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AFSC Historical Corner:  Penguin,  Pribilof Tender for 20 Years (1930-50)

Early Pioneers
Research and Mgmt.
The Albatross, 1882
Early BOF Patrol Boats
FWS Vessels
Newer Research Ships
Pribilof Tenders
Launches/Small Craft
Charters/Other Boats
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The new BOF Pribilof tender Penguin.  Bureau of Fisheries photo, 1931.

To satisfy the Bureau of Fisheries' (BOF) need for a new Pribilof tender to replace the Eider, Congress appropriated $125,000 to construct the BOF's largest Alaska vessel to date, the Penguin. The contract to build the wooden ship was awarded to the Ballard Marine Railroad Company of Seattle, Washington, with their low bid of $89,589. This shipyard also built the British minesweeper that would become the famous Calypso used by Jacques-Yves Cousteau for his noted international field research.

Vessel Details
Year built: 1930
Location built: Seattle, WA
Builder: Ballard Marine Railway Co.
Designer: H. C. Hanson
Other names/id: Carib Queen
Length: 130'
Breadth: 27'
Draft: 17' 10"
Tonnage (tons): 394 gross
Original engine: twin 400 hp, 6 cyl., direct-
reversible Union full diesels
Average speed: 10 knots
Cruising range: 4,000 miles
Known skippers: Amund Anderson  (1930)
Elias Boe  (1931)
Harold P. Knutsen  (1940-46)
Giovanni Knudsen  (1946)
Pribilof service: 1930-50
Disposition: damaged by fire in 1950

Designed by the acclaimed Seattle naval architect, H. C. Hanson, the Penguin had a sturdy sheathed ironbark hull that allowed for sailing in heavy weather and drifting ice. Below deck, her comfortable and adequate quarters would be used over the years by numerous BOF employees and various officials while traveling to and from Alaska. Her hold could accommodate 160 tons of cargo.

Powering the vessel were two 400-horsepower, 6-cylinder Union full diesel engines driving twin screws. Her fuel capacity provided a 4,000-mile cruising radius. Six years after her construction, a fathometer for measuring water depths was installed during an overhaul in Seattle, which greatly aided in navigation, particularly while sailing in the hazardous Aleutian waters.

On 8 January 1930, the 130-foot Penguin was launched at Salmon Bay in Seattle. The event had actually been scheduled for the previous day, but following the traditional bottle-christening ceremony, the ship refused to slide down the skids into the water – the cold winter temperatures had frozen the skid grease, holding the Penguin securely on the ways. Even the efforts of two boats in the water pulling on the Penguin failed to free her. Fortunately, by the next day, the grease was thawed and, in front of a large enthusiastic crowd, another bottle was broken and the ship was successfully launched.
Immediately following her commissioning, the Penguin left Seattle on 5 May 1930, arriving at the Pribilof Islands (St. Paul and St. George) 11 days later. She brought with her 17 BOF employees and 175 tons of general cargo. In September, the ship also provided 2 weeks of service in connection with salmon escapement studies in the Ketchikan district, Southeast Alaska. Late in the year, the vessel proved her capabilities while performing successfully during extreme weather conditions. The Penguin logged over 20,600 nautical miles during the 8 months of her busy maiden year.

In 1933, the Penguin was involved in a winter rescue operation. On 24 January, the 59-foot wooden Unangan trading boat Umnak Native found herself in a violent storm while moored in Inanudak Bay on Umnak Island. Consequently, her anchor chain snapped and her engine failed to start. The foundering vessel broke apart and 11 lives were lost to drowning or exposure. One of the four survivors was Bishop Antonin Pokrovsky, of the Russian Orthodox Church, who had managed to reach shore. He was discovered by local inhabitants, who were unable to transport him either by land or small boat. The steamer Starr was in the vicinity, but her captain lacked the charts needed to enter the bay safely. The BOF was contacted and dispatched the Penguin, which, on 14 February, was able to rescue the bishop who was suffering from severe illness and frozen legs.

The Penguin.  Auke Bay Laboratories photo.

The Penguin also encountered a few mishaps of her own while serving in Alaska. On 8 August 1933, strong tidal currents in Seymour Narrows endangered the ship after her steering gear broke. As fortune would have it, the nearby halibut fishing boat Bernice was able to tow the Penguin to safety where repairs could be made.

Then several weeks later on 21 September, the Penguin was about 12 miles southeast of Ketchikan when she struck the vessel Tuscan, which was hauling mail. Following the incident, the Penguin towed the damaged Tuscan to Ketchikan. A $6,800 claim was filed by the Tuscan owners. Six months later the case was tried and dismissed due to an inability of the claimants to show negligence on the part of the Penguin. The Penguin also underwent a 2-week quarantine while at St. Paul Island after a case of measles was discovered aboard the vessel on 1 July 1939.

Throughout her service life to the BOF, the Penguin was used for other purposes other than just supplying the Pribilofs. The Commissioner of Fisheries, Henry O'Malley, and his party used the ship for several weeks in July and August of 1931 to inspect fisheries throughout parts of Alaska. During this time the BOF vessel Crane substituted as Pribilof tender. In September 1932, the Penguin transported three live fur seals and 19 rosy-finches from the Pribilof Islands to Seattle. The fauna continued their journey by train to the National Zoological Park at Washington D.C. – one male seal and three of the birds died en route. In 1934, the vessel provided transportation to various places along coastal Alaska for U.S. Navy, U.S. Post Office, and Steamboat Inspection Service personnel.

