Sailing the wine-dark seas

Published 8:30 am Wednesday, August 30, 2023

By John Nelson

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy’s class of 1965 holds reunions every five years, and lately, we’ve started having mini-reunions in between. This year, about 20 gathered in Memphis for a cruise up the Mississippi.

Margaret and I couldn’t be away from home long enough for the cruise, but since the rendezvous point was the Peabody Hotel, we booked a room there, and during events at the hotel before they boarded the boat the next day, we had a chance to visit.

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As one would expect when a group of old mariners get together, the talk is usually about ships, and I’m convinced that at least one in the class has served aboard most anything that floats.

The most interesting ship discussion was sparked by a classmate who was not in attendance but who had recently posted a message on the class email exchange. His email gave an account of his experiences in the late 1960s aboard the SS Angelo Petri – the ex-Sackett’s Harbor.

When it comes to ship stories, there are some humdingers out there, and I’ve witnessed some first hand, but the Petri might take the cake as a ship that had a knack for survival.

She was launched in 1943 as the Sackett’s Harbor, one of a class of tankers known as T-2s. Since these tankers were urgently needed during WWII, the high speed turbines drove an electrical generator that provided power to a motor that turned the propeller at the much slower speeds required. This propulsion system eliminated the need for reduction gears that take a long time to machine.

After the war, the ship entered commercial service, and on a routine voyage in 1946, she broke in half in rough seas about 800 miles southwest of Adax, Alaska. Ten men floated away with the forward section of the ship and were later rescued while the rest remained on the aft section that housed most of the living spaces and the engine room.

Things looked bad for a while, but the weather improved and the stern section remained seaworthy thanks to a watertight bulkhead. The engineers engaged the propeller in the astern rotation, and the deck officers backed the old girl all the way to Adax under her own power.

It would be a darn good sea yarn if it ended there, but it didn’t since the rapidly-growing town of Anchorage, Alaska, had no permanent source of electrical power. So instead of going to the scrapyard, the stern of the Sackett’s Harbor was towed to Anchorage where she provided the town with electricity until 1955 when hydro-electric power from the Eklutna Dam eliminated the need for her generator.

The aft section of the ship was once again facing the cutting torch when she got a reprieve from events unfolding to the south in the heart of California’s wine country.

The Petris of California were major promoters of the higher quality wines that were coming out of Napa Valley and finding favor among wine drinkers on the West Coast. By the mid-1950s, the family business was managed by Louis Petri, who hoped to expand the sale of California wines to eastern markets.

Transporting bottles of wine across the country was expensive since the railroads of the day were charging the wineries high shipping rates. Louis knew that bottling wines near local markets would be cost effective, but that required an efficient way to transport wine in bulk. He saw the solution in the construction of a wine tanker and that gave a new life to the stern of the old Sackett’s Harbor – saved her rear end one might say.

It was in the San Francisco yard of Bethlehem Steel Shipbuilding that the old stern section was joined to a new forebody to become the Angelo Petri named for Louis’ father. The conversion called for the construction of 26 separate stainless steel tanks of various capacities so that different wines could be kept segregated to preserve the purity of each.

In addition, all piping and valves were of stainless steel, and this led to a conversion cost of about seven million – a tidy sum at the time.

The Petri emerged as a 22,000-ton tanker capable of transporting two and a half million gallons of wine, and for the next 13 years, she made regular voyages through the Panama Canal to ports in the East. During our classmate’s time on board, the ship loaded in Long Beach, Calif., and discharged the wine in Philadelphia, Penn.

We were surprised by his accounts of agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms being on hand to seal and unseal seal tanks during cargo operations since none of us had ever encountered them aboard ships. But then the rest of us had never served aboard a ship engaged in the interstate transport of alcohol.

It was rumored that wine was always put out in the officers and crew mess rooms of the Petri, and his email verified that. Since the owners suspected that seamen would find ingenious ways to tap into the cargo, they decided it would be best to just make it available to them.

We have more questions for him that can wait till our next regular reunion on Long Island in 2025, where he can also expect a good-natured roasting.

For at a time when most of us were engaged in supplying our military in Viet Nam with a constant supply of war materials, he was pushing vino through the Panama Canal to quench the thirst of wine drinkers on the East Coast.

We plan to thank him for his service.

Write to historian John Nelson at