Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Story of the BEAR

In the Coast Guard, we always talk about the EAGLE – the 3-masted sailing ship we stole from the Nazis at the end of World War II. But there’s another ship we talk about less – one even EAGLE aspires to be.

USCGC Eagle on treadmill. "Someday..."

That ship is the Bear.

USRC BEAR in the ice!!!

Bear was built in Scotland in 1874, for a company that hunted seals out of Newfoundland. She was a marvel of her time: a steam-powered proto-icebreaker with six-inch wooden planks on her hull and enough power to smash through solid ice. Her first voyage revolutionized the sealing industry forever, and she quickly earned a reputation as the best sealer on the waves. She could venture further and bring back more pelts than literally a hundred other ships combined.

Which is a great reputation to have, unless you like seals.

USRC BEAR is sorry, seals

But Bear’s destiny didn’t lie in sealing. In 1883, a team of scientists, making what was then the farthest trek north in human history, found themselves stranded on a remote island near Greenland – a mere 600 miles from the North Pole.

The PROTEUS sinks in the ice!!The expedition, led by U.S. Army Lieutenant Adolphus Greely, was scheduled to receive supplies from Nova Scotia the previous summer, but the frozen seas forced their supply ship to turn back. To make matters worse, when Greely’s own ship tried to sail north and rescue him, it wound up crushed in the ice.

The Navy desperately needed vessels that could survive the harsh voyage, and Bear, with her sterling reputation and extra-thick hull, stood out as the ideal candidate. They purchased her in 1884 and sent her alongside three other ships to locate the expedition. Bear pushed ahead and found the camp before her fellows; unfortunately, by the time she did, only seven of the original twenty-five explorers remained alive. And of those seven, just six lived to see home again.

The Greely rescue made Bear famous, her name mentioned in every paper from Europe to Hawaii. Her small boat – which had picked up the survivors on shore – even got a special exposition at the State Department.

But it had been a bitter victory. In one fell swoop, Bear had learned just how cruel the Arctic could be, and how much harder she’d have to work to stop the next disaster.

Cutter BEAR swears it'll never happen again!

She soon got some bad news, though: with the rescue over, the Navy had no further need for a wooden-hulled ship. Iron hulls were all the rage in 1885, and even Bear’s thick planks wouldn’t stand up to a modern cannon. They made arrangements to get rid of her.

But before they could, she got another offer.

See, twenty years earlier the United States had purchased the vast, frozen territory of Alaska from the Russian Empire. Not only was it huge and desolate, it had more coastline than the entire rest of the U.S. combined. That meant it required constant patrolling in some of the harshest and deadliest conditions in the world: icy seas that trapped and crushed whole fleets. Hurricane-force winds that could rip trees from the ground or shear masts from ships. Waves tall enough to drown five-story buildings.

The Revenue Cutter Service wanted Bear for that job.

Cutter BEAR is fine in storms

Bear thrived as a Revenue Cutter. The frigid waters around Alaska became her playground, and she patrolled all the way through the Bering Strait past Point Barrow. She broke ice for shipping lanes and tiny harbors, allowing food and supplies to go in and out. She rescued sailors by the hundreds and protected seal rookeries from poachers.

Cutter BEAR gets to save the seals for once!

Alaska in Bear’s day was the wild frontier. Most Alaskans had little contact with the outside world, and the Revenue Cutter Service was the only government presence – sometimes the only law at all – anywhere past the Aleutians. Bear was better known up there than any other ship, better known than the President himself. She ferried foreign diplomats and hosted delegations of native tribes on her decks. She guarded fishing grounds and intercepted smugglers. At different times, she acted as hospital, dance hall, research station, floating court, and even sheriff.
Cutter BEAR is the law in these here parts
But Bear didn’t just enforce laws and call it a day: she improved the lot of every Alaskan. Along with her most famous captain, the harsh-but-brilliant Mike Healy, she built shelters on remote islands for sailors to live in if they became shipwrecked, made maps of the coastlines and rivers that stayed in use for a century, and even brought over reindeer from Siberia for native tribes to raise as livestock. The descendants of those creatures can still be seen wandering the Alaskan tundra today, and – in an amazing twist of fate – allowed Bear to carry out her greatest rescue.

