Coast Guard captain's son recalls Storis' historic journey

Posted: Tuesday, January 03, 2006

KODIAK - When the Coast Guard cutter Storis broke through ice and into uncharted territory on its historic voyage through the Northwest Passage, 13-year-old Tim Wood had a view from the deck.

As the Storis moored Wednesday at the dock of Kodiak's Coast Guard Base, Wood was back aboard after nearly five decades away.

The teenager's father, Harold Wood, served as the commanding officer aboard the Storis during the trek in 1957.

Harold Wood, 92, was unable to make the trip from Connecticut to Kodiak, but his son left with a Storis hat for him.

Standing in the wheelhouse with Jim McCauley, the Storis's current commanding officer, Wood, 61, said he learned to steer ships at the helm of the cutter on that trip.

"Looks like we've updated the electronics considerably," he said.

"It's kind of a thrill to see all the electrical and navigational equipment is state-of-the-art, but the basics are essentially the same," Wood said.

With his wife, Candace, videotaping his reunion with the cutter, Wood's daughter, Kerry, whispered to her daughter, Julia, 5, "Your (grand)papa came on this ship with your great-grandpa. It was a very important trip."

"I was just a kid," Wood said.

That didn't stop his father from putting him into the watch rotation or sending him out with the smaller boats surveying the territory.

"It affected me. I ended up with a seagoing career," Wood said. "It was a big influence on what I thought was important in life. It got me directed to good seamanship."

Wood went on to attend the Coast Guard Academy and recently ended his 23-year mishap-free career as a captain aboard Mobile Oil tankers.

Wood said his fondest memory was learning to pilot the ship, but he spoke with more enthusiasm about movie night in the boardroom where the officers eat.

"As I recall, there was ice cream associated with that," he said.

The ship's a bit cushier now with padded seats instead of hard stools in the dining hall, he said after a tour that took him through the commanding officer's bunk, the engine room and the galley.

One addition that caught Wood's eye was the women's berth, the result of a 1986 renovation.

"That was not even conceived of at the time," Wood said.

Storis roots run deep

The Storis was part of Harold Wood's life before it even set sail.

Stationed in Toledo, Wood helped design the vessel, launched in 1942.

During World War II, the Storis led patrols of the North Atlantic around Greenland. Its charge was keeping the Nazis from building weather stations in the area. Wood served a stint aboard as engineer.

He returned to the Storis as captain. By the Northwest Passage sailing, his dark, crisp hair was speckled with gray. Beneath thick eyebrows, a stern visage and strong jaw, lay a dry sense of humor and a calm that never faltered on the three-month sail.

Former crewmen described his personality as quiet and commanding. His pipe was constantly clamped between his teeth.

His son learned seamanship on the Storis, and now Harold Wood's grandson-in-law, Coast Guardsman Greg Tlapa, is stationed with his family in the Storis' homeport of Kodiak.

"He's very tied up with the ship," Tim Wood said of his father.

"You live on a ship, and it becomes part of your life, like the first house after you were married," he said.

Sailing into history

In 1906, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen sailed across the top of North America, but the trip took three years and some of the waterways he traveled were extremely shallow.

The search was still on for a commercially viable route.

It was the Storis, together with the SPAR and Bramble, that ended that 450-year quest for the Northwest Passage with the discovery of a deep-draft channel across the top of North America.

With auspiciously blue skies above, the cutter sailed from Seattle on July 1, 1957.

By July 15, the ice was surprisingly thick and the temperature had dropped to 18 degrees as the party reached Barter Island.

Back then, the Storis carried a helicopter, used on this expedition to scout routes through the ice flows.

Wood said the three ships had to continually break ice for each other.

In fact, the Storis was originally designed as a light icebreaker. Its name is Scandinavian, taken from an Eskimo word sirorssuit, meaning "great ice."

In 1999, engineers downgraded the cutter's icebreaking capacity after discovering structural damage.

"I don't think they really want to send us into the ice again," McCauley told Wood.

As the historic journey continued, the ice became thicker and thicker until it finally ejected the ships onto the ice, according to an account by former Coast Guardsman Otis Shipp.

Shipp recalled waking up the morning of July 29 lying on the side of the vessel, which was no longer moving.

Demolition crews began blasting ice with TNT. But with ice 17-feet, there was no way to relieve the pressure.

It was as futile as throwing firecrackers at the ice, Shipp wrote.

Wood said the crew was discussing contingency plans for spending the winter there.

"It was quite an adventure," he said. "They were definitely trapped."

By Aug. 2, the ships dropped back into the water as a strong east wind moved the ice.

They continued on to the mountainous entrance to the Bellot Straits, believed the key to a deep-water passage.

On Sept. 6, with helicopters overhead and the small boats launched for surveys along the black-streaked, stony walls, the ships entered the Strait.

The flats at the eastern end of the Bellot Straits are home to the remains of earlier explorers.

With relief in their hearts, the crews left their names in bottles and planted an American flag alongside one from the Confederate States.

Mission accomplished

As the ships sailed into Boston, "what a sight," Shipp wrote.

Fireboats sprayed water into the air. Ship horns blasted; bells rang and the pier was filled with dignitaries.

"We received the returning hero treatment, the last thing we ever expected," Shipp wrote.

On that trip, the Storis also became the first U.S. registered ship to circumnavigate the continent. It returned via the Panama Canal to Alaska and shortly after on to its new homeport in Kodiak.

Queen of the fleet

As Wood examined his former quarters aboard the Storis, he said it was satisfying to know that the cutter has lasted so long.

"It's phenomenal the ship has been able to survive 60 years of active service," he said.

Next to the plaque commemorating the Northwest Passage trip is a plaque that denotes the Storis as the oldest ship in the Coast Guard's fleet.

The cutter has been stationed in Alaska, first in Juneau, for 57 years, patrolling the Bering Sea, Gulf of Alaska and North Pacific.

The Coast Guard announced in November that the Storis will retire in 2007.

The final resting places of the other two cutters on the Northwest Passage voyage suggest divergent paths. The SPAR was sunk to become an artificial reef, while the Bramble became a museum in Michigan.

A group in Toledo, the ship's birthplace, has expressed interest in saving the historic ship, McCauley said.

He added that no one yet knows the ship's fate, but that hasn't stopped the crew from making plans.

"Everyone on the ship is trying to decide if we should deliver the ship via the Panama Canal or the Northwest Passage," McCauley said.

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