The Long Blue Line: Coast Guard Cutter Bear and NOAA hunt for the Bear

Last summer, after several months of preparation, the Coast Guard Cutter Bear received a mission objective for 14 days of its 72-day patrol off the coast of New England. CGC Bear was tasked with serving as a research vessel, facilitating a search for the wreck of the original United States Revenue Cutter Bear.

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ENS Malia Hindle, Coast Guard Cutter Bear

Painting depicting USCGC Bear (WMEC-901) and namesake USRC Bear together in one illustration. (Coast Guard Collection)
Painting depicting USCGC Bear (WMEC-901) and namesake USRC Bear together in one illustration. (Coast Guard Collection)

Last summer, after several months of preparation, the Coast Guard Cutter Bear received a mission objective for 14 days of its 72-day patrol off the coast of New England. CGC Bear was tasked with serving as a research vessel, facilitating a search for the wreck of the original United States Revenue Cutter Bear. This tasking strayed from normal mission operations, however, the crew of CGC Bear is well versed in multi-mission operations and 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 that could be a manmade object. 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.

While serving alongside the search team, Bear’s crew learned more about USRC Bear’s history and its importance as perhaps the Service’s most famous cutter. 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.

As part of the Revenue Cutter Service, the Bear served the Bering Sea Patrol, conducting missions such as search and rescue, fisheries and game law enforcement and other law enforcement missions, such as suppressing illegal trade. In one of the cutter’s most notable missions, the Overland Relief Expedition, a number of Bear crewmembers drove a herd of reindeer 1,500 miles to 250 whalers stranded at Point Barrow, Alaska, and saved their lives. Later, the Bear found itself 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. Finally, in 1963, while being towed to Philadelphia to be repurposed as a floating restaurant, the Bear sank at about 9:00 am on March 19.

Bear’s legacy was not forgotten after the cutter was lost. In 1979, a group of 15 Coast Guard Academy cadets and advisors, and Dr. Harold Edgerton of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology attempted the first search for the Bear. To create their search area, the team used accounts of Coast Guard pilots that over-flew 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.

Bear’s Information Systems Technicians preparing fiber-optic cable for installation between the bridge and fantail. (photo by Ensign Malia Hindle)
Bear’s Information Systems Technicians preparing fiber-optic cable for installation between the bridge and fantail. (photo by Ensign Malia Hindle)

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. Bear’s crewmembers were tasked with designing a steel structure capable of safe and effective operations required by NOAA. Members of Bear’s Damage Control and Electrical divisions worked tirelessly to prepare the cutter for the equipment, designing a steel frame and wiring the electrical cable necessary for the winch’s operations. Along with the engineers, Bear’s information systems technician division rigged monitors and connections throughout the ship to ensure video and data feeds were available on the bridge, as well as NOAA’s operations center.

Once NOAA arrived in Boston, Bear’s crew assisted them in loading a 4,100-pound, 440-volt, hydraulic winch and cabling system for the side-scan sonar. Bear’s crew welcomed NOAA’s personnel and worked around the clock to integrate NOAA’s information technology suite and equipment with the cutter’s systems. Using this system, NOAA deployed and recovered the sonar array from the fantail of the cutter.

Personnel from Bear’s Damage Control and Electrical divisions installing the new side-can sonar winch and cabling system on the cutter’s fantail. (photo by Beth Crumley)
Personnel from Bear’s Damage Control and Electrical divisions installing the new side-can sonar winch and cabling system on the cutter’s fantail. (photo by Beth Crumley)

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. In total, Bear surveyed 62 square miles or 558 linear miles of North Atlantic sea floor.

The NOAA mission team and the Bear crew worked seamlessly throughout the search. Members of the mission team were invited to enjoy various morale events in the evenings while Bear crewmembers were invited to assist the team. They did so, including recovering the tow fish in all sorts of sea states and weather conditions. When the tow fish experienced a technical failure, crewmembers assisted the research team repairing the equipment and to resume operations quickly. The search was truly a team effort!

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)
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. Granted, it takes creativity and an open mind to make it happen, but this mission proved that cruising cutters could serve when needed, making the Coast Guard a “Swiss Army knife” of services.

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.

As one might assume, Bear and its crew are not permitted to disclose information regarding the potential location of the wreck. Not only does this protect the mission team’s hard work, but it protects the wreck itself. The crew of CGC Bear would like to thank the NOAA mission team for allowing it to participate in in the search for one of the Coast Guard’s most important artifacts and legacies. Good luck continuing the search!

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