USS High Point, a hydrofoil patrol boat, is launched by Tacoma's Martinac shipbuilders on August 17, 1962.

  • By David Norberg
  • Posted 4/01/2022
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22441

On August 17, 1962, the J. M. Martinac Shipbuilding Corporation in Tacoma launches the USS High Point (PCH-1, short for Patrol Craft Hydrofoil 1), the Navy's first hydrofoil patrol boat. Built in partnership with The Boeing Company, the High Point is intended to be the first in a series of high-speed patrol craft capable of defending America's coasts from enemy submarines able to outrun conventional destroyers. The High Point will be continually modified and operated by the Navy from 1963 through 1984. Testing done with the craft will pave the way for development of the Pegasus-class hydrofoils that will serve from 1977 until 1993. 

Partnership with Boeing

Founded in 1924 along Tacoma's Thea Foss Waterway by Joseph M. Martinac (1895-1963), J. M. Martinac built yachts and, primarily, wooden fishing vessels through the 1920s and 1930s before obtaining a series of contracts from the U.S. Navy. During World War II Martinac converted fishing boats into patrol craft and launched 16 minesweepers, four tugboats, and a pair of refrigerated cargo ships. After returning to the fishing-boat business at the end of the war, the company secured additional contracts from the federal government to build nine more minesweepers and two torpedo retrievers in the 1950s as Cold War tensions mounted.

On June 13, 1960, Washington State representative Thor C. Tollefson (1901-1982) confirmed rumors that the Navy was planning to award a fixed-price, $2,082,215 contract for a 115-foot hydrofoil to The Boeing Company and Martinac. Hydrofoils are ships with foils, similar to wings, attached to the bottom of the hull. They can move through the water on their hulls (hullborne) the same as any other ship, but the foils generate lift and raise the hull out of the water once sufficient speed is obtained. When traveling on the foils (foilborne), the ship's drag is greatly reduced, allowing for travel at much higher speeds. Boeing, the primary contractor on the job, started hydrofoil research in 1959 and Martinac officials joined negotiations with the Navy as Boeing needed shipbuilding facilities.

Senator Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) argued the Navy needed faster ships, as "the modern sub is capable of moving swiftly under water." Existing ships could not keep up, but hydrofoils held "tremendous promise for anti-submarine warfare, where we need speed as never before" ("Hydrofoil Boat to Be Built Here"). Senator Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983) further explained how hydrofoils might operate in the future using a "leap-frog technique." One would listen for enemies, while the second raced ahead to intercept them ("Hydrofoil Boat to Be Built Here").

While work on the boat was underway, Boeing and subcontractor Martinac obtained an additional $1.46 million contract for a second experimental craft in 1961. Later named the FRESH-1 (short for "foil research experimental supercavitating hydrofoil"), it was a 15-ton, 50-foot hydrofoil built with an unusual catamaran hull and designed for speeds up to 100 knots.

Launch and Testing

On the evening of August 17, 1962, Martinac officials launched the 110-ton, 115-foot High Point. Named after the city of High Point, North Carolina, the USS High Point (PCH-1) was christened by Margaret Allen, wife of Boeing president William Allen (1900-1985). Built with an aluminum hull, it was outfitted with a 600 horse-power diesel engine for hullborne operations at conventional speeds and two 3,100 horse-power turbine engines coupled to four propellers for foilborne travel. Engineers anticipated the High Point would be capable of reaching a top speed of 40-50 knots, and it eventually hit a high speed of 50 knots in service. For comparison, the 82-foot Coast Guard cutters built by Martinac in the same era had an approximate top speed of just 22 knots.

Martinac and the Navy started testing the High Point in 1963. The ship first took to its foils on May 22 and, after a series of builder's trials, made its first preliminary acceptance trial run on July 11. Naval architect Mark Jewett reported "She looked real good" but noted there were still "a few bugs to be ironed out," as at one point seawater got into the turbines creating an illusion of smoke and prompting calls to the fire department ("Along Tacoma's Waterfront"). In August, the Navy took possession of the ship and stationed it at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton.

The FRESH-1 made trial runs in July 1963. The Navy hoped to produce hydrofoils with a top speed of 90 knots and built the experimental craft to test different foil systems. FRESH-1 hit a high speed of 84 knots in one run but later went airborne and flipped at 70 knots during testing off the eastern shore of Vashon Island. While the three-man crew survived with minor injuries and the craft was not significantly damaged, officials never pushed it to the anticipated 100 knot limit and deactivated the ship after repairs had been made.

From 1963 through 1984, the Navy continually modified, experimented on, and deployed the High Point. William M. Ellsworth (1921-2008), a leader in the Navy's hydrofoil program, thoroughly documented that work in Twenty Foilborne Years: The U.S. Navy Hydrofoil PCH-1 High Point. His overview covered many runs for training, speed and power tests, foil tests in different water conditions, sensor and new equipment testing, acoustic trials, and test firing of MK 32 torpedoes, a 40mm cannon, and Harpoon missiles while foilborne.

In 1975, the Navy handed control of the High Point over to the U.S. Coast Guard for evaluation, but the ship developed severe mechanical problems and was sent back to the Navy within a month. Program cuts loomed in 1978, but Sen. Magnuson successfully blocked them. Threats of cancellation appeared again in 1980, but the High Point remained in operation until December 1984, when it was finally deactivated and turned over to Boeing.