In November of 1897, a fleet of eight whaling ships got trapped in the ice north of Point Barrow. There was no way for them to get food stranded out on the ice, and with winter setting in, the 275 trapped whalers would likely starve to death before everything thawed.

Bear had just returned to Seattle when news of the whaler’s plight reached her. The whaling companies knew of Bear from all of her exploits and asked for her by name from the President. She sailed north toward the Bering, but found that the ice had already grown too thick for her to break through. The seas wouldn’t melt until summer, and by then the whalers would be long dead. Despite Bear’s best efforts, things were starting to look a lot like the Greely rescue.

So Bear came up with another plan: she sent three of her crewmen overland on dogsled.

Cutter BEAR sends her crewmen out on the ice!
Since they couldn’t carry enough food on sleds to feed 275 men, they did something innovative: they gathered together four hundred reindeer from the herds Bear had started, and drove them 1,500 miles north to the very tip of Alaska. The journey took three long months in icy darkness, and the crewmen nearly froze to death or lost their way at every turn.

Bear tore her way north as soon as the ice weakened. She reached Barrow by the middle of summer and found her three crewmen and the whalers in good health. She sailed them back to Seattle soon after, all fears of a Greely repeat behind her.


In just eleven years with the RCS, Bear had gone from mere ship to legend. Newspapers around the world praised her exploits. Revenue Cuttermen sang songs about her. She became a synonym for the Alaskan frontier, a feature in fiction novels and short stories: the heroic craft that people called on when lives were in danger and the odds were slim.

The BEAR signal!

As the Klondike Gold Rush took off, Bear found herself with more and more work. Of course, it didn’t help that one of her deckhands spent a few days panning for gold and came back with $150,000 in nuggets – a headline that put the weight of Bear’s own legacy behind the rumors of easy riches. Soon, she was busy escorting passenger ships who were frightened that pirates might steal their gold, and sending her crewmembers to patrol the streets of overflowing boomtowns.

The Gold Rush didn’t last forever, though, and soon Bear settled back into her old routine. As the outside world changed – and even as the Revenue Cutter Service transformed into the Coast Guard – Bear’s world remained untouched. The shores of Alaska were still frozen and remote, with ice to break and harsh storms to battle; she still chased smugglers and brought supplies to remote villages. Even as World War I raged in Europe and the Coast Guard merged temporarily into the Navy, Bear kept her schedule of patrolling the lonely coasts.

But Bear was getting on in years. At nearly fifty, the battered timbers of her hull had grown soft. The senior officers of the Coast Guard began to debate whether or not she’d be able to hold up for another season, but since no cutter available could handle her job, she kept on sailing.

At least for a little while.

In 1924, Bear got caught in the ice just as a storm hit. Unable to move, the seas drove her aground, her weakened forefoot cracking on the rocks and her propeller blades snapping. The damage was so bad that she was first reported as wrecked.

Cutter BEAR runs aground!!

Yet amazingly, it wasn’t the end for her. She was hauled off the rocks and the breaks in her hull were repaired. She returned to Alaska for two more seasons, and carried out her duties like a ship in her prime. Even with her fixed hull, though, she couldn’t match the speed and strength of modern cutters. She left the Bering for the last time in 1926, replaced by a brand-new boat called the NORTHLAND, which had been built just for the job.

Bear worked stateside for a few more years, but in 1929, after 55 years afloat and 44 years with the service, she retired from the Coast Guard. An honored legend of the Gold Rush and the Alaska frontier, she became a museum ship in Oakland, and even got to star in the 1930 film of Jack London’s Sea Wolf.
Cutter BEAR in sunglasses!!

Just when Bear was getting used to retirement, someone came to visit her: a Navy man named Richard Byrd. He had been promoted to Admiral at the young age of 41 for his daring expeditions to the North Pole, and was looking for a new flagship. He’d heard of Bear’s legendary feats in the Arctic, and knew she’d be just the boat for his next adventure.

Cutter BEAR gets a visit from Admiral Byrd!!

Byrd convinced the people who owned the Bear museum to put her up for auction, but a surprise bid from a scrap dealer nearly sunk his plans (and literally Bear as well). Byrd narrowly outbid the scrapper by a mere $50, and Bear went into drydock for a refit. In 1933, now with a diesel engine and electric wiring, she set sail for the Antarctic.

