I COVER THE WATERFRONT
A Collection of Non-Fiction Articles 1980-2008
by Maritime Writer Robert R. Frump,
These articles are collected from various magazines and books and draw on many happy years at The Philadelphia Inquirer where Gene Roberts and Larry Williams showed me where the waterfront began. I’ve never found the end.
My hope is that these jottings foster an understanding of our modern maritime world, its contributions, its shortcomings, and its heroes.
The waterfront “beat” is one often overlooked by today’s news organizations, a fact that made it even more of a rich source of stories, characters and issues for me. The joy of covering the waterfront often was a welcome escape from the pack of media that creates a conventional wisdom and frames issues in a set, pat manner.
In that sense, I had the same sort of freedom that modern and ancient mariners feel when they set out on a voyage.
The title is in the present tense because I don’t feel there is an end to this “beat” and I will be engaged with it for the scope of my life. Larry Williams and Bill Eddins contributed world class editing to my writing in many of these articles. Tim Dwyer was an indispensable partner in our articles about the SS Marine Electric.
Robert R. Frump
Summit, New Jersey
April 17, 2011
Part One: The Tugs
Part Two: At Sea
Part Three: Rust Buckets
Part Four: The Scams
Part Five: The Yard
Part Six: The Ports
Part Seven: The Rescuers
Part One: The Tugs
(Looking at any stretch of waterfront, the layman may thing that the plucky tugboats in the harbor have a first-hand view of all that goes on. The layman would be right. These were among my most enjoyable assignments – and included some of my best waterfront eats. As any good mariner knows, a good cook makes a good ship and the tugs of the Delaware River had a good reputation as “good feeders.” After the Lefthero incident, on a cold day on the water, I was welcomed back down the rope ladder with a hot bowl of soup – and several shots of very good scotch whiskey for special occasions like tugs saving Philadelphia from certain catastrophe.)
The Heroic Tugs of the Delaware River
By Robert R. Frump
Inquirer Staff Writer
The freighter Lefthero drifted powerless in the Schuylkill with the inertia of a glacier directly toward the supports of the busy Girard Point Bridge. On the ship, Capt. Cho Yung Yun stood helplessly by the engine room control.
He cranked the big control lever once, twice, with no response from the massive engine below. Then Cho moved the lever to and fro, pumping it as if he were desperately throwing a switch to divert a speeding freight train. His eyes grew wide, then riveted directly on tugboat captain and pilot Clark Cain standing beside him.
Cain turned to the Korean officer and calmly said, in distinct English: ”Captain – find out what is wrong. Use your phone. Your phone. Call the engine room.” Inside, he recalled later, there was another voice saying over and over, “Oh, God. We’re going to hit the bridge. . . . ”
It was not a typical day in the life of a Philadelphia tugboat captain.
For every second of sheer terror on the water, there are days and weeks of mind-numbing routine mingled with interludes of pleasant inaction. But as days and weeks pass on the river, the veteran tugboat man and pilot always holds in a corner of his brain the possibility that disaster may lie just around the bend.
The simplest docking of ships the length of two football fields requires precision measured in inches. One mistake in jockeying the immense vessels can rip out a pier, squash a tug, or send thigh-thick lines snapping back like whips toward deckhands.
But this day and this moment of fear on the Lefthero were in a class all their own.
The Lefthero, a good-size freighter at 60,000 tons, was adrift and gaining momentum, without the ability to change its course, heading straight for the supports of the bridge that carries Interstate 95 traffic over the Schuylkill.
The situation was not Cain’s fault. The old, rust-covered bulk carrier – Greek-owned, flying a Panamanian flag, crewed by Koreans – was at an age at which most vessels are scrapped.
But suddenly, it had become Cain’s responsibility. He had scrambled up the side of the Lefthero from the tiny tug the Dorothy McAllister about 10 a.m. Dec. 7 to show the ship captain how to dock, and to direct the harbor tugs below. A reporter seeking to chronicle a day in the life of a tugboat captain had followed him on board.
Life on the river
Cain, 55, is a native Philadelphian. Raised at 23d and Morris Streets in South Philadelphia, he now lives in Glenolden. He first went to sea as a youth on a ship carrying horses to France. In 1952 he began work on the tugs to stay closer to home.
Always, Cain had said, there was at least a little strain in his job. And always, he had said earlier in the day, it was important to remain calm. If the ship‘s captain sees that you are upset, Cain had said before climbing aboard the Lefthero, . . . well, it would be better not to let that happen.
On the Lefthero, as he saw the bridge looming larger and larger, Captain Cain’s stomach seemed to just fall away toward the floor, he would recall later.
Dead ahead, the commuters on the bridge over the Schuylkill were unaware of the Lefthero passing below, just as commuters on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge spanning Tampa Bay in Florida had been oblivious of the passage beneath of the Summit Venture on May 9, 1980.
That ship rammed the bridge in Florida. Half the double span fell, and 35 men, women and children on that bridge tumbled to their deaths.
The Lefthero had just turned off the wide Delaware into the narrow channel of the Schuylkill when its engines failed. The wind, always the worst enemy of tugmen, was strong. Empty ships such as the Lefthero ride high on the water, all surface and sail. With no engine and no power for steering, the wind could blow the Lefthero as it would a Styrofoam cup on a pond.
Now, the Lefthero was a near-irresistible force, moving in a slack tide at about 5 m.p.h. toward the concrete pillars of the bridge. It had been precisely the wrong time for the old ship to lose its power, and now, at less than a hundred yards from the pillars, it had no way to stop the forward momentum generated by its huge screws.
There were only a few options, Cain thought: Use the tugs to run the ship aground. Run the risk of another Tampa disaster. Or call in the tugs, threading the ship through the narrow channel beneath the bridge to reach the safe water on the other side and the Tidewater pier.
The tugs played like porpoises on the water near the freighter. Cute little boats of dark maroon and black – overpowered and undersized, all torque and growl, like Volkswagen “beetles” loaded with truck engines – the tugboats Dorothy, Donal and Eric McAllister spun, backed, throbbed, pivoted, circled, hooted, tooted and turned in the Delaware 70 feet under the ship’s bridge.
It was up to them to guide the ship to safety.
In the old days they were powered by steam, and 80 or more of them would
ply the Delaware. In the 1920s, the Port Richmond community of Philadelphia would declare a holiday just to see them help one of the big barges dock.
Grain was big, coal was king and the tugs pushed the barges down river and up the coast to New England. Louis Szalejko, a retired captain now, remembered coastal runs where, if conditions were right past Cape May, N.J., a tug crew would unfurl a sail and ride the wind.
Captains usually ended up owning portions of their tugs outright. And sometimes the captains would form their own companies, as the Taylor and Anderson families did in 1931 to form Taylor & Anderson Towing and Lighterage Co., Philadelphia’s one locally owned survivor in these days of shrinking trade through the ports along the Delaware.
Two other companies, McAllister Brothers Inc. and Curtis Bay Towing Co., operate harbor tug companies here, but are not locally owned.
A diminished fleet
The ranks of the harbor tugs – the small, powerful boats that push freighters and tankers to dockside, not the barge pushers and tow boats – have been thinned. Decimated, the old hands would say. Of the 80 boats active in 1948, only 13 or 14 remain.
“Today, there’s nothing,” said Anthony J. Clark, 72, a semi-retired tug captain. He was a dispatcher the day in 1925 that the five-masted schooner Edna Hoyt got towed down river – one of the last commercial sailing ships to trade out of Philadelphia. “It’s a rarity to see action out my window now.”
“The business is dramatically down today,” said George Anderson, 64, a second-generation partner in Taylor & Anderson and the father of a third- generation tugman, Bruce, 30, his son.
“The tonnage of shipping is still there,” George Anderson continued. ”But the ships are larger, and where you used to have three ships yesterday carrying what one does today, now you have one ship for three.”
