US Coast Guard 1934 Wooden MLB

Restoration of Wooden Lifeboat Is One Man’s Dream

The Port of Astoria’s haul-out yard may not sound like a great place to find a boating story, but there is always a variety of working boats and yachts on the hard–and the chance there might be a story worth re-telling. For the 15 years I have lived in the area, the most unusual and interesting craft I have ever encountered there is a wooden 36-foot US Coast Guard motor lifeboat I came across in the summer of 2013 It appeared to be completely authentic and in perfect working condition as if it had been stored in a barn for 50 years.

Luckily there was someone on board, so I expressed my admiration for such a fine piece of historic preservation. Glen Cathers, the owner of “MLB 36391,” introduced himself and was happy to talk about the project. The boat was indeed originally built in 1934, he explained, but when he found it in 2006 it had been subjected to such a complete conversion into a cabin cruiser that it was barely recognizable.

Glen generously invited me up on deck for a tour, and briefly recounted the historical connections that he had with the Coast Guard in general and this class of boat in particular.He had gutted it a second time with the goal of accurately re-creating its original identity. It took him six years of intense effort to rebuild the bare hull and fully restore it! This was clearly an enormous job for one man to undertake, and I realized this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn more about a time and a boat that were rapidly fading into the past.

Standing in the small cockpit, I asked him how this amazing project took shape. “I had fallen in love with the motor lifeboat when I was ten years old,” he recalled. “That was when my father, John L. Cathers, was officer in charge at the Point Adams Station (downriver from Astoria) during the 1940s and 1950s, retiring as a master Chief Boatswain’s Mate in 1962. He often took me out in the station’s MLB and I can still remember riding in the ‘glory hole’ (foreward well deck) up in the bow. When they stuck the boat into a wave and the spray broke clean over me, I was smitten from that day on!”

Glen served in the Coast Guard on the East Coast in 1959-63, so he never crewed a MLB on the Pacific Coast where the boat had done such vital work. But he moved back to the Northwest when he retired from a career working on the ferries in New York harbor and soon started looking for a retirement project—preferably a historic boat of some kind. When his wife Naomi Fisher asked him what he would choose if he could have anything, he replied without hesitation: “I want a motor lifeboat.”

“Let’s do it,” she said.

Starting from Scratch

The first break came when a friend happened to be driving through Seattle and glimpsed an old MLB 36 on Lake Union. “I drove straight up to see it, and found it was really rotten, but had some parts and a GM 4-71 engine I could salvage,” said Glen. He trucked it back to his home in Goldendale, Washington overlooking the Columbia gorge, and began salvaging whatever he thought was worth saving from this near-derelict hull.

But a month later, they found a second MLB 36 in Astoria. “I could see that bronze bull nose on it. I knew right then it was the real deal, even though the interior had been completely gutted and replaced with one big cabin,” Glen told me. That boat was built in 1934 and was hardly recognizable as an MLB. It was also in a very poor state, but they purchased it anyway and began the restoration that would fill most of his time for the next six/seven years.

So you can imagine the surprise and the thrill that he experienced when he was stripping off all the old layers of paint and discovered the original boat number was 36391. “I researched where the boat with that number came from and lo and behold I discovered it had spent its career at Point Adams in at the mouth of the Columbia. It was the very boat I had been on as a boy, and was used on numerous rescue missions for 22 years. To further my amazement, my aunt gave me two pictures of my father and my uncle on the very same boat.”

After the 60-odd years that had passed since his first ride, Glen finally began learning the details of the history and construction of this class. Sadly, the remaining hulls had all been relegated to the status of nautical sculptures at the entrance to some CG stations on the Northwest coast (there is also one inside the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria). There was only one MLB 36 remaining in operating condition–the famous 36500 maintained by the Orleans Historical Society in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Working alone, Glen re-planked the hull above the waterline with 1¼” yellow Alaskan cedar, and doubled all the frames with steamed oak timbers. Then he and Naomi riveted over 5,000 nails and roves to make the hull as strong and tight as it has ever been. Next, he carefully re-established the original layout by building the six wooden water-tight bulkheads from planks, and recreated the original layout with three separate compartments: the foc’sle (called the survivor’s cabin) with two side benches (which they use now as bunks), the center house over the engine room, and the helm station.

“It’s all new from the waterline up,” Glen declared. But with most of the bronze hardware that was an essential and distinctive part of the boat missing, he had to scour the country looking for parts. Piece by piece, like a nautical jig-saw puzzle, they came into his possession. He had a story about every single item and its function when it was the pride of the Coast Guard crew.

Crossing the Bar Again

With the thousands of hours spent on the rebuild, I expected Glen would want to keep the boat on the calm waters of the Columbia River and well away from the notorious bar, but I had completely underestimated his passion for this classic. He was intent on running the boat south down the Oregon coast to visit all the CG stations that depended on this class of lifeboat for surf and offshore rescues for 60 years.

With the MLB back in the water with a new coat of anti-fouling paint, Glen was intent on giving it a good trial before setting out. It wasn’t long before a retired Coast Guardsman who had served on the same class of MLB heard about the project and caught up with him. When they went out for a ride, Glen invited me to come on board. We headed upriver and spent the next two hours exploring behind Tongue Point around the WW II piers as the Jimmy diesel chugged contentedly away at 1100 rpm.

It was a rare opportunity for me to experience this iconic vessel underway, and I soon became another member of the MLB 36 fan club! In August 2013, I saw the boat again moored at the downtown dock in Astoria. I found Glen and Naomi on board and relaxing after achieving their goal of visiting the Coast Guard stations in Garibaldi, Depoe Bay, Newport, and Florence.

“We were given a great reception by the Coast Guard and local people and were the center of attention when we moored at the station or the public dock,” they told me. They estimated about 500 people got a close look at the boat, and over 100 came on board. “We were in big 8- to 12-foot seas off Cape Meares on our way back, so I decided to open the motor out and give her a chance to run with the weather,” Glen recalled. “I increased the speed to 8 knots and we were soon flying over the waves with no hesitation.

The motion is quick but not harsh, and we always felt very secure. The boat has performed perfectly in some tough conditions,” he said with pride. “They were designed to be self-righting when rolled upside down and self-bailing as well. Plenty of crews were ejected from them, and the boats would roll onto the beach with the engine still running,” he pointed out. It’s worth noting that the crewmen did not have safety straps, in contrast to modern rescue boats.

After a couple of years cruising the Columbia, Glen crossed the bar again in 2016 for a second trip along the Oregon coast as far as Bandon. But this time he continued north to Neah Bay on the northwest tip of Washington, visiting more Coast Guard stations. “We visited 14 or 15 stations over the summer and the crews were good hosts,” he recalled. This historic vessel was always well received wherever they stopped in marinas and public docks.

It was only appropriate that Glen and his boat should be the main attraction at the Veteran Lifeboatmen’s Reunion, hosted by Cape Disappointment Station on the first weekend in August 2013 After an ambitious four-month cruise, they returned upriver through the locks at the Bonneville dam to a marina in The Dalles, Oregon. Later, they moved the boat to the marina at Arlington, Oregon.

They came downriver again in 2017, and I met up with Glen at the Cathlamet Wooden Boat Festival on the Washington shore east of Astoria early in August 2017. He reckoned the boat now had almost 2,000 nautical miles under her keel in her third incarnation. “This boat was built for 20-year-olds. It’s hard on you physically and I’m now 75,” he admitted. I noticed it now had a name Point Adams. That is because you need a name, not just a number for a boat in Washington, Glen told me. “We chose that name to commemorate the boat’s service history at the Point Adams lifeboat station in Hammond.

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Death of the Antarctic Ship Hero

How a Notable  Vessel Met Its End on Willapa Bay

Fifty years ago, the 125′ X 30′ expedition ship Hero was taking shape at the Harvey Gamage Boatyard in Maine. Designed by Potter & M’Arthur, Inc., naval architects of Boston, Massachusetts and based on a traditional fishing trawler, it was the last wooden vessel built in the US for polar service—specifically to supply the Palmer Station in Antarctica. Although it seems unlikely today, the Hero was considered state-of-the-art in the mid-1960’s and a National Science Foundation brochure explained the use of wood this way: “Wood provides resiliency in sea ice and is acoustically quiet.”

It was named after the 47′ sloop that 21-year-old New england seal-hunter Nathaniel Palmer sailed in 1820, when he became the first American skipper to reach the Antarctic Peninsula. By 1984, the 300-ton vessel was worn out by 17 stormy voyages between the port of Punta Arenas, Chile and the US Antarctic bases, and was also completely outmoded. It was decommissioned and put up for auction.

The Hero’s survival now depended on the next owner. At minimum, it needed to be someone with experience of wooden boats and a solid business plan—or a million dollars to spend! Unfortunately, the only bidder was a group of enthusiasts in Reedsport on the mid-Oregon coast who picked it up for just $5,000.

