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Pathfinder: Recollections of Those Who Served 1942 - 1971

Compiled by the Office of NOAA Corps Operations

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Recollections of Rear Admiral William L. Stubblefield, NOAA Deputy Director, NOAA Corps Operations of the Last Voyage of the NOAA Ship Pathfinder

In July of 1971, I transferred my commission as a Lieutenant in the Navy to NOAA Corps. Because I had spent over five years in the Navy, I was allowed to leave the NOAA Corps training class early and report to my first NOAA Ship, the PATHFINDER.

Getting to the PATHFINDER was quite an experience in itself as I had to fly to Homer, Alaska, via Seattle and Anchorage. Landing in Homer in mid-August, I was greeted by a fine Alaska summer day as I stepped down the ladder from the small plane. Commander Sid Miller, executive officer of the PATHFINDER and Lt.(j.g.) Bob Roush were there to pick me up and drive me to the ship. We passed the Salty Dawg Saloon, a well-known Homer landmark, and were soon at the ship. Within a short time the PATHFINDER got underway for its working grounds on the west side of Cook Inlet in the Kamishak Bay area.

Upon arrival in the working grounds, I was assigned to the survey launch of Officer-in-Charge, Lieutenant Don Nortrup. At eight o'clock in the morning, amidst much hustle and bustle, the survey boats were put over; and I commenced my first real day's work in NOAA. We set out to work in one of the old wooden survey launches for Outer Bruin Bay. As the tide was predicted to be favorable for running shoreline, Lt. Nortrup headed for the shore. Within half an hour, Lt. Nortrup taught me that one of the primary jobs of a NOAA survey launch is to find rocks such that unsuspecting mariners do not find them with disastrous consequences. The way that he taught me this lesson was to have the survey launch run aground on a rock during an ebbing tide (contrary to predictions.) As a consequence, I spent my first day of hydrography hung up on the same rock that we had just discovered. However, we did have plenty of time to get the position of that rock. In the late afternoon the tide had risen sufficiently for us to be pulled off the rock. Captain Herb Lippold, commanding officer of the PATHFINDER, took the ship as close as he safely could to our boat, then took a ship's boat and carried a line to us from the ship. While passing the line to us, he passed on the sad news that the PATHFINDER had been ordered back to Seattle to be laid up and our survey season was ending. He returned to the ship and commenced pulling us off the rock. 

After a day or so of removing tide gauges, visual signals, and electronic navigation shore stations, the ship got underway and laid a course from Cook Inlet to Cape Spencer and the Inside Passage. The PATHFINDER's reputation as a lucky ship proved unfounded when crossing the Gulf of Alaska as we had an extremely rough transit. As Captain Lippold said concerning that stretch of ocean, " I never had a smooth crossing of the Gulf"; and even the PATHFINDER, on what was to be her final homecoming, could not beat the odds. After about two days of pitching, rolling, and yawing the ship entered the calm waters of Cross Sound and proceeded down the Inside Passage. 

As I was new to the ship and stood watch only as an observer, I was able to enjoy much of the magnificent scenery of the Inside Passage on the way south to Seattle. However, having spent over five years in the Navy prior to entering NOAA Corps, I was able to recognize and admire excellent seamanship. Early one morning, while still dark and transiting the north side of Vancouver Island, Captain Lippold came to the bridge. Within a few minutes of his arrival on the bridge, the helmsman began having difficulty steering. Captain Lippold calmly took the conn and ordered "Hard Left" and we proceeded to crab through Race Passage in the dark, an area notorious for its strong currents. After passing the dangerous area, the captain returned the conn to the officer-of-the-deck and retired for the remainder of the night without saying another word. A few hours later we passed through Seymour Narrows, another area of difficult tides and currents.

The next day, we were at Seattle and beginning the transit of the Lake Washington Ship Canal on the final leg of the PATHFINDER's trip home to the Pacific Marine Center on Lake Union. We called the operator of the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks from Shilshole Bay, and we were assured that the constricted passage leading to the locks was clear. We proceeded into the canal; and, just before the Burlington Northern Railroad Bridge, we saw a large Coast Guard cutter coming out. Without missing a heartbeat, Captain Lippold once again took the conn and ordered "Full astern" followed by "Full ahead. Hard left." The PATHFINDER was a single screw steamship with manual engine room controls so Chief Engineer Ray Schmitz and his "snipes" were earning their pay as a succession of "Full astern" and "Full ahead" commands were given. The ship was spun around in an area having only a ship length or two distance across to maneuver within. Captain Lippold went to the left to be able to gauge the location of the bow relative to a bridge pier. He didn't go to the right, which was the more natural direction with a single-screw vessel, because there was a shoal area on the south side of the channel which was difficult to judge one's distance from. I was on the bow of the PATHFINDER during this remarkable ship-handling display listening to the orders and hearing the jingle of the engine order telegraph. After getting turned about, we headed back to Shilshole Bay and returned to the canal after the Coast Guard vessel had cleared. Within an hour we were tied up at Pacific Marine Center. Needless to say, I was extremely impressed with the shiphandling skills of my "new" colleagues. Captain Lippold, who had sailed on the PATHFINDER as a brand-new ensign in 1951, brought her home to stay.
Never again did the PATHFINDER sail on a charting mission. The sturdy survey vessel that had served for 30 years in war and peace was deactivated on September 10, 1971. The ship was stripped of all usable equipment over the next few months and then purchased by General Auto Wrecking of Ballard, Washington. Not all of the PATHFINDER was scrapped in 1972 as the house was removed and was serving as an office on a pier on the Duwamish River in 1979. Perhaps that small part of the PATHFINDER is still there filled with memories of the South Pacific and a quarter century of work charting the waterways of Alaska.

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Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:24 AM

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