The traditions are still there, though. At the three major, unionized companies, the tugs carry a complement of six: a captain, a mate, an engineer, an oiler, a deckhand and the cook.
The men who operate the tugs make good money: a captain about $50,000 a year, and crew members can make $30,000. The work is irregular, though, and the hours are often long. Help a ship dock at Delaware City in Delaware, another at the old Sun Ship yard in Chester and one more at the Northern Metals yard north of Philadelphia, and you’ve put in for 18-hour days. And then there may be a week-long wait for another ship.
Nor should one look to get a start on tugs these days, either. Anderson’s father was a tugman. So was Tony Clark’s. Cain cannot find work for his sons in the tug business.
On board the Lefthero, Cain prepared to call in the tugs and thread the freighter through the bridge.
”Uh, hello Eric and Dorothy,” he said into a walkie-talkie cradled to his shoulder as if it were a baby in need of a burp. He looked over at the phone where Captain Cho was desperately pumping the receiver of the engine- room phone. The phone was not working, either.
“We have no motor here. Uh, the captain does not really seem to know what’s wrong,” Cain said, adding, after a pause, “or what he is doing.
“Uh, warn that barge and other traffic in the vicinity that we have a dead motor in the Schuylkill, please.
“Let’s see what we can do here,” Cain said into the radio.
The freighter’s horn sounded a basso profundo warning. Then, as if on cue, it malfunctioned, too, and began emitting quarter-note blasts. Whhomp, whhomp, whhomp, whhompa, whhomp, whhomp, whhompa came the sound of the horn, like the suspenseful soundtrack of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
Captain Cho was way past panic at the phone. His right hand fanned the receiver. He alternately banged the phone on the wall and shouted into its mouthpiece. His glistening eyes stared wide, and he locked a slightly hurt look on Captain Cain, who was dressed in a blue, quilted jacket and black pants. A dark blue baseball cap with five stars on the front covered a full head of gray hair.
Cain turned to the reporter. His words landed with dull thuds, bitten off with the same cadence as a John Wayne monologue: “Well, you sure picked the day to see what tugboat work is about.”
He would not look up again for the next 15 minutes, during which took place a graceful water ballet of tugboats directed by a nonstop stream of orders radioed from Cain.
He spoke quietly into the walkie-talkie, his slightly doughy face creased but implacable, his manner calm, and his stomach, by his estimate, somewhere far below his ankles.
The tugs moved below, churning up huge torrents of white water behind them, roaring with torque and power. The trick was to break the big ship’s forward motion enough to keep it from hitting the bridge, while turning it into the Schuylkill’s channel.
A walkie-talkie had replaced the whistle Cain still carried on his jacket. But the tugs acknowledged directions by tooting their whistles or blowing their horns. The Dorothy peeped. The Eric bawped.
As the tug whistles tooted to acknowledge Cain’s orders and the ship’s siren wailed, the river was awash in sound and confusion.
Threading the needle
”Back, Dorothy, one-half full. (Peep, peep, bawp.) One bell, one bell. Eaaassssy, Dorothy, easy. (To Captain Cho) Hard astarboard!
“Bring up, Donald. Fall Dorothy idle. (Bawp, bawp, peep, bawp.) Stop, Dorothy. Back, Dorothy. Easy. . . . Hard right, Eric. Back, Dorothy. Easy, Eric. Midships! Midships!
Cain went on as the Dorothy, the Donald and the Eric spun in response to the orders. The ship turned away from the massive bridge supports and more toward the channel.
Now what? Run aground? “That would be better than trapping a tug or brushing the pillars,” Cain recalled thinking.
But then it looked as if the freighter and its escorts might all make it through the bridge, too.
“Back Dorothy, one-half. Back Dorothy, full. (Peep, peep, bawp.) Easy on the Eric. Easy on the Dorothy. (Peep, peep. Bawp, bawp, bawp. Peep.)”
The ship turned and pivoted again with the dignity of a glacier as the tugs frantically pushed and pulled, little vectors of force and leverage. The white water that churned up behind them sometimes turned dark, warning that the water was too shallow.
An extra push here? The Eric put its shoulder to the Dorothy, which already had its shoulder to the big ship, and both engines rrrrrmmmmmm’ed and churned.
Bells and sirens
The world was all bells, sirens, peeps, roars and surges of revving tug engines and the incredible torque, as the tugs fought wind, tide, current and momentum.
Then they were through it. The Girard Point Bridge was above. The Lefthero was square and true in the channel. The tugs tucked in their tails, like high jumpers pulling in their legs, to clear the pillars.
Cain signaled all was well when he let out a long breath and looked down at Mate Joe Powers in the window of the Dorothy. They shook their heads together.
When Captain Cho came out onto the wing of the bridge, eyes down, Cain turned away for a second, as if not wanting to talk to him.
But he swung around almost immediately and fluttered his hand over his heart. He smiled wryly and raised his eyebrows, as if to say, “Real close, huh?” Cho, a stocky man in his late 40s whose straight, black hair contained a few strands of gray, seemed grateful for the sympathetic gesture.
Still flustered, he fluttered his hand over his heart, too, but then walked quickly away.
Minutes later, as lines were being thrown to the Tidewater terminal, Cho came back, composed, and said to Cain in a formal tone as their eyes met:
“Captain. Thank you. You can see. The air compressor failed. I could do nothing, captain. I am very sorry.”
“Oh, you are very welcome,” Cain said, shaking Cho’s extended hand.
A few minutes later, though, as Cain and the visitor walked through the bridge area, preparing to leave, Cho was standing slumped over on the rail of the bridge, head cradled in his elbow, eyes buried in his arm, silently sobbing.
Cain made a sort of “hey, c’mon,” gesture with his shoulders, and then walked over to the Korean. The tug captain put an arm around the shoulders of Cho and then gave him a hug with one big, bearlike arm.
“It’s all right now, huh?” Cain said with a smile. He was thumping the Korean on the back. “These things happen, now. It’s over, huh?”
SHIPS VS. ICE: A RIVER TUG OF WAR
By Robert R. Frump
Inquirer Staff Writer
Tugboats leading convoys of ships may save the day on the icy Delaware
Steel-hulled and squat in the water, they alone can square off against the
ice that now floats in the river and threatens the commerce of New Jersey,
Pennsylvania and Delaware.
Already, the waterfront most Philadelphians know is icebound. The tourist
fleet at Penn’s Landing is frozen. Stalactites hang from the pumps on the
great white sides of the old battleship Olympia. An ugly plastic cocoon
protects the barkentine Gazela Primeiro. The submarine Becuna rocks in the
wind and cracks the ice that rattles and tinkles like shards of glass when
waves roll into the inner harbor at the foot of Chestnut Street.
But the Delaware is a meat-and-potatoes river, no pretty tourist harbor. And
to the men and women who work the river, the more beautiful sight in this
weather is the tug Frederick E. Bouchard, a short, red, stubby vessel that
rested alongside Penn’s Landing yesterday with its diesel engines snorting as
the ice cakes floated by in the main channel.
In this weather, the Bouchard and tugs like her are the equivalent of
snowplows. For example, at 7 o’clock this morning, two Coast Guard tugs were
scheduled to lead a convoy of ships through the icebound Chesapeake
& Delaware Canal. Ice two to three inches thick has covered 80 percent of the
canal, an important shortcut between the Delaware River and the Chesapeake
Bay. No ships moved through it yesterday.
But today, the tugs will rendezvous with ships near Baltimore and then
convoy them through the ice in the canal, just as the tugs convoyed ships up
the Delaware River during the cold winter of 1977-78.
It has to be very cold for that to happen on the Delaware. Normally, the
tides and the current and the maintenance trips of the Coast Guard cutters and
tugs keep the ice broken.
But the ice has come early this year – three to four weeks earlier than
normal. Already one ship has had to turn back because of it.