An Antarctic Exploratorium in Reedsport?

This heroic little ship’s fate was to become the static centerpiece in the incredibly over-ambitious plan to build the “Antarctic Exploratorium.” These local boosters even tried to bring in the powerful 309′ diesel-electric icebreaker Glacier, launched in 1954 and mothballed in the Bay area since 1986. Other attractions would have included Antarctic aircraft and vehicles, a conference center, penguin pool, etc.

The state grants the Hero Foundation obtained were all spent on consultants and architects while the Hero sat at the dock in the Oregon rain and did what all wooden boats do—rot. After a decade, the money and enthusiasm finally ran out. In 1998, after some contentious legal wrangling, the boat was sold for a song. The “lucky” owner was a former Coast Guardsman and fisherman who managed to keep the ship afloat and operational in Newport for the next ten years. I remember unexpectedly discovering it at the fish dock and wondering how on earth it had arrived there.

He tried various strategies like short cruises and a bed and breakfast, but a vessel of this size runs up a sizable bill just to remain at the dock. About 24 years after its last polar expedition, the Hero changed hands for the last time and was towed to its final home on a private dock in Bay Center, on Willapa Bay on the south Washington coast. It might have been better for all concerned if it had sunk offshore—a common occurrence with aging ships—but it arrived safely and sat at its berth on the Palix River for the next nine years.

The Hero’s Last Stand

The new owner was a man with native American heritage named Sun Feather Lightdancer, and he too appeared to be another dreamer with no clear plan or funding. By 2012, he was reported to have removed all the marketable items from the bridge while seemingly unaware of the risk that he was taking by keeping the now-derelict boat smack in the middle of the biggest oyster-growing area on the west coast. Needless to say, the oyster growers were not impressed by the new arrival and viewed it with suspicion from the start.

Oyster boats passed it every day on their way to the Goose Point plant nearby. “Our remote setting facility is just downstream and we have a significant number of beds in the Bay Center area,” Brian Kingzett, the company’s senior biologist, told me. “Having it sink at dock was our worst fear realized.” All the growers’ protests went unheeded until 2015, when they convinced the authorities to inspect the boat’s hold, and a small quantity of oil in drums was removed. But no further action could be taken.

Unfortunately, the threat of pollution isn’t enough of a legal cause for the US Coast Guard to act, and the Hero was not even added to the state program’s list of “Vessels of Concern” in 2015 because there was no sign of an oil sheen. this slow-motion disaster inexorably reached its conclusion on March 2017, when the Hero slipped below the muddy water of the Palix River, ending its career “not with a bang, but a whimper.”

The US Coast Guard opened the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund for $25,000 to minimize pollution potential, and the state Department of Ecology immediately sprung into action. Ecology contracted with Global Diving & Salvage of Seattle to clean up the spill. Workers recovered more than 1,000 gallons of oily water, and 60 to 70 gallons of diesel fuel and oil. There was a temporary closure of the oyster beds, but the growers managed to avoid a long-term serious shut down.

But a closer look at the hull at low tide revealed an unexpected aspect of the problem: despite the extra-heavy construction, the hull was now in a very fragile state and would probably not withstand the strain of being re-floated and temporarily patched. The float-and-patch method would have enabled a tug to tow it slowly to nearby Raymond where it could be hauled out or cut up on a ramp. A mobile crane appeared to be other option, but the Hero is too far from the shore, too heavy, and too far gone for that to be feasible.

In any case, there is no money available to clean up the wreck, so it could be around for a considerable time. This sad situation joins a depressing list of derelict sinkings in the Pacific Northwest, all of which could have been avoided by government intervention before it was too late. However, this is not the way the law works. Troy Wood, derelict vessel removal program manager for the state Department of Natural Resources, explained this quandary very succinctly: “It was reported to us that it was ugly-looking, but it’s not against the law to be ugly,” he said.

The Palmer Station Club

Ironically, this entire dismal saga has been regularly followed by a group of Palmer Station veterans who have annual meetings and an online newsletter. It’s easy to understand the sadness and regret they feel at their failure to bring the boat back to Maine, where there is a fleet of wooden charter schooners and several traditional yards capable of maintaining them. The old Hero might have enjoyed a new lease of life and even earned its keep carrying passengers around Penobscot Bay. (The icebreaker Glacier also had a strong support from former crew and efforts to save it continued into 2012 even as it was towed to the breakers’ yard in Brownsville, Texas.)

The Hero’s original ship’s specification has been preserved by the club, and states “Six scientists and a crew of 12 comprise the normal complement which for special cruises may be increased by 7 transient personnel. Designed primarily for trawling and other biological collecting. Hero has three laboratories to support diverse research activities.” The backbone consists of an 18” x 18” keel and 6” x 6” framing spaced only 8” apart. Oak planking 2” thick covered the frames, and the sheathing along the forward part of the hull was tropical greenheart from Guyana overlaid with steel sheets.”

The ship was designed with a draft of 14′ “to reach previously inaccessible areas, and to operate alone in close proximity to sea ice.” It made the first surveys of many islands and inlets in a time when the sextant was still the primary instrument of navigation. The masts and booms were Oregon fir and the ketch rig with about 1,700 square feet of sail was often used to steady the motion and also allowed the crew to do some sampling and research in silence. and acted as a back-up to the engines.

The twin 368-hp main diesel engines drove a single propeller shaft, giving a cruising speed of 10 knots, while a massive 75 tons (2400 gallons) of fuel allowed a range of up to 6,000 miles. With redundant double boilers and circulating pumps for standby heating, two gen-sets, plus a spare shaft and propeller, it was well prepared for all the hazards it might encounter.

The superstructure consists of a pilot house with small bridge, navigation/radio room, and a small aft deck on which the hydrographic winch with 12,000 feet of 3/16-inch wire and two nested dories are located. The captain’s cabin and berths for three crew members were below on the main deck, adjoining a dissection laboratory and a large freezer for the storage of biological collections. The main deck is enclosed at the bow to accommodate the hydrographic laboratory, located on the port side, and storage areas. Amidships was an electric deep-sea trawling winch with three drums holding over 20,000 ‘of 1/2-inch-diameter wire.

The lower deck accommodations, from bow to stern, were cabins for eight crewmen, mess, galley, three two-man cabins for scientists, a large hold for storage of equipment and supplies in which bunks for as many as 10 persons can be accommodated on voyages between South America and Antarctica a microbiology laboratory, the engine room, and spaces for three crew members. Fuel and water tanks are located in the bilge below this deck. (I have no doubt that today’s marine scientists would be appalled by the tiny living quarters crammed into odd spots all over the boat.)

Throughout the 1970s, the boat continued ferrying geologists, biologists, and other scientists to Palmer during the short Antarctic summer. In 1972, the crew helped Jacques Cousteau and the Calypso when a member of his crew was fatally injured in a helicopter incident. The boat also came to the rescue of Polish scientists when their research station ran dangerously low on supplies and, in 1984, helped scientists at the Argentine research station after their base burned down.

The decommissioning of the Hero was the end of an era in many ways. Its successor was the steel research vessel Polar Duke, a 219-foot, ice-strengthened ship with an A-frame crane on the stern and and a helicopter deck on the bow. After 12 years service, it too was replaced as the march of progress quickly overtook a succession of new designs. Today, cruise ships visit polar areas that were first charted by the Hero—a little ship that truly lived up to its name.

Harvey Gamage Shipyard: Established 1924

From 1924 to 1976, Harvey Gamage personally oversaw the construction of more than 288 vessels–sailboats, powerboats, draggers, scallopers, and windjammers, as well as schooners designed by the well-known naval architect John Alden. Powerboats and small fishing and lobster boats became more common in the 1930s and 1940s. The construction of eight wooden military vessels occupied the Gamage yard from 1940 to 1944.

In 1944, the business turned to building rugged, able, and profitable wooden fishing boats. A total of 93 boats were launched between 1944 and 1969, averaging about four boats a year. These heavily framed, diesel-powered boats ranged from 70’ to 112’ in length, and formed the backbone of the Gloucester and New Bedford fishing fleets.

In 1959, Captain Havilah Hawkins asked Gamage to build the first schooner designed specifically for the windjammer passenger trade. The result was the 83-foot Mary Day, launched in 1960. From that date until 1976, when Harvey died, the shipyard’s output was 43 vessels – a mixture of draggers, research vessels, yachts, and big charter schooners.

In addition to the schooners, the Clearwater slid down the ways immediately after the Hero. This sloop was a historic replica modeled after the Dutch vessels that sailed the Hudson River in the 18th and 19th centuries. It became the flagship for the restoration of the Hudson River with the support of folk singer Pete Seeger.

