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U.S. Fish Commission Schooner Grampus, 1886

Report on the Construction and Equipment of the Schooner Grampus, taken from the Report of Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries, 1886

Under full sail, the schooner Grampus at sunset.

"...there was no sound except the splash of the sinkers overside, the flapping of the cod, and the whack of muckles as the men stunned them. It was wonderful fishing".

Rudyard Kipling, Captains Courageous

The fact may properly be mentioned here that the model and lines of the Grampus were placed on exhibition at the rooms of the American Fish Bureau, at Gloucester, Massachusetts, in the autumn of 1885. They attracted much attention, so much indeed that they served as the basis for designing many new fishing vessels. The Grampus is said to have been the model for Rudyard Kipling's fishing schooner in Captains Courageous (unproven).

The U. S. Fish Commission schooner Grampus is a wooden, two-masted, schooner rigged, keel vessel. In general she resembles the typical fishing schooner of New England, from which she differs, however, in the following particulars:

  • First. She is about 2 feet deeper than the average schooner of the same length as usually built.
  • Second. Instead of having a raking stem and a long projecting head her stem is nearly straight and almost perpendicular above water and below load-line curves-away at an easy slope to join the keel.
  • Third. The stern is not so wide, and has much more rake.
  • Fourth. Instead of the run being excessively hollowed out, leaving the quarters and counters very flat, with abruptly curved horizontal lines, the after section of the Grampus approximates more closely to a V-shape in cross-section, and has much easier lines than the typical clipper schooner previously in use.
  • Fifth. In having wire standing rigging fore and aft.
  • Sixth. In having the mainmast considerably longer than the foremast.
  • Seventh. In having a fore staysail and small jib instead of a large jib like that ordinarily carried by fishing vessels.
  • Eighth. In having the chain plates outside and let into the wales so to be nearly flush with the plank.

There are other minor points of difference, and some special arrangements, the latter having been adopted for the purpose of making the vessel adapted to the work she had to do, and which it is not necessary specify in speaking of the points of difference between her and the fishing schooner. The most noticeable of these peculiarities is the well, which is of the type ordinarily termed "box-well."

Parties Who Built and Equipped the Vessel

The hull (including the spars) was built at Noank, Connecticut, by Robert Palmer & Sons; the sails, rigging, blocks, and ground tackle were furnished by E. L. Rowe & Son, of Gloucester, Massachusetts; the boats were built by Higgins & Gifford, of the same port; the steam windlass was constructed by the American Ship Windlass Company, of Providence, Rhode Island; the boiler was obtained from M. V. B. Darling, of Providence, Rhode Island, and the remainder of the equipment was purchased chiefly from Bliss Brothers and H. M. Greenough, of Boston, Massachusetts.

Date of Launching, etc.

She was launched on Tuesday March 23, 1886, and went into commission on June 5, 1886.


Her general dimensions are as follows: length over all, 90 feet; length on load water-line, 81 feet 6 inches; beam, extreme at deck, 22 feet 3 inches; beam at water-line, 22 feet 9 inches; depth from top of keel to top of main-deck beam, 11 feet 1 inch; height of quarter deck, 9 inches; height of bullwarks, deck to top of rail, 26; inches; height of cabin-house, 271/2~ inches; length of cabin house, 15 feet; width of cabin house, forward end, 14 feet 7 inches; after end, 12 feet 6 inches; registered tonnage (net) 83.30 tons.

The purposes for which the Grampus was constructed are various, and have an important bearing upon the work of the commission. For some time previous to her construction it was felt that it was necessary to have a suitable sailing vessel provided with a well in which marine fish could be kept alive and transported from the fishing grounds to the hatching stations on the coast, where the eggs might be obtained for the purpose of artificial propagation. It could also serve a useful purpose by bringing in alive various marine species not, perhaps, in a gravid condition, which can be put into large aquaria, and thus afford to biologists the opportunity to study the habits of our ocean fauna under conditions that can not possibly be otherwise afforded.

