The Otter Ship
In 1968, while working aboard the torpedo recovery vessel MV Puffin, I, Gordon Edwards, met Bob Jacobsen the mate of the MV DuPont. Jacobsen told me he was being promoted to Captain of the newly converted Navy Yard Freighter, MV Otter. After refitting, it would join the MV DuPont in service delivering Dynamite to customers in SE Alaska and Hawaii.
The Otter is a 135 foot steel vessel formerly used by the Navy for in-harbor and short trip cargo hauling. Power was by two 300 horsepower Union diesel engines with direct reversible drive. There was no clutch or transmission. The engines were stopped, cams atop the engine were shifted in order to reverse the rotation thereby backing the propellers. DuPont Company needed to make the Otter conform to Coast Guard regulations in order to serve the SE Alaska trade area and contracted to remodel the cargo area.
The hold was voided, meaning the full-width steel plates were welded vertically to the hull every four feet making it impossible to carry cargo below the deck line. The bulwarks at the bow were extended aft to approximately amidships and covered with a new deck. This created a new wood-lined cargo compartment capable of handling 150 tons of product, dynamite. Rowan ship yard in Seattle installed a hydraulic crane on the forward deck to lift product and our skiff to and from the vessel. Roll chocks were added on the chines of the hull to slow the speed at which the vessel rolled from side to side.
Along with the navigation radar, there was a LORAN locating system. Sperry Marine installed a gyrocompass so the vessel could safely navigate in areas of Southeast Alaska where magnetic fields disrupted the standard compasses.
Sticks of explosive were packed in special waxed cardboard boxes to a capacity of 50 pounds each. Most of it was palletized for ease of loading/unloading. The blasting caps were carried in a separate compartment at the stern of the vessel about 50 feet aft of the main hold.
On the main deck, aft of the hold, living quarters were constructed providing four staterooms, the galley and equipment storage. Each stateroom had upper and lower berths, a washstand with sink and a small table and chair. A separate shower room drew on a generous 4,000 gallon fresh water tank. The Captain’s cabin was on the upper deck level, aft of the wheel house.
Once Captain Robert Jacobsen decided on his crew; Keith Petke as Mate, Neal as engineer, Fridel Schielmann as Able Bodied Seaman, Dale Sisson as cook and Ordinary Seaman deck hand and I, Gordon Edwards as Ordinary Seaman deck hand, we stood watches of six hours on then six off. A typical trip started as we arrived at the dock where the Otter was moored in the Lake Washington Ship Canal, close to the Hiram Chittenden Locks. We cast off and went through the locks into Puget Sound. Traveling south beyond Tacoma to the DuPont Washington docks, we tied up for the night. We could wake to the sound of the wheels on the narrow gauge train squealing onto the dock with cars full of product. The loading was done by plant employees with the Otter’s crew members assisting to be certain the cargo was securely shored up and safely secured to the deck.
Each trip’s delivery routes were different making it possible for the boat to go into a variety of ports, bays, inlets and straights taking the dynamite to DuPont’s customers. Some were logging companies blasting rock to make roads. Some were construction firms installing buildings and infrastructure. One delivery was made to the firm building the new airport across the bay from Ketchikan.
The most unusual project we delivered to was 15 miles south of Juneau, AK in the Snettisham Inlet. Our first time there was in warm weather, the next was in winter when the salt water inlet had a coating of clear ice about one inch thick. The ice thickened the closer we got to the float we used as a loading platform. The skipper had to back and run forward a few times to force a path to the float. Our crane lifted pallets of cases onto the float and a helicopter then hooked onto the cargo net to fly the load into the project.
With hazardous cargo, our requirement was to have two men on watch in the wheelhouse at all times. Besides being allowed to unload only in daylight, some customer locations could only be reached at high tides.
Each of the two winters I worked on the Otter, DuPont Company took advantage of the slow season in Alaska to send us in February to Oahu, Hawaii. It can be pretty scary to crew a 135 foot vessel across the open Pacific Ocean with depths up to 18,000 feet in the prime gale season. Each of the two years I was aboard, we were blessed with moderate to light sea conditions and weather for an uneventful and safe passage. The Otter’s optimum speed was 9.5 knots, about 12 miles per hour. It took thirteen days loaded to get to Hawaii and eleven days empty to return to Seattle.
M/V Otter – 1970
Name: Otter Depth: 8.7 feet
Official Number: 521938 Service: Freight
Rig: Oil. S. (Oil screw) Indicated Horsepower: 700
Gross Tonnage: 195 Year Built: 1941
Net Tonnage: 132 Where Built: Oakland, CA
Length: 124.5 feet Owner: E.I. Dupont De Nemours Co.
Breadth: 30.2 feet Home Port: Seattle