The Continuing Voyages of the R/V Alpha Helix

Schematic of the R/V Alpha Helix, 1966.

Schematic of the R/V Alpha Helix, 1966.

[Part 2 of 2]

Built in 1965, the R/V Alpha Helix, named after the protein structure discovered by Linus Pauling, had proven itself – over the course of two years and two voyages totaling 34,110 miles – to be a versatile research vessel. The National Science Foundation (NSF), which owned and had sponsored the construction of the vessel, was pleased with the ship’s performance in the Pacific Ocean and in the Amazon River. So in early February 1968, they deployed her on her third voyage, this time to the Bering Sea.

Due to environmental hazards posed by the Bering Sea, the expedition there was smaller in time, distance traveled, cost and crew. The voyage lasted nine months, cost $574,000 ($3.8 million in 2013) and utilized fifty scientists from five nations. The mission’s typically eclectic goals were to study how animals survive in frigid environments; to determine why spawning salmon suffer from atherosclerosis; and to investigate the feasibility of building research labs on floating sea ice. The Alpha Helix performed admirably, though she lacked sufficient hull strength and engine power to safely break through all of the ice that she encountered and thus required escorting by the U.S.S. Northwind, a U.S. Navy icebreaker. Researchers from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF) reported on the vessel’s performance to their school, a report which heavily influenced the future design of the Alaska Region Research Vessel.

In the years that followed, the Alpha Helix continued to be sent on missions as often as was safe. She averaged one mission a year, each taking between nine and thirteen months. In 1969 she went on a $613,000 ($3.85 million in 2013) expedition to New Guinea to study mammals, birds, fishes, bioluminescence and heatless light produced by fireflies, fungi, and fish. The U.S., Australia, New Guinea, Indonesia, Malaysia, France, and Japan sent 66 researchers on the trip. The years 1970-1971 saw the Alpha Helix undertake a 25,000 mile expedition to the Galapagos Islands, Antarctica, and the Marshall Islands. In 1972 she went to the Solomon Islands, West Hebrides and the Western Caroline Islands.

After her 1972 mission, she was sent to dry-dock for retrofits and routine maintenance. The retrofits mostly involved upgrading her lab equipment to the most modern gear, work which required an appreciable investment of time. Not until mid-June 1976 did she launch on another voyage (See 3-14-14 update below) – a second trip to the Amazon River basin. This trip was more extensive than the first: it lasted a full year and required sailing upriver all the way to the headwaters of the Amazon, 2,500 miles inland. One hundred and twenty scientists from the U.S., Brazil, Columbia, Peru, Canada, Italy, Scotland, England, West Germany, Denmark, Norway, Chile, and Switzerland studied a diverse range of topics including the genetic structure of “primitive man” amongst Brazilian Indian groups; hemoglobin in fish and their ability to see; chemical characteristics of the Amazon River; the ability of certain Amazon fish to live on land; the resistance of various organisms to stress; and the toxic and medicinal properties of local flora. The expedition was extremely productive and also extremely hard on the vessel, which upon return to the U.S. was put in dry-dock again for about three more years.

In 1980 UAF sent a message to the NSF requesting a larger, more modern research vessel to replace their aging and cramped ship (only 80′ long), the R/V Acona. The NSF decided to replace the Acona with the Alpha Helix, and transferred her from Scripps Maritime to UAF. Upon arrival, she was immediately put into dry-dock again, where she underwent extensive retrofits. The focus of her labs was changed from mostly biological research to general oceanographic studies. And the ship’s equipment was modernized: the vessel received a strengthened hull for icebreaking, more cold-weather protection was added, and deep-sea oceanographic winches were installed below decks. All of these retrofits brought the Alpha Helix up to American Bureau of Shipping classification standards for a ship of her size.


