Revised: 8 December 2009 (Two photos added & updated broken links.)
Silas Bent (TAGS 26) Class
See NavSource's pages on the ships for photographs and specifics.
USNS Silas Bent (T-AGS 26)
USNS Elisha Kent Kane (T-AGS 27)
USNS Wilkes (T-AGS 33)
USNS Wyman (T-AGS 34)
These are the first ships specially built for Navy geophysical and oceanographic survey work. The design was based on the community's view of oceanographic or survey vessel requirements when such vessels were all conversions. Existing ships were converted small naval auxiliaries, tugs and even old sailing yachts. The Silas Bent class ships were major improvements. They joined similar looking civilian ships for the push into ocean science during the early to mid nineteen-sixties. As an example of their place in the new emphasis on the oceans see the 11 February 1966 official presentation of USNS Silas Bent.
I knew each of these ships well. They were good, solid ships, but in my view they had limitations for bathymetric survey work. The old cargo vessels of nearly twice the size tended to get the transducers down and stable outside the major surface noise zone. Weather that produced nearly unusable echograms on these smaller ships had only minor effect on the big vessels such as Flyer, Kingsport, Neptune and Myer. We were rarely completely blanked by weather, but ability to clearly determine the bottom trace was frequently degraded to a greater extent than for the larger vessels. Of course the old cargo conversions were more expensive to operate.
Kane leaving Washington Navy Yard
The one time I rode a ship all the way home was Kane to the Navy Yard. It was a very unusual experience!
These were comfortable ships. The Silas Bent class had specialized quarters and facilities for the survey party, a result of being designed for work with a scientific or technical party aboard, that differed considerably from the old conversions. The quarters tended to be more spacious, were carpeted, had real armchairs and even had coordinated color schemes. Except for the usual Navy gray double deck bunks and desks the rooms were not too far from small versions of simple motel rooms. Two of these, carpet and a big armchair, are more significant than someone not used to being at sea may think. Things, including people, do not slide about on carpet as they do on waxed tile. Except in really rough weather things could be left on the deck and didn't tend to migrate in the quarters. Getting away can be important on a ship. In months at sea it is nice to be able to retire to your quarters and read in the quiet comfort of a good chair.
All had the same basic plan with slight differences between the Bent/Kane (1964) and the later Wilkes/Wyman (1968) pairs. The most obvious difference in the course of an ordinary day were the larger lounge areas of the latter. In Bent and Kane the aft ten feet or so of what would be lounge in the later ships was missing. I believe there were some differences in hatches and open deck space that accounted for some of these slight differences internally. This lounge was a section on the port side of the wardroom with sofas, chairs, television and paneling. The lounge areas were particularly well furnished with nautical and oceanographic related photos, charts, and even lighted globes. Part of this was probably due to these ships being show pieces. During international events receptions for foreign dignitaries were held aboard.
Despite the comfort I personally felt these ships had little of the character I enjoyed in Flyer, Myer, Neptune and some others. Perhaps it was age. "Peas in a pod" certainly fit Victory class ships, mass produced during the Second World War, more than the four Silas Bent class ships. Even Kingsport, one of the many Victories and a ship I did not particularly like, had more character though. Maybe they had time to develop the character. I don't think that was it though. Age and not a lot of character was showing the last time I was on one of the Silas Bent class ships.
Perhaps size was again a factor. The old ships had all those passages and unused spaces, voids and huge steam engine rooms. The T-AGS-26 class ships were small and specially built with little or no unused space or the mysterious voids of the old conversions. The big, old ships had also undergone various modifications, probably with less quality control, and tended to have unique configurations, noises, and feels.
Bent, Kane and Wilkes were primarily oceanographic survey ships. Their role was more that of large AGORs and centered on transits to oceanographic stations where they would remain for hours, even days, with equipment over the side. The typical AGS was more associated with underway geophysical (bathymetry, gravity, magnetics, etc.) data collection. That work requires more precise navigation than water column oceanography. The typical AGS would have large flatbed navigation plotters, extensive navigation suites and both communication systems and procedures necessary for constant survey level conning of the ship along survey tracks. Bent, Kane and Wilkes, despite interludes of pure bathymetry and some geophysics, did not have such suites. Wyman was the only one of these four that was fully equipped and dedicated for geophysical and bathymetric work. Wyman was eventually modified to be the platform for a new precise swath bathymetry system that turned out to be one-of-a-kind.
There is no doubt the Silas Bent class had advantages in economy, quarters, and designed-in features for oceanographic work over the old conversions I tended to like more. They certainly did not have the problems associated with some later designs. The newer USNS Maury (T-AGS 39) (now training ship Golden Bear) and USNS Tanner (T-AGS 40) (now training ship State of Maine) were launched and retired within just the last few years of the Bent class' effective lives.
These were the only ships where our group stood navigation watches. I almost always picked the midnight to eight. I refer readers to a story, "Ghost of the Kane," on the web site of a former Captain, Carl Friberg (AKA "Slowbell"), of three of these ships (Kane, Wilkes, Wyman). That story caused a near flashback to those early hours of the morning when all the rest of the ship slept.
The coffee mess was to the left at the exit to portside deck. The photo is taken from the mess area.
For more of Carl's ships, many also covered here, follow "Views From the Upper Deck."
The ships are no longer in U.S. Service.
A Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command News Online retrospective and farewell to Silas Bent placed these ships in perspective. Many of her predecessors and peers were mentioned. As seems all too common this historic overview is now gone from Navy web space. Another MSC page, Special Mission 2000 gives status during this period.
New classes are replacing these ships in the T-AGS classification with the larger ones having a bit more size. I have to admit to a prejudice here. I think the TAGS 26 class looks more like an ocean going ship than the replacements. Those new ones look like giant tugs or oil field supply boats. Of course that is their design and builder's heritage. They may be wonderful, they just don't make the same impression on my eyes.
Navy Survey Ship (AGS) Numeric Listing: AGS-1 through AGS-65 with AG-1 and AG-2, survey ships prior to the AGS designation, along with Navy icebreakers that gathered data in polar regions.
Navy Oceanographic Research Ship (AGOR) Numeric Listing: AGOR-1 through AGOR-25, including the Navy owned ships operated by oceanographic institutions.
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