It is also believed that a welled vessel, which is seaworthy and swift, will be able to visit European waters and bring there from alive to the United States certain marine species which do not occur in american waters, and which are held in high repute for food. The introduction and propagation of such fish as the sole, turbot, plaice, brill, etc. in our waters will doubtless be of great advantage to the United States not only in giving to our people additional species of delicate food-fish but also in introducing for their capture the method of fishing with a beam-trawl, which is not at present in vogue here, and may, perhaps, profitably employ many vessels and men. With the object of testing the practicability of using a beam-trawl in american waters in a commercial way, the Grampus was provided with a trawl such as is used in the fisheries of the north sea, and certain modifications were made in her construction to fit her for operating it. While we have not the species of flat fish which constitute the principal objects of the beam-trawl fishery in Europe, there are, nevertheless several varieties in our waters that are nearly as good, and it is probable that in many localities on the sandy and muddy bottoms frequented by these off our coast the beam trawl may be very effectively employed.


Henry Bigelow aboard the Grampus

One of the most important works contemplated by the commission is a comprehensive study of the movements of migratory fish in the spring and autumn when they are approaching and leaving the feeding grounds frequented by them in summer. Hitherto less has been done in that special line of research than is desirable, owing chiefly to the fact that the commission has not had at its disposal the requisite means for conducting so complete an investigation as seems to be necessary. In order to continuously follow the movements of the migratory species it is necessary to have a sailing vessel which is able to keep the sea in all weathers. Besides, having sails alone as a motive power, it is not dependent upon a supply of coal, and may, if necessary, remain at sea for weeks or months in succession.

An additional requisite for this work is to have a vessel which is adapted to and fit for carrying on fishing operations, and upon which various appliances and methods for the capture of fish can be used, in order that the presence of fish in any locality may be determined even. when they do not come to the surface.

The Grampus is also fitted with appliances with which the various forms of minute life that constitute the food of most species of the migratory fish can be obtained.

She is specially adapted to making researches at sea for the discovery and practical investigation of fishing grounds, as well as for collecting the fauna of the localities visited, and thus determining the value certain regions for commercial fishing.

Perhaps the most important thing, however, in connection with the building of the Grampus was the opportunity afforded to attempt introduction of new ideas in the construction of fishing vessels, both relates to form and rig.

For many years previous to 1885 the tendency had been to build vessels employed in the ocean fisheries from New England wide, shallow and sharp, the object being to obtain speed and also considerable sail carrying power, since it was believed the latter was necessary to produce a swift sailing schooner. This form not only failed to produce the best results in the matter of speed, but it was highly dangerous when exposed to a gale a vessel constructed on such principles is liable to be capsized by heavy seas, and since her center of gravity is not sufficiently low to enable her to right again, the consequence has been that in such cases schooners have generally filled and sank with all on board.

On many occasions the loss of life and property from this cause been enormous, and the average for a period of years has been great. In the ten years from 1874 to 1883, inclusive, Gloucester alone had eighty-two schooners that foundered at sea, of which seven were abandoned in a sinking condition. But on those never heard from eight hundred and ninety-five men were lost.

While an increase in the depth of these vessels was the most important object to be attained, there were, nevertheless, many other objectionable features besides shallowness in the typical clipper fishing schooner. Almost without exception, a vessel of that type was built very wide aft, with a heavy, clumsy stern and fat counters, the run being hollowed out excessively so as to produce in the after section a series of very abrupt horizontal curves, which are anything but desirable when speed is an object. It was also a universal custom to make the masts of a length that would insure their heads being nearly of the same height above the water-line, and to carry a large jib extending from the bowsprit end to the foremast. It is evident that both of these features are objectionable.

