Take a Trip on a Survey Ship: USNS Michelson (T-AGS-23)
For 17 years (1958-75) Michelson collected data about the earth's oceans and created navigational charts.
John Hansen was a member of the ship's Navy oceanographic team from late 1962 through 1964.
Here are his recollections and reminiscences of people, places and ports of call.



Starboard side profile of USNS Michelson (T-AGS-23).
Launched in 1944 as SS Joliet Victory, this VC2-S-AP3 class vessel was converted to a deep ocean survey ship in 1958.
The kingposts just forward of the superstructure were removed. Only the #4 hold retained its cargo handling gear.
Not pictured are the #5 and #6 lifeboats, on each side just aft of the #4 hold.
The OC Hoist was installed later at the stern.

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Blue and Gold Stack

surveyship.blogspot.comSo, what does USNS mean? That’s United States Naval Ship, meaning a non-commissioned Navy ownedvessel operated by a civilian merchant marine crew rather than by naval personnel. These are generally auxiliary support ships: oilers (refueling tankers), transport ships and replenishment vessels supporting the fleet. Some are hospital ships or special mission ships, including those conducting ocean surveys. 

Why the stripes on the stack?  First of all, blue and gold are the official colors of the U.S. Navy. All shipping companies and cruise lines have their own proprietary stack insignia, helping in identification and as a form of advertising. Except for hospital ships, which are painted white, a USNS vessel generally looks pretty much like the regular navy except for having blue and gold stripes added around the smokestack. This is the insignia of the Navy's own sea transport company the Military Sealift Command (MSC), previously known as Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS)

MSC/MSTS's forerunner the Army Transport Service once operated troopships. This business was turned over to the Navy in the late 1940s. 

MSC operated ships have a "T" prefix before their classification symbol and hull number. Michelson's was T-AGS-23.

Those ships designated USS (United States Ship) are commissioned, meaning they are manned by traditional crews of navy officers and enlistees. 

Today, with defense budgets shrinking, more navy auxiliary ships are being operated more economically by MSC with civilian merchant marine crews.  


Never Sail on Friday

"Blue Peter" means ready to sail
Traditionally, sailors were a superstitious bunch. Common widely held nautical beliefs governed what to do (or avoid) on the way to the ship, preparing to sail, when to sail, as well as their on board behavior. The reason for sailors' seemingly unfounded fears is obscure, but perhaps some beliefs had a basis in experience. Seagoing superstitions probably perpetuated themselves as they furnished sailors with some tenuous feeling of stability and control in a world of uncertain weather, long voyages, zero communications, bad food and less than competent captains.

Thomas Gibbons addressed this well in "Boxing the Compass" (c. 1880):
"There is but a plank between a sailor and eternity; and perhaps the occasional realization of that fact may have had something to do with the broad grain of superstition at one time undoubtedly lurking in his nature. But whatever the cause, certainly the legendary lore of the sea is as diversified and interesting as the myths and traditions which haunt the imagination of landsmen, and it is not surprising that sailors, who observe the phenomenons of nature under such varied and impressive aspects, should be found to cling with tenacious obstinacy to their superstitious fancies. The winds, clouds, waves, sun, moon and stars have ever been invested with propitious or unlucky signs; and within a score of years we have met seamen who had perfect faith in the weather lore and traditions acquired during their ocean wanderings."
Here are some examples of common nautical beliefs:

  • It was considered bad luck for a sailor to encounter a cross eyed or flat footed person, one with red hair or a priest or other clergyman while his way to his ship.
  • A ship could not be renamed without following a prescribed official ceremony. 
  • Women aboard a ship would anger the sea and bring misfortune.
  • Hearing bells meant death aboard ship, A ship followed by a shark meant someone was going to die.
  • Killing an albatross or a dolphin brought misfortune. 
  • It was unlucky to bring scissors or an umbrella aboard. Whistling on board would bring storms.
  • Trouble came to those who cut their hair, beard or nails while at sea.
  • One always crushed egg shells before throwing them away to avoid witches using them as boats.
  • Harming sea gulls was forbidden as they were thought to hold the souls of sailors lost at sea.
  • Sailors had a great deal of faith in odd numbers. Thus, naval (and other military) salutes included an odd number of guns.
  • Ancient Greek mariners thought lightning or an an eclipse of the sun or moon to be a dire portent of evil. 
  • Icelandic sailors predicted shipwreck if a crescent moon with its horns pointed toward the earth was sighted.