Yesterday, ice clogged the cooling intakes of the Chemical Venturer, a 170-
foot, 17,000-gross-ton chemical ship bound for Unitank’s Pier 179,
according to Jack Branson of TTT Shipping Agency. Its engines heated up, and
the Chemical Venturer was forced to return to an anchorage at Breakwater
Harbor near Lewes, Del. The tugs were on their way yesterday to escort the
ship to dockside.
They will clear the way through two-inch ice that covered 85 percent of the
river at the Walt Whitman Bridge. The Coast Guard at Gloucester City, N.J., is
concerned enough that its officers now are dispensing tugs and buoy tenders
like chess pieces in a close game. The tug Catenary has been sent down to the
bay. A request is in for the Coast Guard to send a 110-foot tug down from New
In the meantime, Chief Petty Officer Arthur G. Grist and his crew cruise
relentlessly on the 65-foot tug Cleat through ice from Riverton, N.J., to the
Walt Whitman Bridge, to the Sun Co. docks at the Delaware state line. They
work from 8 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. Icebreaking after dark is too dangerous.
The big ships could not find their way in 1978 because the channel buoys
were lost to the ice. Then, too, river pilot launches could not negotiate the
thick ice at Lewes and had to be landed by helicopter. Only the convoys led
by tugs carried the day.
This year, the cold has slowed coal- loading operations as well. Coal
dumped in train cars after being washed down freezes in a solid block. William
Burns, the head of loading operations at Pier 124, runs the cars through
heating sheds before trying to dump them into ships.
” But very little warms six to eight feet of solid coal and ice in this
weather,” he said.
The answer largely has been muscle power, picks and time. Burns and his
crews have been loading 420 railroad cars into a ship for the last four days;
it may take them another three. It normally takes three days, period.
And if it freezes harder around the pier, Burns also will have to turn to
the winter workhorse on the river. He, too, will have to use tugs to get the
Part Two: At Sea
(After years of political and investigative coverage, I yearned for “real world” coverage where not all subjects were abstract, where objects moved and touched the earth and the sea. Nothing like an oil tanker to provide that for you. This story was Gene Roberts’ baby. The Delaware River is a great oil port. He wanted to show how the oil got there. I was all in favor of a sea cruise – thought I had not quite expected the one I got.)
BRINGING THE MEDITERRANEAN SUN TO MARCUS HOOK
BY ROBERT R. FRUMP
(Inquirer Sunday Magazine, Circa 1981)
Beginning the night before, continuing all through the day, and then for much
of this night, the big tanker had sucked crude oil through pipes that looked
like three long straws attached to the pier at La Sakhirra, Tunisia. The
straws in turn were attached to a pipeline that arched back along a gray
causeway toward the sand-brown land with its scrubby sandalwood and olive
trees, and then west toward the oilfields of Algeria, where it had come up
out of the ground.
Now, bloated like a fat black tick, her weight slung like lead below her
waist at the waterline, the tanker, named the Mediterranean Sun and owned by
Sun Transport of Aston, Pa., routinely prepared to cast off in the black
North African night and start her journey from this land of dates and almonds
to the land of cheese steaks and hoagies. Her next stop would be the Sun Co.
refinery at Marcus Hook, Pa.
A whole section of the landscape was about to move. Scowling Domenica
Fragala, half Arab and half Sicilian, wrestled to release the ropes half again
as thick as his thigh that had held the ship’s stern to the long pier jutting
out into the Gulf of Gabes. Six stories up, Captain Antonio Mancini wound
himself tight as a clenched fist as he watched the stern of the ship swing out
from the pier. There was no hint of the small crisis to come in the dime’s
worth of green wire under the control panel on the bridge where he paced. The
angle between pier and ship seemed right. Everything seemed to be going
At 5 feet 5 inches and 125 pounds, Mancini was the smallest man on the
bridge, but his manner and the flashing cobalt-blue eyes beneath arched
eyebrows left no question as to who was in command. A tennis sweater hung
jauntily over his shoulders, and a long, thin, brown cigarette stuck in his
fist. Soon he would order the lines that held the bow of the tanker released,
so that it would swing out from the pier, and then, at just the right moment,
he personally would turn the huge, turbocharged engine to full power, using a
device near the wheel that looks like an oversized automatic floor shift on an
expensive American car. The device buzzed sharply whenever speed changes were
made. But its resemblance to the old ” telegraph,” which rang bells in the
engine room to increase power, ended there. This lever controlled the engine
from the bridge. Advancing it was like pressing an accelerator. Sliding it
all the way to ” Full Ahead” would bring the engine throbbing to full power.
That surge of power was crucial to the maneuver. The huge propeller would
bite into the dark sea, frothing it white and driving the great ship, almost
three football fields long, forward in a graceful arc, pivoting her bow away
from the pier and sending her out toward the deep ship channels of the
Mediterranean with all the grace of a fat figure skater.
The moment arrived. Mancini stepped decisively to the engine control and
slid it forward through ” Dead Slow,” ” Slow” and ” Half” to the ultimate
position: ” Full Ahead.” He waited for the surge. It didn’t come.
Directly beneath him the small green wire had popped loose inside the
engine- control mechanism. It dangled a fraction of an inch from the sliver
of solder that had held it in place.
But this was not apparent then. What was apparent was that there was trouble
– that the Mediterranean Sun, loaded with 97,000 tons of crude oil, was
Her weight at that moment was equal to 50,000 automobiles, many more than
the number parked at Veterans Stadium for a football game. The ship, at least
in relation to everything near her at La Sakhirra, had become something of an
irresistible force. At only 0.2 knot, she could crush anything in the slow,
creeping, relentless manner of an advancing glacier. The modern pier of
reinforced concrete and steel could be crumpled like a mockup of aluminum
foil and toothpicks if the tanker drifted back against it. That would cost
The ship’s hull itself, in the event of such a collision, could be breached.
Oil vapors and oxygen could mix, inviting the ball-of-fire explosions for
which tankers are famous. That would cost lives. (More than 400 persons have
died in such tanker explosions since 1968.)
Now the stern continued to sweep outward, at a bigger and bigger angle. And
the bow of the ship was turning, too, lazily but surely, through an arc that
would take it right through the pier if something was not done.
Far below the bridge, in the main control room of the ship, Chief Engineer
Luigi Germelli sat in a light blue jumpsuit behind a glass wall overlooking
the clattering, gargantuan eight-cylinder engine. He was the oldest officer
on the ship, but he wore no paunch to show his 50-plus years, and he had no
macho-man bearing to prove he was the engineer. Germelli has the manner of a
kind surgeon, or a gentle priest. In fact, he is a gentleman in the old
Italian tradition, a bachelor with a villa in Florence once owned by a Medici
prince, a yacht near Portofino, vineyards, a taste for opera and fine food and
a love of plants.
Perched behind the glass wall overlooking the pea-green engine the size of a
two- story house, he resembled an attentive concert-goer, craning his neck
slightly, tilting his head one way, then the other.
Germelli knew that the symphony was being played wrong. He cocked his head,
and a look of concern played over his scrubbed-clean face, as if a bassoon had
hit a flatulent note. The engine, he knew, should be throbbing now, not
idling. Quickly he snapped up his phone to the bridge and began to say
something to his old friend Mancini, but the captain spoke first. Overriding
the ship’s computerized navigation and control systems, which were blinking
and buzzing their ineffectuality, Mancini had reached across the non-operating
engine control to snatch the rubber-armored engine-room phone and bellow an
order. ” Give me the power ,” he shouted.
Germelli, still exuding calm, pushed on a metal lever that feeds the fuel
manually to the engine. A tremor touched the ship. In seconds the engine was
throbbing to full power. Pistons that could not be circled by five people
holding hands chugged up and down with maximum force. Fuel valves the girth of
a fat man jiggled and shook. Up top, the surge was more subdued. It was as if
an elevator had bumped lightly into motion as the prop dug in.
