“I was heading back to the marina with a haul of porgies at low tide when I saw the cops ahead, trying to get through the canal,” said Neal Anker, who was out on his recreational fishing boat Anker’s Away. “It was clear getting that thing through the locks was like trying to pound a square peg into a round hole. I wanted to [contact the submarine over] radio and warn them, but I have no clue what channel they’re on.”
All Anker could do was watch as the police crammed the submarine into the canal.
He said the police appeared to be chasing a suspect, adding, “Whoever they were, they got away.”
The submarine was traveling north when it became wedged in the locks.
“We underestimated the width of the submarine—or overestimated the width of the canal,” Hamptons P.D. spokesman Larry Hirsch acknowledged during a phone interview this afternoon. “By the time the HPDSU [Hamptons Police Department Submarine Unit] realized the error, it was too late to make a full stop and reverse.”
Ultimately, the sub could only be moved once the tide came in. Rather than press forward, the submariners abandoned plans to take Jaws VIII into Peconic Bay. After finally backing out of the canal, the submarine retreated to deeper water and submerged, destination unknown.
The damage to the submarine was only cosmetic, according to Hirsch. “It’s nothing a little paint can’t fix,” he said. “Remember, this was originally a Navy vessel, designed to sustain torpedo attacks.”
Structural engineers examined the canal locks and reported no damage that would impede their operation, Hirsh noted.
The incident was not as disastrous as might have been expected, but it did call attention to the submarine’s movements, which the Hamptons P.D. has tried to keep close to the vest. Typically, the public only finds out where the Virginia-class submarine is when it surfaces in order to allow police officers to board boats, conduct safety checks, issue citations, and in some cases, make arrests. Before today, Jaws VIII had only been spotted patrolling the Atlantic shoreline.
Hirsh, at first, said he could not comment on where the submarine was headed, or why. When pressed, he did reveal that Jaws VIII has entered Shinnecock Bay through the Shinnecock Inlet in the past, but today’s attempt to traverse the canal toward Peconic Bay was a first. He denied that police were in pursuit of a suspect at the time.
While the incident may embolden critics of the Hamptons P.D.’s acquisition of military surplus equipment, Hirsh was steadfast. “Notwithstanding today’s events, the HPDSU has patrolled Hamptons beaches quietly and successfully all summer—sevens days a week since Fourth of July weekend—and is keeping our residents and visitors safe,” he said firmly.
His words come as cold comfort to fishermen such as Anker, who said his bounty of porgies went bad in the hours he waited for the canal to reopen.