One of the best known and long lived sailor's superstitions is that a ship should never sail on Friday. That's any Friday, not just Friday the 13th. This belief likely came from Christ's crucifixion having taken place on a Friday, thus making it a bad day for sailors and landlubbers alike. Respecting the day, clergy directed their followers to "await the 'morrow's sun".

Some quotations regarding sailing on Friday:
  • "As for sailing on Friday, that was out of the question. No one did that who could help it," - Cooper (1798)
  • "Seldom would a seaman then sail on Friday". - Thatcher (1821)
  • "He [the sailor] will never go to sea on Friday, if he can help it". - Cheever (1827)
  • "Many a ship has lost the tide which might have led to fortune because the captain and crew thought it unlucky to sail on Friday". - Southey (c. 1840)
  • "A Friday's sail will always fail." - Cheales (1875)

The Norse water goddess Freya was regarded as sacred by sailors, making her namesake day, Friday, holy, thus unsuitable for beginning a voyage. Chaucer, in the Knight's Tale (1386) described the day's variable weather, claiming that Friday is the best or worst day of the week. This observation is echoed in English folk proverbs of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Mariners could point to occurrences which they thought clearly validated their beliefs, listing all sorts of vessels that met their doom because they got underway on a Friday. Some were never seen again, lost at sea with all hands. Other Friday sailings sank or were wrecked on a Friday as well.

The other days of the week were generally regarded as safe sailing days. Sunday seems to be the best day in most cultures: "The better the day, the better the deed". Wednesday and Thursday were dedicated to the Norse gods Odin and Thor, respectively, both of whom were especially beneficial to mariners. In Spain Tuesday is unlucky: "Tuesday, don't marry, go to sea, or leave your wife".

Certain days of the month were unlucky exceptions. Some references indicate that the 13th of the month brought storms. Others say that the 4th, 5th, 13th, 16th, 19th and 24th were unlucky days. Another says of the 29th: "And on thy dark ocean way, launch the oar'd galley - few will trust the day".





I'll be in My Stateroom

Unlike those in the real Navy, Michelson sailors bunked in staterooms. Just forward of the superstructure and down a ladder (stairs), the number three cargo hold had been converted into living and working spaces for Navy, oceanographers and tech reps. Staterooms were on the second deck, just below the main weather deck. Work areas were below, on the third and fourth decks.


Enlisted men had fairly spacious four man staterooms with built in bunks, bookshelves, large lockers, a sink, a writing desk and a connecting bathroom, known nautically as the head. Each bunk had a reading light and there were storage drawers under each set of bunks. There was plenty of space for uniforms and civilian clothes. Everything except for chairs and the wastebasket were bolted down in case of heavy seas. We also had a lounge with books, card tables and comfortable chairs. The ship’s dispensary and a little hospital were also on the second deck.

Most officers, chief petty officers and civilians had two man rooms. They had stewards to make up their bunks and clean their rooms. Enlisted guys did all this themselves.

When I was aboard Michelson the staterooms were not air conditioned, but had forced air ventilation with wall mounted fans. Air conditioning, sometimes really cold, was provided in work spaces to keep the electronic stuff cool.

Some thought went into making the accommodations comfortable. Survey ships spend a lot of time at sea. 


Bunks in one of Michelson's a Navy enlisted staterooms. There was plenty of storage space in large lockers and drawers. Occupants added bookshelves, bulletin boards, pictures and paintings as well as (sometimes) refrigerators and clandestine liquor lockers. The top compartments on the lockers were for life jacket storage. Photo from Chet Headley.


Dinner is Served

"Gentlemen, decorum must be maintained in the dining room". This was our messman's customary request when his customers became a bit noisy. Harry was an older, crusty guy from New York who served the navy enlisted men. Yes, served. Being passengers on MSTS, the navy's own steamship company, in 1962 and '63 Harry was our waiter.