As a reminder of the long-term costs of maintaining a big wooden vessel, the Clearwater underwent a complete structural restoration recently that cost close to $1 million. These traditional designs were followed in 1970 by the yard’s first steel-hulled fishing vessel—another sign that the Hero was really the end of the line for Maine’s long history of commercial wooden vessels.

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Ice Bird, Hero, Calypso at Palmer in 1972

Three remarkable craft made an unplanned rendezvous on the Antarctica Peninsula at Palmer Station in the summer of 1972.  The 125′ American research vessel Hero and the 154′ ex-WW II minesweeper Calypso were both traditional wooden vessels while the  32′ steel sloop Ice Bird was the first small sailing yacht to visit the frozen continent.

Their three skippers–Peter Lenie, Jacques Cousteau, and Dr David Lewis (solo sailor and adventurer from Australia/NZ) were among the most experienced and daring in the world. They also represented the last generation of  seafarers before modern technology revolutionized boat building and navigation.

Lewis was attempting the first solo circumnavigation of Antarctica. Departing from Sydney, Australia he encountered many storms, capsized twice and broke his mast 2,500 miles west of the Antarctic Peninsula. Continuing  under jury rig, he covered 2.500 miles on short rations and suffering from frostbitten hands. He averaged 40 miles per day and after over 90 days at sea, he sailed in to Palmer and moored at the pier that served the American base, alongside Jacques Cousteau’s Calypso.

The Ice Bird was in a sorry state, but several of the crew of Americans at the base volunteered to assist with repairs. A skilled mechanic revived the dead engine and a welder repaired the hull, but without a replacement for the broken mast, the boat was still stranded at the bottom of the world.

When the annual supply ship arrived with a full load of cargo, secured with a pair of heavy hatch battens, the lumber was “requisitioned” for use in the temporary boatyard that was set up on the ice. The 15′ x 8″ x 4″ spruce timbers were scarfed together and trimmed down to create a sturdy new mast 23′ long. Since the original alumunium mast was 36′ long, the new rig used the reefed mainsail with a gunter spar to extend the peak.

Lewis even found a drum of yellow paint that would make his boat more visible. However, the yacht also needed many new parts, and was still not fit to continue the voyage. Fortunately, National Geographic wanted Lewis to write more about his research into the Polynesian navigation methods, and sent him a radio message. Lewis was able to return to civilization on the Lindblad Explorer—the first cruise ship to visit Antarctica–before the Ice Bird was lifted out on a rare calm day with the base’s mobile crane.

He returned eight months later on the British supply ship John Biscoe, with new sails, self-steering gear, and other vital equipment. After more frantic efforts, the yacht was ready for a sea trial by early December. On the trial, it was accompanied by a Zodiac inflatable crewed by Albert Giannini and Kent Yates as cameraman. He managed to frame one good shot with the glacier in the background.(It appeared in Lewis’ book of the voyage, Ice Bird, © 1975 but Yates was not credited.)

Lewis left Palmer station on 12 December but was immediately trapped in an ice field and had to be towed to open water by the Hero. He battled on across the South Atlantic, but capsized and dis-masted again at 45°S. He made a second jury rig with the spinnaker boom that also failed and was replaced with the boom, which lasted long enough to bring the battered boat into Cape Town, South Africa in March 1974.

This dashed his hopes of circumnavigation, so his son, Barry, sailed the yacht back to Sydney where it was later donated to the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. It was recently overhauled and completely restored to show its condition in 1973 during the Antarctic voyage. It is on view in the new Powerhouse hall.

Ice Bird Arrives in Capetown

So consider this next time you see the words “world’s toughest race!” On his remarkable voyage at the age of 55, Lewis had no sponsors, no EPIRB, a broken radio, and no chance of rescue. He capsized multiple times and dis-masted twice in hurricane-force Antarctic storms, freezing weather and snow. With much help, he succeeded in repairing his boat in the most remote port on earth.

Lewis had many more adventures at sea, including the first ocean voyage of the Hokule’a, the Hawaiian replica of an ancient Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe, navigating without instruments. Later, he wintered over in Antarctica on a 60′ yacht for several seasons with unruly crews. Then his interest turned to the North Pacific and Arctic regions and peoples.

He partnered with Dr. Mimi George, an anthropologist, sailor, and writer specialized in voyaging cultures, to study and unite some Eskimo families split for 40 years, some in Alaska, some in the Chukotka region of Russia’s Far East. All were divided by the Bering Sea and the Cold War.

I met them at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival in the 1990’s when David gave a talk about that project. I was able to express my admiration of his achievements and thank him for inspiring me in 1962 with his first book “The Ship Would Not Travel Due West”

This short account barely skims the surface of one of his amazing voyages, of which there were many. He was married three times, enjoyed the company of many other  women, who were usually described as “very intelligent and beautiful,” and continued to sail small craft singlehanded on long voyages into his 70’s. At the age of 85, he lost his sight while cruising up the Australian coast, but continued sailing with friends until shortly before he died in Tin Can Bay on the Great Sandy Strait in Queensland in 2002.

Author’s notes:

  • Curiously, the Hero and the Calypso both have a strong connection with Washington state. The Calypso was launched in Lake Union, Washington in 1942 while the Hero ended its life as a derelict, sinking on Willapa Bay, Washington in 2017.
  • The Calypso had also become a derelict in a Brittany boatyard, but in 2016 was finally shipped to Turkey where the lower cost of labor would enable a re-build. At the time I wrote this in Sept. 2017, the Calypso was damaged by a serious fire.
  • Cousteau made a film of this adventure called “Voyage to the Edge of the World” that avoided showing both the Ice Bird and the Hero and depicted the French men as being alone on the ice.)
  • Lewis was a daring sailor but cared little about the condition of the craft he sailed. Most of them experienced serious mishaps, from dis-masting to sinking.
  • In the first OSTAR in 1960, he broke a shroud, lost his mast on the first day, but recovered to finish third.
  • In 1963, the experimental wishbone mast on his 40′ catamaran only lasted a few days on the way to the Arctic.
  • In 1971, the 39′ wooden fishing vessel he used to research Polynesian navigation sank when his son was returning it to New Zealand.
  • In 2000, starting a trip to Micronesia carrying a precious native shell, the foremast ripped out of the deck of his 42′ junk-rigged yacht, which sank in sight of NZ coast.
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508′ Liquid Ammonia Tank Barge from Vigor

Vigor, the Pacific Northwest’s biggest shipbuilder, has launched the Harvest, the first liquefied ammonia barge built in the U.S. since 1982. It was built for the Mosaic Co. of Minnesota, a leading producer of concentrated phosphate and potash fertilizers, and will be operated in the Gulf by a subsidiary of the Savage Company. The 508hull was constructed at Vigor’s HQ and base facility, the Swan Island shipyard in Portland, with the assistance of other Vigor divisions in the region.

The Harvest was the first vessel built to meet all the requirements of the latest safety and environmental rules for transporting liquid ammonia from the ABS (American Bureau of Shipping) and U.S. Coast Guard on. This cargo is a key ingredient in fertilizer that provides nitrogen essential for plant growth and must be transported in a dedicated tank barge with specialized handling and safety systems. It was completed two days ahead of schedule and was moored in the Willamette River and open for inspection on June 21, when the dedication ceremony took place at the shipyard in shirtsleeve weather.

This is a significant project for both the maritime industry and our community,” Vigor CEO Frank Foti told the crowd. The Harvest project combines Vigor’s capabilities in large vessel construction with decades of experience building complex structures like nuclear containment devices, dam lift-gates and bridges. It’s proof that the industrial artisans who are a huge part of the Portland and SW Washington economies are the reason we are nationally competitive.” Foti took the helm of the shipyard in 1995 (when it was called Cascade General) and has presided over a period of unprecedented growth in the last decade.

The J.H. Kelly Company, based in Longview, Washington, was a key partner in this effort, providing the onboard electrical work as well as pre-fabrication and installation of the cargo piping systems. The plant, cargo pumps, dual hose-handling cranes from Techcrane International, the 2,000 HP Schottel rotating bow thruster, and all other gear and systems are powered by the four CAT Tier 3, 960 Kw gen-sets. They are housed in the generator room aft where up to three engines are required to operate all equipment simultaneously, with the fourth engine as a back-up. Fuel tanks in the engine space contain over 24,000 gallons. Fuel transfer and electric power transfer from tug to barge is possible in an emergency.

The SmartChief power management system is fully automatic to maintain electrical supply to all essential services. It uses a dual computer set-up for redundancy and active back-up. When the main generators are off line, power for control and safety systems comes from a 163kW Caterpillar harbor generator. This free-standing unit is air-cooled and is housed in the central control room (CCR) amidships on the port side, along with the work stations for the Cargo Master and CargoMax cargo-transfer programs.