When the masts are nearly of an equal length - it follows, as a matter of course, that it is impracticable to give as much peak to the foresail as is desirable, providing the sail has all the hoist that the mast will permit. Thus, one of two things is the result; either the sails are unsymmetrical, from being too square on the head, or else the foremast is several feet longer than is actually necessary, and that much additional weight of spar is superfluous; besides increasing the cost it adds materially to the weight aloft and is a serious handicap upon the speed and stability of a vessel in strong winds and rough seas. A still greater objection can be urged against the practice of carrying a large jib. In the first place, when it becomes necessary to shorten sail, and the mainsail has to be reefed, it is almost invariably the case that the bonnet is taken out of the jib. In that event the center of effort of both the mainsail and jib is carried forward several feet, perhaps an average of seven to ten feet. The center of effort of the sail being carried so much in front of the normal position, the effect on the vessel is to prevent her from holding well to the wind, when sailing close-hauled, and to make it difficult for her to come in stays when under reefed sails.

A more serious matter, however, is the fact that when the jib with the bonnet out can be no longer carried, and it is necessary to furl it, the sail can be handled only by men going on the bowsprit, and if the vessel is by the wind this duty must be performed at a great risk. Instances have not been uncommon when men were washed from the bowsprits of fishing schooners and drowned. It is, therefore, evident that both for safety of life and to improve the working qualities of a schooner, it is better to have a "double-head rig," since, having a fore staysail getting on a stay that comes to the knight heads or near it, the jib can be furled on the approach of rough weather, and there is no necessity for men to go upon the bowsprit in a gale, while it is thus possible to keep the center of effort of the sails in its proper position.

As early as the spring of 1882, the writer urged the desirability of improving both the model and rig of our fishing vessels, in a series of letters that were published in the Gloucester, Massachusetts, newspapers. These communications attracted considerable notice, and received the support of a number of intelligent men who were or had ben interested in the. matter of building or running fishing vessels. Among these was James Davis, esq., judge of the police court at Gloucester, and formerly a builder of fishing vessels at that port.

However, although a slight change was made in some vessels to the extent of building them a few inches deeper, no decided innovation was made in the construction of fishing schooners until 1884. During the summer of that year, Mr. D. J. Lawler, at the suggestion of the writer, built the schooner Roulette, which was nearly 2 feet deeper than the ordinary fishing vessels of her length. She proved to be remarkably swift, as well as sea-worthy, though she still had the objectionable features of a heavy stern and rather flat counters.

In the spring of 1885, after my return from the cruise to the Gulf of Mexico in the steamer Albatross, Professor Baird instructed me to prepare the plans and specifications for a sailing schooner for the U. S. Fish commission for which congress had made an appropriation of $14,000.

It had previously been determined that a schooner-rigged sailing vessel of about 80 tons net register would be best adapted to the requirements of the commission.

The whole matter of designing her in all the details of model, rig, interior arrangement, and equipment, with the exception of the steam machinery and iron water-tanks, was placed in my hands.

The matter of determining what form of steam apparatus would be best adapted to the work of the new schooner was referred to Lieut Commander Z. L. Tanner, U. S. Navy, commanding the steamer Albatross. He decided that a steam windlass, with engines of 35 horse-power, would be the most suitable. Passed Assistant Engineer I. S. K. Reeves, U. S. Navy, consulting engineer of the Commission, had charge of obtaining and putting on board the steam boiler, steam pump, iron water-tanks, and such piping as was necessary for the operation of the steam apparatus, and to connect the water tanks.

Owing to the fact that I had to make a trip on tho Albatross during the summer of 1885, and also that other important work demanded my attention, the preparation of the plans and specifications for the Grampus was considerably delayed, and they were not finished until fall. Acknowledgments are due to Mr. D. J. Lawler, of Chelsea, Massachusetts, for mechanical assistance he rendered in the preparation of the model and plans, and for the specially creditable manner in which he "laid down" the vessel and prepared her molds.

The steam windlass, engines, and boiler were found on trial to be entirely too heavy and disproportionate to the size of the vessel, and consequently they had to be removed. A wooden windlass was substituted; this relieved the schooner of a very considerable accumulation of weight forward and made her easier in a sea-way.

Last updated by Northeast Fisheries Science Center on August 26, 2022