Harry's domain seated perhaps 16 to 18 at a time. There were four tables covered with red checked tablecloths, and real chairs. Each table had a little steel rim around the edge to keep plates from sliding off. Yes, plates, rather than steel trays found on navy ships. No chow line here! The breakfast menu included eggs to order, pancakes and sometimes even that famous creamed beef on toast. There were always three entree choices at lunch and dinner on the printed daily menus. Meat dishes could be ordered "wet" or "dry", which meant, in Harry's messroom vernacular, with or without gravy.
 

A can of Norge Fiskeboller (fish balls).
The ship's chief steward took on fresh fruit and vegetables at our ports of call, but after three plus weeks at sea we were eating canned and frozen stuff. Michelson had the original 1944 walk in fridge and freezer so we were well provisioned, but after a week the fresh fruit compote became canned fruit cocktail, a/k/a"fruit compost". 

One of the cooks was also a baker, so we always had fresh bread, cakes and pies. The cooks left out cold meats and cheese plus plenty of coffee for those on watch at night. Overall,  MSTS food was pretty good. One could easily gain weight. Nevertheless, some grumbled about the food quality, blaming the chief steward's close attention to budget, referring to him as the "cheap steward".

There was one no sale menu item. Somebody had over provisioned on canned "norge fiskeboller" in Bergen. This codfish product appeared on the dinner menu at least once a week. I'm the only one who ever ordered norge fish balls with brown gravy. Kind of looked like those IKEA meat balls but were not very appetizing. They dumped what was left of them in the galley after the ship reached New York.

When the seas got really rough, Harry (the messman) would add extra anti-sliding protection by soaking the tablecloths with water. Unlike the ones based in Oakland, MSTS Atlantic cooks were always able to produce hot meals even in the heaviest of seas. 


A mess assistant helped Harry serve then washed dishes in the adjacent scullery. The navy chief petty officer(s) had a little one table mess room next door. Messmen never get a day off, even in port, as the crew and passengers need to be fed. Sometimes they would get someone else to cover for them so they could go ashore during the day.

Despite his gruff manner, Harry was fond of classical music. Whenever he requested it, we played an LP record of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade on the ship's entertainment audio system. He said that it was his favorite music. 

Clicking on the elegant menu cover (at right) will reveal the repasts served on two nights in 1961 aboard Michelson, as posted by Lyle Hildebrand on the TAGS website, shamefully liberated. Neither dinner menu included norge fiskeboller. Apologies to Cunard Line for lifting their 1908 RMS Mauretania menu.

An Old Ship

Michelson was already getting to be an old ship in 1962. Originally launched in Portland, Oregon in June 1944 as SS Joliet Victory (type VC2-S-AP3), only five weeks elapsed  from laying of the keel to launching! Various shipyards built over 500 of these Victory class cargo vessels toward the end of WW II. Considerably stronger and faster than the Liberty ships constructed earlier during the war, they had five holds, three forward and two aft. 


SS Joliet Victory when operated by Alaska Steamship Company. Date and location unknown.

While strictly functional, Victory ships had a certain style, with a raised bow and rounded "cruiser stern" plus a  forward superstructure curved on both port and starboard sides, sort of a small attempt at graceful streamlining. Most Victory ships were named for American cities, others for colleges and universities.


There was an old sea story, frequently repeated, about Victory hulls being built for one trip only. Perhaps this was true for the Liberty ships, but during both the Korean and Vietnam wars dozens of VC-2 vessels were taken out of the reserve (mothball) fleet and restored to service. Three of them are still alive today as museum ships.


 Joliet Victory went into service late in WW II. Later it was operated as a commercial freighter by various shipping lines. It was taken out of service and joined the mothball fleet for several years, then resurrected in 1958, and converted to a deep ocean survey ship at the Charleston Naval Shipyard in South Carolina. The ship was renamed USNS Michelson after Albert Abraham Michelson who in addition to having been a US Navy commander and professor at the Naval Academy, was the first person to accurately measure the speed of light. Michelson received the Nobel prize for physics in 1907.