Vimex gas detection for the cargo tanks, re-liquefaction status, and CO2 fire prevention monitors are routed to the CCR, where all personal safety equipment, first aid, fire safety plans, breathing masks, and survival suits are stowed. (Liquid ammonia is considered non-flammable by USCG rules.) The CCR and deck manifolds are protected with water sprays in case of an ammonia release.

The hull was fabricated from 9,000 tons of American steel and fitted with 4,400 tons of equipment. The project involved close to a million labor hours, and employed approximately 1,500 people for nearly two years, at Vigor facilities in Oregon and Washington and subcontractors throughout the region. The barge will be partnered with a dedicated 4,000 HP tug to form an articulated tug and barge (ATB) via an Articouple Connection System. It is not manned during transit, when an umbilical cord to the tug allows the crew to have remote control of all the barge’s systems including alarms and tank levels.

The Harvest has four cargo tanks, each capable of holding 5,500 tons of liquid anhydrous ammonia at very low pressure. Because of the tight schedule, the tanks were fabricated in Korea and delivered by heavy-lift ship. The installation of the 1,100-ton tanks into the corresponding hull modules was sub-contracted to Oxbo Mega Transport Solutions of Scappoose, Oregon. The tanks had to be lifted over 50 feet off the ground and then precisely lowered into place. Oxbo designed a self-climbing gantry, utilizing four 600 metric ton, diesel-powered strand jacks, mounted 160 feet in the air on the four 135-foot-tall, 55,000-pound legs. The gantry was also used to turn and position the 680-ton bow and the 470-ton stern module.

Each tank has an instrument dome and a pumping dome with a pair of Wartsila deep-well cargo pumps that can complete full discharge in less than 24 hours. Loading and unloading locations on both sides of the vessel allow flexibility in docking. The manifold design allows for loading arm type connections as well as hose type connections of various diameters. The manifolds use fail-safe valves to ensure fast shut down in an emergency—and can be closed from shore side in an emergency.

The re-liquifaction deck module aft houses three ammonia compressors, two for duty and one as a spare. They are run by an independent control system to monitor tank pressures and cycle compressors on and off as needed to keep the cargo within the temperature range of -25 F. to -27 F. during transit, and loading. The rectangular tanks are approximately 100′ x 40′ x 40′ and fully insulated to a thickness of 6”. The Air Products nitrogen generator is supplied by two redundant air compressors and supplies gas to maintain an inert gas space around the tanks. A vacuum system allows for all voids to be evacuated of water should the need arise.

Deck equipment consists of pairs of double-drum Rapp 76-ton anchor winches anchor winches with 10 shots of chain (900 ft.), two 12,000 lbs., and an emergency tow wire ri, with a pair of Coastal wire mooring winches aft. The barge is equipped with a water-ballast system with a capacity of 343,000 cubic feet in 16 ballast tanks that can be filled or emptied in under 20 hours. It allows the crew to perform cargo and ballasting operations at the same time. Pilot boarding ladders are installed fore and aft to allow pilot boarding during light or heavy-draft connections, as well as provide access to life rafts if needed. Accommodation ladders on both sides allow access at any operating draft.

The project’s success hinged on extensive project planning and management between Vigor, marine engineers, systems designers and multiple sub-contractors. “We chose Vigor for this project following an extensive search. Their unique capabilities combined with our shared commitment to safety and environmental integrity were key drivers in our decision,” Savage President and CEO Kirk Aubry said. “We look forward to operating the ATB and providing safe transportation services for liquid ammonia.” (The Harvest is the biggest, most complex vessel built in Portland since Henry Kaiser established the Swan Island shipyard in 1942 to build T-2 oil tankers for the US Navy in World War II.)

A consortium of naval architects provided design expertise for this project: Ocean Tug and Barge Engineering, Milford, Mass. produced the overall layout and plans, Genoa Design International of Newfoundland, Canada performed production lofting and 3D modelling, Glosten of Seattle was responsible for production and detail design and regulatory approval, CT Marine of Edgecombe, Maine was a consultant. “It was an honor to partner with Savage and Mosaic on this project,” said Joe Corvelli, Vigor SVP and program manager. It was their close collaboration throughout the vessel construction that helped maintain an efficient and well-executed build.”

  • Length: 508’
  • Beam: 96’
  • Depth: 51’
  • Draft (Full Load): 26.6’
  • Articouple Connection System
  • Cargo: Refrigerated Liquid NH3 carried at –27 degrees F
  • Cargo Capacity: 22,000 ST @ 96%
  • Cargo Tank: Type A Prismatic Tank, (4)
  • Onboard re-liquefaction system for cargo maintenance
  • GENSETS: 4 x 940kW, 1 x 163kW
  • Fuel Storage Capacity: 27,250 Gal
  • Displacement 13,400 short tons
  • USCG and ABS approved U.V. Ballast Water Treatment System

Metric size

The Harvest, which measures nearly 155 meters in length, has a beam of 29 meters and depth of 15.5 meters.


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Caden Foss: 110′ Multi-Purpose Tier 4 Tug

The Pacific Northwest has been at the forefront of North American tug design since the 1980’s, and has brought many innovations to both ship-handling and long-haul tugs. Over the years, a handful of boats have attempted to combine both these functions in one hull, but the goal of a truly“multi-purpose tug” has remained elusive. Vessel Chartering LLC of San Francisco is the latest operator to take on this challenge with a 110′ x 40′ tractor design. It was jointly developed by Baydelta Navigation and Jensen Maritime, the Seattle naval architects who have produced many successful tug designs in this size range.

Construction began early in 2016 at JT Marine in Vancouver, Wash., who had previously built three 120′ Jensen-designed Titans for Hyak Marine, one of which is chartered to Foss. The new 110′ l was launched in May 2017 in Foss colors with the name Caden Foss and entered service at the end of July for an initial three-year charter. Baydelta operations manager/port engineer Peter Zwart was responsible for this project, which utilized all the experience gained from the company’s previous new-build program of six versatile 100′ tractor tugs delivered from 2006-2014, They were built by Nichols Brothers to a class design from Jensen with a 90-ton bollard pull. The Delta Billie and Delta Cathryn were retained for the company’s own use, while four more were long-term chartered to other SF Bay operators Foss and Crowley.

Baydelta was formed In 1993 by three San Francisco Bar Pilots who brought all their experience to bear in their choice of tugs and gear. They provide ship assist, petroleum escort and general towing services throughout the San Francisco Bay area as well as undertaking offshore assignments. Baydelta completes 500 to 600 escorts annually as part of a system that is heavily regulated by California’s Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR). The ships pass under three bridges with a tug tethered at the stern, navigating through narrow channels with strong currents and winds, passing heavy commercial and recreational traffic.

Environmental Considerations

Zwart explained that Vessel Chartering co-owner Captain Ron Charlesworth recognized in 2014 that several factors, particularly a court ruling on Chevron’s Richmond refinery modernization project, had created an opportunity to build and bare-boat charter a new tug on the Bay. The ruling required Chevron to cap greenhouse emissions at current levels and provide electrical supply (“cold ironing”) to tankers at the dockside. National environmental regulations would require the new tug’s engines meet Tier 4 emission controls and the use of a ballast-water treatment system. However, recently launched tugs had demonstrated the feasibility of using diesel fuel as movable ballast.

The decision was made to start with a clean sheet and build on the proven Delta 100’s with some ideas from Jensen’s proven 120′ Titan ocean-going class. Finally, Zwart was able to return to Jensen with a full-fledged concept for the multi-purpose boat. His check list now included a full-length keel with an 18′ draft for escort w0rk, the ability to turn 11,000 TEU ships in the 1400-foot width of the Port of Oakland turning basin, and a deck layout that could safely moving barges around the bay or offshore.

Fuel capacity was also an issue. The Delta 100’s can carry 70,840 gallons of fuel, but the new design would need a capacity of over 120,000 gallons to give it real long-distance towing ability. That 70% increase definitely required greater length to support the extra weight, Jensen’s engineers pointed out, and 110′ was the absolute minimum. The aft deck was laid out for barge towing with a double-drum winch that could handle both wire rope and a synthetic hawser for towing on the hip, and the foredeck was raised by four feet for offshore work and to allow full crew accommodations in the foc’sle.

These were just the first of many changes and compromises that were made to achieve the multi-purpose ability. According to Zwart, the key to a successful charter is to anticipate where the industry is heading and find new design features or technology that are likely to add value, safety or efficiency in the future, and incorporate these in a complete package to present to a potential charterer.

Caterpillar Selective Catalytic Reduction

A pair of the newest version of Caterpillar’s 3500-series diesel, the 3516e Tier 4 engine, came packaged with two Selective Catalyst Reaction (SCR) chambers. These neutralize the harmful NOx in the exhaust by scrubbing it with a spray of urea solution carried in a 4,600 gallon stainless steel tank–enough to treat the maximum fuel capacity of 123,000 gallons at the standard 5 percent rate. (The crew will transfer some of the 123,000 gallons of fuel between tanks in order to maintain proper trim.)