Cutting Edge Research to Memories

Both the High Point and FRESH-1 were eventually sold to private buyers and fell into decay. In 2022, the USS Aries Hydrofoil Museum in Gasconade, Missouri owned the FRESH-1 and was working to restore it. The High Point changed hands several times over the years as owners ran short of funds to revive it. In January 2021, South Carolina's The Post and Courier reported a Charleston man bought it for $45,000 and had started work refurbishing the historic ship.

While the FRESH-1 and High Point did not usher in a new era of hydrofoil boat building as Tacoma residents dreamed of in the early 1960s, they did pave the way for the rise of the Navy's Pegasus-class line of hydrofoils. Boeing built six, and they operated out of Florida from 1977 to 1993.

For the J. M. Martinac Shipbuilding Company, the two vessels were the only hydrofoils it ever built. After finishing them, Martinac built 31 patrol boats for the Navy and Coast Guard before focusing on tuna clipper construction into the 1980s. After sporadic work repairing state ferries and building tugs in the 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century, the shipyard launched one last fishing vessel in 2013 before it fell into foreclosure and was sold at auction in 2014.


Sources:

William M. Ellsworth, Twenty Foilborne Years: The U.S. Navy Hydrofoil High Point PCH-1 (David Taylor Naval Ship Research and Development Center, ca. 1987); Chris Phillips, "J. M. Martinac Celebrates 75 Years!," Pacific Maritime Magazine, September 1999, M-1 to M-8; "Jetfoil/Hydrofoil: Historical Snapshot," Boeing website accessed March 20, 2022 (https://www.boeing.com/history/products/jetfoil-hydrofoil.page); "U. S. Navy FRESH-1 Hydrofoil," USS Aries Hydrofoil Museum website accessed March 20, 2022 (https://www.ussaries.org/us-navy-fresh-1); "William Ellsworth (Obituary)," Legacy.com website accessed March 20, 2022 (https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/fredericknewspost/name/william-ellsworth-obituary?pid=168467101); Bruce Haulman, "Hydrofoil Crash in Tramp Harbor," Vashon History website accessed March 20, 2022 (https://www.vashonhistory.com/Publications/time_and_again/boeing_hydrofoil_crash.pdf); Ed Friedrich, "Historic Navy Hydrofoil in Need of a Final Home," Kitsap Sun, July 13, 2009, accessed March 25, 2022 (https://archive.kitsapsun.com/news/local/historic-navy-hydrofoil-in-need-of-a-final-home-ep-420690809-358032941.html); Thomas Novelly, "The Navy's USS High Point was Abandoned. A Charleston Man Hopes to Bring it Back to Life," The Post and Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), January 14, 2021 (https://www.postandcourier.com/news/the-navys-uss-high-point-was-abandoned-a-charleston-man-hopes-to-bring-it-back/article_9ed6c200-55c1-11eb-9b26-ab25366b15d3.html); Nancy Klingener, "Money Forces Navy to Pull out Hydrofoils," The Miami Herald, February 4, 1993, p. 1B; "First Navy Hydrofoil Patrol Craft Launched," The Seattle Times, August 18, 1962, p. 8; "Damage to Hydrofoil Slight," Ibid., July 19, 1963, p. 10; "Hydrofoil Passes Tests," Ibid., June 19, 1966, p. 18; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Allen, William McPherson (1900-1985)" (by David Wilma), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed March 23, 2022); K. Rockhill, "Tacoman Launches 45 Boats for Fishermen in 5 Years," The News Tribune, June 19, 1929, p. 17; "Martinac to Build 4 Navy Ships," Ibid., August 15, 1951, p. 1; "2nd Sweeper To Hit Water Next Month," Ibid., January 4, 1953, p. B-2; "Yard to Build 2 Navy Vessels," Ibid., June 20, 1957, p. A-1; "Torpedo Retriever Launched," Ibid., September 21, 1958, p. B-3; "Martinac May Get Contract," Ibid., June 13, 1960, p. 1; "Hydrofoil Boat to Be Built Here," Ibid., June 14, 1960, p. A-1, A-2; "Unusual Boat to Build Here," Ibid., June 16, 1960, p. C-4; "Local Firm May Build Hydrofoil," Ibid., July 13, 1961, p. 1-2; "Big Hydrofoil Enters Water Here Aug. 17," Ibid., July 27, 1962, p. 8; "Hydrofoil Sub Chase Going To Bremerton," Ibid., August 11, 1963, p. C-16; Shining Props, Sharp Bows – Views of Cutters on Ways," Ibid., July 3, 1965, p. A-5; Don Hannula, "Along Tacoma's Waterfront," Ibid., July 14, 1963, p. B-12; "Hydrofoil Test Vessel Kept Active," Ibid., February 21, 1978, p. A-6; John Gillie, "Shipbuilder Martinac Faces Foreclosure Auction Over debts," Ibid., June 20, 2014, p. A-1, A-15; John Gillie, "Tacoma's Oldest Shipyard to be Sold," Ibid., July 18, 2014, p. A-14.


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