Today in Transportation History – 1967: Commissioning of Two Ships That Are Not What They Sound Like

Two new hydrographic survey ships were commissioned into the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (USC&GS). These vessels, USC&GS Rude and USC&GS Heck, were described in the April 1970 issue of the U.S. Navy magazine All Hands as “wire drag ships, the only ones of their kind in the United States, which search out underwater navigational hazards along the coasts, such as wrecks, pinnacle rocks, abandoned oil platforms, and pilings.”

The magazine’s description also noted that “Rude and Heck are not what they sound like – they are named for officers who distinguished themselves in the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey.” Captain Gilbert T. Rude (pronounced “roody”) developed a widely used navigational device for locating celestial bodies, while Captain Nicholas H. Heck helped create the wire-dragging techniques that were adopted by USC&GS.

The Rude and Heck were only the second pair of wire-drag vessels to be built in the United States. The first pair, USC&GS Hilgard and USC&GS Wainwright, had been in service for nearly a quarter-century before being replaced by the Rude and Heck.

The Rude and Heck, operating under a single command, worked together as a team on wire-dragging surveys.  The basic procedure for one of these surveys entailed having both ships – sailing anywhere from a few hundred yards (meters) to two miles (3.2 kilometers) apart – drag a submerged steel wire that was attached to each vessel and suspended at a preselected depth by a system of weights and buoys. The wire, when it snagged an obstruction beneath the surface of the water, would become taut and form a “V” shape. This allowed the crews of the Rude and Heck to pinpoint the obstruction’s location and depth. Any obstruction relatively close to the surface of the water was subsequently either marked with a buoy as a hazard to navigation or removed altogether.

When USC&GS merged with other federal agencies to form the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in October 1970, the ships were renamed NOAAS Rude and NOAAS Heck. The vessels continued jointly performing wire-dragging duties for another 19 years as part of NOAA’s fleet.

Both ships also worked together to save the research vessel Midnight Sun and rescue her crew and scientists after that vessel caught on fire out at sea in 1978. The Rude took aboard all of the scientists and crew members (a total 20) who had been on Midnight Sun. The crew of the Rude then administered first aid as needed to these individuals and transported them to shore. In the meantime, the crew of the Heck fought the fire on board Midnight Sun for 20 hours and as a result prevented her from sinking. The collaborative efforts of the Rude and Heck during this incident earned their crews the U.S. Department of Commerce Silver Medal.

Ultimately, more advanced electronic technologies made it possible for just a single vessel to perform the same sort of surveying work that the Rude and Heck had done together with their wire-dragging operations. The Rude and Heck, therefore, started working independently of each other in 1989.

The Heck was decommissioned in 1995. The Rude, however, remained in service for several more years. She received a U.S. Department of Commerce Gold Medal for locating the wreckage of TWA Flight 800 off of Moriches, New York, in 1996. In 1999, the ship played a similarly pivotal role in locating the wreckage of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane after his deadly crash off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. The Rude was decommissioned in 2008.

For more information on NOAAS Rude, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NOAAS_Rude_(S_590).

For more information on NOAAS Heck, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NOAAS_Heck_(S_591).

Additional information on both ships is available at ftp://ftp.library.noaa.gov/noaa_documents.lib/NOAA_historic_documents/NOAA_ships/Rude-ASV90_and_Heck-ASV91_1972.pdf.

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