From Classic Yachts to Fish Packers: Their Stories
Catalyst and the Beautiful Wild Country
Catalyst departed Port Townsend on May 5th to begin her mid-May through August cruising season in Southeast Alaska, the 8 to 10 day trips rotating between Juneau and Petersburg. Just where Catalyst goes between the two ports is shaped by a blend of the weather and the favorite islands, bays, and fjords Bill Bailey and crew have found over the years, places no 16-deck cruise ship can go. But this isn’t how life began for Catalyst.
In 1931 the Oceanographic Laboratories of the University of Washington, today known as the School of Oceanography, began its first official classes and research programs under the direction of Professor Thomas G. Thompson. It was Thompson who, through the 1920’s, had gathered a loose interdisciplinary collection of chemists, biologists, bacteriologist, botanists and zoologists to begin studying the salt-water nature of Puget Sound and the Northwest Coast. They did their early research aboard converted fishing vessels or, in one case, a professor’s own craft for their on-water studies. Their perseverance resulted in a $60,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to provide the design, construction and five years of operating funds for a dedicated marine research vessel. She would be named Catalyst.
Catalyst was designed by Seattle’s marine architects Roland and Strickland and launched May 14, 1932, at the Lake Union Dry Dock and Machine Works roughly a mile from the UW campus. By June, Catalyst headed up the Inside Passage to Southeast Alaska, beginning a pattern of summer research cruises to Alaska, sometimes off the Washington coast and occasionally the California coast. But her major research career was based out of the San Juan Island’s Friday Harbor Labs established in 1904 by the pioneering UW Professors Trevor Kincaid, a zoologist, and T.C. Frye, a botanist, both with a similar dedication and imagination as Professor Thompson. Year after year the marine researchers and students boarded Catalyst to study the complexities of the Salish Sea in what has to be considered a grand adventure.
‘Tommy’ Thompson was the “Admiral” of the Catalyst research teams. As a chemist, his work centered on the composition of sea water. He, his students and the Catalyst became the source of many studies of sea water. Professor Thompson authored 125 scientific publications in his career, 100 of them on chemical oceanography: sea water conductivity, radioactivity, density, measuring trace mineral elements with attention to marine organism’s nutrition, much of this work done aboard the Catalyst.
D. B. Thomas, one of the student deckhands, reflected, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, on both the Catalyst and her chief scientist in a 1958 seventieth birthday tribute to Professor Thompson in the Journal of Marine Research:
“The final result (of Catalyst’s design) was a trifle top-heavy, which accounted for the great amplitude of roll and the prevalence of mal de mer among the devoted passengers and crew. Tommy–sometimes known as “The Admiral” under these circumstances–was a man of courage, the first to master his discomfort and to carry on in the face of adverse winds and waves. Seeing him in oil-skins on the somewhat perilous platform hanging over the ship’s side, superintending the collection of a water sample from the depths was to sense his persistent interest in the mystery of the sea.”
B. D. Thomas, Journal of Marine Research, 17 (1958):11
It was a crowded 75-foot boat. Records show berths for 16: crew and student deckhands in the forecastle, the captain in the pilot house and room for nine scientists in four staterooms. B. D. Thomas described her as “…a diesel-driven floating laboratory that represented an attempt to crowd all possible devices for study of the sea into a minimum volume and to combine them with living quarters and a chemical laboratory.”
In the summer of 1941, John C. Illman came aboard Catalyst at the Friday Harbor Labs as a deckhand/sea water analyst. He would spend part of the next summer on the boat before she was laid up due to the war. John then went to work as a chemist for Shell Development Company creating new wartime plastics and other inventions before retiring to Marrowstone Island in 1977 with his artist wife, Marjorie Kincaid, the professor’s daughter whom John met at the Labs.
Fortunately, John wrote about Catalyst in the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society’s Sea Chest magazine in 1989 providing a trove of information and a particularly good description of her as a working research vessel:
According to the University, CATALYST was 75 feet long overall, 72 feet at the waterline. 18-foot beam, with a nine-foot draft. Her official number was 231686. Coast Guard records show her length as 68.2 feet, breadth 18.3 feet, and depth 10.5 feet, 91 gross, and 61 net tons. A Washington Estep diesel of 120 horsepower at 450 rpms gave a speed of a bit over eight knots. Fuel tanks totaling 2500 gallons gave a cruising range of 3500 miles. She had oak frames, with double planking of Alaska yellow cedar, with teak finish. The keel was of Douglas fir with a two-inch heel of Australian ironbark, which was also used to sheath two feet at the waterline, Engine controls were in the pilot house as well as in the engine room. She was fitted with a photo-electric type of automatic pilot, fathometer and radio direction finder, and had no radio. Her booms were heavy, with winches driven by a five-horsepower electric motor. On her port side, 2000 meters of 5/16 inch stainless steel cable was used for water sampling, using Nansen bottles, and also for plankton tows. The starboard winch had 600 meters of half-inch cable used for bottom dredging and core sampling.
Sea Chest “University of Washington Research Vessel Catalyst” March 1989, Vol 22 111-115 by John C. Illman
On May 15, 1942, Admiral E. J. King, Commander-in-Chief of the United States Fleet wrote to Commander Eastern Sea Frontier, saying in part “It has been directed that there be acquired the maximum practicable number of civilian craft that are in any way capable of going to sea in good weather for a period of at least 48 hours at cruising speeds. These craft will be acquired and manned by the Coast Guard as an expansion of the Coast Guard Reserve. They will be fitted to carry at least four three-hundred-pound depth charges and be armed with at least one machine gun, preferably 50 caliber; and will be equipped with a radio set, preferably voice.”