The Alpha Helix remained busy and valuable in the employ of UAF.  One particular task of note was to provide “systematic description of the Alaska Coastal Current from British Columbia to where it empties into the Bering Sea at Unimak Pass.” This data was invaluable in predicting the path of the oil spill emanating from the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989. She also spent extensive amounts of time studying wildlife and water in the Bering Sea, Arctic and Alaska regions. During one trip taken in the early 1990s, she traveled about 25,000 miles, slightly more than the circumference of the Earth. Despite this, UAF increasingly came to feel that the Alpha Helix was insufficient for their needs. Specifically, they felt that her size was a limiting factor and that the hull was not strong enough to carry out the heavy ice work that they required.

In 2004 UAF put the Alpha Helix in dry-dock indefinitely and thus concluded a period of great productivity. Between 1981-2004, the ship had averaged 151 sailing days per year, and logged 3,629 total days doing research. Of those, she spent 2,390 days (65.8%) in the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean, 907 days (25%) in the Gulf of Alaska, 187 days (5.2%) in southern Alaskan waters, and 145 days (4%) in other locations. The massive amount of research that she facilitated was mostly funded by the NSF, which paid for 76.4% of the cost. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) covered the second highest amount at 10.8%. The remaining 12.8% of her operational costs were funded by the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC), the Bureau of Ocean Energy Minerals Management Services (MMS), the Office of Naval Research (ONR), private sponsors, the North Pacific Marine Research Program (NPMRP), NASA, UAF, and the Alaskan state government.

The Alpha Helix was kept in dry-dock from 2004-2007, at which point she was sold by UAF to Stabbert Maritime, a family-run private company with a fleet of about 10 vessels. At the time of this writing, the company was owned by Mr. Daniel Stabbert. In a phone interview conducted in 2013, Stabbert spoke of his affection for the vessel.  He described her as “the SUV of the fleet…you could beat the [heck] out of her and she’d just keep running.” She is very fuel efficient, and the company gave her a bulbous bow to further increase fuel efficiency. They put on speed stabilizers and stern jet thrusters to further increase her stability in rough seas; they also removed one of the smaller machine shops and expanded the science team quarters and the lounge, so it can now carry a science staff of 21.

Between 2007-2010, the Alpha Helix was contracted by Stabbert Maritime for missions in the Bering Sea, Alaskan waters and the Arctic Ocean. She worked for various groups, mostly doing research on geology, fisheries and drill site surveys for Shell Co. and other oil companies. During this time, she was also contracted by the U.S. Navy to monitor noise levels on nuclear submarines undergoing degassing and repair operations; other contracts she performed for the Navy remain classified. In late 2010 she was sent to the Gulf of Mexico to assist with the cleanup required by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. She remained in the area for a year to help monitor local fisheries. In 2012 the Alpha Helix was sent to Trinidad to conduct hydroscopic research and collect core samples.

Over the past few years, government research for funding has been decreasing, which makes running research vessels riskier for private companies. As such, Stabbert decided that he needed to upgrade his fleet to more multipurpose vessels, which the Alpha Helix most definitely is not. Therefore, despite his personal affinity for her, Mr. Stabbert sold the Alpha Helix to the University of Mexico City (UNAM) and it is now uncertain what the future holds for the ship. No matter what, the vessel has made regular contributions to science over past 48 years, and has affected the lives of hundreds of people who worked on or with it, often in ways that were unexpected: in our interview, Stabbert reported that he had been on a trip to Thailand during the 2012-2013 winter season, and had run into a banker whose father was one of the researchers on the second Amazon expedition.

The Alpha Helix has proven to be a rugged, fascinating, and incredibly useful vessel that has brought together generations of scientists from around the globe to collaborate in finding out how this amazing planet works. In furthering our understanding of the world around us, she has acted in a spirit that surely would have pleased Linus Pauling.

