HOOLIGAN NAVY: Sailing Yachts On Sub Patrol During WWII

Corsair bow image

When I was boy during summers spent on the Maine coast at the mouth of Kennebec River my mother used to tell us a story from when she was a girl growing up on the river, of how once during the war a Nazi submarine was spotted near the river’s entrance. To me this always sounded crazy, until I got older and read more about the war and learned how badly German U-boats had ravaged shipping all along the East Coast right after the U.S. entered the war in December 1941. My mom’s story might well have been apocryphal, but it was not at all improbable, for in those days U-boats did indeed operate with impunity quite close to our shores.

Those of us who sail along the East Coast can take some pride in the fact that the initial response to this threat was mustered by amateur sailors and yachtsmen, ex-rumrunners, and other ne’er-do-wells who volunteered for service in what was known officially as the Coastal Picket Patrol, or more colloquially as the Corsair Fleet, or more derogatively as the Hooligan Navy. This eclectic branch of the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve was the brainchild of Alfred Stanford, commodore of the Cruising Club of America, and was ultimately run by Rufus Smith, who was then the editor of Yachting magazine.

The Corsair Fleet operated from May 1942 to October 1943 and was charged with maintaining a constant watch for U-boats about 100 miles offshore along the East Coast’s 50-fathom contour line. The sailing yachts that made up the fleet, painted military grey with Coast Guard numbers on their bows, were armed with antique machine guns dating back as far as the Spanish-American War and carried small numbers of depth charges that could be deployed manually over the side. Their primary job was to simply watch and listen for U-boats (with crude sonar equipment), report any sightings to shore by radio, and maintain contact with potential targets for as long as possible.

Disney emblem

Official emblem of the Corsair Fleet, created for the service by Walt Disney

On deck

Hooligans at work on deck. Many of the men who served were “undraftables” who couldn’t enlist in the formal armed services due to physical infirmities

Tommy gun

This shot looks a little posed to me. Note the guy on the bow with the Tommy gun. You’d have to get pretty darn close to a sub for that to be of much use. One Corsair vessel, Jay-Tee, did however once come in actual physical contact with the enemy when a U-boat surfaced directly under it

As I myself learned personally the first time I sailed up to Maine from Bermuda back in the mid-1990s, sailboats are great for tracking subs, because subs can’t hear them (at least not when their engines are shut down). I was just west of Georges Banks on my old Pearson Alberg Crazy Horse when I saw a sub fire off a missile from underwater very close to my position, and I have to assume they didn’t know I was there when they did it.

I first learned about the Corsair Fleet while sailing transatlantic aboard Constellation, an old Alden schooner I was told had served in the fleet during the war. I learned a lot more watching this great documentary film that was recently posted on the National Sailing Hall of Fame’s website.

I urge you to click on through and check it out. In addition to covering the history of the service, there are interviews with guys who served in the fleet and some fantastic old film footage shot while vessels were on patrol. All good stuff!

6 Responses
  1. Don Tompane

    I am a son of a sailor within the ‘Canvas Hangers’ and both have located his commandeered sailboat schooner ‘Tradition'(CGR3048?) and desire to gather even more information about that crews’ and my fathers exploits during WWII. The Alden schooner, is at this time awaiting restoration in Honolulu Bay, Hawaii and desire to help raise funding for it’s re-location to Port Townsend or wherever deemed by current owner to do it on West Coast US. Presently attempting to devise a book and/or screenplay for the Hooligan Navy/Canvas Hangers as subject. Desire any feedback, photos and information concerning this subject material.

    1. John Wilbur

      Tradition was CGR-3027. Contact me at jwnoankatcomcastdotnet. I spoke once or twice with your dad years ago. We might be able yo help each other

      1. Don

        Hi John,
        Thanks for your reply! Now years later in the search, completely understand the mistake in USCGR designation. Will contact you soon at address given. My father passed in 2001, and of course miss his presence.
        Perhaps we can make a call to talk in future.

  2. My Dad Raymond James King of New Britain Connecticut was crew .website under construction now to train and certify Veterans in using our Nursery School Curriculum “First Lessons in Sports” following Department of Education’s William Bennett’s Report on Elementary Education in America 1987

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