UpDate - Vol. 11, No. 12, Page 3
November 21, 1991
Launching a new era; R/V Cape Henlopen celebrates 15 years at sea
By Beth Chajes

     When the morning of April 4, 1976, dawned, all was ready for
the christening of the R/V Cape Henlopen, the College of Marine
Studies' new 120-foot research vessel. A special platform had been
built and decorated; a caterer hired; sponsors, speakers and the
Cape Henlopen High School band invited. The traditional champagne-
bottle shattering was set to take place at 2:30 p.m. However, the
ship had not yet arrived. To make matters worse, the weather was
looking rather stormy.
     The Cape Henlopen had been under construction for more than a
year and a half at Swiftships Inc. in Morgan City, La., and for
years before that, the idea of a ship had been occupying the minds
of the planners and founders of the College of Marine Studies
     These individuals knew they wanted a ship specially designed
for research on the continental shelf. The University of Delaware
was already recognized for its work in the coastal ocean. A first-
class research vessel could only boost the program to a new level.
     At about the same time, calls for a new coastal class of
research vessel were coming from all quarters. The recently formed
University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS)
organized a committee, whose members were to study the need for
such vessels. The committee concluded a new class of vessel was
indeed needed, but such a ship had yet to be built.
     Thus, it fell to the leaders of the new college to determine
the characteristics of an ideal coastal research vessel. What were
the special requirements of coastal research, and how could they be
met within the parameters of availability and cost? Planning for
the new vessel began in earnest in 1972.
     Ocean-going scientists and engineers from CMS and elsewhere
responded to surveys regarding their needs and use of existing
vessels. A list of criteria, including a profile of a typical
coastal research mission, was provided to a panel of naval
architects and experts. Three possible designs emerged, with the
vessels differing primarily in their speeds. These were tested on
hypothetical research voyages of eight hours to five days at
research stations located 100 miles from port.
     The chief measure of effectiveness was total gross cost per
trip, taking into account such factors as fuel, food and the crew
and scientists' time.
     The clear winner was the intermediate design, capable of about
20 knots due to its semi-displacement hull (which displaces only a
fraction of its weight in water). It offset slightly higher fuel
costs with the transit time saved. A number of shipyards in the
Gulf of Mexico region already produced similar hulls in a 120-foot
size used as personnel carriers by the offshore petroleum industry.
The rest of the ship was adapted by naval architect John W. Gilbert
of Boston for scientific needs.
     The ship was to be a trailblazer, and its design reflected
this with several features proven in service but innovative in
their application to oceanography.
     Laboratory vans were fully integrated into the design of a
ship for the first time. The vans could be mated directly to the
main deck laboratories (and to the college's facility in Lewes)
with a weather-tight seal. A revolving deck crane provided the
means of lifting loaded vans to position them on the ship or a
trailer on shore as well as performing many other tasks on deck or
over the side of the ship. The van system also ensured that
equipment was well-tested on land prior to sailing and facilitated
turnaround in port.
     Another system, the galley, also was designed to minimize time
in port. A major airline's food service group assisted with
planning the galley. Airline-style food service also cut down on
crew time needed to prepare meals, but the system was later
replaced by a traditional ship galley configuration.
     The all-aluminum hull was low maintenance, lightweight and
corrosion-resistant, thus more efficient.
     The crew boat design permitted a lower crew-to-scientist ratio
than most research vessels, which translated into economical yet
productive operation.
     Economy and versatility were paramount concerns to the
designers and potential users of the Cape Henlopen. The vans and
labs could be adapted for biological, chemical, geological or
physical oceanography, ocean engineering, diver and submersible
support and coring. A variety of winches and support frames were
included to accommodate trawling and work over the starboard side.
All vessel outflows were located on the post side so as not to
interfere with sampling.
     Throughout the design and construction of the Cape Henlopen,
fund-raising was a major concern. Some funds were received from the
National Science Foundation, the U.S. Navy and private foundations.
     A group of supporters organized the Society of Plank Owners.
Drawing from an old European tradition in which sponsors paid for
planks of wooden ships, individuals and families sponsored pieces
of the new vessel. This group later evolved into the Marine
     The name, Cape Henlopen, was chosen to recognize one of
Delaware's most prominent geographical features. Ever since, new
ships in the same class have generally followed the convention of
being named after capes.
     As the crowd gathered on the dock after lunch that April day
to watch as the Cape Henlopen received its name, the weather took
a turn for the worse. The main speaker, Dr. H. Guyford Stever,
director of the National Science Foundation, hurried his remarks.
He had written two versions of his speech in case the ship did not
make it on time.
     But the ship did make it, albeit with only about three hours
to spare. A brief hailstorm sent the band scurrying for cover at
the ceremony, but most of the audience bravely remained to witness
the launching of a new era in coastal research and in the history
of the college.