The Nation's First Research Ship, Seen from the Crew's Perspective

Dec 9, 2014

WHOI's Research vessel Atlantis under sail.
Credit WHOI

A new book provides a glimpse of what life was like for the sailors, rather than scientists, aboard an ocean-going research ship in the mid-twentieth century.

From 1931 to 1964, R/V Atlantis sailed the seas in service to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and, at times, the Navy. Atlantis was record-setting in many regards - the largest ketch built to date, and the first American vessel built specifically for ocean research. She became the namesake of subsequent research ships R/V Atlantis II and the current R/V Atlantis, as well as the Space Shuttle Atlantis.

Atlantis was intimately tied up in the founding and early growth of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and  left a rich scientific legacy. Tales of the founding fathers of Woods Hole who sailed aboard her live on in books like Vicky Cullen's Down to the Sea for Science and C. Dana Densmore's A-Boat.

Atlantis Stories: Before the Mast on a Sailing Research Vessel tells a different story - that of the ship's crew who maintained Atlantis and got her scientific passengers and cargo where they needed to be. The book is a collection of first-person reminiscences recorded by Bill Cooper, who served as an ordinary seaman from 1944 until 1948.

Cooper was born and raised in Brooklyn, but always dreamed of going to sea. A childhood injury left him without one knee joint, making him ineligible for military service in World War II. Instead, he made his way to Cape Cod and signed on as crew for Atlantis at the young age of seventeen. It was at that point that he says his "real life" began.

Although Cooper spent just four years on Atlantis, it was a formative time for him. He spent the rest of his life in Woods Hole, much of it building and designing boats.

Atlantis Stories: Before the Mast on a Sailing Research Vessel Atlantis Stories is for sale at the Woods Hole Historical Museum, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Exhibit Center, Isaiah Thomas Books in Cotuit, Eight Cousins Book in Falmouth, and on Martha’s Vineyard at Edgartown Books and Bunch of Grapes.