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 by capturing the rumrunner's offshore supply ships, Calypso patrolled the Atlantic coast, following and boarding suspicious vessels. In one case, she had a minor collision with a small freighter running illegally without lights, acting suspiciously. Although there was almost no damage to Calypso and only relatively minor damage to the other ship, a Board of Investigation was convened, which placed blame clearly on the other ship for failing to signal before suddenly turning into Calypso's path. In fact, it is a wonder this type of incident didn't happen more frequently, since suspected rumrunners often violated the rules of the road in attempts to flee and escape in the frequent foggy conditions.
On another occasion, some of Calypso's crew boarded a cargo vessel that refused to answer hails, and found the entire crew -- including the Master -- in a drunken stupor. A prize crew was put aboard to run the vessel, whose own crew was arrested and later turned over to authorities back in port.
With the end of Prohibition, Calypso was transferred to San Diego and went through the Panama Canal to her new home. Patrolling off the California and Mexican coasts, she performed search-and-rescue and other duties until she was needed for the Bering Sea Patrol in the far North.
Based in Unalaska, Alaska, she traveled throughout the region, taking census data and providing medical care to native Alaskans who lived in isolated villages. It was here that she suffered a major mishap. While attempting to rescue a large wooden sailing vessel that had been blown onto the shore and had grounded during a major gale, Calypso fouled a large towing hawser around her starboard propeller shaft after her anchor dragged during the rescue. Despite assistance from several other vessels, Calypso's crew was unable to clear the problem. A diver made two attempts to survey the extent of the fouling, but was unable to work in the frigid water. An attempt to winch it free while jacking over the engine slowly resulted in damage to the rudder post and aft propeller bearing.
After the storm, Calypso was backed into a dock with a marine railway, but her draft was too deep to allow her rudders to fit over the cradle, despite the deliberate flooding of the forward paint and chain locker compartment and the placing of small boats and drums filled with water to list her to port and bring the trim forward. So the engineering department, after approval by the Commanding Officer and the Bering Sea Patrol Commander, spent several days cutting through the starboard shaft and severing it just aft of the strut (see my drydock page for shaft details). This allowed them to lower the bent rudder post assembly, which supports the aft end of the shaft. It, along with the propeller and shaft end, was hauled onto deck with chain falls. A steel gasketed blank plate was fabricated to cover the rudder stock bearing and make the stern compartment watertight. After sea trials, during which she was able to maintain 10 knots on just the port engine at 320 RPM, Calypso was cleared to continue her necessary patrol duty until she could later return to California for permanent repairs.
This was not Calypso's only serious incident (nor her only subsequent Boards of Investigation). In 1940, while returning from her own patrol duty, she responded to a request from a U.S. Navy submarine, the S-25, which asked Calypso to bring their mail into port since they were continuing a long patrol. Calypso started to lower her small boat to row over and get it, but the submarine's Captain insisted that it would be easier if he brought the sub alongside and transferred the mail via a line. Since Calypso was smaller, shallower draft and much lighter than the submarine, it was agreed that she would stop and let the sub make the approach. Unfortunately, the submarine's Captain apparently miscalculated the drift of the Calypso and the time and power required to stop the heavy submarine. Although the Calypso's bridge officers rang up full ahead and rudder hard over when they saw collision was imminent, it was too little, too late, and the submarine's bow crashed through the port hull plating in Calypso's engine room -- I can still see where the repair was made to this day. Fortunately, the damage was all above the waterline, so there was no danger of sinking, but there was a large fuel leak since the forward part of the damage was at the bulkhead between Calypso's engine room and port fuel tank (which is just a compartment, two frames long, from keel to main deck, divided at the centerline to separate it from the starboard tank). The engineers used rags and wadding to plug the fuel leaks so the vessel could get to the shipyard safely. The subsequent Board of Inquiry put most of the blame on the submarine, whose Captain was on other Navy duty during the hearing and sent another officer to attend instead. Sadly, the S-25 herself came to grief just about a year later during WWII. While deployed on loan to the British Navy, which turned her over to Polish Navy officers operating in exile, she somehow strayed over a hundred miles off course and was attacked and sunk by her own Allied forces.
Calypso herself was transferred to the US Navy less than a year after the collision, and was recommissioned as Auxiliary Gunboat AG-35, assigned as support ship and escort for the Presidential Yacht Potomac (one of her sister ships). At one time Calypso herself carried President Roosevelt.
After Pearl Harbor, the President obviously wasn't going to be yachting offshore, and Calypso was transferred back to the Coast Guard which desperately needed more ships for escort and antisubmarine patrol duty along the Atlantic Coast. In the spring of 1942, at a time when U-boats picked off as many as 42 merchant vessels in a single month, Calypso rescued a total of 172 men from various torpedoed merchant and naval ships.
In 1946, there were far too many vessels for the peacetime military, and Calypso was decommissioned for the last time, and placed in mothballs.
But Calypso's service was far from finished. After she was sold as government surplus in 1955 (for $15,700 --- her original price in 1931 was $258,000), she was bought by America's premier sightseeing cruise company, Circle Line, and her superstructure was rebuilt to make a twin deck passenger vessel. 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). 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, continues to make daily sightseeing cruises and evening charters throughout the summer season. Schedule and other information is available from Circle Line.
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Last updated February 27, 1998
Copyright © 1998, Brian Bailey
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