Reply To: The Evolution of Sail Training from the Nineteenth Century to the 1980s

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Frank Scott

    My article on the origins & evolution of sail training in the May 2020 Mariner’s Mirror only scratches the surface of a subject that has long relied more on myth than research. Word limits, and access to archives left many promising trails unexplored. One of these was the US Navy’s short burst of sail training ship construction between 1899 and 1907, which resulted in four custom-built vessels. Harold Underhill’s Sail Training & Cadet Ships (Glasgow, 1956) is little help as he either misses out the vessels entirely, or gets much of the information about them wrong:
    • USS Chesapeake (III) (1899) (re-named USS Severn (II) June 1905). Built by Bath Iron Works. 1,200 ton steel full-rigger with single topsails. Commissioned 2 April 1900, Lieutenant Commander Charles. E. Colahan in command. Cruises for US Naval Academy midshipmen 1899-1907, then reduced to static training role until 15 February 1910 conversion to submarine tender. Notable for extremely exaggerated clipper bow.
    • USS Boxer (IV) (1905). Built by Portsmouth Navy Yard. 346 ton wooden brigantine with single topsail, based on East Coast. Commissioned 11 May 1905, Lt. Hilary H. Royall in command. Naval Training Station, Newport, R.I., until October 1912, operating in Narragansett Bay. Then reduced to static role until 14 May 1920 transfer to the Department of the Interior, for use by the Bureau of Education in Alaska. This vessel is not mentioned by Underhill, but Herreshoff, An L. Francis Herreshoff Reader(Camden, ME, 1978) has an amusing tall story about operating it.
    • USS Cumberland (II) (1907). Built by Boston Navy Yard. 1,800 tons steel barque with split topsails, based on East Coast. Commissioned 20 July 1907, Lieutenant Commander R. D. Hasbrouck in command. Naval Training Station, Newport, Rhode Island, as seagoing auxiliary to the harbour training ship Constellation. Cruised until November 1912 transfer to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, when reduced to static station ship.
    • USS Intrepid (III) (1907). Built by Mare Island Navy Yard. 1,800 ton steel barque with split topsails, based on West Coast. Commissioned 6 August 1907, Commander Edward E. Capehart in command. Yerba Buena Training Station at San Francisco, California, until 28 February 1912, when she was reduced to receiving ship. Although a direct sister to Cumberland, the Intrepid was missed out by Underhill.
    The three steel vessels were all comparable in size to the famous Gorch Fock class, so represent a serious investment & declaration of intent by the US Navy. However, there is almost no information about them, even photographs in harbour being rare. The best American reference is the 1934 United States Naval Institute Proceedings article, ‘Naval Academy Practice Ships’, by Magruder which contains a snippet about the Chesapeake, including the nationalist rationale for its re-naming.
    Why this programme was abandoned after such a short time remains unknown, but the abrupt change in policy from starting it to shutting it down, makes you wonder whether the USN had an equivalent to Jackie Fisher as a hater of sail training. The other unanswered question is why the three modern custom-built steel vessels were not handed over to any of the American Merchant Marine Academies under the terms of the 1874 schoolship act. Surely they would have been very welcome replacements for the existing elderly converted obsolete warships?