History of the Expedition
In 1931, Sir Hubert began to assemble his scientific research mission to the North Pole. Using a modified O-class submarine leased from the United States Navy, the goals of this expedition were two-fold: to conduct scientific experiments and observations while moored to ice floes and while under weigh; and to successfully navigate to the North Pole while submerged beneath the ice floes. The experiments ranged from meteorological observations to temperature and water samples taken from the surface and the sea floor.
The submarine that Wilkins leased was the O-12 (SS 73), built in 1916 by the Lake Torpedo Boat Co. of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and was brought to the Mathis Shipyard in Camden, New Jersey, for additional modifications. There, the boat was stripped of her military armament and fitted out with the latest scientific equipment, and changes were made to the superstructure to allow her to operate beneath the ice floes. With the modifications complete, the submarine cast off from Mathis Shipyard on March 16 for the first leg of her journey which would take her to the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York. Even before leaving the Delaware River, however, the sub was delayed. A snow storm forced the O-12 to stop at the Philadelphia Navy Yard (not an auspicious start for a ship headed to the Arctic), and she had to stop again at the Texas Oil Company wharf at Marcus Hook to take on fuel.
Before setting out on the expedition, the crew put the Nautilus through test runs in various locations off the New England coast, including a 90-foot dive off Block Island. Facing mounting criticism and the fact the expedition was already two months behind schedule, it was decided that the Nautilus would head out immediately to its next port of call in England. This leg of the voyage, too, would be ill fated. While crossing the Atlantic, the Nautilus ran into severe storms that resulted in mechanical failure on June 13, when the starboard engine cracked a cylinder. This mishap was followed by the failure of the port engine, probably form overuse as the sole source of propulsion.
During the crossing, Wilkins had continually radioed the submarine's position back to the United States, and after both engines had failed, they began to broadcast a SOS. The Nautilus was eventually rescued on June 15 by the U.S.S. Wyoming (BB-32), which was crossing the Atlantic on a training cruise with midshipmen from the Naval Academy. The Wyoming took the foundering submarine in tow to Queenstown, Ireland, from which she was later towed to Davenport, England, for repairs. Delay was added to delay, when essential spare parts had to be shipped specially from the United States. Finally, the Nautilus was able to get under weigh for Bergen, Norway, where they rendezvoused with the sub's science officers and took on additional equipment. Among the most valuable pieces added in Bergen was a diving chamber, which was located at the forward end of the boat in the former torpedo room. Cabin pressure in this chamber could be regulated to match the external water pressure, allowing scientific equipment to be lowered directly into the water through a hatch.
After a few days of further research, Wilkins was persuaded that it was no longer safe to remain at sea. The Nautilus arrived at Longyeartbyen in Svalbard on September 8, after suffering through the worst storm she had yet encountered on the voyage. It was planned to proceed to a port in England, but when the boat encountered another storm, resulting in massive hull damage and engine failure, the Nautilus was forced to dock in Bergen one final time. After receiving permission from the United States Shipping Board, the Nautilus was towed out of Bergen and sunk in a Norwegian fjord on November 20, 1931.