At the stern, the water boiled. The bow’s movement toward the pier slowed,
checked and stopped. The bow swung away from the pier and out toward deep
” You see, it is a silly little thing, heh?” said Mancini later. He was
kneeling on the floor where the panel beneath the control lever had been
removed to reveal the electronic guts of the bridge. A fresh glob of solder
now held the green wire in its place. Mancini pointed to it and a dozen other
” It is a silly little thing, yes, one silly little thing that can make this
go ‘BARROOM!,’ heh? Unless you have the situation always in hand!”
” Ahh,” he said, now bubbling with good humor. ” This is why Sun Oil sends
its masters to expensive schools. This is why they pay them so much. Hah! But
they do not pay for my big liver, hey? For the stress?”
Calm returned. A few minutes later a falling star streaked from the skies
across the bow, and after a little more than an hour a huge, half-crescent
moon rose, framing the bow of the ship and pointing the way through water so
calm and beautiful that it seemed to be frozen black lava etched in silver.
The delicate shore scents of sandalwood and olive were joined now by the
richer aroma of strong espresso coffee.
On the control panel, the radar screens swept an amber terrain. The ” Data
Sail” system had been turned on. Course-setting instructions had been fed into
the system’s computer on punched tape, and the computer had taken on the job
of analyzing the movements of the ship and the data gathered by the radar
units as they scanned the night, reporting what they found on the two amber
screens. The control panel, with its dozens of lighted dials and buttons,
blinked, buzzed and glowed comfortingly. The Mediterranean Sun was on her way.
Tankers are the capital ships of our times, the Yankee Clippers, the
lifeline of a Western world whose economic life depends on massive
transfusions of foreign oil. They form great energy convoys bringing the black
blood that gives us economic life from the Mideast and the North African
shores. Always these ships are out there, in the Mediterranean, in the
Atlantic, on the Delaware River. We take much notice of them only when these
special ships have their special, spectacular problems. We were aware of what
can happen to tankers, for instance, in the early hours of Jan. 31, 1975, the
morning the Corinthos went up.
Orange and yellow flames boiled up from the Corinthos, tied up at Marcus
Hook, until they were lost in the clouds. Tiny fireboats darted in and out of
the billowing smoke, whistles shrieking like parent birds trying to save
their young. But there was no one to save. Twenty-six men and women, including
the captain of the Corinthos and most of his family, were killed in that
disaster, caused by a collision that was, in part, the result of a
malfunction by a five-inch valve.
Nor was that an isolated instance. The tanker trade is a dangerous trade,
and 1979 and 1980 were particularly bad years for tanker losses. Twenty-seven
tankers – including five big supertankers – were lost in 1979 alone.
Interestingly, there is more peril of fire on an empty tanker than a full one.
When a tanker is loaded to the brim, there is little danger of explosion. But
when the tanks are empty or just part full, there is a constant danger of the
oil fumes combining with oxygen until the mix is just right. Or just wrong.
Today, many tankers have an ” inert gas” system that is supposed to prevent
such explosions by pumping oxygenless gas into the holds. (It is a process Sun
Oil first employed in the 1930s.) But roughly two-thirds of all tankers at
sea do not have such a system, and even for those ships that do, the system is
far from foolproof. A half-dozen of the tankers that blew up in 1979 were
equipped with the new gas systems.
The recollection of these and other recent losses had caused the waxen skin
around John Oliver’s eyes to crinkle in distaste during an interview that took
place in the company tearoom of Lloyd’s of London a few days before the
Mediterranean Sun sailed from La Sakhirra. Oliver, an elderly, dignified
” lead broker” in the international maritime insurance field, noted that as a
result of that ” spate” of losses, ” we had to screw the rates a bit more.
Inert gas systems are not simple to operate. There are crews who do not know
what they are doing.”
But the Mediterranean Sun crew does know what it’s doing. So skilled is
Francesco Russo, the handsome, 29-year-old first mate of the ship, that Sun
Transport would like to have him train other crews. In port, he studies
gauges, pipelines and pressure needles, employing just the right blend of
experience and calculation to keep the tanks ” inerted” properly.
Yes, the crew of the Mediterranean Sun takes pride in handling or preventing
the conventional tanker problems. Such problems can be seen. They are
comfortable and, almost always, ultimately solvable. One later realizes that
there was something akin to enjoyment in the reaction to Captain Mancini’s
handling of the problem created by the malfunctioning engine control. Ah, if
only things were always so challenging and exciting, this melancholy that
creeps over tanker men might burn away like sea haze under a hot sun.
It is not that their life is bleak. Sun Transport, Inc., the Sun Oil
subsidiary that owns the tanker, does things right. There are staterooms,
gourmet meals, movies and even a swimming pool. But these and other touches
are an incomplete defense against a problem that is a central fact of life for
the men aboard the Mediterranean Sun and hundreds of other tankers.
Tanker crews are isolated in a manner that sailors in modern times only
recently have begun to experience. As always, of course, they are isolated
from the land during the period of the voyage. What is more, the technology
necessary to operate these huge new ships increasingly isolates them from the
sea as well.
But all of this becomes more understandable as we continue with the
Mediteranean Sun, sluicing through the Gulf of Gabes south through the starlit
night toward the point at which it can loop around and head up into the
The ship slipped easily through the oil rigs scattered through the gulf.
Their positions are fixed. Radar spots them easily. Captain Mancini was more
worried about the dozens of tiny blips on the amber radar screens
representing the tiny Tunisian shrimp boats. Often, these boats run without
lights and drift into the channels. The tanker’s bulbous snout could wreck
several of the small wooden vessels without rattling the china tucked in the
galley 800 feet from the prow.
The officers kept a lookout for shrimpers atop the bridge. This control room
and lookout room is stacked on the six-deck- high superstructure that rises
like a pre- fab motel from the rear eighth of the ship. A complex of cabins,
lounges and game rooms is contained in that motel. Winged balconies flare out
from each side of the bridge to provide vantage points overlooking the ship’s
The dominant color scheme was utilitarian green and gray, and there was very
little that seemed nautical in the usual sense. There was very little shined
brass. The ” wheel” in the center of the floor was an unprepossessing
circular piece of metal that a landlubber could mistake for a valve control.
At night the bridge was pitch black, permitting good vision through the
Clear of the shrimpers, the ship left the gulf and turned in a wide arc to
the north, pointing directly at the homeland of the 29 men on board, all of
whom are Italian. As it happens, most of the crewmen are from Sicily. The
officers, for the most part, are from Genoa. Sun Transport thinks that the
strong Italian tradition of skilled seamanship, combined with a relatively low
wage pattern, makes an Italian crew the optimum buy. Other oil companies look
for more complex combinations, hiring, say, Norwegian or British officers,
German engineers, a Hong Kong cook and Haitian, Taiwanese and Tunisian deck
The wages can be cheap in such a mix, but the communication and morale are
often poor. Jeff Lappin, an American expert in tanker unloading who boards
many tankers, put it this way, ” When you see a crew like that, a lot of the
time every one of them is wearing a sheath knife. You know you don’t have a
On the Mediterranean Sun, everyone is Italian. No one wears knives. Messmen
are the lowest-paid men on board, and they make $1,200 a month, a good wage
anywhere and a great one in Italy. Captain Mancini makes more than $30,000 a
year. He and the other ship captains are among the most respected of
professionals in their country.
The history of the Mediterranean Sun, though, is truly a multinational story
of the forces of supply and demand operating on a worldwide scale. It was a
Norwegian company that ordered the ship in the first place, and it did the
job right. The Mediterranean Sun carried a price tag of $31 million, just
seven million dollars less than the cost of one of the big supertankers twice
It was built to weather any storm, but not the freakish economic winds
blowing in 1974, the year it was launched. The Arab oil embargo in that year
led to a reduction in oil consumption, and this reduced the need for tankers.
Thus Sun Oil got the buy of its life. It paid the Norwegian company $12
million for the $31 million ship.
