In 1968, the Harvey Gamage shipyard in South Bristol built and launched the National Science Foundation Research Vessel Hero. The idea was to utilize a sturdy wooden-built trawler as a scientific platform along the shallow bays and passages of far-south South America and the ice-choked Antarctic Peninsula.

The vessel was to operate in conjunction with the appropriately named shore-based United States Antarctic Program station Palmer. It was named after seal hunter Nathaniel Palmer, the mariner from Stonington, Conn., who was one of the first in 1820 to sight the Antarctic Peninsula. He glimpsed the land from aboard his sturdy little ship named Hero.

Arctic mariner and Maine resident, Jack Crowell, was the National Science Foundation point-man for the job; he basically led the charge for the vessel to be constructed of wood and built by well-known shipbuilder Harvey Gamage himself. Crowell carried enough clout with NSF to make it happen. He and his wife Alice rented a small house in South Bristol near the shipyard and Crowell and Gamage oversaw construction of the vessel.

Hero was 125-feet-long and 300 tons, but drew only a dozen feet of water, crucial for it to explore the inner bays and harbors of the Antarctic Peninsula. Contemporary icebreakers and research ships drew over twice that depth, making Hero rather unique at the time.

Hero was diesel-driven by a 380-horsepower engine, but also carried sails. Her frame was native-oak timbers and sheathed in tough green-heart wood from South America. The mast was Oregon fir. Hero was ketch-rigged so it could carry a decent amount of sail yet still be able to maneuver around ice-choked inlets; she carried 1,700-square-feet of high-visibility orange sails.

When launched into the Damariscotta River March 28, 1968, Hero generated lots of fanfare. Several NSF dignitaries and Washington D.C. bigwigs attended, including many military officers in dress uniform.

According to one account, as Hero began to slide out of Gamage’s large construction shed, part of the vessel’s superstructure just nicked the edge of the opening. While the band played and the assembled crowd cheered loudly, the shed shook slightly from the impact and 100 years worth of pigeon poop in the rafters wafted down onto the officers’ dress blue uniforms and the dignitaries, in their finest clothes.

In June that year, when NSF took Hero north for a shakedown cruise, Crowell accompanied the vessel. By early summer, she had made four cruises while ship and systems were tested and calibrated, including one sojourn to Arctic waters. They reached the Grand Banks and Davis Straits in August, where they came upon some icebergs which officials wanted to photograph alongside Hero. One scientist called them ‘grabber photos’ for publicity.

By fall 1968, Hero was headed south for her first Antarctic visit. What followed were several seasons of yeoman-like work and science, conducted along the Antarctic Peninsula, Drake Passage, southern Atlantic Ocean, and far-south regions of South America.

The ship proved tough and reliable, if not speedy or graceful. She occasionally grounded and bumped or ground her way through the ice and rocks of the region. Season after season, through its many ports of call, Hero became a regular fixture and symbol of the United States Antarctic Program in that part of the world.

Hero worked in conjunction with Jacques Cousteau and his research ship, Calypso, during the 1973-74 austral summer season, and hosted the famous outdoor photographer, Eliot Porter, who prominently featured the vessel in his photography book entitled “Antarctica.”

By end of 1975, Hero had made 36 voyages for scientific research, spanning the peninsula, South Shetland Islands, and coasts of South America. A major over-haul was conducted, parts of which were not completed until 1977. Another refit followed in 1980, but by 1983, NSF officials were looking beyond the wooden vessel.

When the next-generation research vessel Polar Duke, built in Norway, came on-line in the mid-1980s, it was recognized and agreed Hero’s time had passed. She was decommissioned in 1986 and sailed to Port Hueneme in California. The port of Umpqua in Reedsport, Oregon, next purchased the vessel through the Federal Surplus Property Program.

Plans for it to become a museum fell through and Hero fell on hard times. A HeroFoundation was formed but proved ineffectual. Hero sold at auction for $5,000 and was moved to Reindeer, Oregon. In 2000, it was sold once again and moved to Portland, where attempts were made to repaint and re-caulk the vessel for use.

By 2005, Hero was used for storage. In 2007 it was in Newport, Oregon slowly deteriorating. Her final owner bought it in 2008, once again enthused with wild, grandiose plans for it. Once again, nothing came of it.

There was some interest in the polar community to try and help save the vessel. Efforts were put forth to entice Maine maritime museums into the possibility of receiving or making a home for Hero, if it could be brought back to the state. Possible transportation arrangements included a piggyback ship or by railway. When museum officials balked, all efforts faded.

Meantime, Hero sat idle in a small estuary of the south fork of Palix River in Willapa Bay, east of the Long Beach Peninsula, state of Washington, roughly 40 miles from Astoria, Oregon. And sat. And sat. The once proud vessel became a local eyesore.

It did not take long after that. She deteriorated to a point where the vessel eventually rotted, was holed and sank at her mooring following a storm on March 4, 2017. Herobecame an environmental and navigational hazard. Costly oil-spill mitigation became an ongoing effort, due to nearby oyster farming areas.

The Washington State Attorney General's office filed misdemeanor criminal charges against Hero’s owner for pollution and for allowing it to become derelict. U.S. Coast Guard personnel pumped 1,000 gallons of oily water from it and hired Global Diving and Salvage to clean-up and remove the ship. Estimated costs could exceed $2 million.

At latest reports, the vessel is still there in the mud, rotting away and breaking up. Herowould have been a great example for future generations to see one of the last wooden trawlers built from the Harvey Gamage shipyard and an example of early coordinated efforts in Antarctic history and science. Truly a tragic ending for Maine maritime and shipbuilding history.

Efforts are underway to at least locate and return Hero’s brass name plate to the state. Hopefully, they will be more successful than earlier attempts and at least create some way to help remember and celebrate this historically important vessel and its contributions.

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP US History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He can be contacted at He is author of "Whaling in Maine," available through