The Calypso was one of 17 Argo-class cutters built for the US Coast Guard. She was launched January 1, 1932, and was commissioned January 16, 1932, at Bath Iron Works in Maine.
One of a class originally designed to enforce Prohibition, Calypso left Bath and traveled to her first assignment at Stapleton, Staten Island. There she was assigned picket duty, patrolling off the northeast coast and following ships that acted suspiciously.
At the time, many small foreign cargo vessels, mostly British or Canadian, carried casks of rum or other alcohol that would be transferred to small speedboats that would bring the contraband into port for the illegal bars in the US. These ships would run under cover of darkness and frequent fog, often operating without running lights or any name or markings on the ships. Calypso and similar USCG vessels would try to follow them in an elaborate and often dangerous game of cat-and-mouse in an attempt to witness a rendezvous and catch a transfer. Calypso would also make random boardings and searches, looking for booze. After a while, her crew got pretty good at identifying the modus operandi of the rumrunners' vessels and distinguishing them from legally-operated merchant vessels.
Only several months into this operation, Calypso was following a suspicious vessel when that ship made a sharp course change, cutting across Calypso's bow in an apparent escape attempt just after dusk, causing a collision. Fortunately, no one was hurt and the main damage was a damaged bulwark and bent railings and stanchions on the rumrunner, with no damage to Calypso. The subsequent Board of Inquiry absolved Calypso's commanding officer, since the British ship's crew refused to cooperate or appear at the hearing; Coast Guard witnesses also stated that the ship had not sounded the whistle signal required under navigation rules when changing course, that the other crew said that they needed no assistance after the crash (obviously not wanting to be boarded and inspected) and also that several of that ship's crew were heard to yell "Whoopee" in apparent drunkenness after the impact.
Apparently the rumrunners often enjoyed sampling their cargo. In another incident, a boarding party from Calypso went aboard a drifting merchant vessel and found the entire crew, including the Master, passed out drunk. So some of Calypso's crew was assigned to bring the vessel into port where her crew could be turned over to the federal authorities.
Shortly thereafter, the Volstead Act was repealed and Calypso was no longer needed for picket duty. Transiting the Panama Canal, she was then based in San Diego, patrolling off the California and Mexican coasts doing search-and-rescue duty, patrolling yacht regattas, and the like.
Her next duty, around 1934, was as part of the Bering Sea Patrol. Assigned to Unalaska, Alaska, she visited various islands, taking official census counts and providing medical care to children and adults at the isolated villages of the native Alaskan people.
It was here that Calypso suffered her first significant damage. Responding to a distress signal from a wooden sailing ship that was caught in a severe gale and was in danger of drifting onto a beach, Calypso tried to set her anchor and pass a towing hawser so she could hold the sailing ship off the beach. But the anchor would not hold in the heavy seas and high winds, so she tried to use her engine power to save the other vessel. Unfortunately, the weather conditions and differing characteristics of the two vessels resulted in Calypso turning such that the towing hawser got caught and wound onto her starboard propeller and shafting, leaving her with just one working engine.
With the assistance of a Navy minesweeper and smaller boats, the situation was handled and the sailing ship survived with no significant damage. Calypso, however, was a different story. While attempting to free the line using a winch on another ship to pull on the hawser while using the jacking gear on the starboard engine to try to "unwind" the hawser, enough pull came on it to crack the rudder post mounting and bend it back about seven degrees. This also damaged the aftmost shaft bearing, which is housed in the rudder post.
An attempt was made by a diver to inspect the damage, but due to the extremely cold water he had to quit after two brief tries. Then they decided to haul the stern out of the water on a marine railway, but the only one in the area had a cradle that was too small for Calypso's rudders and propellers to clear.
A consultation was held with Calypso's Commanding Officer, Engineering Officer and the Commander of the Bering Sea Patrol. Since it was impossible to repair the vessel in Alaska, a plan was approved to remove the damaged parts so that Calypso could return to the drydock in California under her own power on one engine (the Chief felt that it would be too dangerous to run the port engine with the starboard rudder and shaft as-is, since the loose parts would have most likely fouled the port side at sea, leaving Calypso adrift).
Backing the stern next to the dock, they loaded empty drums and dories onto the bow forward on the port side, then filled them with water as ballast. They then transferred fuel to the port main tank, and also flooded the forepeak tank and paint locker compartment to bring the bow down and starboard stern up.
Now the shaft was close enough to the surface so that it could be reached. The idea was to cut through the shaft just aft of the strut bearing, so that the rudder assembly, complete with the propeller and damaged bearing, could be disconnected, lowered clear of the ship and then hauled aboard with chain falls. The shaft, which is about 7" in diameter, took almost two full days working in shifts sawing, using an improvised tool consisting of a large weighted hacksaw blade on the end of a long pole, before it was severed.
Once the damaged parts were aboard, the engineers improvised a rubber-gasketed blank to cover the rudder bearing and make the stern compartment watertight. Calypso was then re-ballasted normally, and a sea trial was made during which she maintained 10 knots at 320 RPM on one engine, steering quite adequately with the one rudder. She was declared fit for service and she actually finished her patrol duties for the summer before returning to California for repairs. A Board of Inquiry was also held for this incident.
Calypso's next home port was Norfolk, Virginia. In 1940, while stationed there she had another damaging collision, this time involving a Navy submarine.
Returning from routine patrol, Calypso received a request from the USS S-25, an older submarine, to bring mail from their crew into port, as they were going to remain at sea for a while. Calypso's commanding officer started to order a small boat lowered to go get the mail, but the Navy captain said not to bother, as he could easily pass the sacks over by coming alongside and using a heaving line. Since Calypso was much shallower and lighter than the submarine, it was agreed by signal flag and hailer that Calypso would heave to and let the submarine do the maneuvering.