The American company registered the tanker under the Liberian flag, which
flies over some of the worst tankers in the world, and also over some of the
best. U.S.-registered ships must hire American crews, who get up to three and
four times the salaries of an average crew on the world market. The Liberian
flag gave Sun a license to hunt the crews, and the hunt stopped in Italy.
In the morning the radio picked up Italian newscasts that said the weather
in northern Italy was uncommonly cold for May, but there was little
conversation among the ship’s officers about their home. The mountains and
deserts of the North African coast were clearly visible off the port side,
only 30 miles away. Fine sand from the Sahara, blown out over the sea on
silken winds, coated the deck of the Mediterranean Sun.
The crew was out on the deck chipping and painting amid a forest of pipes
and valves. The sea parted on each side of the tanker’s prow in surf-like
light blue waves and played out behind as 100 yards of turbulent white wake.
Smaller ships bucked in the waves, but aboard the tanker it was like being on
an immense, solidly rooted steel island in the middle of a river whose rapid
current was slicing to either side.
Al parts of the vessel hummed slightly from the huge engine, which sounded
like a distant jet. It was a deceptively calming sound. ” Vibration is the
enemy of all things,” Germelli says. In particular, vibration is the enemy of
the thousands of little green wires that can pop loose at the wrong time.
And in these waters, the present would be the wrong time. The Mediterranean
Sea is an energy highway. Informal convoys are formed – tankers and liquid
natural gas carriers called LNGs – heading for the U.S. or ports in France,
England or Holland. The Med Sun plowed westward in the midst of the traffic.
Two tankers cruised three miles off her starboard. A tanker and an LNG carrier
paralleled her to port.
The officers, who work two four-hour shifts each 24 hours, paced the bridge
deck, Zeiss and Nikon binoculars in hand. The Med Sun’s twirling radar
antennas tracked the other ships on screens that resemble sophisticated
versions of electronic games. The officers can electronically circle the
little blips on the screen and push a button, and the computer will plot the
speed and direction of the nearby ship. Another read-out shows the Med Sun’s
speed. Yet another provides the estimated time to Gibraltar. There is a
sensitive ” collision course” button with ” audio alarm” that sounds whenever
the computer senses the slightest chance of ships’ paths crossing – and the
” beep . . . beep . . . beep” of the alarm sounds frequently.
But there are some holes in the electronic armor. While tankers show up on
radar, wooden or fiberglass sailing boats sometimes do not. ” They say we
sleep and the computer runs the ships at night,” said one of the ship’s
officers one morning at 3. He had just spotted a small vessel invisible to the
radar. His manner was that of a wide receiver who had caught an impossible
pass and was spiking the ball triumphantly in the end zone. ” Tanker officers
do not sleep. We watch, hey? For fools. Like this one.”
The next day a whale passed, sounding and rolling in the sea. Graceful sea-
going yachts humped up and down over the small waves. The crewmen smiled at
the whale, and they waved at the sailboats. In many ways they were glad for
the company. But even before the ship drew even with the wild coastal mountain
ranges of Algeria, the crew and officers activated their own informal systems
to deal with the deadly boredom that would settle in quickly once they were
out on the Atlantic.
At the officers mess there was a perpetual comedy show, involving the Med
Sun’s two senior officers, Captain Mancini and Chief Engineer Germelli. One
lunchtime, after the dishes for the pasta, soup and salad had been cleared
and while the waiters were serving veal in a cream sauce (which was followed
by red snapper), Captain Mancini looked over at Germelli and began, in a tone
of deep seriousness, a discusssion of the heraldic crests of their respective
families. He guided the discussion around until he had established the fact
that his crest contained three spherical ornaments, while Germelli’s had none.
This, the captain happily declared, proved a point he had long believed to be
true but for which until now he had lacked proof.
” Aha,” the captain exulted, ” the man admits it himself. His family has no
” Oh no!” Germelli said. ” I think I have been tricked.” (Without knowing
it, he mimicked the ” Mr. Bill” voice.) ” I cannot trust you.”
But it happens again and again. Always, Germelli is the straight man,
Mancini the Pan-like corrupter of the innocent. Always, there is a ribald
patter of jokes, double entendres and sexual innuendoes. ” Mr. Germelli is my
hobby,” Mancini explained with a warm smile one day. ” I think of ways to
cause him trouble. It is all a game.”
Everyone has a way to beat the boredom. Many of the crew members play
hyperactive Ping Pong, with skilled smashes, lunges and parries. They retrieve
loose balls with soccer kicks and head butts.
The videotape cassettes of movies get heavy use on the play-back equipment
in both the crew and the officer lounges. Most are English, dubbed in Italian.
Il Padrino – Parte Prima is popular, though Marlon Brando’s lips are slightly
out of sync in this version of The Godfather – Part One, and everyone has
seen at least three times Rosa Pantera ( Pink Panther ) and Grazioza Bebe
( Pretty Baby ).
The four-course meals often feature champagne and cognac, cappuccino and
espresso. Last Christmas, the crew dined on eggs with caviar stuffing,
prosciutto antipasto, shrimp cocktail, cannelloni, shrimps butterflied with a
cream sauce, fried shrimps American style, filet mignon, salad with very thin
slices of eggs and ham, pannefone (a cake), cream puffs, fruit and
The cabins – officers’ quarters – are little hotel suites with finely
jointed Scandinavian wood dressers, bedsteads and tables. The living room
contains a desk, rug, couch and table. The sleeping room has a comfortable
recessed bed. There is a separate bathroom with shower. Each member of the
crew has his own room with bath.
The furniture in the crewmen’s rooms is identical, but the decor offers a
chance to express individual tastes. Some desks are topped with pictures of
village saints. Others have pin-up posters from Penthouse on the walls. The
more rounded men have pictures of saints and nude posters.
There could be real women on board soon. The Norwegians regularly carry
women officers now, and a few women are enrolled in the Italian maritime
schools. Also, under a new contract affecting the Mediterranean Sun, seamen
and officers with three years of seniority can bring their wives on board.
Second Mate Antonio Stillittano and First Mate Russo agree that they would do
that – if they were married, and if the wife of either would not be the lone
woman on board.
There are some moments when the automated systems that have appropriated
much of the excitement and responsibility of life at sea do a turnabout and
add a bit of extra excitement. The highly sensitive fire alarm is frequently
triggered, and the alarms are almost always false, but too many tankers have
gone up in flames and fireballs for anyone to take the false alarms casually.
At one point during this voyage the alarm sounded in the middle of a
spirited post-lunch card game. ” Stay!” said a player.” No!” said another, his
chair sliding back. ” Play!” said the first player. But his friend had
already slapped down his cards and was running for it. The second player
Domenico Fragala, the tough Arab-Sicilian deckhand, laughed scornfully and a
contemptuous grin spread across his face as his colleagues raced from the game
room for lifejackets, hard hats and lifeboat stations. Fragala reached across
the cards to an abandoned glass of Remy Martin Very Special Old Pale cognac.
He tossed it down, turned his stubbled face skyward and laughed.
Then the alarm sounded again. Fragala did a cartoon-like double-take and
scurried after his colleagues, discarding bravado for an orange life vest.
The men on the tankers do have some fears besides fire. They talk, too, of
the unpredictable phenomenon along the South African coast called freak waves.
The waves, appearing out of calm seas, can be as high as 45 feet. For them to
form, currents and gale-driven winds must align themselves. One wave is
superimposed on another so that two become one towering monster preceded by a
Mancini encountered one years ago when he was commanding a smaller tanker.
” Mein Gott, you see this mountain of water coming, 10 miles off. A wall of
water. A monster,” says Mancini, who learned German and English at the same
time in school and frequently intermixes them. ” You must be very careful that
you hit it straight on. Then . . . ahhhh . . . hold on . . . Mein Gott,
it was terrible . . . like skiing . . . surfing . . . you must be
careful to keep the ship straight coming down the other side. If the wave
turns to white water on the top, then you are in trouble. It breaks
. . . shhhhhaaa aaaccckkk . . . tons of water on top of you . . . you
are finished. It destroys all.”