These volunteered and requisitioned craft became known as the Corsair Fleet. Catalyst joined the fleet in 1944 and was assigned to the Coast Guard 13th District (WA, OR, ID, MT) which mustered 2684 CG auxiliary members and 922 available boats. Designated as CG 72002, she did get a fifty-caliber machine gun on the bow and two depth charge racks on the stern to stem the Axis tide. But according to Darrell van Ness, curator of Seattle’s own Coast Guard Museum Northwest, (on Admiral Way at USCG Station Seattle, coastguardmuseumseattle.org), she was limited to harbor patrolling. Catalyst most likely spent her war years patrolling Seattle and Puget Sound with a day crew of Coast Guard Reservists.
After the end of the War, Catalyst was bought out of the service and redesigned, moving her house forward and a new wheelhouse built atop the addition. Then two holds were configured fore and aft to carry 60 tons of sacked tungsten ore which was loaded at a Hyder, Alaska mine for a run southbound to Puget Sound with a return trip north bringing crews and supplies. That role ended in 1958 and Catalyst then began 35 years with ten different west coast owners, all of whom rejiggered the poor thing, overhaul by overhaul, into a yacht.
But it was in 1994 that Catalyst found her calling when the Threshold Foundation turned her into an environmental charter boat. Following the Foundation’s idea, a new owner, Hugh Reilly, purchased her and began environmentally-themed cruises in Southeast Alaska under the name of Pacific Catalyst Expeditions LLC. Then in 2005, a one-time surfboard maker/custom home builder/boat-crazy man named Bill Bailey bought her and the expedition company to begin a Southeast Alaska cruising odyssey that continues to this day.
I met up with Bill Bailey aboard his other “small ship,” the Westward, moored out on the Linear Dock in Boat Haven Marina. As both captain and owner, he looks the part: a still rugged frame clad in boatyard fleece and jeans, a broad face with well-set eyes that squint as if into the weather, eyes that add to a seasoned expression of genial skepticism.
Our conversation began with what was being done while Catalyst was in the yard: “Basic haul out stuff: bottom paint and two coats of topside paint, zincs. We tore all the rod bearings out of the engine, (the original ninety-year-old Estep Washington diesel engine, the last of its kind), and either repaired (with Barry Stephens, Stephens Marine) or recast them from scratch. And we added a new generator.”
Asking what led him to Catalyst, I got a litany of boats: “…a 31-foot mahogany sloop in San Diego when I was 19 or 20. I had a 30-foot double-ended Bristol Bay boat I converted to power in the early eighties (and fished out of Bellingham). Then an Ed Monk Sr. designed 33-foot Tri-Cabin, pretty little thing, built in 1946. And a Bill Garden designed 42-foot troller named Winsome…I thought it was my last boat.”
“Then in the late 80’s, I had a chance to go out to Western Alaska on a purse seiner and I just loved it. It was beautiful, wild country and I wanted to take my family back to see it. I saw Catalyst and Westward as a chance to do that. In 1990 I saw a front-page article in Wooden Boat Magazine that featured Catalyst on the cover and I thought it was going to take millions of dollars to get into a business like that. Then I saw Catalyst for sale for $300,000 in Northwest Yachting. I thought: Wow, that’s incredibly low. I didn’t have the money, but I had San Juan Island waterfront house equity, So I called them. I just jump into stuff – you can’t steer a car if it isn’t moving.” In the end the owner, Hugh Reilly, found a way to work with Bill by wrapping the boat and company into the house with a two-year payout. And it worked. Each year since, Catalyst and Westward (bought in 2012) have made a profit.
The reason why is people choose this little cruise ship over larger liners for its unique ability to shape the voyage to indulge their particular passions for whales or bears or wolves or glaciers or hiking and kayaking. Up Frederick Sound, into Stephens Passage, Holkham Bay, Ford’s Terror, the Brothers Islands: every secluded cove, tidewater glacier or verdant stream delta, (a bear favorite) is fair game. Fitting that this 90-year-old one-time ocean research vessel loaded with University of Washington student scientists now, thanks to people like Bill Bailey, still brings the curious, the adventuresome to experience and learn and simply be in what is still a true marine wilderness.
For a better look at what Catalyst and her compatriot Westward are up to in Alaska, the San Juans and Baja, Mexico, go to: https://www.pacificcatalyst.com/
For an overview and brief history of the University of Washington’s School of Oceanography:
For a Biographical Memoir of Thomas Gordon Thompson by Alfred C. Redfield, Clifford A. Barnes and Francis A. Richards go to:
John C. Illman’s article: “University of Washington Research Vessel Catalyst” Mar 1989, Vol 22 111-115 can be found in the Sea Chest published by the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society: https://pugetmaritime.org/
The Admiral King quote is from: “The Mission of the Coastal Picket Patrol” in the website: classicsailboats.org
Additional information: The Coast Guard at War, The Temporary Component of the Coast Guard Reserve XX, January 1, 1948
For the obituary for John C. Illman in the Peninsula Daily News go to:
Featured image: Catalyst at anchor in Holkham Bay. Photograph by Joel W. Rogers