Some Insight on the Penguin
Actual accounts from passengers on the Penguin are very limited, however, Fredericka Martin offers a few vivid details concerning the ship and life aboard the northbound cruise to the Pribilof Islands in the summer of 1941 (Martin 2010*):

On first seeing the Penguin at dock on Lake Union, Seattle, she notes that "the outlines of the Penguin...belied the claim of a four-hundred-ton displacement. Even the mountains of crates and boxes hiding the deck failed to add bulk to its size."

Her fellow passengers included 20 young college students employed to blubber seal skins for the Fouke Fur Company (St. Louis, Missouri). As Martin recounts they wandered restlessly from one spot to another or sprawled out uncomfortably for sun baths. She notes that the northbound ship with limited deck space had many passengers and everyone "sought out a crevice in the freight and maintained squatter's rights determinedly" seeking some fresh air to help avoid seasickness.

Martin also recounts how life on St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs centered around each arrival and departure of the Penguin during the two years when she and her husband were on the island. Each arrival was eagerly awaited especially when everyday supplies were in short supply. Any delay caused anxiety among the islands residents and there was further frustration when the Penguin would arrive but had to wait for unloading because of poor weather conditions. Lacking natural or man-made harbors on the islands, the supplies and passengers had to be transported between ship and shore in the open water using baidars (small canvas covered boats). This transfer was neither safe nor fast with the unpredictable seas that surrounded these islands.

Martin notes how the sacks of mail was one the first things to be offloaded at each stop as this was the major connection between the island communities and the outside world.

* Martin, F. L. 2010. Before the Storm Broke: A Year in the Pribilof Islands, 1941-1942. University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks, 385 p.

In 1937, a remote field station consisting of several buildings was established in the western Aleutian Chain on Amchitka Island for the purpose of expanding the study and protection of sea otters. In this and future years, the Penguin provided vital transportation of cargo, supplies, building materials and workmen from other island communities for the construction and maintenance of the facility. In 1940, the Penguin's crew also assisted at the Amchitka facility with electrical repairs, power plant servicing, and the installation of a radio-telephone transmitter and antennae.

Throughout the 1930s, the annual take of seal skins at the Pribilofs increased significantly. By the end of the decade, they numbered over 60,000 skins (64,864 in 1940), the most taken in 50 years. Based on 1939 sales their value averaged just over $19 per skin. In the 1938-39 trapping season (December to January) 1,029 fox pelts were also taken from the Pribilof Islands, with values averaging $14 to $15 per skin. As usual, the Penguin and various military ships transported the seal and fox skins to Seattle where they were then sent by rail to St. Louis for processing and public auction by the Fouke Fur Company.

In addition to the fur seal skins, byproducts from sealing operations were also hauled from the St. Paul Island plant to Seattle. In 1939, these commodities, which sold for over $15,500, consisted of nearly 28,000 gallons (514 barrels) of seal blubber oil ($8,704 at just over 31 cents per gallon), 4,789 gallons of seal carcass oil; and 338,421 pounds ($6,863) of seal meal. The Division of Fish Culture acquired 75 tons of the meal for use across the country as hatchery fish food, while the remainder was sold to high bidders.

As the threat of war in the Pacific grew, the Penguin was transferred to the U.S. Navy in 1941, and returned to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, in early 1942 to resume her Pribilof cruises for the (now) Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). During 1942, supplies, provisions and equipment were transported to the Funter Bay, Alaska, camp in preparation for the evacuation of the Pribilof Islands.

By 1948, the heavily used Penguin was logging nearly 29,000 nautical miles each year. Some of her cruises involved the study of albatrosses in 1947-49 – voyages that led her to the tip of the Aleutian Chain, across the North Pacific Ocean, and as far south as San Francisco.

The Penguin's federal service came to an abrupt end when fire destroyed her superstructure and cabins on the night of 3 June 1950, while she was moored at the FWS dock in Lake Union at Seattle. Fortunately, her hull was saved. The damage, originally estimated between $15,000 and $20,000, forced the FWS to retire her from service and seek an immediate replacement – the Penguin II. The burned Penguin was sold for $25,778 at auction to Tom Farrell and Russ Gibson of Seattle on 21 March 1951.

Her designer, H. C. Hanson, then obtained the vessel he fondly referred to as the "best wooden boat ever built". Hanson felt the ship could be saved and went about completely rebuilding her along with new wiring and equipment. In 1957, the Penguin was sold to the H. O. Merren Company of the Cayman Islands. Renamed the Carib Queen under the British flag, and based out of Georgetown, Cayman Islands, the vessel's last known use was transporting tourists from Florida to the company's Cayman resort in the Caribbean.

Penguin photos in the AFSC Multimedia Gallery.

Damage to the Penguin's pilot house and upper cabins from the 1950 fire.
Photo print provided by V. Lundquist (AFSC). Photographer unknown.

Additional reading:

Anonymous. 1930. "Penguin" a Ship That Wouldn't Launch. Pacific Motor Boat, Feb. 1930. p.39, 48.
Anonymous. 1930. Penguin Takes to the Water. Pacific Motor Boat, June 1930. p.55.
Anonymous. 1930. New Motor Patrol Ship for Alaska Fisheries. Pacific Marine Review, April 1930. p.157.  (online at Internet Archive)
Anonymous. 1957. "Penguin" Goes to Sea Again Under a New Flag. Pacific Motor Boat, Aug. 1957. p.22.

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