The power is increased slightly to 3,385 HP and the engines and entire space are painted while—a Baydelta tradition. They specified additional air filtration for the engines, plus Centa flexible couplings and carbon fiber shafts with a single bearing. On Jensen’s first Tier 4 build, the 120′ Titan Earl W Redd, the 6.5-feet x 5.25-feet x 3.3-feet SCR unit is placed on the main deck in the fidley, but on the 110, there was enough overhead space in the engine room, forward of the engines. With the extra depth of hull, this installation is remarkably clean.

The SCR module is wrapped in a standard insulation blanket, and is equipped with sensors to measure the percentage of the exhaust gases before and after treatment. However, the exhaust flow builds up more heat in the chamber than was initially predicted. This has been a real challenge, said Johan Sperling, a Jensen V.P. He had to go back to the drawing board to increase the size of the ventilation ducts. Sperling stated that the vessel’s length is sufficient to give it the towing performance and range of the Titan class, while still providing the maneuverability and feel of the Delta class tugs.

Two Cat 71-150 kW gensets are located forward and to port of the mains next. Like the Delta class, the 110′ has firefighting ability with a Stang 900 GPM Monitor driven by a 125 HP electric motor, giving it a FiFi Class 0 rating ​​​​​​​​​​?The main switchboard is to starboard, and the third gen-set required by the OSPR for back-up during tanker escorts is a Cat C4.1 75 kW installed aft in a insulated cover to reduce noise when not under way.

There is also a centerline compartment aft of the engine room that is dedicated to housing the switchboards and controls panels for all accessories, including both winches, the twin Rolls Royce 255/3800 FP ASD’s, pumps, hotel loads etc. On one wall, Woodward’s easYgen-3000™ Series paralleling genset controllers combine generator control and protection with advanced paralleling function through the LogicsManager™ programmable logic function that can easily integrate with SCADA or PLC-based control systems.

On the bow is an electric Markey Model DEPCF-52-75HP Class II Hawser Winch. It has a drum capacity for 600 ft. of 3” diameter synthetic line and has a rated performance of 30,800 LBS at 378 ft/min, giving it a 91 short-ton bollard pull—enough to handle container ships up to 18,000 TEU. Included in the package is the Markey Render/Recover feature that allows for hands free operation at up to full rated line-speeds and line-tension.

For barge towing, the aft deck is fitted with a 100 HP electric, double-drum Rapp tow winch. It can pull over 75 tons on the first layer, and wind 2,500′ of 2.5” wire on the port side and wrap a shot of chain on top of it via an offset level-wind. Bollard pull is 92 short tons.The Rapp pin box holds four pins with hold-down hooks. To fulfill the dual-purpose demand, the starboard winch drum carries a synthetic hawser used to snug a barge up on the hip through the small 50-ton staple on the aft deck. There is a back-up come-home drive if the primary motor fails, and all controls are pneumatic. This new design is a significant addition to Rapp’s range of tug winches, says Johann Sigurjonsson, president of Rapp USA.

The Caden Foss is well-protected on the bow by an unusual double row of Shibata rubber cylinders above a laminated -rubber wrap-around, all supplied by Schuyler. Closer to the waterline are eleven vertical strips of D-rubber. Two layers of D-rubber are wrapped around the stern, with tires amidships. This is to accommodate ships and barges of any size and draft.

The spacious wheelhouse provides all-around visibility and also meets the multi-purpose description: while the pilot has a conventional ASD helm station, the aft end of the house is devoted to the boat’s offshore function with matte black overhead paneling, a chart table, with an aft-facing set of duplicate helm controls plus the towing winch control panel. This uses Rapp’s patented PTS Pentagon Control System providing the operator full control and data tracking of winch use for maximum safety at sea. Navigation electronics are by Furuno and the ergonomic helm chair is a Bostrom Sea Post.

The deckhouse is large enough to accommodate a spacious galley, mess and lounge, and officers’ quarters. The four crew cabins in the forecastle under the raised foredeck are also very well furnished. The maximum capacity in the five rooms is ten, but Zwart expects the most crew will be six to eight when offshore. Fresh water capacity is 12,000 gallons, with a water maker available for the long hauls.

“We’ve done our best to give the Caden the ability to handle practically every type of tug work on the west coast that we can foresee. We think the industry will be watching it with interest,” Zwart told Pacific Maritime after the tug arrived on San Francisco Bay in July.

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Harbo & Samuelson “Hitch-Rowed” the Atlantic

First Atlantic Row: Harbo and Samuelson in 1896

The bizarre and risky activity of “ocean drifting by rowboat” has its origin in 1896 when two Norwegian fishermen departed Manhattan in an attempt to row the North Atlantic. Their boat was a solid plank-on-frame 18-foot dory heavily-loaded with canned food and water. They landed on the Scilly Isles in SW Britain in 55½ days. It was 70 years before anyone tried to repeat this feat.
In 1966, two British soldiers, Chay Blyth and John Ridgway, tried to repeat this voyage in a 20-foot open dory. It took them 92 days. In 2015, Tom Rainey and Lawrence Walters set out from Manhattan, New York to row to SW England. They also reached land after 92 Days. At the minimum, this demands we ask  how did the Norwegians beat modern rowers by 37 days? Remarkably, this only seemed to increase the respect for the Norwegians, who are regarded as the founders and patrons of the sport.

Harbo and Samuelson set off across the Atlantic in this 18′ skiff and arrived in SW England in 55 days. This is still considered the world record, even though the best time modern pairs have achieved is 92 days using modern gear like carbon fiber oars, watermakers, dehydrated food, GPS navigation etc.

This fully-documented evidence had not inspired anyone to make a side-by-side comparison of these voyages and ask how Harbo and Samuelson could possibly achieve an average speed of 60 miles per day. Although they admitted to getting a ride and a rest on one or more sailing ships! I submit that is why, 120 years later, that miraculous 55-day mark is impossible to beat. Even the best equipped and trained two-man teams with all the latest high-tech gear like carbon fiber oars, watermakers, dehydrated food, GPS navigation etc. can’t some within a month of it!
However, it would only increase my respect and admiration for them if I knew they had hoisted a small sail to increase their chances and avoid dying in a storm or from starvation or thirst. After all, they were poor fishermen trying to make a name for themselves and hopefully earn some money–not upper-class Victorian sporting gentlemen who would rather die than sacrifice their honor!
While researching this, I realized what a remarkable feat of navigation that was in a tiny boat under primitive conditions on a rolling ocean. In fact, accurate navigation by sextant from a rowboat in a seaway is practically impossible. In the 1800’s, celestial navigation required a lot of calculations and was only studied and mastered by ships’ officers. Besides getting a good noon sight on the sun, it requires use of an almanac and tables,  and a large scale chart to plot the position line. Next impossiole in a row boat in mid-ocean. It also demands that they kept all the tools dry and in good working order for two months in an open boat.
The highpoint of the Scilly Isles is Telegraph, only 167 ft above sea level. To make a landfall there after 55 days at sea is an achievement any clipper ship captain would be proud of.  So I suggest that Narbo and Samuelson must have relied on meeting a ship every few days and asking their position.
Do the Math!
For a 60-day crossing the Norwegians would have needed to carry about a gallon (3.5 L) of water per man per day. That means a minimum of 55 gallons per man–a weight of 900-1000 lbs, plus 300-400 lbs of food, which  would sink their dory. So they must have depended on collecting rainwater with a canvas sheet (generally called a “sail” by seamen) or stopping passing ships for supplies–a perilous way to cross an ocean!
When a four-man team followed the Norwegians’ direct route in 2010 and arrived in 43 days, the press acclaimed them for “smashing a 114-year world record.” This is a typical example of the hype, exaggeration and deception that has become standard journalistic practice.
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After 70 Years, Katie Ford Sails on in B.C.

In the summer of 2016, I received an email from the Canadian owner of the 44′ cruising yacht Katie Ford, inviting me to its 70th birthday party in Victoria B.C. This classic old sailing yacht was built in in 1946 at Astoria Marine Construction Company (AMCCO) and was considered the finest sailing vessel on the Lower Columbia until her designer and owner Heine Dole migrated north to Gig Harbor in the 1950’s. The yacht passed into Canadian ownership around 1970, and she has found a home on Vancouver Island ever since.

I have to admit that I had already written the story of the Katie Ford in the early 2000’s without ever seeing the boat, though I did correspond with the owner. (I relied mainly on a file of old photos and newspaper stories for the yacht’s early history–all the work of Larry Barber, the last marine reporter for the Oregonian newspaper.)

