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USS Sea Otter II (IX-53) on trials circa October 1941
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Class: Small IX: Experimental Freighters
Design Small acquired/built. These specifications are for IX-53.
Displacement (tons): 740 light, 1,941 tons (full?)
Dimensions (feet): 254.0' oa, 240.0' wl x 38.0' x 10.2' loaded
Original Armament: Small or none
Later armaments: --
Machinery: 4 screws, 16 Chrysler automobile engines
||SEA OTTER I
||29 May 41
||24 May 41
||9 Jul 41
||SEA OTTER II
||24 Jun 41
||Levingston SB, Orange
||26 Oct 41
||SEA OTTER I
||6 Nov 41
||24 Jun 42
||SEA OTTER II
||28 May 42
||8 May 46
||26 Jun 42
||2 Dec 43
FY 1941 Lend Lease funds (IX-53), FY 1942 BuShips Maintenance funds (IX-51). Specifications above are for IX-53, those for IX-51 are in the Ship Notes.
In February 1941 Navy Commander Hamilton V. Bryan and Warren Noble, an automobile engineer and production specialist, met and brainstormed ideas for a new way to transport cargo across the Atlantic despite the submarine threat. They ended up with a simple ship, flat sided and flat bottomed, built of 36-inch strip steel and machine welded, and powered by sixteen automobile engines in groups of four driving four vertical propellers shafts that extended below the bottom of the vessel amidships. These shallow draft vessels (except for the propeller shafts) could supposedly be built at low cost in large quantities. The inventors, who in the meantime had recruited yacht designer W. Starling Burgess of Weaver Associates to the project, called their ship SEA OTTER because hopefully, like its namesake, it would be skillful at eluding its enemies. The scheme was received with great skepticism in professional circles but attracted the attention of President Roosevelt who got the Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, involved. In early 1941 the inventors secured enough money from wealthy individuals in the President's circle to build an 80 foot model SEA OTTER, and they then signed a contract on 6 Mar 41 with Jacobson's Shipyard in Oyster Bay, New York, to build the model.
IX-51: On 16 May 41 Roland L. Redmond, the titular owner of the vessel, offered the Model Freight Carrier SEA OTTER then under construction at Oyster Bay, N.Y. to the U.S. Navy for experimental purposes. On 21 May 41 the District Craft Development Board recommended to SecNav that she be acquired for $1.00 as a district craft for experimental purposes, to be classified as an Unclassified vessel (IX-51). In response SecNav on 21 May 41 directed CNO to issue the instructions necessary to proceed with the acquisition and CNO recommended that BuShips proceed with negotiations with the owner. The craft was "completed, launched, and made a successful sea trial" on 24 May 41 and was acquired at the builder's shipyard at Oyster Bay, New York, five days later. She was placed in service at Oyster Bay on 9 Jul 41 for Navy trials. She was referred to as SEA OTTER until the advent of the full-sized SEA OTTER, at which time she began to be called SEA OTTER I. The model performed her trials either very well or miserably depending on which account one reads. On 20 Oct 41 CNO directed Com-3 to place the vessel out of service and prepare the propelling unit for shipment to the Naval Engineering Experimental Station, Annapolis, Md. The hull was to be "disposed of in accordance with further directive." On 8 May 42, in its report that definitively rejected SEA OTTER II for naval use, BuShips directed that the 80-foot model be returned to its owner or scrapped.