Apparently as the submarine approached inadequate allowance was made for the rapid drift of Calypso and the large inertia of the massive submarine. Seeing imminent collision, Calypso's CO ordered flank ahead and hard over rudder, but it was too late. Despite backing hard, the submarine's bow plowed into Calypso's port side just abaft the bulkhead separating the engine room from the port main fuel tank compartment. The good news was that the main damage was all above the waterline, and Calypso was in no danger of sinking. The bad news was that about ten or twelve feet of hull plating was cracked or ruptured, and that the fuel tank bulkhead was also damaged and was leaking diesel oil into the engine room. Fortunately the engineers were able to plug the leaks and transfer enough fuel to the other tank so Calypso could make port safely without assistance.
Once more a Board of Inquiry was convened, but since the Navy captain involved conveniently went back out on patrol and sent a substitute officer to represent him, and since there didn't seem to be any serious fault on the part of Calypso's CO or watchstanders, nothing much came of it. Unfortunately, the S-25 came to a bad end just about a year later during the war -- she was on loan to the British Navy, which turned her over to the Polish Navy which was operating in exile. Somehow the submarine strayed almost a hundred miles from the convoy and was attacked and sunk by two British warships, thinking she was a U-boat. Fortunately, most of her crew were able to escape and be rescued.
Early the following year, it was decided that one of Calypso's sister ships, USCGC Electra -- which had been transferred to the Navy and remade into FDR's Presidential Yacht named Potomac -- needed an escort and supply vessel with her increasing use. So Calypso was formally decommissioned from the Coast Guard and commissioned as auxiliary gunboat AG-35, USS Calypso, for the US Navy. For the rest of the summer and fall she patrolled along with Potomac, acting as backup or decoy, sometimes carrying the press corps and lesser dignitaries who didn't rate traveling with the President, and on at least one occasion actually carrying President Roosevelt. She also assisted with an important top-secret mission in August, 1941, when the President was to meet with Winston Churchill in Newfoundland to discuss the increasing Nazi threat. Starting out on what was described at the time as a routine excursion aboard Potomac, President Roosevelt planned his strategy. Although the United States at the time was still officially neutral, since German U-Boats were patrolling the area for safety reasons FDR was secretly transferred from the Potomac to the heavy cruiser USS Augusta, escorted by six other ships before the hazardous offshore transit -- but Potomac and Calypso pretended that he was still aboard, even having costumed stand-ins for the presidential party and filing phony press releases indicating that the President was relaxing on a fishing trip. This vital subterfuge resulted in the drafting of the Atlantic Charter, which provided a vision of a world of free trade and affirmed the rights of nations to govern themselves. Although not actually a legally-binding document, it was the foundation for US-British cooperation during World War II.
After the Pearl Harbor attack, it was obvious that the President would not go yachting around in wartime. Moreover, the Coast Guard was desperately short of ships for convoy escort and rescue duty in coastal waters. So once again Calypso was decommissioned, this time from the Navy, then re-commissioned back in the Coast Guard.
Assigned to patrol the Atlantic coastline, on February 15, 1942, she rescued 42 survivors from the torpedoed SS Buarque and less than one month later, on March 8, 1942, she rescued 54 survivors of the torpedoed SS Arabutan. On May 7 that same year she rescued 13 survivors from the SS Pipestone County. Later, she rescued 60 survivors of the torpedoed USS Plymouth (PG-57) on August 5, 1943.
After the war, Calypso continued her Coast Guard duties until she was decommissioned from the military for the last time, on July 25, 1948, and was taken to Cape May, New Jersey where she was placed in storage and used as a training aid for the recruit indoctrination program. Originally costing about $258,000 in 1931 dollars, she was sold to a scrap dealer on November 2, 1955 for $15,564.
But Calypso's service was far from finished. Instead of being scrapped, she was bought from the dealer (who apparently just wanted to get rid of her) by America's premier sightseeing cruise company, Circle Line, reportedly for the grand sum of $1. At the time, the company needed new ships that could make the 35 mile cruise around Manhattan in under three hours. Another requirement was that the ships could fit through and under the bridges in the narrow Harlem River.
The surplus Coast Guard cutters were ideal, and affordable. The company bought Calypso, which started carrying tourists around Manhattan in 1958, and later four sister ships (Perseus, Argo, Nike and Triton). While her superstructure was rebuilt to make a twin deck passenger vessel, below decks she remained pretty much original.
Remarkably, Calypso and Perseus still have their original Winton 158-6 main propulsion engines, and still operate today using the old-fashioned Engine Order Telegraph (EOT) system to indicate maneuvering orders from the Captain to the Engineer and Oiler.
These excellent engines, now over 77 years old, actually outperform modern engines in reliability, fuel economy and clean stack emissions. Lightweight modern diesels, despite advances such as computer-controlled injection, simply cannot match the thermal efficiency of large, slow speed (300 RPM cruising speed) four-stroke diesels.
Calypso, now known as Circle Line XI, continued to make daily sightseeing cruises and evening charters throughout the summer season until recently being replaced by a brand new boat. After a half century of carrying approximately 10 million tourists, she made her final circuit of Manhattan on November 2, 2008.
Sadly, Perseus, now Circle Line XV, the only other Winton-powered vessel known to be in commercial service, and one of the few examples of 1930's diesel technology still in good running condition, will also be phased out this winter.
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Last updated 11/11/2008
Copyright © 2008, Brian Bailey
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