The Restoration of the Wooden Minesweeper Liseron

MV Liseron (file image courtesy The Boat Company)

Published Sep 4, 2020 6:02 PM by Pacific Fishermen

The motor vessel (MV) LISERON was laid down at Tacoma Boatbuilding in Tacoma, Washington, in 1953 as part of a group of seven Adjutant-class motor minesweepers (MSC-type) built for the French Navy, under the auspices of the U.S. Navy's Military Defense Assistance Pact. She was completed June 23, 1954 as the U.S. AMS-98, which is an enlarged and modernized version of the YMS-type minesweeper made for the US Navy during World War II. 

These minesweepers were constructed to withstand the hardships of tropical climates and navigate shallow waters of bays, coastlines and inlets with a total draft of just nine feet. They could reach up to 14 knots top speed, and boosted two 20mm mounted on the fore deck: versatile for both anti-aircraft defense and anti-ship offensive operations. Up to 40 personnel could be carried. Despite having brass and stainless-steel fittings and wooden hulls, the ship’s design fell short of its purpose as a minesweeper, as the hulls were later deemed too magnetic and thus susceptible to magnetic mines.

The minesweeper was transferred to the French Navy on November 1, 1955 and was given her official name, LISERON, and pendant number, M-683. Likely while still under French control however, in 1974 LISERON was converted to a diving tender and assigned the pendant number A-723.

Sometime after 1974, LISERON was returned to the US Navy and was struck from the Navy List on September 14, 1987. Information available from Puget Sound Maritime seems to indicate LISERON was not purchased directly from any French agency or company but rather from an intermediary in this country (acting on behalf of the Department of Defense or the Maritime Administration) between 1987 and 1988. 

Captain Doug Cope recalled how he initially tracked the LISERON through US Government archives to its location overseas, but credits Mike McIntosh with re-envisioning the old minesweeper as an Eco-Cruiser. It was the second vessel the two men had collaborated on, with the first one being another refurbished boat: the conversion of the SEA WOLF in San Diego into the yacht OBSERVER. The refit design plans for the new LISERON were drawn on cocktail napkins, with refinements later made by naval designer Ben Auslund in Florida.

The Boat Company of Port Orchard, Washington, acquired LISERON in 1988 and began restoration with a view toward using her as a small cruising vessel in the Alaska trade. At his point LISERON was assigned her official number (ON) 971339. Doug spent the summer of 1988 getting the boat seaworthy for its crossing of the Atlantic. A SMIT tug out of Rotterdam provided the tow needed.

Unfortunately, during a layover in the English Channel, the towing completely wrenched out the bronze anchor windlass, sending it straight to the bottom. A new attachment on the foredeck was rigged in Vigo, Spain. The crossing took a month, not counting the delays.

Doug piloted the LISERON over from Brest, France, to Tarpon Springs, FL, where the refit was begun starting in fall, 1988. The vessel was gutted, down to the hull and deck beams made of oak and Purpleheart. Once in Florida, the work crew from The Boat Company (numbering 50 at one point) spent the next sixteen months refurbishing the vessel. The project also involved welders hired from the local Duckworth Boats to undertake the “hot work.” 

During the refit, all of the ship’s brass fixtures and the two original (440 hp each) General Motors 8-268A diesel engines were retained. As the project manager, Doug also made trips back and forth to France to scour shipyards where other minesweeper parts could be salvaged. A standard for all authentic parts had been established, making the sourcing of these components – from electronics and deck fittings to a replacement windlass – all the more vital.

The refurbished vessel was finally completed in the spring of 1993.

As a remodeled passenger vessel, its compliment was effectively reduced by half its original number: now limited to just twenty passengers. Ten staterooms – six on the main deck and four on the upper skiff deck - offer plenty of comfort for those making the trip north today on the LISERON to Alaska waters.

In 2011, PacFish made some repairs to the stem, undertook routine caulking of the hull and added new bronze stem iron to the planking line, to protect against possible future collisions. More recent work completed in the winter of 2016 focused on the starboard side to repair a leaking seachest and removal of the ice sheeting four feet below the waterline. A total of twenty-four Fir planks were replaced, and portions of the nine frames repaired with Purpleheart, using original fasteners when possible and replacing many that were deteriorated brass. The fall of 2017 promises the same work being done on the starboard side of the vessel to finish the job.

Today, PacFish continues to service both the LISERON and its sister ship, MIST COVE, for the family of the original owners of The Boat Company, including assistance with annual inspections by the US Coast Guard. The LISERON has Juneau, Alaska, as its hailing port, but regularly returns here to the waters of the Pacific Northwest.

A Brief History of PacFish

Pacific Fishermen, Inc. can trace its 145-year history as a shipyard of Seattle to the original site of the T.W. Lake Shipyard, founded in 1871 by Norwegian immigrant T.W. Lake. The shipyard employed famous shipbuilders such as Thomas J. King, who later founded the King and Winge Shipbuilding Company in West Seattle. By 1900, there were 20 boat yards in operation from Shilshole Bay to the Freemont Bridge, with the PacFish yard counted among these.

The T.W. Lake Shipyard was later renamed Seattle Ship Yards and purchased in 1917 by the Ballard Marine Railway, Co. Inc. Business for the yard remained steady following the end of World War I. Seattle founding father Joshua Green, the “King of Steamboats,” had his sternwheelers built here for the Puget Sound Mosquito Fleet to the early 1920s.  In 1925 the world’s largest diesel tug MAHOE (120’) and in 1928, the first-in-class US Army tug MIKIMIKI (127’) were built here for Young Brothers’ Hawaiian Tug & Barge Company.  

During World War II, a total of sixteen minesweepers, subchasers and patrol boats for the US Navy were built here between 1942 and 1945. Two of these vessels later became Jacques Cousteau’s research vessel CALYPSO and John Wayne’s yacht WILD GOOSE.  The latter vessel was purchased by Wayne in 1962, and appeared in the 1968 film Skidoo starring Groucho Marx.

The end of the war heralded a new chapter in the history of the shipyard. In 1946, Ballard Marine Railway sold the yard to a group of 400 Norwegian heritage fishermen and their wives as a co-op style shipyard, which officially incorporated in that same year as Pacific Fishermen, Inc.

Pacific Fishermen continued building Ed Monk salmon seiners in wood (first designed in 1941) then a series of sixteen Ben Jensen designed steel king crabbers for the North Pacific and Bering Sea beginning in 1966.

Another notable vessel – KEEP CLAM – was the one and only clam dredge built at the shipyard for local chowder king Ivar Haglund. The name for the dredge also happened to be the longtime motto of the seafood company dynasty started by Haglund on the Seattle waterfront in 1938.

In 1986 PacFish purchased Rowe Machine Works with their 600-ton screw-lift drydock to complement the two marine railways. The company has concentrated on repairs of all types of fishing vessels, tugs, passenger vessels and yachts in wood, steel and fiberglass. Specialties range from maintaining old school shipwrights for caulking the wood planking with pine tar oakum on the historic steamer VIRGINIA V to the drydocking and repair of high speed aluminum waterjet passenger catamarans. Complementing this is an Underwriter’s Laboratory electrical panel shop that produces computerized industrial process controls for fish processing and industrial customers such as Theo’s Chocolates and Starbucks.

In the wake of the Great Recession of 2008, PacFish received a US Maritime Administration (MARAD) Small Shipyard grant in 2010, which enabled new growth for the yard with worker training, equipment and other assets. A key focus of these improvements was on the installation of environmentally-friendly and EPA-compliant equipment utilized for both sandblasting and painting operations.

This article is sponsored by Pacific Fishermen

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.