Bear accompanied Byrd on three expeditions to the southern continent, and even set a new record for furthest voyage south into the ice. More than a decade after the Coast Guard had declared her unfit for duty in Alaska, Bear was still sailing, still setting records, and still adding to her already excessive list of achievements.

She sailed with Byrd for eight years, but by the time she returned from her final expedition to Antarctica in 1941, the entire world had changed. The British and German Navies fought furiously over the North Atlantic. Poland, France, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands had all fallen, and the United States had taken over stewardship of Greenland to keep it out of Nazi hands. The specter of war loomed in both the Pacific and the Atlantic, and the U.S. Navy needed as many boats as it could get its hands on – even, as it turned out, a wooden-hulled sailing ship from 1874.

The Navy seized BEAR and remodeled her to serve in Greenland. They cut away her masts and cleaved off her bowsprint. They reinforced her deck to install housing for a seaplane, and outfitted her with electric wiring.

She hadn’t been to Greenland since the Greely rescue, yet in an ironic twist of fate, she arrived there among friends. The Coast Guard had taken charge of the defense of Greenland in 1940, and although Bear was a Navy ship now, the task force she worked for was headed by a Coast Guard cutter: her old successor from Alaska, the Northland. And even though Bear looked nothing like the proud cutter that Northland had replaced all those years ago, Northland couldn't help but be in awe of her old mentor.

Although Bear was the oldest U.S. ship to serve in foreign waters during World War 2 - indeed, the oldest U.S. warship next to the Constitution - she didn't serve in Greenland as an afterthought. She took on the role of pennant vessel for west side of Greenland, overseeing four Coast Guard cutters and one Navy ship. In 1941, she added one more claim to fame to her long list of legendary feats, by towing the first American prize of the war back to the U.S.: the trawler Buskoe, which had been ferrying German agents across the North Sea.

Again and again over those four years in Greenland, Bear proved herself invaluable: opening ice channels and freeing trapped Navy ships, saving dozens of lives from sinking boats carrying ore out of Greenland, and breaking through ice that no other ship - not even the mighty Northland - could handle. Even in her waning moments, Bear remained unparalleled.

In 1944, though, the first true American icebreakers - the Wind-class - began rolling off the assembly lines, and the Navy once again decided they no longer needed Bear. Without so much as a thanks for her decades of service, they decommissioned her and put her in mothballs in Boston.

After the war, the Navy and the Coast Guard split back into separate services. In the mess of peacetime disarmament that followed, Bear was all but forgotten. Rather than giving her back to the service that she’d patrolled so long for, or returning her to Oakland as a museum, the Navy sold Bear to a company in Canada who planned to turn her into a sealer again.

But the sealing industry in Newfoundland had taken a dive, and the costs to retrofit Bear were too high. The company couldn’t afford the repairs, and she sat for a decade and a half as an unused hulk in Halifax.

Bear’s life had come a strange full circle. She had gone literally across the globe many times – from Scotland to Siberia, from Arctic to Antarctic – as legend, as savior, as heroine of the fleet – only to wind up back in Canada as an unknown sealer.

In 1962, someone purchased Bear with plans to turn her into a floating restaurant. They put her masts back on and reattached her bowsprint. They painted her proper name back onto her stern, where it had been scraped off years before. For a moment, she looked like her old self again, but her destination wasn’t the ice fields of Alaska or even her slip in California. She was towed out of Halifax toward Philadelphia, to spend the rest of her days serving seafood and cocktails on the waterfront.

But a hundred miles off shore, a strong wind rose up. The tow line connecting her to the tug broke loose, and her mast collapsed. The wooden beam punched a hole through her hull, and the water rushed in.

The tug escorting Bear tried desperately to save her, but there was nothing she could do.

At the time Bear sank in 1963, she had been afloat for more than half the life of the Coast Guard itself. She had voyaged hundreds of thousands of miles and saved literally thousands of lives. She had served during three major wars and pushed the limits of exploration in both the Arctic and Antarctic. She had changed whole industries and whole ways of life.

And yet she sank, alone and forgotten, on a windy day in the North Atlantic, the position where she went down misrecorded and her true resting place unknown.

For a ship that found so many when they’d thought all hope was lost, I’m sorry, Bear, we never found you.

Cutter BEAR is out there somewhere...

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