History Magazine

The Continuing Voyages of the R/V Alpha Helix

By Scarc
Schematic of the R/V Alpha Helix, 1966.

Schematic of the R/V Alpha Helix, 1966.

[Part 2 of 2]

Built in 1965, the R/V Alpha Helix, named after the protein structure discovered by Linus Pauling, had proven itself – over the course of two years and two voyages totaling 34,110 miles – to be a versatile research vessel. The National Science Foundation (NSF), which owned and had sponsored the construction of the vessel, was pleased with the ship’s performance in the Pacific Ocean and in the Amazon River. So in early February 1968, they deployed her on her third voyage, this time to the Bering Sea.

Due to environmental hazards posed by the Bering Sea, the expedition there was smaller in time, distance traveled, cost and crew. The voyage lasted nine months, cost $574,000 ($3.8 million in 2013) and utilized fifty scientists from five nations. The mission’s typically eclectic goals were to study how animals survive in frigid environments; to determine why spawning salmon suffer from atherosclerosis; and to investigate the feasibility of building research labs on floating sea ice. The Alpha Helix performed admirably, though she lacked sufficient hull strength and engine power to safely break through all of the ice that she encountered and thus required escorting by the U.S.S. Northwind, a U.S. Navy icebreaker. Researchers from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF) reported on the vessel’s performance to their school, a report which heavily influenced the future design of the Alaska Region Research Vessel.

In the years that followed, the Alpha Helix continued to be sent on missions as often as was safe. She averaged one mission a year, each taking between nine and thirteen months. In 1969 she went on a $613,000 ($3.85 million in 2013) expedition to New Guinea to study mammals, birds, fishes, bioluminescence and heatless light produced by fireflies, fungi, and fish. The U.S., Australia, New Guinea, Indonesia, Malaysia, France, and Japan sent 66 researchers on the trip. The years 1970-1971 saw the Alpha Helix undertake a 25,000 mile expedition to the Galapagos Islands, Antarctica, and the Marshall Islands. In 1972 she went to the Solomon Islands, West Hebrides and the Western Caroline Islands.

After her 1972 mission, she was sent to dry-dock for retrofits and routine maintenance. The retrofits mostly involved upgrading her lab equipment to the most modern gear, work which required an appreciable investment of time. Not until mid-June 1976 did she launch on another voyage – a second trip to the Amazon River basin. This trip was more extensive than the first: it lasted a full year and required sailing upriver all the way to the headwaters of the Amazon, 2,500 miles inland. One hundred and twenty scientists from the U.S., Brazil, Columbia, Peru, Canada, Italy, Scotland, England, West Germany, Denmark, Norway, Chile, and Switzerland studied a diverse range of topics including the genetic structure of “primitive man” amongst Brazilian Indian groups; hemoglobin in fish and their ability to see; chemical characteristics of the Amazon River; the ability of certain Amazon fish to live on land; the resistance of various organisms to stress; and the toxic and medicinal properties of local flora. The expedition was extremely productive and also extremely hard on the vessel, which upon return to the U.S. was put in dry-dock again for about three more years.

In 1980 UAF sent a message to the NSF requesting a larger, more modern research vessel to replace their aging and cramped ship (only 80′ long), the R/V Acona. The NSF decided to replace the Acona with the Alpha Helix, and transferred her from Scripps Maritime to UAF. Upon arrival, she was immediately put into dry-dock again, where she underwent extensive retrofits. The focus of her labs was changed from mostly biological research to general oceanographic studies. And the ship’s equipment was modernized: the vessel received a strengthened hull for icebreaking, more cold-weather protection was added, and deep-sea oceanographic winches were installed below decks. All of these retrofits brought the Alpha Helix up to American Bureau of Shipping classification standards for a ship of her size.

1966s.4-bw

The Alpha Helix remained busy and valuable in the employ of UAF.  One particular task of note was to provide “systematic description of the Alaska Coastal Current from British Columbia to where it empties into the Bering Sea at Unimak Pass.” This data was invaluable in predicting the path of the oil spill emanating from the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989. She also spent extensive amounts of time studying wildlife and water in the Bering Sea, Arctic and Alaska regions. During one trip taken in the early 1990s, she traveled about 25,000 miles, slightly more than the circumference of the Earth. Despite this, UAF increasingly came to feel that the Alpha Helix was insufficient for their needs. Specifically, they felt that her size was a limiting factor and that the hull was not strong enough to carry out the heavy ice work that they required.

In 2004 UAF put the Alpha Helix in dry-dock indefinitely and thus concluded a period of great productivity. Between 1981-2004, the ship had averaged 151 sailing days per year, and logged 3,629 total days doing research. Of those, she spent 2,390 days (65.8%) in the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean, 907 days (25%) in the Gulf of Alaska, 187 days (5.2%) in southern Alaskan waters, and 145 days (4%) in other locations. The massive amount of research that she facilitated was mostly funded by the NSF, which paid for 76.4% of the cost. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) covered the second highest amount at 10.8%. The remaining 12.8% of her operational costs were funded by the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC), the Bureau of Ocean Energy Minerals Management Services (MMS), the Office of Naval Research (ONR), private sponsors, the North Pacific Marine Research Program (NPMRP), NASA, UAF, and the Alaskan state government.


The Alpha Helix was kept in dry-dock from 2004-2007, at which point she was sold by UAF to Stabbert Maritime, a family-run private company with a fleet of about 10 vessels. At the time of this writing, the company was owned by Mr. Daniel Stabbert. In a phone interview conducted in 2013, Stabbert spoke of his affection for the vessel.  He described her as “the SUV of the fleet…you could beat the [heck] out of her and she’d just keep running.” She is very fuel efficient, and the company gave her a bulbous bow to further increase fuel efficiency. They put on speed stabilizers and stern jet thrusters to further increase her stability in rough seas; they also removed one of the smaller machine shops and expanded the science team quarters and the lounge, so it can now carry a science staff of 21.

Between 2007-2010, the Alpha Helix was contracted by Stabbert Maritime for missions in the Bering Sea, Alaskan waters and the Arctic Ocean. She worked for various groups, mostly doing research on geology, fisheries and drill site surveys for Shell Co. and other oil companies. During this time, she was also contracted by the U.S. Navy to monitor noise levels on nuclear submarines undergoing degassing and repair operations; other contracts she performed for the Navy remain classified. In late 2010 she was sent to the Gulf of Mexico to assist with the cleanup required by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. She remained in the area for a year to help monitor local fisheries. In 2012 the Alpha Helix was sent to Trinidad to conduct hydroscopic research and collect core samples.

Over the past few years, government research for funding has been decreasing, which makes running research vessels riskier for private companies. As such, Stabbert decided that he needed to upgrade his fleet to more multipurpose vessels, which the Alpha Helix most definitely is not. Therefore, despite his personal affinity for her, Mr. Stabbert sold the Alpha Helix to the University of Mexico City (UNAM) and it is now uncertain what the future holds for the ship. No matter what, the vessel has made regular contributions to science over past 48 years, and has affected the lives of hundreds of people who worked on or with it, often in ways that were unexpected: in our interview, Stabbert reported that he had been on a trip to Thailand during the 2012-2013 winter season, and had run into a banker whose father was one of the researchers on the second Amazon expedition.

The Alpha Helix has proven to be a rugged, fascinating, and incredibly useful vessel that has brought together generations of scientists from around the globe to collaborate in finding out how this amazing planet works. In furthering our understanding of the world around us, she has acted in a spirit that surely would have pleased Linus Pauling.


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