Few sailors are apt to encounter the huge waves, but conventional storms
also are capable of creating killer waves that threaten even the largest of
ships. Antonio Stillittano told of his days aboard the Atlantic Sun, Sun
Transport’s one and only supertanker, when a squall blew up off the West
Two waves joined together to form one big wave that lifted the bow of the
Atlantic Sun up as an Atlantic City roller might lift up your air mattress.
The supertanker had no problem handling that, but as her bow descended into
the oncoming trough, a third wave slapped over her deck. ” We look,
” Stillitanto recalled. ” We see the wave cover the pipelines and the derrick.
It goes. We look and say, ‘Where is the derrick?’ Gone. It broke over.”
A short while later a helicopter buzzed the Atlantic Sun and told her by
radio that a relatively tiny, 10,000-ton Singapore freighter had broken up in
the storm, and the copter signaled the supertanker to follow and aid in
rescuing survivors. Excitement grew, and in the distance the officers spotted
what appeared to be a covered lifeboat. As they approached, the crew was on
the verge of cheering. But the lifeboat was not covered. It was upside down.
There was no one in it.
” It was not such a good time,” said Stillittano with moist, melancholy
eyes. ” We think we are going to save them. It was not so good and makes us
all very sad.”
The passage through the Strait of Gibraltar went routinely. The famous rock
was only an ominous black presence in the pre-dawn darkness. Amber blips of a
dozen ships filled the radar screen as all the officers clustered on the
bridge to help in crossing this heavily trafficked area. ” Sometimes it is
just like walking on Broadway,” Mancini said. ” ‘Excuse me. Can I get by?
Pardon me? Excuse me?’ We are very lucky tonight; it is a joke tonight.”
The crossing fell on Luigi Massagli’s midnight-to-4 watch. (Massagli is a
second mate, like Antonio Stillittano; the Med Sun had two second mates on
this voyage because Stillittano was replacing Massagli and there was an
overlap of tours of duty.) The 32-year-old Massagli remained deadly serious
even after the dry and slightly bored British voice from Lloyd’s Gibraltar
reporting station, which lists all passing ships, said, ” Thank you very
much, Mediterranean Sun. We wish you a safe passage to Philadelphia. Bye-bye
and good morning.”
But when his command of the bridge had ended, Massagli went to the wing
deck, eyes alight with a mock manic look, and started doing a Charleston to
his own off-key rendition of Chicago . ” Shee-ka-go, Illinois. Yes?” he
said, his eyes wide. ” You are Mafioso, yes? American? Kissinger? Allende?
Chile? Yes? John Wayne? Ahhh! Fascisto! Fascisto!”
He was the only one of the officers who had been on the ship five months.
Five solid months. He would be getting off in Marcus Hook and flying back to
his apartment near Portofino, to his Alfa Romeo, and to his girlfriend. But
now, so very close to the end, the other officers explained, he needed the
broad humor of feigned madness to shore up his defenses.
Like many of the officers, messmen and engineers, Massagli had once served
on a passenger ship. Their faces light up when such duty is mentioned. There
is a little society there. Frequent ports of call. And in the Caribbean a
constant parade of American women who do not quite know what hit them when forthe first time they meet the dark-complexioned Italian officers in their
starched white uniforms with the gold braid.
” Yes, yes, Madam, you have a problem?” Massagli was demonstrating his suave
passenger-ship manner. He looked like a debonair Al Pacino with a slice of
Marcello Mastroianni thrown in. ” I see. Oh? The problem is in your cabin.
Yes. Yes. The bed in your cabin is broken. Perhaps I can help fix it. I will
come to your cabin now.”
But the women and the glory of liner duty are hard to come by. Luigi
Massagli was a tankerman this trip, and he did not like it. ” I want to go ho-
o-o-o- mmmmmme,” he howled plaintively at the moon and the stars above
Gibraltar. ” I want to go ho-o*o-o-mmmmmmme.”
The others did not yell it, but they thought it, especially past Gibraltar,
where there is nothing but water and sky and where Germelli’s hanging spider
plants began to sway lazily, regularly, back and forth in the paneled bar of
the officers lounge. The big rollers of the Atlantic move the ship now. You
hear the sad sounds of the night waves as they slough and heave in sighs. The
lines of the lifeboats flap, click and chime, and during the lonely nights
there IS an unmistakable feeling of doing time.
The young officers went to sea for varying reasons – for the money, for the
romance, to uphold the maritime traditions of their families and of Genoa.
” From the beginning,” Russo said, shrugging, when asked when he knew he
would go to sea. ” It is tradition. My grandfather was captain of a sailing
Massagli, too, was captured by the romance of it all. ” A bambino, yes?
I was a child. I see the big ships come in. Ahhhhhh,” he sighed, looking up with
his mouth and eyes wide open. His imaginary first ship loomed in front of
him. ” I see the uniforms. Ahhhhhh. The officers. Ahhhhhh.
” I think it is wonderful. Bambino! Hey? Fool! Fool! See the world, hey?
Sail on the ships and see the world, hey? America, hey? ” Marcus Hook is America. See America. See Tunisia. La Sakhirra is Tunisia.
See Tunisia. Hah! Twenty hours in Marcus Hook.
” The Coast Guard comes,” Massagli said. He clasped his hands as if in
prayer and bowed slightly in mock politeness. ” We must be on board. The cargo
is discharged hands clasped and a bow . We must be on board.
” There is no time! There is just the pier! Twenty hours! Then back!
Tunisia. La Sakhirra. Twenty hours. The pier. Then back. Marcus Hook. The
pier. I do not see Tunisia. I do not see America. I see . . . this . .
. pier! I do not see America. I see . . . this . . . ship!
” For the modern sailor, this is not 198l,” he said. ” It is nineteen zero
Massagli was an angry young man. First Mate Russo was the quiet one. A
shrug. A slightly sour look. Pursed lips. The trace of a grimace, and a
wrinkling of the brow. That is how Russo communicated displeasure. Massagli
was loved for his antics and acting. Russo was respected by the officers on
board and admired by the crew, who called after him, ” Hey, Roose!” They will
tell you with pride how Roose once ran 22 laps around the deck – 13
He no longer runs. He has a new way of fighting the loneliness, and he cut a
bizarrely noble figure as he walked up the deck of the Med Sun at 7 in the
morning, his double-breasted khaki Italian navy officer’s shirt loose and
flapping in the wind, a single arrow clutched in his right hand, a Ben Pearson
40-pound bow over his shoulder.
He levered loose the clamps of a hatchway at the front of the ship and
descended into a cavernous steel vault known as the boatswain stores. The
waves of the Atlantic crashed into the ship at irregular lazy intervals,
rumbling the hull as if it were so many yards of sheetmetal shaken at arm’s
length. This is the secret place of Roose. The other men know about it, but
they do not trespass.
Dangling in the center of the cavern, strung from two ropes, was a
bull’s-eye tacked on a mattress folded double. Russo walked to the end of the
room opposite the target. ” I will show you what I do,” he said with a
slightly mischievous pursing of the lips. He pulled the bow to full draw,
sighted down the arrow and let loose the bowstring. ” Pffftwiinnnnng.
SPLATTT!” The arrow struck home.
Russo’s steps echoed in the metal chamber as he crossed the 15 meters to
retrieve the arrow, his last after five others shattered against steel
Later, just before reaching Marcus Hook, Russo confided that even he thinks
of leaving the sea. ” From the beginning, I want to do this. It is a
tradition. The sea. But now that I see, I believe I will leave in one or two
He paused, this quiet man, and then spoke in careful, clear English.
” The life is not normal. When you leave, you are in another world. When you
come back, it is as if you drop from the stars. You walk different. You talk
different. You look different. You are very nervous the first few days. You
lose your personality, I am afraid. Not right away, but over the years, I
believe, it slips away from you. I believe sometimes that I will get a job
typing perhaps. It is enough. Or perhaps the ferryboats along the shore. That
is not so bad.”
