USCG Cutter Bear Searches for the Wreck of Her Namesake

USCGC Bear (file image courtesy USCG / PA3 Larry Chambers)

Published Nov 8, 2019 10:42 PM by U.S. Coast Guard News

[By Ensign Malia Hindle]

Last summer, the Coast Guard Cutter Bear was tasked with serving as a research vessel in the search for the wreck of the original United States Revenue Cutter Bear. This tasking strayed from normal mission operations, but the crew of CGC Bear was enthusiastic about searching for the cutter’s namesake.

Prior to the CGC Bear’s assignment, nearly two decades of research had already been performed to search for USRC Bear. The project’s goal was to survey the most likely sea floor locations near USRC Bear’s North Atlantic sinking in 1963. This particular mission was to scan the ocean bottom for anomalies. Narrowing the search area was the goal, not positively identifying the wreck itself.

Another goal of the project was to increase cooperation between the Coast Guard and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. The mission team included members of NOAA and the Coast Guard Historian’s Office. The team was led by Dr. Brad Barr, NOAA Mission Coordinator. It also included NOAA’s Joseph Hoyt, Operations Coordinator and John Bright, Survey Lead Technician. Other members were Beth Crumley, Coast Guard Historian’s Office, and Tyler McLellan, graduate student at East Carolina University’s Maritime Studies Program.

Built in 1874 by Alexander Stephen & Sons, in Glasgow, Scotland, USRC Bear served as a sealer for a decade before the U.S. Navy purchased the ship in 1884 to rescue the Greely Expedition, a 25-man Arctic exploration party that became stranded near Greenland. After rescuing the expedition’s survivors, the Navy struck Bear from the register and transferred it to the Revenue Cutter Service.

USRC Bear in ice at Demarcation Point, Alaska (USCG)

As part of the Revenue Cutter Service, the Bear served the Bering Sea Patrol, conducting search and rescue, fisheries and game law enforcement and other law enforcement missions. In one of the cutter’s most notable missions, the Overland Relief Expedition, a team of Bear crewmembers drove a herd of reindeer 1,500 miles to save 250 whalers stranded at Point Barrow, Alaska. 


Later, the Bear found herself serving in the Navy again as part of Richard Byrd’s Antarctic expeditions. During World War II, Bear served in the Greenland Patrol to defend against German incursions. While patrolling off the coast of Greenland, the Bear seized the Norwegian vessel Buskoe after learning the vessel had German radio communications equipment on board. 

At about 0900 hours on March 19, 1963, while she was being towed to Philadelphia to be repurposed as a floating restaurant, the Bear sank (left). 

Bear’s legacy was not forgotten. In 1979, 15 Coast Guard Academy cadets and advisors worked with Dr. Harold Edgerton of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to attempt the first search for the Bear. To create their search area, the team used accounts of Coast Guard pilots who overflew the Bear’s last known position as well as an account by the captain of the tug Irving Birch, which was towing Bear when it sank. The buoy tender CGC Conifer was used as the research vessel during the MIT search to test side-scan sonar technology invented by Dr. Edgerton. The final data set gathered from the search yielded many questions, but few answers.

Our recent research mission posed a challenge for CGC Bear, which is not outfitted for scientific research. The crew of CGC Bear coordinated with NOAA’s Joe Hoyt to design a structurally sound system for the winch. Once NOAA arrived in Boston, Bear’s crew assisted them in loading the 4,100-pound, 440-volt hydraulic winch and cabling system for the side-scan sonar. Using this system, NOAA deployed and recovered the sonar array from the fantail of the cutter.

After sailing from Boston with the mission team, Bear’s crew made its way to the search area. An initial test of all side-scan sonar equipment was performed and pilothouse training was conducted for all Officers-of-the-Deck to properly maneuver while towing sensitive equipment across a wide array of water depths, currents, and bottom types. The side-scanner tow fish was impacted by Bear’s speed over ground and the rudder angle used to maneuver the cutter while remaining precisely on NOAA’s search tracklines. The OOD’s closely coordinated with the NOAA mission team 24 hours a day for nearly two weeks.  Frequent speed and course changes were necessary to remain on track while streaming the tow fish 3,200 feet astern of Bear at depths down to 500 feet. The mission team adjusted the tow length with each change in the ocean floor’s contour to ensure the tow fish did not contact the bottom while capturing high-resolution sonar data. 

In addition to sea floor topography and towline configuration, weather also impacted the search. In high winds and larger sea states, the tow fish was unable to accurately scan the bottom, creating challenges for conducting operations during the passage of Hurricane Dorian to the north. Bear had to maneuver away from the search area at times for the safety of the crew. Despite these challenges, Bear surveyed 62 square miles of North Atlantic sea floor.

NOAA-Coast Guard Mission Team, from left to right included Tyler McLellan, Joseph Hoyt, Beth Crumley, Brad Barr and John Bright. (photo by Joseph Hoyt)

Through this search, Bear’s crew reinforced the Coast Guard’s multi-mission role and proved that a medium-endurance cutter may serve as a research vessel when necessary. This mission also highlighted the interoperability between NOAA and the Coast Guard. When asked about the mission, Dr. Barr stated:

"The Bear was an excellent research ship that performed exceptionally during the mission. The Bear officers and crew rose to the challenge the mission presented, and greatly exceeded expectations, given the unusual nature of the mission. We are deeply grateful for the support and enthusiasm of our Coast Guard partners in the search for the final resting place of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear, and hope to continue this important joint mission in the spring of 2020, with planning already underway."

This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and may be found in its original form here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.