Sea Stories

1976 porteverglades 002Editing photos for “Up Scope!” the other day, I was working my way through “The Seventies” post-processing and writing captions for twenty-or-so galleries of images submitted by Neal Degner for the years 1974-1977. I stumbled across a photo of an unusual ship, a haze gray catamaran with the Military Sealift Command (MSC) stripes on her stacks. Curious, I decided a little research was in order, partly because those twin-hulled catamarans were as rare as the Pegusus class hydrofoils during the 70’s and 80’s.

Thank you internet. A few clicks later, and the ship was identified as the USNS Hayes (T-AGOR-16). Named after Dr. Harvey C. Hayes, a pioneer in underwater acoustics and the former head of the U.S. Navy Sound Division of the Naval Research Laboratory, the “Hayes” class oceanographic research vessel was re-purposed in the mid-80’s as an acoustic research ship...

She ended her career when struck from the register in 2008, having spent the last 15 years or so performing underwater acoustics research to reduce the acoustic noise of submarines!

“Finally he gets to the tie-in,” you might legitimately say, wondering what on earth an MSC catamaran has to do with Bates.

“Wait a minute,” you ponder, “this is a Sea Story!”

“Lucy, you got some ’splaining to do!”

Ok, let me explain. No wait, there’s too much - let me sum up!

While exploring the history of the ship, I ran across an antique website, that as best I can tell, was designed and written by a retired MSC captain that goes by the moniker of “Slowbell”. He once had command of the Hayes, and may in fact have been in command of the Hayes when these photos were taken. He tells us much about the old girl in his own sea story which I have reproduced it here in its entirety for reasons I’ll address later.

In the words of “Slowbell”,

The Hayes showed up on my horizon in the early seventies. I had just finished a year on the USNS Vanguard, sitting down in Rio, when I got word I would be taking over the ship. She was barely a half-year old, and hadn't seen any real service. She had been built in Seattle, Washington, and aside from the trip down the West coast, through the Panama Canal, and a short run over to the Azores, she hadn't yet really been sea-tested. She did do a little test though on the skipper I relieved by doing her slamming thing in a moderate sea, scaring the poor fellow off the vessel. Barely six-months old, she already had the reputation - given to her by the previous command as a "bad scene" - "will never go anywheres”.

The sponsor of the vessel - the Naval Research Lab, had been given this ship as replacement for a old sea-plane tender they dearly loved, and were now wishing they had back. Well...I guess that's why they sent me..."ain't no ship, or female goin' to get off easy with me in charge." they surmised.

The problem with the Hayes, as with all catamarans is the vulnerability of it's cross-structure to the sea, and swell. In the case of the Hayes at that time, it cleared the surface in calm water by seventeen feet. This "cross-structure", at which the two hulls were joined, was flat...flatter'n a pancake, and unbeknownst to me, and others at the time, just plain housing structure designed to take no more than five-pounds per square inch of pressure. Later on in tests with sensors, we found pressures to exceed two-hundred pounds per inch when pounding in a heavy sea.

At the time, the Navy was building two similar catamarans, and had plans for eleven more for MSC - my outfit. The Navy cats were being built for submarine rescue, so were really loaded down with gear, and an additional deck below the cross structure, giving them less than ten-feet clearance from the sea. They later proved to be unfit for ocean service because of "slamming", and were used just for show, meandering from port to port along the coast. If they ever had to get to a scene in a hurry, they'd sink first.

This, however did not turn out to be the case with the Hayes. I had heard about the "pounding" the former skipper experienced, and heard what he had done to relieve it - slow down, though that only made it worse as the ship decelerated.

usns hayes 001After all the formalities of assuming command, I was invited uptown Alexandria, (Va.), for lunch at a nice restaurant. There were some officials from NRL, the fellow I just relieved, and a Navy captain who was being groomed for one of the Navy's cats. This poor fellow couldn't get it out of his mind that I was taking over this vessel without any "training" in catamarans. Where he ever thought I would ever get that kind of "training", there being no other cats this size in the world, I don't know. He was presently being given six-months briefing on his new assignment. After he kept shaking his head just too many times over lunch, I had to tell him I was a seaman, been nothing other than seaman, and will always be a seaman, and that anything that can remain afloat for a minute, will be me anyways.

That night we slipped our moorings under darkness - sounds clandestinely spooky...doesn't it, but the sailing board had been set by the previous skipper, and if I had set it, it would have been at a decent daylight hour. It's a long, tiresome trip down the Chesapeake, and during my normal sleeping hours, I don't appreciate that. Never again, like all other ships I've had, did that ever happen again. We broke out into the Atlantic the next day bound for the Greenland Sea where we were to start underwater sound studies. We'd eventually get up to 79º 30' far as a ship can go without ice-breakers, and then sometimes not.

The first seas we encountered were during the evening when we were just south of Greenland. The seas were building, being about eight, or so feet when I turned in. We were doing full speed - 16 knots.

The Hayes was 5600 horsepower, should have been 7200, but the builders put in the wrong size reduction gears, which couldn't handle the full potential of the of the numerous dumb things the poor ship had happen to it.

At around 0500 I was awakened by a pound, a slight grazing of the sea along the cross structure. Immediately I felt the engines slow down, and then she really started to depth charges going off under the ship. The phone was the Chief Mate on watch: "She started to pound, so I slowed down." he said.

Without telling him what I thought, I told him I'd be right up.

A few minutes later when I got up to the bridge, and saw the seas were about twelve feet or so, and it looking like that's all they would be for some time I said" "Full ahead". With a look of amazement on the mate's face, and the words "Hold on to you hat." under his breath, we came up to full speed again. I stayed for a while, and watched the timing of the sea, and ship's pitching, and when all seemed back to normal, I left the bridge for breakfast.

usns hayes 002

As I was eating, the Chief Engineer came in, and he Senior Scientist. "Would you believe we're hooked up into a twelve-foot sea." I said to the two.

"What? You gotta be kiddin'.' was their simultaneous replay.

"Yup' I said, explaining that unless the timing of the seas gets out of synch, we're good for the duration like this. I told them the mate had caught a little grazing, and panicked, as did my predecessor, and made matters worse by slowing down.

I also knew, but hadn't told them yet, that when the timing does get to where we will pound, I will tack, or take the seas on either bow, but never slow down.

Later on in heavy seas, my theory proved correct. The Hayes now could go anywhere, anytime. She was a good ship.

(Take a look at the) view of the Hayes' stern.

Would you believe we had to place a large warning sign forward between the hulls warning boaters not to try and go down between the hulls. When hooked up, Hayes' twin controllable-pitch propellers would churn up six-foot "rooster tails" between those hulls...instant chopped boat...and meat.


1976 porteverglades 005The USNS Hayes was designated as the (T-AG-195) when re-purposed in the eighties. Decommissioned and struck in 2008, she is currently laid up in the NAVSEA Inactive Ships Maintenance Facility in Philadelphia, PA.

My efforts to determine the identity of “Slowbell” and to contact him have been unsuccessful. His website has not been updated in a long time, and emails are returned with the ‘unable to deliver’ stamp. My suspicion is that he may no longer be with us, and his site, an absolute treasure trove of history for those interested in the MSC, has been abandoned. Without help from some interested individual, the associated history and sea stories may be lost to the future.

Slowbell’s website can be found at

UPDATE: When I last checked on 2 MAR 2016, Slowbell's website was no longer available. I believe I successfully archived all of the information and photos on his website before it was removed, if there is someone interested in restoring and maintaining it. ~ BMW
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© 2017 Brad Williamson
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