ARCHIVED - USQUE AD MARE
A History of the Canadian Coast Guard and Marine Services
by Thomas E. Appleton

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The Alert

The CGS Alert, used by Gordon in his expeditions of 1885 and 1886 to the Hudson Bay, remained in the Marine and Fisheries fleet as a light station supply ship until her disposed in 1895. Commissioned in succession under British, United States and Canadian colours, the Alert served each with distinction and had a very unusual career.

The sixteenth ship of the Royal Navy to bear the name, HMS Alert was built at Pembroke Dockyard in 1856, that notable year in our shipbuilding history. As Pembroke built hulls only, the uncompleted vessel was towed to Chatham Dockyard, then specializing in the application of steam machinery to wooden warships. One of six "First Class Screw Sloops" designed by Isaac Watts, Chief Constructor, the Alert was obsolete as a fighting ship almost as soon as she was completed. She had a wooden hull, copper sheathed, carried a full sailing ship rig, and was designed to steam in and out of harbour with horizontal engines of small power cramped low down in the ship. Her armament consisted of seventeen thirty-two pounder smooth bore guns, eight on each broadside with one fitted up on a slide as a bow-chaser, and she carried a complement of 175 officers and men. As built, she was hardly an attractive proposition for the Canadian Marine Service but much was to happen before she ended her days plodding round Nova Scotia and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Photo: HMS Alert fast in the ice. Lat. 81º 48' North, 1876

HMS Alert fast in the ice. Lat. 81º 48 North, 1876.

In 1874, the Alert was converted for Arctic exploration. The original engines were removed and replaced by a set of Hawthorn compounds, she was reboilered to 60 pounds per sq. inch and the armament was superseded by a token battery of four Armstrong breach loaders. The hull was strengthened with felt covered iron, the whole being sheathed with teak above water, and Canadian elm and pitch-pine below. Thus encumbered, the Alert was hardly a racehorse. In May, 1875, under Captain George Nares, and with Commander A. H. Markham as second in command, she sailed for the Arctic in company with HMS Discovery.

The ship herself reached 82 deg. North latitude, a remarkable effort, and Markham took a sledge party to 83 deg. 20 26" North, the highest latitude reached by man up till that time. This was a great feat of leadership and endurance as the group was stopped by an outbreak of scurvy and was lucky to get back with only one death. On their return Nares was knighted and Markham was promoted to captain.

Photo: CGS Canada

CGS Canada

The Marine and Fisheries cruiser is shown fitting out at Barrow-in-Furness, England, in 1904. She is lying alongside HMS Sentinel, a light cruiser just launched, while the inside berth is occupied by HMS Dominion, a battleship almost completed except for her guns and turrets. The scene is typical of the naval expansion then gaining momentum.

(Department of National Defence)

After this, Alert went to the Pacific as a surveying ship, visited Esquimalt, and was employed in charting Canadian and Australian waters before being paid-off in Chatham in 1882. It so happened that in that year. A. H. Greely, of the United States Army, leading a Polar expedition, was able to get four miles farther north than Markham before running into trouble; two relief expeditions failed to make contact, and the Alert was offered to the United States Navy, in 1884, to assist in a third try. Under the command of Captain George W. Coffin U.S.N. she gave good service in the setting up of supply dumps for an expedition under Captain W.S. Schley U.S.N. who finally managed to extricate Greely and seven survivors.

On completion of this service, it was decided that the Alert was just the vessel for the Canadian Government survey of Hudson Bay, and she was therefore sailed to the Dockyard at Halifax from whence, in May 1885, she was transferred from the senior naval officer to the marine agent of the Department. Gordon subsequently described her as follows:

"The Alert was a screw steamship, barque rigged, of about 700 tons gross . . . constructed as to be capable of resisting great ice pressure, and her engines being only 50 nominal horsepower, the screw is small . . . so that in every way she was well adapted for the work of the expedition."

The Hawthorn engines had evidently greatly improved matters:

". . . compound surface condensing and when running at full speed make about 120 revolutions per minute, which in smooth water and calm weather gives the ship a speed of about eight and a half knots. The consumption of coal, when using the best ordinary Welsh coal, and steaming full speed, was a little less than six tons per day, but on ordinary occasions with the expansion gear on, the ship would steam six knots per hour on an average consumption of about four tons per day, and when steaming slowly in slack ice, using only one boiler, we could make four knots on two tons per day."

The old days of a crew of 175 were gone for ever and, for the Hudson Bay work the Alert was manned by the master, two mates, two engineers, carpenter, two boatswains, twelve able seamen, six engine room crew and a lamp trimmer; there were five cooks and stewards. As special complement for the expedition, the Alert carried a medical a medical officer, five scientific staff and twelve observers for shore stations.

Photo: CGS Alert as a lighthouse supply ship, in 1893

CGS Alert as a lighthouse supply ship, in 1893.

In November 1894, after nine years service in the Department, she was laid up as being unfit for further use. Since 1886 and the completion of the Hudson Bay Survey the Alert had been used as a light-house supply vessel and buoy tender, first in Nova Scotia and latterly, as the wooden hull was beginning to deteriorate, sailing from Quebec for service in the Gulf. For this work she was stripped of her former glory, topmasts and yards were sent down and, with stump masts and an odd looking wheelhouse she became simply a low powered steamer. She had never been purchased from the Admiralty, only borrowed. Finally sold for breaking up, by public auction, a bill of exchange for:

". . . 814 pounds, two shillings and seven pence stg., was forwarded through the usual channels to the Admiralty for the credit of the Imperial Navy fund."

Photo: CGS Quadra

CGS Quadra awaiting the arrival of the governor general and suite for an official cruise to Skagway, August 4 to September 6, 1900. The vessel is dressed overall, with the national flag at both mastheads; the governor generals standard would be hoisted at the main when His Excellency came on board. At night the ship was silhouetted by electric lights. An extra galley, specially fitted to cook for the vice regal party, may be seen on deck just aft of the mid-ship superstructure. The steam launch in the starboard davits was standard equipment at the period.

(BC Archives)

A correspondent in England writes:

". . . the accounts for the financial year 1895-96 show a credit of this sum for the sale of the Alert, so the proceeds were not embezzled."

All in all, she was good value.