In the meantime, he sights down his last arrow. ” Pffftwiinnn nnnggg
. SPLATTT!” Another hit. Another 10 seconds closer to the end of five months
” Always they think about what they do not have, not what they have,
” Captain Mancini said one day with an atypical touch of bitterness. ” These
young have a new mentality. What is the matter with them? You cannot drink
the wine and have the bottle full, yes? They make money. Good money. My God!
To make what my chief petty officer make, you must be an architect for 15
years. To make what my bosun make, a good man who love the sea, yes, but not
a brilliant man, you must be a bank director in Italy. Men my age! All the
time at sea. We give our lives! The young say, no sacrifice. But there must be
The captain began his career when men regularly shipped out for two to three
years. But that was before technological improvements made the ships so big
and expensive to operate and the loading and unloading procedures so fast. It
was common then for ships to remain in port for a week while longshoremen
wrestled the cargoes by hand, and in one of those stops in the mid-1960s at a
mainland Chinese port a younger, wide-eyed Antonio Mancini watched as the Red
Guards dynamited a Russian freighter and then trained Tommy guns on his
Italian crew as they attempted to help the drowning Russian sailors. It was
horrible, of course. But an adventure, too.
In the old slow days at sea, Mancini was away from his wife and two children
for more than a year, but he saw the world and collected adventures in ports.
The young officers sat attentively when Mancini told the Red Guard story, and
when he told of Carnivale in Rio, of typhoons in the Malacca Straits, of
fights in Hong Kong.
The younger officers on the Med Sun – Russo, Massagli, Stillittano
– sometimes have enough time during the ship’s turnaround to stay a night at
the Brandywine Hilton at Naaman’s Road off Interstate 95 in northern
Delaware, and maybe go to a suburban-mall Basco’s to buy discount goods.
” When they say five months these days, they mean five months – you stay
on board five months,” Mancini said, his voice hushed. ” It may be harder. In
many ways, it is much harder.”
We forged ahead. There are notes from the mid-Atlantic: A storm blew wave
after wave over the forward part of the deck. . . . The temperature dropped
to sweater weather. . . . Three laps around the ship make a mile.. . . The computer gets a new data tape punched out to put the ship on a new
course. . . . The Godfather is quite good in Italian. The Pink Panther
is not. . . . It takes 3 1/2 minutes to walk from one end of the ship to
the other. . . . One day the ship rocked like a slow pendulum and a porthole
in my cabin showed nothing but water for a long count of four before the ship
rolled back. Then the porthole lined up with slate-gray sky for four more
seconds. . . . Sea . . . sky . . . sea.
The land appears finally as if buildings were bales of hay on the far horizon. We dock smoothly at Marcus Hook – but only a few of the men are able to leave the ship, on a mission to buy provisions.
As they left, Russo, who stayed onboard the ship constantly, had a last minute request.
If you see the right store, he said, could you buy arrows? Could you buy me lots of arrows?
IT’S NOT JUST CHEESECAKES
The officers have talked of them for days at sea. Then, finally, they arrive.
The tanker Mediterranean Sun has reached Delaware Bay, and the small launch
chops over the waves toward her from Lewes, Del., and the eight cherry
cheesecakes are taken aboard the tanker with the pilot.
The desserts are a favorite of the Med Sun’s officers. They are also a good illustration of howships like the Med Sun pump money into the regional economy.
Supposedly, tankers produce about $8 in spin-off benefits for every ton of
oil they pump into refinery reservoirs. The Mediterranean Sun, for example,
carried 97,000 tons of oil. So this trip should produce about $776,000 in
benefits to the local economy.
It seems an incredible amount. The ships simply come upriver and pump off
oil, after all. It is easier to understand that cargo ships, which require
cranes and longshoremen, punch about $25 per ton of cargo into local cash
registers and paychecks.
But tankers, too, require expensive and often complex services on a grand
scale, as well as costly materials. Fuel oil to run a ship costs $300 a ton.
The Med Sun burns around 75 tons a day – at a cost of something like $22,500.
All food except for fish, which is better and cheaper in Tunisia, is purchased
here by agents for the vessel.
Tugs, pilots and sometimes even fresh water can cost a ship money. The
barges that took off some of the Med Sun’s crude oil so she could clear the
40-foot-deep Delaware River channel provide jobs for a half-dozen people. The
offices of the barge company, the Interstate Ocean and Transport Co., the
biggest lighterage concern in the region, are filled with dozens of white-
On shore near the bay, there are launch services to bring on board
inspectors. The U.S. Customs Service contracts with firms to measure the
amount of oil in the ship. A consortium of oil companies keeps a modern
antipollution oil-skimmer vessel, the Delbay, stationed at Lewes. The
Philadelphia Maritime Exchange mans a reporting station overlooking the mouth
of Delaware Bay, to keep tabs on ship traffic. Upriver, the Coast Guard
inspects for pollution and tanker-safety compliance. Tugboat operators wait
to dock the big ships.
Sun Transport (a Sun Co. subsidiary), which operates the Med Sun and other
tankers, has just put up a modern building in Aston, Pa., just north of the
Delaware line. Taxi drivers in Marcus Hook regularly make the $35 run (for
two) to Philadelphia.
When the Med Sun’s crew gets any sizable leave, U.S. immigration officers
must check them out. Then they may stay in the Brandywine Hilton, near
Claymont, Del., or head for the blue-jean joints, or Basco’s.
Last year, 289 fewer tankers came up the river than the year before, a 17
percent decrease, in large part because Americans were using less petroleum.
That was good – but it meant more than just a downturn in demand for
A Very Modern Mutiny
THESE YEARS BEFORE THE MAST: A ‘MUTINY’ OFF CAPE MAY
By ROBERT R. FRUMP
Published 1982 The Philadelphia Inquirer
The Americans aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Alert keep their
binoculars glued to the big tanker Ypapanti as it swings lazily at anchor in
the gentle rollers of the Atlantic 17 miles off Cape May, N.J.
Solemn Pakistani crewmen quietly stalk the decks, and everything
seems peaceful now, according to the Coast Guard.
Yet no one knows the truth of the Ypapanti affair. The tanker rests in international waters flying a foreign flag – a little chunk of Liberia floating out there,” as one Coast Guard officer put it – and a certain air of mystery may forever surround the
mutiny alleged to have occurred on board.
Even the Liberian officials know little about what goes on the tanker,
which is registered in their country, led by a Greek captain, staffed by a
Pakistani crew and bound for the American port of Philadelphia.
“My real fear is that some maniac in the crew may decide to torch it,
and boom, there is oil all along the Atlantic seaboard and the Delaware
coast,” said Guy E. C. Maitland, the frustrated counsel to the Liberian
Bureau of Maritime Affairs. “Of course, with this kind of owner, I’m afraid
that he might try to scuttle it.
“Oh, you can call it mutiny or a labor dispute, or anything you want to,
can’t you? I tend to believe the crew, because obviously the owner has not
dealt in good faith. My concern is that neither the crew nor the officers are
harmed and that there is no pollution as a result of sabotage.”
So goes the story of the Ypapanti, a tale with a plot that plays out
each week in one port or another along the Delaware River and Bay with only
some slight twists to the plot and scope.
In the shadow of Center City skyscrapers, beneath the pipes and plumbing of
refineries in Delaware County and in New Jersey, the docks and the piers of
the river at times resemble a Third World country.
There is little law and less justice for the men and women who come here
in ships, and crew members and officers alike frequently fall victim to the
non-system governing international shipping.
The Ypapanti is unique only in that the role of victim is not clearly
Was it mutiny? The officers were forcibly removed from the bridge and
physically held prisoner by the crew, the ship owners say.
Or was it a case of the officers and owners ripping off the crew?
Most of the Pakistani crew members had been aboard for nine months. Some
had not been paid in all that time, attorneys for the crew say.