Seagulls on Michelson's fo'c'sl.
Photo by Carl Friberg.
Statistics include: length (455 feet), beam (62 feet), draft (23 feet) and displacement 13,050 long tons, fully loaded. Two boilers, a cross compound steam turbine, double reduction gears and an 18 foot diameter propeller gave Michelson a speed of 16 knots, although it could cruise at 17 knots flat out.

Michelson was operated by the
Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS), the transport and special missions arm of the navy. MSTS ships were manned by civilian merchant marine crews. MSTS is now (since 1970) known as Military Sealift Command (MSC).



Top of the World

All sailors who cross the Arctic Circle become members of "The Order of the Bluenose" (a/k/a "Order of the Top of the World" or "Order of the Polar Bear") and are entitled to receive a certificate something like this:

This certificate was awarded by MSTS (Military Sea Transportation Service), the Navy's own steamship company, to those venturing above 66ยช 33' North, the Arctic Circle.


Another Arctic Circle cruise certificate, supposedly awarded aboard a fictional submarine.


Norway's Hurtigruten ships make daily six day voyages north from Bergen to Kirkenes carrying passengers, mail and freight., regularly crossing the Arctic Circle. A crewmember portraying King Neptune supervises a crossing ceremony where passengers are doused with ice water. Those present are awarded a colorful souvenir certificate like the one pictured above.


There are several more of these unofficial nautical recognitions. known as cruise certificates, that can be awarded to sailors at memorable milestones during their wide ranging travels. I had never heard of most of these small titles and orders but, looking back, find that I would have qualified for five of them had they been awarded aboard Michelson.

The Order of the Shellback (or the Order of Neptune) for sailors who have crossed the equator, is the best known. This may involve a period of hazing followed by an initiation (!) aboard real navy ships. This is known as the line crossing ceremony, in which the pollywogs (initiates) must perform some amusing but harmless tasks to show their worthiness to become shellbacks, veterans of the line crossing. Certificates with whimsical images of sea creatures, real and imaginary, are awarded to the new shellbacks in the name of Neptuni Regis



A WWII vintage Shellback certificate, suitable for framing, commemorates crossing the equator.


Other unofficial navy titles and orders include: 
  • Order of the Ditch, also known as the Panama Canal Transit Certificate, for sailors who have passed through the Panama Canal.
  • Order of the Rock, also called the Strait of Gibraltar Transit Certificate, for sailors who have passed through the Strait of Gibraltar.
  • Royal Domain of the Emperor Penguin, also called the Order of the Red Nose for sailors who have crossed the Antarctic Circle (66° 33? S).
  • Safari to Suez for sailors who have transited the Suez Canal.
  • Order of the Golden Dragon for sailors who have crossed the International Date Line, the 180th meridian.
  • Golden Shellback for sailors who have crossed the point where the Equator crosses the International Date Line.
  • Emerald Shellback or Royal Diamond Shellback for sailors who cross at 0 degrees off the coast of West Africa (where the Equator crosses the Prime Meridian).
  • Realm of the Czars for sailors who crossed into the Black Sea.
  • Order of Magellan for sailors who circumnavigated the earth.
  • Order of the Lakes for sailors who have sailed on all five Great Lakes.
  • Rounding Cape Horn award, sometimes called a Mossback Certificate.
  • Persian Excursion certificates commemorate service aboard ship in the Persian Gulf.
  • Spanish Main Certificate commemorates cruising the Caribbean Sea.
  • Plank Owner for members of a ship's original (commissioning) crew.
  • Sea Squatters, awarded to those who have spent 24 hours or more on a life raft. 


The Golden Dragon certificate, for those crossing the international date line.



The Order of the Ditch, awarded to those transiting the Panama Canal.


The Order of the Rock, issued to those who have passed the Rock of Gibraltar.


A Round the World certificate (a/a/a) Order of Magellan, for those who have circumnavigated te earth.



For those who have sailed fbetween the Med and the Red Sea, the Safari to Suez certificate.



Knights of The Emperor Penguin have crossed the Antarctic Circle.



It appears that the elusive, perhaps fictional, sailor W. T. Hatch has been to the Persian Gulf.



Plank Owners are crew members of a newly commissioned ship.