History Magazine

The R/V Alpha Helix

By Scarc
The R/V Alpha Helix

The R/V Alpha Helix, 1966.

[Part 1 of 2]

It was early 1966 when Linus Pauling received a letter informing him that a new research vessel had just been constructed in Washington state. The reason this was notable to Pauling was the vessel’s name – it was called the R/V Alpha Helix, named after a secondary structure of proteins that Pauling had discovered.

The Alpha Helix was designed by L.R. Glosten and Associates, a naval architecture firm based in Seattle, Washington. It was built by the J.M. Martinac Shipbuilding Corporation in nearby Tacoma; construction began on September 9, 1964, and the keel was laid on December 9, 1964. The Alpha Helix is 133’ long, 31’ abeam, 14.5’ deep, and made with welded steel construction, transversely framed. She is powered by an 820-horsepower General Motors diesel engine, which drives a variable pitch propeller (for superior speed control) at 800 rpm and provides a top speed of 12.25 knots and a cruising speed of 11 knots. She carries a 29,250 gallon fuel tank, which at 9.5 knots gives her a range of 6,500 miles. The Alpha Helix also holds a second tank which contains 5,000 gallons of potable water.

She is a pure research vessel, and designed to be extremely compact and versatile; she has air-conditioning for tropical conditions and a reinforced hull strengthened for “moderate ice work” in arctic seas. On the port, aft side of the vessel, she has a cargo crane capable of lifting up to 5,310 lbs., which she needs, as in the hold she carries a jeep and a prefabricated 8×12′ shore laboratory. The Alpha Helix is also outfitted with mountings such that special work platforms can be fixed to the hull just above the waterline, running from bow to stern. She carries two skiffs and two workboats, measuring 17′ and 24′ long, respectively.

Despite her relatively small size, the Alpha Helix is designed to use space at maximum efficiency. At the time of her construction, she had space for a crew of 12 and a scientific party of 10. Additionally, she has ample room for research, including a library “with a large blackboard and acoustics suitable for conferences and chamber music.” But the heart of the vessel are her numerous research laboratories. She has a wet lab taking up 81 square feet, which at the time of construction could be chilled to 5° C. She also featured 457 square feet of dry labs, electrophysiological labs, optical labs, and a freeze lab that could be chilled to -20° C. These spaces required a significant quantity of specialized equipment which would be difficult to replace or repair during voyages, so she also has a full machine shop, equipped with lathes, drills, presses, welding equipment, and even a glass-blowing station. At the time of construction in late 1964, the Alpha Helix cost $1,272,021, roughly equivalent to $9.14 million in modern currency.

Invitation to the dedication of the R/V Alpha Helix, June 1966.

Invitation to the launching of the R/V Alpha Helix, June 1965.

The Alpha Helix was launched on June 29, 1965 in Tacoma, after which point she set out for San Diego, California. She was owned and had been funded in near entirety by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which had assigned her to work from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, operated by UC San Diego.

The vessel was going to be dedicated at a large ceremony on March 11, 1966. At the same ceremony, the new Scripps Marine Facility and the R/V Thomas Washington were also slated for dedication. Dr. P.F. Scholander, a professor of Physiology and the director of Scripps’ Physiological Research Laboratory, wrote to Pauling and asked him to serve as the principal speaker at the event, due in no small part to the name of the Alpha Helix. Pauling wanted very badly to attend but was unable to do so as March 11 was the day that he was scheduled to be in New York City to begin his ill-fated libel lawsuit against The National Review, which had published two editorials that accused Pauling of being a communist, a “megaphone for Soviet policy…” and a traitor. Due to Pauling’s inability to attend, Prof. Scholander invited Dr. Robert W. Morse to be the principal speaker. Morse was a Navy veteran of World War II, the assistant secretary of the Navy for research and development, and the chairman of the Committee on Oceanography of the Federal Council for Science and Technology.

Shortly after the dedication, the Alpha Helix embarked upon its maiden voyage, an eight-month, 16,500 mile expedition named “Expedition Billabong” (an Australian term for a waterhole). James Faughn captained the vessel for the mission, which would extend to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, with brief stops at the Cook Islands, American Samoa, and Hawaii upon the return to southern California. The entire mission was funded by the NSF, and its objectives were to study desalination of seawater by mangroves, electrophysiology of mollusks, symbiotic interactions in corals, and osmotic and cardiovascular behavior in dugong. During the course of the expedition, 44 scientists from 19 different institutions sailed on the Alpha Helix. Pauling wanted to serve as a researcher on the initial trip, but his lawsuit prevented it. Of the scientists on board, 22 hailed from the United States, while the remaining 20 came from Australia, New Zealand, England, Sweden, and Japan. The vessel performed her mission admirably and no modifications were made after the voyage.

After a few months of routine maintenance, the Alpha Helix departed in early February 1967, for her second voyage. This expedition lasted 11 months, and the destination was far up the Amazon River, deep into the jungle. The NSF sponsored this trip as well, which cost $600,000 (about $4.14 million in modern dollars). The Amazon trip was grander than the first voyage; the total distance traveled was 17,610 miles. And the time, distance, and cost of the trip were not the only increases: 82 researchers from the U.S., Brazil, England, Canada, Norway, West Germany, France, New Zealand, Sweden, Australia, Japan and the Soviet Union participated as well. The mission’s research goals were ambitious and exotic in equal measure. They included:

  • “the insect-free Rio Negro River”
  • singing habits of cicada
  • hallucinogenic snuff used by indigenous locals
  • sloths, electric eels, piranha and fresh-water dolphins
  • infrared sensing capabilities of the boa constrictor
  • the physiology of salt and water in animals
  • the potential of crude petroleum emanating from “smog” given off by certain jungle trees
  • respiratory mechanisms in indigenous fruits
  • the moisture secreting capabilities of trees
  • sap pressure in the “drowned forests of Brazil”
  • the metabolism of fish
  • respiration of Galapagos Island marine iguanas

Once again the expedition was a solid success and the Alpha Helix performed admirably. In fact, the mission ended up being more even informative than the scientists had originally anticipated, as on the way to the Amazon they discovered ten new species of deep-sea scorpion fish.

Very quickly the Alpha Helix had proven herself to be an excellent, compact and flexible research vessel. While the first two voyages had taken place in tropic climates, the NSF next had plans to try out her arctic capabilities. As 1968 began, crews loaded the vessel up for her next trip, to the Bering Sea and beyond.

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