Update (2-12-14):

We were tickled to receive this message and photo today from JC Leñero of the CICESE research center, Ensenada, Mexico:

You may like to know that last year, we purchased the R/V Alpha Helix from the guys at Stabbert Maritime, in order to replace our smaller Research Vessel, the Francisco de Ulloa (28 meters LOA). As of today, Alpha Helix keeps her name (and, regarding the historical weight of bearing said name, we will not rename her), has her home port at Ensenada, Mexico, she flies the Mexican flag and is due to begin research operations again, hopefully in a few months, after some maintenance to her machinery is completed.


The B/O Alpha Helix, 2014.

Update (3-14-14):

A further update submitted by Tom Forhan, a former marine technician on the Alpha Helix.

Enjoyed reading about Dr. Pauling and the Alpha Helix, which I had never heard before. For the record, though, the ship did not waste any time between the refit in 1972 and the second Amazon expedition in 1976. Off the top of my head in 1973 it worked in both Baja California and then headed for research in Hawaii. The following year began a Pacific tour. After a stop in Australia, including work on bioluminescence around the Banda Sea in Indonesia, and an investigation of sea snakes in the Philippines. Heading back to North America the ship did research on salmon physiology in British Columbia, and in late 1975 or early 1976 headed down to the coast of Peru to participate in a multi-ship (including OSU’s research vessel) investigation in a program called CUEA, looking at El Nino. I believe OSU archives has some pictures of the Helix at sea during that time. After CUEA, the ship went through the canal and up the Amazon. My source here is my memory;I was a marine technician aboard the ship during those years.


The R/V Alpha Helix

The R/V Alpha Helix, 1966.

[Part 1 of 2]

It was early 1966 when Linus Pauling received a letter informing him that a new research vessel had just been constructed in Washington state. The reason this was notable to Pauling was the vessel’s name – it was called the R/V Alpha Helix, named after a secondary structure of proteins that Pauling had discovered.

The Alpha Helix was designed by L.R. Glosten and Associates, a naval architecture firm based in Seattle, Washington. It was built by the J.M. Martinac Shipbuilding Corporation in nearby Tacoma; construction began on September 9, 1964, and the keel was laid on December 9, 1964. The Alpha Helix is 133’ long, 31’ abeam, 14.5’ deep, and made with welded steel construction, transversely framed. She is powered by an 820-horsepower General Motors diesel engine, which drives a variable pitch propeller (for superior speed control) at 800 rpm and provides a top speed of 12.25 knots and a cruising speed of 11 knots. She carries a 29,250 gallon fuel tank, which at 9.5 knots gives her a range of 6,500 miles. The Alpha Helix also holds a second tank which contains 5,000 gallons of potable water.

She is a pure research vessel, and designed to be extremely compact and versatile; she has air-conditioning for tropical conditions and a reinforced hull strengthened for “moderate ice work” in arctic seas. On the port, aft side of the vessel, she has a cargo crane capable of lifting up to 5,310 lbs., which she needs, as in the hold she carries a jeep and a prefabricated 8×12′ shore laboratory. The Alpha Helix is also outfitted with mountings such that special work platforms can be fixed to the hull just above the waterline, running from bow to stern. She carries two skiffs and two workboats, measuring 17′ and 24′ long, respectively.

Despite her relatively small size, the Alpha Helix is designed to use space at maximum efficiency. At the time of her construction, she had space for a crew of 12 and a scientific party of 10. Additionally, she has ample room for research, including a library “with a large blackboard and acoustics suitable for conferences and chamber music.” But the heart of the vessel are her numerous research laboratories. She has a wet lab taking up 81 square feet, which at the time of construction could be chilled to 5° C. She also featured 457 square feet of dry labs, electrophysiological labs, optical labs, and a freeze lab that could be chilled to -20° C. These spaces required a significant quantity of specialized equipment which would be difficult to replace or repair during voyages, so she also has a full machine shop, equipped with lathes, drills, presses, welding equipment, and even a glass-blowing station. At the time of construction in late 1964, the Alpha Helix cost $1,272,021, roughly equivalent to $9.14 million in modern currency.

