On Sept. 2, 1944, a small auxiliary fleet tug was launched into the waters of Rockland Harbor. Built by Eliot Gamage at the Snow Shipyard, it was destined to have a long and colorful history, but not as an auxiliary fleet tugboat.

It was the last vessel built in the yard. After the war, the Snow family sold the property to General Seafoods. Today, the western half of the property is the Sail, Power and Steam Museum while the eastern half is Rockland Marine.

Originally ordered on July 30, 1942, and laid down as Paloverde (YN-86) in the Snow Shipyard, the tug was to be a yard net tender of the Ailanthus class. This was a group of 40 U.S. Navy wooden-hulled net laying ships built for small patrol and mine warfare duty in World War II. Five of them eventually went to British waters as part of the Lend-Lease program.

The keel of Paloverde was laid down July 19, 1943. Classification changed a few more times and then once more on Aug. 9, 1944, one month before launching, when it became ATA-215, now reclassified as an auxiliary fleet tug.

ATA-215 performs sea trials shortly after launching into Rockland waters . Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives

Thus, this little ship, which would see tremendous service in both Arctic and Antarctic waters, began life as Paloverde (YN-86), then changed to AN-65 and then finally to ATA-215. It was not the last of its name changes.

The 1,500-ton ATA-215 was 194 feet long, with a beam just over 34 feet and a 14-foot draft. Original armaments included one 3-inch 50mm and three 20mm anti-aircraft guns. Later, it was equipped with a fourth 20mm gun and two 40mm AA guns. ATA-215 carried a complement of 52 crew and five officers.

Propulsion was a single propeller, powered by a Busch Sulzer 539 diesel-electric engine with two 60Kw 120v DC Ship’s service generators, which gave it a top speed of 12.1 knots. Cruising range was limited to the 935 barrels (or 39,270 gallons) of diesel fuel it could carry.

Upon launching, ATA-215 was assigned to Service Squadron 2 for duty with the Pacific Fleet and departed Rockland waters for Norfolk, the Panama Canal, then San Pedro, California. Its first job included a towing assignment to Pearl Harbor. It was then ordered to Eniwetok, a large coral atoll of 40 islands in the Marshall Islands, and then on to Leyte in the Philippines. It was at Pearl Harbor when the war ended.

Designated for disposal in March 1946, the tug was decommissioned in June. Polar explorer Finn Ronne chose it for his upcoming research expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula. But the federal government did not allow the U.S. Navy to lend ships to individuals, even for polar exploration.

Congress got involved and passed a special law, which let the Navy loan the tug to Ronne. By the beginning of 1947, it was in Beaumont, Texas, loading for the expedition. On Jan. 25, 1947, Edith (Jackie) Ronne rechristened the vessel Port of Beaumont.

The ship had no air conditioning, a fact remembered quite well by Ronne expedition member Robert Dodson. He recalled trying to take his final exams from Harvard while the ship was in the Panama Canal. “I must have lost a cup of sweat.”

The ship rode low in the water. Jennie Darlington, wife of one of the expedition pilots who went with Ronne’s group, recorded the ship wore the resigned air of a beast of burden on whose back tourists were being given a ride.

Port of Beaumont is low in the water on a stormy passage to Antarctica. Courtesy of Robert H. Dodson collection, Antarctican Society

The crew unloads expedition dogs from Port of Beaumont at Marguerite Bay, Antarctic Peninsula. Courtesy of Robert H. Dodson collection, Antarctican Society

They finally reached Marguerite Bay in the Antarctic Peninsula. Port of Beaumont became the first diesel-driven ship intentionally frozen into the Antarctic ice. As unloading began and the shore base built, most expedition members remained aboard the vessel until early May. The tug was used as a storehouse. Dodson remembered they were constantly going back and forth to it.

Numerous tracks stretched out to Port of Beaumont, which was used as storehouse over the winter for the Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition. Courtesy of Robert H. Dodson collection, Antarctican Society

For departure, they got the main diesel engine going once again by New Year’s Eve and some of the expedition planes reloaded on New Year’s Day. But the hoped-for thawed release from ice did not happen that month.

The stern of Port of Beaumont is frozen in for the winter at Marguerite Bay, Antarctic Peninsula. Courtesy of Robert H. Dodson collection, Antarctican Society

After failing to extricate themselves, the crew was joined by two nearby U.S. Navy icebreakers in February to help. They were successful in freeing Port of Beaumont. The voyage northwards across Drake Passage was even more stormy than on their way south. At one point, they apparently rolled 52 degrees to either side on the inclinometer, considered a maximum roll which was enough to turn over the ship.

The U.S. Navy next sold the vessel to the Shaw Steamship Company of Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was put into sealing, renamed Arctic Sealer and proved quite successful. In 1951, the vessel returned with 37,339 pelts, the season’s highest yield. Arctic Sealer spent the next 10 years in the industry, working out of northern Newfoundland, still owned by Shaw Company.

After the 1957 season, it was put into service by Canadian authorities as part of Operation Look See, a joint U.S.-Canadian Air Defense Command mission that brought aircraft, pilots, crewmen, civilian engineers and contractors to Greenland to complete surveys of Distant Early Warning radar sites.

For this job, Arctic Sealer was fitted with a helicopter landing pad. The 40- by 59-foot flight deck was built on its stern while in dry dock at Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. A radio-room was also added forward the pilot house and its after-mast removed. Designated a “baby flat-top,” it carried Arctic survey groups for the Military Sea Transportation Service.

For three months it was home to an H-19 Sikorsky helicopter crew, contractors and engineers. They battled heavy seas and high winds and made 675 helicopter flights. Seas and winds frequently made helicopter launching extremely hazardous. Snow removal from the deck of the ship was a daily chore. Aircraft maintenance on the flight deck also proved to be a problem. One storm, which lasted over 48 hours, was so fierce the crew had to be lashed into their bunks for their own safety.

In 1958, Arctic Sealer began to be chartered annually for surveying by the Canadian Hydrographic Service. In 1961 it was chartered by the Bedford Institute of Oceanography as MV Arctic Sealer to survey Newfoundland harbors such as Hawkes Bay and Nain, as well as Lake Harbour on Baffin Island.

For the 1962 season, Arctic Sealer saw three missions of standard survey, approaches and reconnaissance in such places as Lake Melville in Labrador, the Belcher Islands, and Port Harrison in Hudson Bay. This was while she was still under charter to Bedford Institute of Oceanography in conjunction with CHS, yet still owned and registered by the Shaw Steamship Company in Nova Scotia.

Arctic Sealer was lost in April 1963. A news item in the London Times reported it as a British ship. Bob Dodson suggests the ship may have gone back to sealing by that point and sank with a cargo of harvested seals. He thinks the old wooden ship was likely punctured in the bow by ice, “her rotting old wood a cause no doubt.”

 

Pictured is a London Times clipping from April 16, 1963. Courtesy of Charles H. Lagerbom collection

Paloverde or AN-65 or ATA-215 or Port of Beaumont or Arctic Sealer sank without any loss of life in Canada Bay, Newfoundland. The wooden ship had lived most of its life in the far, ice-choked corners of the world. Not bad for a tough little tug of so many names and adventures.

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP US History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He is author of “Whaling in Maine” and “Maine to Cape Horn,” available through Historypress.com.

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