Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger.
Warship Wednesday March 11, 2015: The Teller of Tales
Here we see the white hulled training ship Tusitala under sail in the 1930s in a painting by maritime artist Joseph Arnold. At which point she was the last commercial square-rigger in American service.
Built in 1882 by the Robert Steel & Co., Greenock, Scotland, as Yard No 130, she was an iron hulled, full-rigged ship. As such, she was in that last generation of elegant windjammers that carried cargo economically around the world. She was no steamship, and relied on the wind for her forward movement.
According to a 1952 article by Roger Dudley, “In rig she was a ship in the strictest sense of the word—a three-masted vessel, square-rigged on all three masts. Her total sail area was more than 20,000 square feet; the mainsail alone being 3,200 feet and the foresail 2,600. She carried single topgallant sails below fore, main and mizzen royals.”
Named originally Inveruglas, she flew a British merchant ensign and was British Reg. No. 87394 and signal PGVL in 1883.
Just three years later she was sold to the Sierra Shipping Co., Liverpool, and was renamed Sierra Lucena where she made regular runs from the home islands to Australia for wool and India on the jute trade.
Her British service came to an end in 1907 when, renamed Sophia, she was sold to the Norwegian shipping firm of Nielsen & Co., Larvik, Norway. The company was concerned in tramping work, but also had a steady grain trade from the River Plate to Europe.
World War I found her dodging both Allied and German warships as Norway was a strict neutral, however she did not come out of the conflict unscathed. While in the River Plate in 1917, she was ran over by a steamship that shattered her bowsprit and destroyed her figurehead. By 1921, she was laid up in Hampton Roads, with her backers unable to find suitable freights for her.
In May 1923, she was bought for a token price by the New York-based “Three Hours for Lunch Club” artists and writers association lead by Christopher Morley, and renamed Tusitala in honor of novelist Robert Louis Stevenson. The meaning is “Teller of Tales.” Stevenson was known to go by the moniker himself.
“On leaving this hospitable country where the cream is excellent and the milk of human kindness apparently never ceases to flow, I assume an ancient mariner’s privilege of sending to the owners and ship’s company of the Tusitala my brotherly good wishes for fair winds and clear skies on all their voyages. And may they be many!
“And I would recommend to them to watch the weather,” it goes on; “to keep the halliards clear for running, to remember that any fool can carry on, but only the wise man knows how to shorten sail in time … “
The writers club wanted to use the ship to cruise among the islands so loved by Stevenson, but when that proved unlikely, James A. Farrell, a former president of U.S. Steel, acquired the ship from the writers and used her on a series of commercial voyages for his Argonaut Line from New York to Honolulu via the Panama Canal, completing one of the trips in just 76 days– all under sail.
When you consider the voyage was on the order of 5,452 miles, that’s pretty respectable for a 40+ year old vessel.
On these trips, she would carry 2600 tons of nitrates to the islands and bring back sugar on the return trips. In 1925, she made a sprint from Honolulu to Seattle, WA, in 16 days and 9 hours.
In 1932 she was laid up, her commercial career over. Farrell sold her to the breakers six years later when maintaining her pier side at New York’s Riverside Drive wharf proved too costly.
However, naval purchasing agents on the East Coast came across the leaky old girl and acquired her in 1939 for $10,000 as a training ship.
Refitted at Staten Island for another $30,000 of MARAD funds, for the first time she carried an electrical system as well as a modern cafeteria and accommodations for up to 150 cadets.
Tusitala was turned over to the U.S. Coast Guard, who ran the government’s merchie training vessels at the time. Placed in commission but not given a pennant number, she was given an “unclassified” hull designation (WIX) which is the same as the current U.S. Coast Guard Training Barque Eagle (WIX-327) carries.
In May 1940 USCGC Mohawk (WPG-75) towed the sailing ship to St. Petersburg, Florida, where she was used during the conflict to instruct thousands of new merchant sailors and officers at the U.S. Merchant Service Training Station (USMSTS) there.
Oddly enough, one of her fellow training ships at St. Pete was the world’s last sailing frigate, the Danish-built Joseph Conrad.
According to the American Merchant Marine at War (www.usmm.org) :
Her masts were cropped, decks cleared of sailing gear, and she was towed into St. Petersburg to be tied up and used as a stationary training ship to augment class facilities. First classes held aboard this ship utilized the galley and mess room as class rooms for courses which included theory and practical instruction in cooking, baking, butchering, care and use of tools and equipment, sanitation, cooks and messmen duties at sea, and ship routine. In addition, there was instruction in boat drill, gunnery, physical education, regulations, customs, and traditions.
Tusitala spent the war as part of the 7-ship USMM fleet at St. Pete under the overall command of CDR. G.F. Harrington, USMS, a World War I vet with some 40-years of swaying decks under his feet. During WWII, more than 25,000 mariners passed through St. Pete’s halls and tread the decks of the Tusitala.
When the Maritime Service took over all training functions from the Coast Guard after 31 August 1942 Tusitala was administratively decommissioned and transferred to Maritime Service control and operation– even though the latter had run her for two years already.
With the war over and the facility drawing down their fleet to just a handful of ships, she was offered free of charge to the Marine Historical Association of Mystic for their museum, who instead took the Joseph Conrad as that vessel was smaller and in more seaworthy condition.
With her last chance at salvation evaporated, the old Tusitala was towed one final time across the Gulf to Mobile, Alabama in 1948, where she was scrapped. In all she saw six decades at sea under the flags of three countries while inspiring legions of artists, writers, and mariners both young and old.
Today, the former Unites States Maritime Services Training Center facility, decommissioned in March 1950, is incorporated into the University of South Florida.
While the Tusitala is no more, the Conrad remains at Mystic Seaport and is still used for training young mariners.
Displacement: 1200 tons nominal. 1746 GRT, 1684 NRT and 1622 tons under deck
Length: 261′ long between perpendiculars (310′ overall)
Draft: 23’5″ depth
Rig (1883-1938) Three masts, rigged with royal sails over double topgallant and top sails, spike bowsprit after 1917. Armament: private small arms as a commercial ship, 1940-47 various gunnery tools including 3-inch and 5-inch gun mockups.
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