Invitation to the dedication of the R/V Alpha Helix, June 1966.

Invitation to the launching of the R/V Alpha Helix, June 1965.

The Alpha Helix was launched on June 29, 1965 in Tacoma, after which point she set out for San Diego, California. She was owned and had been funded in near entirety by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which had assigned her to work from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, operated by UC San Diego.

The vessel was going to be dedicated at a large ceremony on March 11, 1966. At the same ceremony, the new Scripps Marine Facility and the R/V Thomas Washington were also slated for dedication. Dr. P.F. Scholander, a professor of Physiology and the director of Scripps’ Physiological Research Laboratory, wrote to Pauling and asked him to serve as the principal speaker at the event, due in no small part to the name of the Alpha Helix. Pauling wanted very badly to attend but was unable to do so as March 11 was the day that he was scheduled to be in New York City to begin his ill-fated libel lawsuit against The National Review, which had published two editorials that accused Pauling of being a communist, a “megaphone for Soviet policy…” and a traitor. Due to Pauling’s inability to attend, Prof. Scholander invited Dr. Robert W. Morse to be the principal speaker. Morse was a Navy veteran of World War II, the assistant secretary of the Navy for research and development, and the chairman of the Committee on Oceanography of the Federal Council for Science and Technology.

Shortly after the dedication, the Alpha Helix embarked upon its maiden voyage, an eight-month, 16,500 mile expedition named “Expedition Billabong” (an Australian term for a waterhole). James Faughn captained the vessel for the mission, which would extend to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, with brief stops at the Cook Islands, American Samoa, and Hawaii upon the return to southern California. The entire mission was funded by the NSF, and its objectives were to study desalination of seawater by mangroves, electrophysiology of mollusks, symbiotic interactions in corals, and osmotic and cardiovascular behavior in dugong. During the course of the expedition, 44 scientists from 19 different institutions sailed on the Alpha Helix. Pauling wanted to serve as a researcher on the initial trip, but his lawsuit prevented it. Of the scientists on board, 22 hailed from the United States, while the remaining 20 came from Australia, New Zealand, England, Sweden, and Japan. The vessel performed her mission admirably and no modifications were made after the voyage.

After a few months of routine maintenance, the Alpha Helix departed in early February 1967, for her second voyage. This expedition lasted 11 months, and the destination was far up the Amazon River, deep into the jungle. The NSF sponsored this trip as well, which cost $600,000 (about $4.14 million in modern dollars). The Amazon trip was grander than the first voyage; the total distance traveled was 17,610 miles. And the time, distance, and cost of the trip were not the only increases: 82 researchers from the U.S., Brazil, England, Canada, Norway, West Germany, France, New Zealand, Sweden, Australia, Japan and the Soviet Union participated as well. The mission’s research goals were ambitious and exotic in equal measure. They included:

  • “the insect-free Rio Negro River”
  • singing habits of cicada
  • hallucinogenic snuff used by indigenous locals
  • sloths, electric eels, piranha and fresh-water dolphins
  • infrared sensing capabilities of the boa constrictor
  • the physiology of salt and water in animals
  • the potential of crude petroleum emanating from “smog” given off by certain jungle trees
  • respiratory mechanisms in indigenous fruits
  • the moisture secreting capabilities of trees
  • sap pressure in the “drowned forests of Brazil”
  • the metabolism of fish
  • respiration of Galapagos Island marine iguanas

Once again the expedition was a solid success and the Alpha Helix performed admirably. In fact, the mission ended up being more even informative than the scientists had originally anticipated, as on the way to the Amazon they discovered ten new species of deep-sea scorpion fish.

Very quickly the Alpha Helix had proven herself to be an excellent, compact and flexible research vessel. While the first two voyages had taken place in tropic climates, the NSF next had plans to try out her arctic capabilities. As 1968 began, crews loaded the vessel up for her next trip, to the Bering Sea and beyond.