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AFSC Historical Corner:  Petrel  and  Merganser,  World War I Boats

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The Albatross, 1882
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During World War I, several vessels were used by the U.S. Navy Department as scout patrols off the U.S. East Coast. After the war, a 24 May 1919 Executive order addressed the disposition of vessels no longer needed by the Navy and, subsequently, several boats were transferred to the Bureau of Fisheries (BOF) in 1919.

Two of these vessels, the Cobra (S.P.626) and Calypso (S.P.632) were obtained by the Bureau at Quincy, Massachusetts, in July 1919. The boats were towed to the Bureau's Woods Hole station in Massachusetts by the BOF vessel Phalarope, renamed the Petrel and Merganser, respectively, then towed by the Phalarope on to the Norfolk Navy Yard in Virginia.

At Norfolk, both boats were loaded aboard the U.S.S. Neptune on 3 October for transport to the Pacific Northwest. They arrived at the Puget Sound Navy Yard in early 1920 and were taken to Seattle, Washington, where inspections were made.

They were then hauled to King Cove, Alaska, aboard the Pacific American Fisheries steamer Redwood, arriving on 18 June 1920. For the next two years, both boats were held from active fisheries service in Alaska. During this time, the Petrel and Merganser were returned to Seattle where they were repaired and oufitted for fishery patrol work as funds became available.

Two other excessed Navy boats were obtained by the BOF in 1919 which also joined the Alaska fleet; the Widgeon and the Kittiwake.

The Petrel, 1919 - ?  (Alaska service)

The Petrel.  Bureau of Fisheries photo, 1924.

Petrel  Details
Year built: 1917
Location built: Lynn, MA
Builder: Britt Brothers
Cobra  (1917-18)
USS Cobra, SP-626  (WWI)
Length: 54'
Breadth: 11'
Draft: 2.5'
Tonnage: 23 tons gross, 15 tons net
(with BOF) 
350-400 hp Dusenberg
(original) engine
Fuel capacity: 600 gallons
Speed: 26 knots (avg.)
Range: 8,400 miles
Known skippers: C. E. Tibbits  (1922)
Iver N. Stanisland  (1923-25)
Henry E. Thorpe  (1929)
Clyde I. Dell  (1931)
Known service: 1919-34  (in Alaska)
Disposition: unknown

The pleasure craft Cobra was built in 1917 during World War I at Lynn, Massachusetts, at a cost of $14,000. She was originally equipped with a single mast and room for a complement of seven. For war use she was soon acquired by the U.S. Navy in September 1917 and commissioned the USS Cobra (SP-626). In November she began shore patrol off New England operated by the First Naval District. After the war she was transferred to the Bureau of Fisheries (BOF) in September 1919 and renamed the Petrel.

After arriving in the Pacific Northwest from Norfolk, Virginia, the BOF vessel Petrel was prepared in early 1922 for work in Alaska. The renovations involved general redmodeling and redecking. In addition, her engine was replaced with a more economical 25-horsepower Standard motor taken from the Bureau's vessel Auklet, which just had its engine upgraded. Early that summer, the Petrel was towed by the Auklet from Seattle, Washington, to Wrangell, Alaska, to begin her annual fisheries patrol duty in southeastern Alaska.

The secondhand engine later become defective, causing the Petrel to be laid up during the 1926 fishing season. Her patrol work resumed on 20 September 1927 after a new 50-horsepower, 4-cylinder Cummins engine was installed. In 1930, she spent some time enforcing the fur seal protection laws in the vicinity of Sitka, Alaska. The last known mention of the Petrel is that she was placed out of commission in Seattle after the 1934 season.


The Merganser, 1919 - ?  (Alaska service)

The USS Calypso (SP-632), ca. 1917-19.  U.S. Naval Historical Center photo.

Merganser  Details
Year built: 1909
Location built: Morris Heights, NY
Builder: New York Yacht,
Launch & Engine Co.
Calypso  (1909-18)
USS Calypso, SP-632 (WWI)
#206289  (USCG ID)
Length: 54'
Breadth: 10.5'
Draft: 3' 8"
Tonnage: 16 tons gross, 13 tons net
Engine: 20 hp Alco gas (original)
Fuel capacity: 100 gallons
Speed: 9 mph (avg.)
Known service: 1919-42  (in Alaska)
Disposition: unknown

Prior to World War I, the 45-foot Calypso was originally a civilian pleasure craft. She was acquired from her owner, A.L. Mason (Westfield, N.J.), by the U.S. Navy, who then modified her into a motor launch for use during the war. She was commissioned in July 1917 as the USS Calypso (SP-632 and patrolled in the northeastern waters of the U.S.

Two years later, the vessel was transferred to the Bureau of Fisheries (BOF), renamed the Merganser, and sent to Seattle, arriving in early 1920. For the remainder of the year, she received over $3,000 in repairs in preparation for Alaska service.

The Merganser made a few trips between Seattle and Alaska before she actually engaged in much enforcement work. The launch was first towed to Ketchikan in March 1921 by the U.S. Forest Service vessel Hiawatha, then nearly a year later, was towed by the BOF boat Auklet from Wrangell back to Seattle for additional repairs and the installation of a new 16-horsepower engine. Two months later, the Merganser was heading back north again, this time transported aboard the Northwestern Fisheries Company ship St. Paul. She arrived at Chignik, Alaska, on 25 April 1922 where she was finally ready to begin her regular summer fisheries patrol duty.

This marked the start of the Merganser's service enforcing the laws which protected the salmon, halibut, sea otter and fur seal fisheries. During the mid-1920s, she was stationed at Ikatan where she patrolled the Alaska Peninsula region during the active fishing season. She was usually hauled out of the water for the remainder of each year.

An incident occurred in 1925, when the Merganser went missing. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Haida was dispatched and located the Merganser 10 days after she had run aground at Unimak Island, Alaska. The Merganser was pulled off the shore by the Haida's crew and fortunately suffered only minimal damage.

In 1931, the vessel became the new Alaska Yes Bay hatchery tender, replacing the Bureau's launch Puffin. When the hatchery closed two years later, the Merganser returned to Alaska fisheries patrol duties, operating in the southwestern district. The last known reference to the Merganser is on a 1942 Fish and Wildlife Service vessel list *.

*  Merchant Vessels of the United States (MVUS) 1942, p.530. U.S. G.P.O., Washington: 1941  (the Merganser is not listed on the FWS list in 1943 MVUS)


Merganser in Chignik River, Alaska.  Photo from Pacific Motor Boat, June 1929.


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