I finally caught sight of Katie Ford on the water at the Wooden Boat Festival in 2010, but it took another three years before I finally caught up with the boat and her third owner, Canadian Barry Goss, on my next visit to Port Townsend –by bike–in 2013. Having waited so long, I took my time walking down the dock, enjoying the anticipation.

On learning of my interest, Barry invited me on board, introduced me to his daughter Liz, and brought me up to date on the boat’s recent history. He told me he was leaving the boat in Point Hudson over the winter to have the planking completely inspected and replaced. Down below, I found the interior almost as if it had just been launched. It has a unique traditional design for living afloat full-time, which Dole did for several years on the south end of Puget Sound.

There is a comfortable v-berth in the foc’sle and one permanent bunk to starboard in the salon. Forward of the mast is a full galley with traditional Coast Foundry oil stove and small two-burner alcohol stove and sink . In the main cabin, there is a bookcase, solid fuel fireplace with tile surround, chart drawers, settees port and starboard. and a pull-down teak dining table that seats six.

I happily agreed to meet again on Sunday so I could join the family for the grand Parade of Sail in the afternoon. It was only once we were under sail that I really settled down and noticed almost nothing has been changed on deck. All the original bronze deck fittings Dole had installed are still in place, from the substantial Highfield levers for the runners to the roller-reefing main boom and wire-halyard winches. (One concession to modernity is the jib and foresail converted to roller-furling.)

Dole gave the yacht a steering wheel inside the pilot house with full visibility through the distinctive vertical windows, and a second wheel at the aft end of the cockpit, making it a true “pilot-house sailing yacht.The large mainsail and non-overlapping is also back in fashion, showing that there’s not much that’s really new in design.

Barry suggested I take the helm, and I happily steered Katie Ford to windward on a couple of laps out into the sound and back. I barely needed to touch the wheel while we easily made 4-5 knots, with very little leeway, passing the smaller craft and being passed by the big schooners. Total sail area of the cutter rig is around 1,000 square feet.

After a couple of memorable hours, we returned to Point Hudson and tied up at the head of the dock, so the boat would be ready to be lifted out in a couple of days. The sails were removed, and on Monday the mast was lifted out, and the yacht was soon tucked away inside the Navy A- building at Sea Marine. Robert d’Arcy, master of the schooner Martha, surveyed the bottom and confirmed the need to remove most of the planking below the waterline.

That required around 2,200 wood screws be unscrewed–no mean feat in itself–revealing the state of the interior structure in the bilges. After 65 years, many of the frames under the cockpit and amidships were ready to be retired. Around 1000 feet of Alaskan Yellow Cedar planking was shaped and fitted to the turn of the bilge–a skill that is rare these days–at least beyond Port Townsend!

In addition, d’Arcy replaced two water tanks, and installed a folding Maxprop, and a new engine–the boat’s fourth. Heinie Dole first installed a Gray Marine gas engine; it was replaced with a Hercules 50 HP motor many years ago. This was followed by a 55HP Perkins 4-108 diesel more recently, and the fourth engine— fitted this winter–is a 60hp Beta.

This was a once-in-a-lifetime complete re-build for this fine old yacht, but it also takes constant attention every winter to keep an old wooden vessel in good condition. She was previously given a major refit in 2001, when rot was located in the transom area. The stern was dismantled to get at the source and fit new framing and transom. That was also when the original hull color of blue was changed to white.

In 2002, the spruce mast was refitted and varnished; in 2003, Brian Toss Riggers of Port Townsend, replaced all standing rigging and lifelines. Since then, Katie Ford has been the subject of continual upgrades to gear like through hulls, electronics, circuits and breaker boxes, head replaced and re-plumbed etc. In 2009, the cabin top was replaced including removal of all fittings and Dorade vents, which were replaced.

With a complete set of new sails from Carol Hasse at Port Townsend Sails, this elegant lady of the north-west yachting scene returned to her Canadian home, ready for many more years of cruising and festivals. I wasn’t able to attend the party in Canada, but I hope to meet her again one day….

Posted in Nautical History, NW boats and boaters, Sailors & Yachts | Leave a comment

Opinion: Clipper Race a “Sporting Cult?”

The Clipper Race changes lives–but at what cost?

Joining the Clipper Race is a serious step that leads a novice or wanna-be sailor on a long, very expensive path away from family and friends into an isolated world full of like-minded people all dedicated to the this life-changing experience. This requires several training classes onshore and on the water, and up to 10 months racing around the world on a 70′ yacht. Many crew members have never been on a yacht in their lives and must commit to paying around $10,000 for one leg or $75,000 for the entire race.

This sounds and looks like a cult to me!

So I looked around the web and found an “ethical contract” used by the medical profession that has been re-purposed into a mock contract for cult membership. It is used as a teaching tool for cult survivors, and I have re-written it to create a contract for participants in the Clipper Race.

Judge for yourself….

Contract for Membership in the Clipper Race

I, ____________ hereby agree to join THE CLIPPER RACE.

I know what I am doing and agree to all of the conditions:

  1. I understand that my life will be changed personally and financially by my participation in the Clipper Race.
  2. I agree to ignore my own needs and goals as I learn to sail a Clipper yacht and become a Clipper crew.
  3. My clothing, personal appearance and diet will all be dictated by the Clipper organization.
  4. My total mental attention will focus on learning the skills, language and rules of the Clipper race.
  5. My family and friends will be neglected as I spend more time and money on training and race legs.
  6. I will accept and cherish the skipper’s opinions and skills more than my own.
  7. My self-esteem will depend on my relations with the crew, the skipper, and the Clipper management.
  8. My fear of rejection will determine what I say or do on board a Clipper yacht.
  9. While at sea, I waive my right to maintain contact with the outside world.
  10. In port, I will follow the directions of the organization by attending official events and staying with the group.

Now you can decide if this a joke, satire, or a skeptical opinion piece. I look forward to your comments…….

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The Cutty Sark Sails into the 21st Century

In 2008, the world’s only surviving clipper ship, the Cutty Sark, suffered a disastrous fire that came close to destroying the entire hull in its permanent drydock beside the River Thames in Greenwich. This news was especially shocking for me because I grew up less than a mile from the great ship and considered it a permanent part of my English heritage. It seemed highly unlikely that visitors would ever walk the decks of the great ship again, or stare up at the three square-rigged masts towering above the River Thames.

Whatever its fate, I knew I would always have memories of the Cutty Sark from my youth in the 1960’s, when I discovered sailing and made the ship a regular stop on my bike rides along the waterfront. The arrival of Sir Francis Chichester’s round-the-world yacht Gypsy Moth IV in 1967 was an additional attraction, though even then it was a sad sight: entombed in a smaller concrete pit than the Cutty Sark, and also open to the weather.

So I soon I found myself writing an epitaph for the last tea clipper for Northwest Yachting–and watching the salvage project unfold over the next five years…. I remembered taking an evening class on the ship in celestial (sextant) navigation in 1970. The instructor was a ship’s officer and the classroom was a musty ‘tween deck space with old figureheads on the walls.

Too Long in Harbor Rots Ships and Men!

I never did take a real noon sight from the deck of the plywood catamaran I had designed and built in a backyard and I was blissfully unaware of the short life of plywood yachts before the advent of epoxy and glass sheathing. Apparently no one ever suspected that the wooden hull and iron frames of the Cutty Sark were also deteriorating at an even more rapid rate—like  Chichester’s 54′ molded wood yacht.

But I spent the next 40 years in the Pacific North-West, far from unfashionable Greenwich, which slowly moved up the list of historic areas around London until it was selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. I built a 20′ plywood trimaran in 1972, and have managed to stave off the rot with the application of gallons of epoxy– and a lot of preventative surgery in the last few years!

Coincidentally, the same thing was happening in Greenwich, to the last clipper ship and the first yacht to follow the clipper route—two craft that were considered national treasures. The Cutty Sark was actually becoming a safety hazard by 2005, when a $40 million restoration finally began.

(Coincidentally, in 2005, the prestigious Camper & Nicholson yard was finishing the total restoration of the Gipsy Moth IV, repairing all the damage caused by rot burrowing deep into the six layers of hardwood that they had laminated by hand when they built the yacht. It did indeed sail around the world again 40 years after its pioneering voyage, but needed another re-build after stoving in the side on a coral reef in the South Pacific.)

The Cutty Sark also needed it share of luck to survive into the 21st century: the ship was totally stripped, and the entire rig, deckhouses and deck gear had all been removed for the re-build, when the fire ignited in a vacuum cleaner left running overnight. The flames were fed mainly by the temporary decks, wooden staging and plastic roof. The ship’s original planking–teak above the waterline and American rock elm below–was only slightly charred and 540 of the original long planks were saved.

Restoration versus Reconstruction

This disaster almost overwhelmed the charity that ran the ship, and vast amounts of money from the Heritage National Lottery Fund were needed to keep the project afloat. On top of that, a heated debate began among historians and traditional sailors about the way the preservation should proceed. There was even a group with the bizarre idea of making it seaworthy enough to become a training ship!

