A visit to the R/V John N. Cobb, 2013

The Cobb Seamount

The Cobb Seamount

Charles R. (Bob) Hitz Bob’s Posting 18 June 19, 2014

The Cobb at the Historic ship wharf

The Cobb at the Historic ship wharf

The last trip I made on the John N. Cobb was in February 1971, and 42 years later I jumped at the chance to be a tour guide on her when I was invited to the Classic Workboat Show held at Lake Union Park in Seattle, Washington on October 5, 2013. Northwest Seaport (NWSP) had moved her to the Historic Ship Wharf during the summer of 2013 and this was the last function of the year before she was moved back to the Seattle Maritime Academy, the current owners.

This was an adventure for me as the Park is located at the south end of Lake Union in metropolitan Seattle and housed the new facilities of the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI). I hadn’t been there for years and it has become a wonderful sight. On that day the sun was out and I walked across the bridge in the morning looking for the Cobb and recognizing the crow’s nest on top of the mast on the far side of a number of large vessels.

As I neared the Cobb I passed NWSP vessels – the tug Arthur Foss and lightship Swiftsure

were permanently moored along with guest vessels like John N. Cobb. There was a banner

that had National Ocean and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) on it just below the Cobb’s pilothouse. They were partners with NWSP for this Open House, since the vessel had worked for them for 33 years before she was decommissioned. The prior 20 years before NOAA was formed, from 1950 to 1970, she was the Fish & Wildlife Service’s research vessel for Exploratory Fishing and Gear Research Base in Seattle. As I went aboard that day it was very familiar and brought back a lot of memories of the exploratory days when I worked on her.

Shannon Fitzgerald

Shannon Fitzgerald

Shannon Fitzgerald, an officer with the NWSP, is the man who got the Cobb to visit the Park during the summer of 2013 and invited me to participate. He sailed with her doing his field work as a seabird biologist for NOAA. While he was transiting on one of his trips he videoed the 1950 Fairbanks Morris diesel that drove the vessel and captured the sound of the exhaust where it vented through the stack on top of the house, which was pleasing to listen to. The sound was quite different in the middle of the tape when he went into the engine room.

One of the memories I have is sitting in the starboard seat in the pilothouse and listening to the exhaust of the main engine, which was mesmerizing as we ran from one station to the next. The Cobb suffered a catastrophic failure when her crankshaft broke in June, 2008 and I thought I would never hear it again, but now anyone can listen to it via Shannon’s video by going to the following address (1): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2ksTQGTlLA


The Cobb at the Historic ship wharf

The Cobb at the Historic ship wharf

We had a number of visitors touring the Cobb that day and it reminded me of when we used to come into port, especially in San Francisco and tied up at Fishermen’s Dock. People walking the docks would stop and were as interested in the ship and its history as they were at this open house.

The Cobb Seamount display

The Cobb Seamount display

Thanks to one of the displays put together by the NOAA Graphics Department which I enjoyed describing to visitors, was the discovery of the Cobb Seamount in 1950. We had found the original log book of the Cobb, along with the original plot and course she followed. On August 1, 1950 she was trolling for albacore on a northerly course about 280 miles off the coast of Washington, where the charts indicated that the bottom depth should be at least 1,000 fathoms (6,000 feet). She was steering for a concentration of birds, since a vessel passing through the area a few days before had reported that there was probably a large school of fish in the area because of massive flocks of feeding birds. There was excitement on the bridge as they neared the flock. They turned on the depth sounder to record the fish that they expected to be there. When there was a trace on the sounder the scientist said “Look at the fish” and the skipper said “That’s not fish, its bottom”. It just kept coming up toward the surface, then it stopped at 22 fathoms (132 feet) and there was a debate on the bridge about whether it was bottom or a huge school of fish. The skipper announced that it was bottom and was an uncharted mountain which was missed when the charts were made. He said he could prove it by anchoring upon it, which he did.

When they called the office via radio station KAB at the Montlake Lab during the afternoon schedule, an excited voice reported “Cobb located new underwater seamount, 46 45’N, 130 47’W, 280 miles west of Willapa Bay. Level area at 70 fathoms, peak at 22 fathoms” as recorded in the radio log. The Coast and Geodesic Survey were notified. They subsequently surveyed the sea mount and modified the navigation chart, naming it the “Cobb Seamount” after the vessel.

The Seattle October open house attracted writer Joe Follansbee, who became interested in the history of the John N. Cobb. He wrote an article in Crosscut (2) which suggested some of the plans that are being considered for the Cobb’s future. I hope she doesn’t become one of the derelicts that Washington State is dealing with, such as the Deep Sea which sank in Penn Cove Washington on May 13, 2012 – the same vessel that Ed Best (3) photographed in the Bering Sea in 1948.

I had a wonderful day with the Cobb and met a lot of interesting people. Hopefully the John N. Cobb will return to Lake Union Park, were the public can get access to this fascinating vessel and learn more about its history. She is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and she was the oldest ship and the last wooden ship in the NOAA fleet. I believe her basic design as a Pacific Coast Combination Vessel is unique for a research vessel that was designed for the Exploratory Fishing and Gear Research Base in Seattle.

(1) YouTube.com John N. Cobb – 1940 Fairbanks-Morse Diesel Engine.
(2) See posting of Dec. 3, 2013 “Bob and the Cobb” at Crosscut.
(3) See Bob’s posting (No 16) of May 28, 2014, Pacific Explorer-Second Trip-The Bering Sea, part 2 of 2.




About finleyc

I'm a writer and a historian of science. I'm interested in the intersection of science and policy in the oceans, and especially around fishing.
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