IX-53: Before the Navy trials of the model SEA OTTER began, President Roosevelt authorized construction of a full size SEA OTTER, soon designated SEA OTTER II, using Lend-Lease funds. On 16 Jun 41 the British submitted Requisition No. UK 2005 for a gasoline propelled vessel at a cost of $350,000. The Navy kept Bryan and Burgess out of this phase of the project and picked marine engineer Eads Johnson to oversee production of the vessel and a shipyard at Orange, Texas, Levingston Shipbuilding Co. to build it. On 24 Jun 41 SecNav directed BuShips to enter into negotiated contract with Levingson for construction of a "gasoline propelled vessel of the so-called Charon type, SEA OTTER #2, ex BAK-1." The vessel was accepted from her builder after initial trials and placed in service on 25 Oct 41. She departed the next day for the Charleston, S.C., Navy Yard and, after being delayed enroute by mechanical problems, ran trials at Charleston in November 1941. The British observers objected to the use of gasoline fuel, to the overall draft of the propellers for the wide-range tidal harbors in England, and to its size, and rejected the vessel. On 11 Dec 41 CNO directed that she remain at Charleston until further orders. In December the firm that had been created to build up to 48 more SEA OTTERS, Ships Inc., decided against the gasoline design. A diesel SEA OTTER was proposed in January 1942 but quickly rejected within the Navy. On 8 Mar 42 the Preliminary Design Branch of BuShips proposed using the SEA OTTER II hull as a target barge for testing new torpedo protection schemes, but when this idea was referred to the Auxiliary Vessels Board later in March it informally recommended that it be converted into a fuel oil barge (YO). SEA OTTER II was placed out of service at Charleston in May 1942. On 22 Jun 42 SecNav offered her to the Maritime Commission for conversion to a commercial cargo carrier, and on 26 Jun 42 she was transferred to WSA which then transferred her to a civilian firm, Cargoes, Inc., for the use of the Lend Lease administration. WSA took her back on 15 Sep 43, probably on the advice of its Technical Division which had concluded that the vessel could not be used for any purpose. On 2 Dec 43 WSA sold her to a Panamanian firm which removed the engines and used her after the war as a banana barge in Panama.
The SEA OTTER saga was not over when the Navy rejected a diesel variant of the craft in January 1942. Allies of the original SEA OTTER advocates, who had been sidelined in the production of SEA OTTER II, brought the matter to President Roosevelt who on 4 Apr 42 directed that SEA OTTER II be tested further and that Commander Bryan be assigned to work with Weaver Associates to redesign the craft. Self propulsion tests were scheduled on 22 April 1942, and on 8 May 42 a BuShips report concluded that "low stability and freeboard, tenderness, and limited cargo capacity of 560 bbls of fuel oil precluded Navy use." On 16 May 42 Bryan and Weaver's design for a new SEA OTTER was designed SEAMOBILE. BuShips received the final plans for SEAMOBILE on 30 Jun 42, by which time model basin tests had been completed. The next move was up to Lend-Lease, which on 24 Oct 42 awarded a contract to the U. S. Shipbuilding Corp. of Yonkers, New York, to construct the first SEAMOBILE. SEAMOBILE I was essentially a small 1,800 ton quadruple screw diesel tanker with a conventional layout (except for the four shafts) and none of the innovations of SEA OTTER. Completed in August 1943, she was renamed SAN JACINTO in 1946, S. E. GRAHAM in 1953, and scrapped in 1958 after a collision. However by mid-1943 large numbers of the far more efficient and effective Liberty ships had been produced, and no more SEAMOBILES were built.
Special source note: Some of the material above was drawn from Ronald H. Dyal, "The Sea Otter's Tale," Sea Classics, November 1981, pages 8-13.
||SEA OTTER I
||90 tons. 80.0' oa x 12.7' x 6.7'. 3 Evinrude 35 HP engines. No record has been found of the disposition of the hull of this experimental model.
||SEA OTTER II
||Experimental cargo ship built for Navy, contract 24 Jun 41. Specifications above. Transferred by Navy to WSA and then to Cargoes, Inc., 26 Jun 42. From Cargoes, Inc., and purchased by WSA 15 Sep 43. Sold by WSA 2 Dec 43 at New York to Pan American S.S. Corp. of Panama "as is, where is" for $15,000 and eventually became a banana barge.
Compiled: 21 Dec 2010
© Stephen S. Roberts, 2002-2010