Essentially, the issue was reconstruction versus restoration. Restoration is what we expect of castles, antique cars, and archaeological finds–including Viking burial ships. Reconstruction is what sailors do to keep wooden ships seaworthy–gradually replacing everything that looks suspect, hopefully before it fails. The problem was that the Cutty Sark was there was nothing to replace.

It was one of the last vessels to use the first form of “composite construction,” with wood planking over wrought iron frames. This method gave the narrow clipper hull far more cargo space than would have been possible with large timber frames, and the stiffness to support three huge masts – the tallest 152 feet. But the high salt content retained in the bilges had acted as a catalyst for corrosion of the metal

To make matters worse, the hull was also sheathed in Muntz metal, a type of brass designed primarily as an anti-fouling measure, which also caused electrolytic corrosion. When the aft planking was removed, the frames looked as if they were being held up by the planks, not supporting them. Richard Doughty, director of the project, didn’t mince words: “Even in the mid-1990s, it was known that something had to be done to stop Cutty Sark’s iron framework rusting away. Otherwise we would have ended up with a heap of metal and planks in the bottom of the dock.”

My ambition was not only to preserve as much of the ship as possible but also to turn her back into a ‘must-see’ London destination, as she had been 30 years ago,” he continued. The solution approved by a hand-picked board began with a low-pressure air abrasive to remove corrosion, and then grit-assisted water jetting, again at low pressure, to clean the frames.

The metalwork was painted immediately after cleaning to prevent further corrosion. (The coatings were two-pack epoxy zinc phosphate primers, two-pack epoxy micacious iron oxide intermediate coats, and two-pack acrylic urethane gloss-finish top coats.) Original ironwork was painted white, as it was originally, and new steelwork painted gray. The planks were re-built with new wood spliced in where possible, or with epoxy fillers where they were too far gone.

Tea Chests, Wool Bales and Wheat Sacks

The Cutty Sark was launched in November 1869–the very same month the Suez Canal opened and put many sailing ships out of business. So it only made the tea run eight times, and never won it before the Chinese tea trade was lost to steam ships that went through the canal. But the commercial sailing fleet fortunately found a replacement cargo in the Australian wool trade.

This was where the ship excelled, setting records returning from Australia to England, although its cargo capacity may have been significantly less than the new iron “windjammers” in the trade. In 1885, the ship achieved a record of 77 days outbound to Australia and 73 days homebound with full holds. That commodity too was taken over by steam in the 1890s and the sailing fleet began a slow decline into oblivion.

Under the Portugese flag, the Cutty Sark traded around the Atlantic carrying many different cargoes back to Europe, including coal, jute and castor oil. In 1922, after 40 years with a Portugese crew, Cutty Sark was driven into Falmouth, SW England by a gale, and spotted by a retired sailing ship captain. He vowed to buy the clipper and bring it back to England, which he did the next year, saving it from the breaker’s yard.

He turned the ship into a cadet training vessel, and opened to the public on weekends. After the captain’s death in 1936, the ship was sold to Thames Nautical Training College, where she was again used for training cadets. During WWII, the Cutty Sark’s shortened rig was dismantled to reduce the visibility of the ship as a navigation aid for German bombers.

By 1950, the college was able to obtain modern war surplus vessels for training, and the last clipper ship needed to find new patrons. In another coincidence, Britain’s Labour government was planning the Festival of Britain, to brighten up the dull post-war years, and someone recognized the old ship’s potential as an exhibit. It was towed to Deptford, a mile upstream from Greenwich, and became a festival attraction. (This was not the first famous ship to find a place in Deptford–Francis Drake’s Golden Hinde had been put on show there in the late 1500’s.)

A preservation organization was formed and the Duke of Edinburgh was recruited as the patron. As part of SE London’s post-war re-building, a graving dock was excavated next to the Royal Naval College in Greenwich. The Cutty Sark was floated into its final resting place in 1954, the entrance channel was filled in, and the waterfront re-built. Soon, the ship became as famous a Greenwich landmark as the Royal Observatory–home of Greenwich Mean Time.

Being the last of the clipper ships allowed writers and sailors to start promoting the myth of the Cutty Sark as the most famous and fastest of her kind. This was certainly not the case when the tea races really made headlines, but the clippers actually differed very little in design. As in today’s sail racing, it was the skipper, the crew, and the weather that made the difference!

Time Runs Out in Greenwich

But time had run out in Greenwich by 2008. The trust was leaking money and fighting to stay afloat, as the cost sky-rocketed. First it was millions of pounds more, then tens of millions that were needed to keep the project moving. Doughty and the board had to find a way to not only preserve one of “Britain’s greatest maritime treasures,” but also find some way to finance its upkeep for the indefinite future.

Traditional sailors all over the world watched and worried while the board decided how they would resurrect this nautical icon. Months passed as numerous options were considered, but the trustees still disagreed on the best course to take. The lottery payments were suspended until a proper commercial plan was submitted that would show how the ship would be funded in the future.

The only real asset the trust had was the narrow lot around the crumbling dry dock–until Grimshaw architects suggested a revolutionary idea. Lift the ship off the ground and free the space under the ship’s keel as a unique exhibit hall and a venue for corporate hospitality events.

When this radical new plan was unveiled, it caused a storm of protest from every angle. Trustees resigned and expert consultants were fired if they disagreed. The dye was cast: this faded relic was to be reinforced with 160 tons of internal steel framing, raised into the air, hung on giant steel struts, and surrounded with a geodesic glass roof attached at the waterline!

Doughty put it this way: ”It was clear from the moment we were engaged on the project that we needed a radical idea to present the ship in an exciting way for 21st century audiences. Early on, I went down under the ship and realized that I hadn’t really appreciated how important the hull shape was to the speed of Cutty Sark. It’s very common for sailors to look at their boats from below in a boatyard but it’s not common for most people and it would be the best opportunity for them to appreciate the ship’s shape. This was the beginning of the radical idea, and lifting the ship also took the weight of the ship off her fragile iron framework.”

A Thoroughly Modern Clipper

The Cutty Sark had survived from the 19th century to the new millennium, but could it survive the 21st century? And how would it look next to some of the finest baroque architecture in the world? On the floor of the graving dock, the keel was encased in a steel box and the hull reinforced with numerous steel sister frames and shelves. Then 14 massive compression tubes were maneuvered into place beneath the ‘tween deck, with cables running down to the keel from each end to form rigid triangular trusses inside the hull.

These are invisible except where they pierce the topsides with 14 giant chainplates per side, which are pinned to angled tubular legs running up from the dry dock. With this new skeleton carrying the weight and preventing any sagging, the hull was jacked up 11 feet by a specialist Dutch company, and suspend in mid-air for the foreseeable future. Then the glass dome was erected, and even the most optimistic of observers had to admit that it appeared to be floating on a sea of angled tinted glass panels—or dropped from a great height onto a waterbed, as one critic put it.

That was the state of affairs when I made my first visit to Greenwich in 24 years early in 2012. The spars were being hoisted aloft and landscaping work was still underway to prepare the site for the visit of Queen Elizabeth, who had originally opened the Cutty Sark to the public in 1957. It rained of course, but she cut the ribbon again and refrained from commenting on the design or the final cost of $80 million. (Unlike her son, Prince Charles, who is a harsh critic of modernism.)

To the general public, the result was another British triumph of engineering. Personally, I really didn’t mind the idea of the glass roof, but because the waterline was now high above ground level, the roof curved down to the ground, which looked very non-nautical.

What the Critics Said

However, the final result evoked some witty and ferocious criticism in the papers. The design was derided by both the architectural press and the historic ship fraternity, who compared it to a “Victorian hovercraft, a dockside crash into a greenhouse,” etc. Building Design magazine awarded the project its Carbuncle Cup for the worst new building completed in 2012: “One is left bewildered by the idea that this jewel of British maritime history should have been subjected to such dramatic adjustment in order to equip it for an age of mass tourism.”

An Unsinkable Ship

Another year passed before my second visit in 2013. On the first day, I was content to walk around the ship and continued into the old Royal Naval Hospital—a favorite location for films needing a historic backdrop, from “Pirates of the Caribbean” to “The Iron Lady.” After several days of brief walks around the outside, I finally took the plunge, and entered the dome through the gift shop under the stern counter to buy my ticket.

I was trying to maintain my journalistic neutrality, but finding the only entrance to the ship was via a large aperture cut into the hull below the waterline really shocked me. Once inside, I was glad to see a traditional approach with stacks of tea chests and explanatory signs. The ten-minute video was entertaining and informative for me and a family that was also watching.

The best feature was the large amount of the hull planking that was left visible, with the old and new steel framing and the diagonals visible. And unless you knew where to look, the triangular truss was barely discernible.

The main deck is brand new but still looks authentic, and the chance to touch the rigging, the winches and the giant wheel, and see the captain’s cabin and officers’ mess really takes you back in time.

Unfortunately, the exit is as annoying as the entrance. You descend from the deck via a large glass tower, with an elevator for handicapped access. That eyesore brought me back to the gift shop, and the stairs down to the dry dock. I have walked under many ships in north-west drydocks, but that bears no comparison to the strange sensation of walking under the Cutty Sark.

The metal sheathing gleamed gold and bronze as the sunlight streamed down through the angled glass roof, creating a unique ambiance and a slightly religious atmosphere. The ship seemed to float above my head like a plane in an air museum, and the keel stretched out for 200 feet.

The world’s biggest collection of figureheads, including the ship’s own carving of the Scottish witch in her “cutty sark” (short shirt) filled the head of the dock. All the wooden characters seem to be locked in a permanent gaze toward the central space under the keel where, says the ship’s website, “There are great opportunities to design your event beneath the gleaming copper hull, perfect for gala dinners, awards ceremonies, unique events and receptions.” Cost–$20,000 per night.

After I’d circled the ship, I turned my gaze up to the 14 massive struts that support the hull on each side. It’s the kind of engineering you expect to see in a bridge or giant crane, but not around a historic ship. So, if I had to sum up my impression, I would have to say that it’s well worth a visit, but the world’s last clipper has now been transformed into the world’s first “robo-ship.”

P.S. Cutty Sark (1869) v. Star of India (1863)

By the time the Cutty Sark was launched in 1869, the technology of building ships from iron plates was already in use, and those riveted iron ships have proved to be incredibly durable. Around the USA and northern Europe there are numerous iron sailing ships still afloat. Some are still seaworthy including the 205′ Star of India, based in San Diego, which sails around Mission Bay every two years.

Remarkably, it was built in 1863 on the Isle of Man, one of the British Isles. It is not considered a true clipper, but was nonetheless a fast ship, making 21 passages from England to New Zealand in as little as 100 days, carrying emigrants. It is the oldest iron-hulled merchant ship still floating and the oldest ship still sailing regularly.

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How the Taste for Tea Created the Tea Clippers

Tea reached Europe from China around 1560 on Portuguese and Dutch ships, but it was a latecomer to England. In London, coffee was the drink of choice among businessmen and Edward Lloyd’s coffee house became the center of shipping insurance. The most English of drinks only gained popularity when Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660. His wife, Catherine of Braganza, was a Portuguese princess who had grown up drinking tea, so she introduced this new beverage into her aristocratic circle.

Upper-class ladies followed this new trend and it was promoted as a medicinal beverage or tonic. This was great for the British East India Company, which had a total monopoly on trade with Asia. Since there was no competition, there was no hurry to transport tea or coffee. The company’s priority was to minimize costs and become the world’s first “multi-national corporation.” So they built full-hulled heavily-armed ships that took almost two years to complete the round trip to China.

A 1676 act taxed tea and required coffee house operators to apply for a license. This was just the start of government attempts to control, or profit from the popularity of tea. By 1700, over 500 of the coffee houses of London also sold tea; one promised it would “make the body active and lusty.”

This distressed the tavern owners, as tea houses cut into their sales of ale and gin, and the government, which depended upon the liquor taxes and had burdened it with taxes and duties of over 100%. The result was a whole new industry – tea smuggling. The smugglers became so efficient that Britons were drinking more smuggled tea than legal tea!

Tea and Politics in the Americas

The American colonies also had a thirst for tea, which had to be landed in England first and re-loaded for shipment to the American colonies. When the government in London gave permission to ship direct to the colonies from Asia, an extra tax of three pence per pound was levied. The American colonists were outraged by the tax on this important commodity, and the continuing monopoly of the East India company.

When British ships arrived in Boston in late 1773, the townspeople resolved that no tea would be brought ashore and no duty paid. This led to the Boston Tea Party, and ultimately to the War of Independence. The outrageous taxes on tea had also had a dramatic effect in Britain, where more tea was smuggled into the country than imported legally. In 1784, The Commutation Act reduced the tax on tea from 119 per cent to 12.5 per cent. The smuggling of tea ceased to be profitable, and the smuggling trade vanished virtually overnight.

When the USA emerged from the war, it began its own tea trade with China using the small handy ships that had escaped the English navy like the Lady Washington and the Columbia Rediviva. By the early 1800’s, the USA had its own fleet of trading ships and able captains and had established a regular route to China and back. This was a three-part route that could produce huge profits—if they could survive the many dangers!

In Boston or New York they loaded locally-produced goods and foods, rounded Cape Horn and sailed all the way to the remote north-west coast. Here, they traded for furs and timber that they carried across the Pacific via Hawaii to China. The second cargo was turn traded for tea, pottery and textiles that would fetch a good price back in the north-east USA.

The Yankee Clippers

In 1833, the British government finally put a stop to the East India Company’s tea monopoly, and an exciting new chapter in shipping began. New Englanders saw the opportunity and their ship design began to evolve to fill the need for faster cargo ships. This new type of vessel had a sharp bow, slender hull, and acres of sail.

The first real “clipper” was the 159′ Rainbow, designed by John W. Griffiths and launched in 1845. This created a sensation while on the stocks because of the concave or hollowed lines forward, which defied all tradition and practice. She made the journey from New York to Canton in 102 days – taking more than two weeks off the previous record for that trip.

Maine yards built most of the clippers, which also carried passengers and mail across the Atlantic, then supplied the gold fields in California during the Gold Rush of 1848-50. The Flying Cloud was was the most famous of the Yankee clippers built by Donald McKay. In 1854, it set the record for the fastest passage between New York and San Francisco of 89 days 8 hours that was only beaten by modern yachts in the 1990’s.

in 1849 the British Navigation Laws were repealed, opening up the tea trade, so American ships could now deliver Chinese tea and goods to Britain. The first clipper to take advantage of this was Oriental, which arrived at West India Dock in London on 3 December 1850 – just 97 days after leaving Hong Kong. British merchants were horrified – this was three times as fast as the East Indiamen.

The Tea Races

In 1851, a British ship owner built the aptly named 174′ clipper Challenger on the River Thames, with the stated intention of beating the Americans. Leaving Canton for London in 1852 loaded with tea, she fell in with the 224′ American clipper Challenge, a much larger, older ship, admired for her speed. The news of the race was wired to London where large sums were bet on which would make it to London first. The British Challenger won by two days, amid much jubilation.

The demand for tea was now so huge that the tea merchants’ warehouses depended on the arrival of the fresh crop at the docks. In 1853, this led to the understanding that there would be a race from the Canton River to the London Docks. The first ship to unload its cargo won the captain and crew a hefty bonus. It soon became the greatest sailing spectacle of all time as the great ships raced up the channel to the Thames come hell or high water. Telegrams would be sent with news of their progress and crowds would gather at the docks.

This led to a boom in shipbuilding in Britain in the early 1860’s and over 60 clippers loaded tea in China in 1866; 16 of the best ships assembled at the Pagoda Anchorage on the Min River, downriver from Foochow. Among them were the 185′ Fiery Cross, which had been the first tea clipper home in 1861, 1862, 1863 and 1865–and should by all rights be remembered as the “greatest of the clipper ships.” As a slightly older ship, she was built entirely of wood. Nevertheless, she was full of the latest technology: iron masts and riggin and Cunningham’s patent roller reefing topsails and top-gallants.

The 197′ Ariel carried 100 tons of fixed iron ballast, moulded to fit low in the hull and a further 20 tons of moveable iron ballast. This gives an indication of the “yacht like” nature of her design. The 183′ Taeping had already made a fast passage of 89 days to London, covering about 15,800 nautical miles. The fastest ships had all left China on the same tide; Ariel, Taeping and Serica arrived at the London Docks 99 days later and docked on the same tide. The tea brokers declared the race a tie. It made a great story and is remembered to this day.

The End of an Era

When fully rigged and riding a trade wind, these clippers could reach average speeds of 16 knots. But their average speed was closer to 6 knots. What isn’t mentioned is the fact that a sailing ship with auxiliary steam power had departed later than the tea racers and arrived almost two weeks earlier in 77 days. A steamer, SS Agamemnon, had just completed a record outward passage of 65 days and was on her return trip with a very large cargo of tea. Because of their speed and reliability, the rate paid to steamers was nearly twice that paid to the sailing ships, and the insurance premium was cheaper.

The age of the tea clippers lasted only two decades,1849-1869, but this brief reign has gone down in nautical history, famed for its daring and romance. The Cutty Sark was built in 1869, in the mistaken belief that the Suez Canal and steamships would not take over the tea trade. The last race between tea clippers to catch public attention was between Thermopylae and Cutty Sark in 1872.


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