Either way, such conflicts hardly cause a stir on the Philadelphia
waterfront. Sources along the river, such as the Rev. Robert Peoples and the
small squad of ship’s visitors who operate from the Merchant Seamen’s Center
of the Seamen’s Church Institute at Third and Arch Streets, provide this
routine sampler of crew life.
Near the heart of Philadelphia’s riverfront renaissance area, at a pier
where Reed Street meets Delaware Avenue, two Pakistani sailors aboard the
Juanita Halkias last month asked for medical attention while in port. One had
a serious hernia; another had venereal disease.
Both men were refused leave from the ship. The captain argued that the
problems could wait until the ship returned weeks later to Greece, where
medical bills would be cheaper. Only after the seamen’s institute and the
Seafarer’s International Union pressured the captain were the men treated
Many crew members, working on an expired contract, want to fly home to
Greece. That matter remains unsettled.
The aging tanker Fadi B came upriver in January 1981, bound for a
refinery in Delaware. An oil-pollution inspector, stepping amid garbage and
rotting vegetables in the hallways, said members of the Egyptian crew had
complained of inadequate food and water.
They said, “Sir, sir, please help us,’ ” said the inspector, who
requested anonymity. “You run into so many of these. What could I do? I was
there to inspect for pollution.”
The Fadi B’s hull later cracked while unloading oil at Delaware City. The
ship was ordered to make repairs. No one knows the fate of the crew.
The Filipino crew members of the Terzia “jumped ship” in Philadelphia
in April 1980 after maintaining they had not been paid properly. Shipping
officials admitted to keeping two payroll books: one to be shown to union
officials in Europe, the other to record the actual, lower wages paid to the
The crew members were flown back to Manila, but there their seamen’s
books were confiscated by government shipping officials who supposedly
safeguard the rights of Filipino seamen. Union officials filed suit in
federal court, challenging the confiscation and alleged improper payments.
Subsequently the seamen’s books were returned, along with a notation that the
crew members were complainers. The case is still pending.
Authorities here had some leverage in those cases because the crews were
in U.S. territorial waters, where seamen have access to this country’s
courts and laws. The Ypapanti case differs. From the start, the Coast Guard
refused to allow the ship entrance to the bay.
The vessel was christened the Permina. Built in 1968, it was three
football fields long and just light of supertanker status at 100,000
Later the vessel would become the Stavik. Later still it was
called the African Queen, and by the time the vessel was renamed the Ypapanti,
the ship flew a “flag of convenience” – here, the Liberian flag. Such a
maneuver gave the owner tax advantages and the ability to select crews from
anywhere in the world.
It is a device employed by the best and the worst of ship owners. Or so say
the Liberians. The Ypapanti was now under the control of a group of Greek
owners headed by a man named Karavias, whom the Liberians say they consider a
shady operator. And the Ypapanti was already considered old by oil-tanker
standards when it first ran into trouble here with the Coast Guard in
The ship was made instantly older last year by new Coast Guard standards
that required the installation of inert gas” systems to help prevent
explosions. Oil vapors need a spark and oxygen to ignite. Inert gas, rigged
from the ship’s funnels to its holds, displaces the oxygen and prevents
But it costs about $1 million to install such equipment – a high cost
for an old tanker at a time when the world market is glutted with oil and with
the ships that carry it.
So in November, the Ypapanti came to Philadelphia without such a system installed. U.S. Coast Guard inspectors discovered the violation. They allowed the ship to discharge its cargo, then banned it from all U.S. ports until the new system had been installed.
But last month, the Ypapanti was back knocking on the door. The captain
requested entrance to the bay and river system to deliver oil to the Atlantic
Richfield terminal at Fort Mifflin in Philadelphia. The Coast Guard said no.
The improvements had not been made.
The tanker dropped the hook.
That is to say, it released its anchor as its owner, the Astrolabe Bay
Shipping Corp. of London and Monrovia, and the charterers, Latino Oil Corp. of
Houston, pondered what to do.
“You have to wonder how the owners and charterers had the galvanized
gall to send this ship up the river,” Maitland of the Liberian Maritime
Bureau asked. “Now what did they think? That the Coast Guard could be bribed
or bargained with? Probably so. We are dealing with Karavias here, one of our
less cosmetically concerned ship owners.
“And it should be noted that no less a bunch of luminaries as the
Atlantic Richfield Oil Co. had a role to play. Oh, yes, they’ve kept a low
profile. But they are one of the guilty parties here.
“How could they not know that the ship had no inert gas system? How you
cannot know something like that, God only knows. But Atlantic Richfield takes
this What, me worry?’ stance over this while the whole shoreline is placed
under potential hazard.
“It leaves a bad taste in my mouth. If you look at any accident
involving Liberian tankers, you’ll find a major (oil company) involved. The
oil companies share responsibility in this.”
An Atlantic Richfield spokesman said the company had contracted to buy
the oil on a “landed basis.” That is, he said, Atlantic Richfield owned the
oil only when it was delivered.
“We were not the charterers of the ship,” the spokesman said, and
therefore had no knowledge of what ship would be used. “We agreed to
purchase the oil once the ship arrived at Fort Mifflin. It has not, and so we
have no involvement with the ship or its cargo.”
There the matter might have ended. A maritime expert in such matters said
it would be common practice for the vessel to simply steam to one of the
Caribbean terminals near the island of Aruba and unload there. The cargo
might then be delivered by a newer, sounder ship to a U.S. port.
Instead, something else happened. Coast Guard officials believe it
happened May 26.
Call it a mutiny. Call it a strike. Of the 40 crew members, 28 of them, most Pakistani, said no to the Greek officers.
No more sailing. No more ports of call. No more promises of pay that they say had not arrived.
They simply stopped work. And the Ypapanti stopped moving.
And there it sits, as it has for almost a month, too close to the shore
to remove the pollution threat, too far away to bring help from U.S.
Maitland and the Liberian government asked the State Department to allow
the Coast Guard to remove the seamen because of the threat of a catastrophe
and pollution. Such a move might have gotten the ship moving again with a new
crew. The State Department declined, saying the government could not intervene
in a labor case.
And the ship sits at sea still, with crew members threatening to throw
just about anyone in the water who attempts to board, and the “owners’
attorneys advocating storming the ship by force,” Maitland said. Other
agencies are powerless to help.
“We can’t help them or send them help through government agencies,
though the Coast Guard asked us to, because the ship is in international
waters,” Peoples said. “That leaves those poor devils at the mercy of the
master of the ship.”
On the contrary, attorneys for the owners say, the situation is just the
Capt. Stiliano Frangopoulos is more sinned against than sinning,
they say. He was removed from the bridge forcibly on Monday, they say, and
has been confined against his will.
“It is a mutiny,” said attorney Bob Mullen of New York City, in defense of
the owners he represents. “We are hopeful this will be resolved quietly. We
hope to have it cleared up by the end of the weekend. We are trying to
negotiate and quiet everything down.”
Indeed, the Liberians have held conferences for the attorneys involved.
And a legal representative of the crew was scheduled to board the ship soon to
inspect conditions aboard it.
But Maitland is not so optimistic. “If it is a labor dispute,” he
said, “then we’re likely to see that ship sitting there, and sitting there
for two to three months.
“If there were an anti-pollution boom surrounding it, I’d rest easier.
The Liberian government has really done about all it can in this. We are
trying to get rid of owners like Karavias. We thought we had.”
The Ypapanti incident is likely to overshadow for the moment the great
improvements made in the inspection and regulation of ships by the Liberian
government in the past five years. Even the harshest critics of flags-of-
convenience shipping concede those improvements.
And in reporting the frequency of crew disputes here, a number of states
of affairs could get out of focus. Many oil companies along the river have an
admirable record of aiding seamen in distress. Local industries support the
seamen’s institute and its staff of ship’s visitors. Most oil companies,
Peoples said, have a good record in allowing such visits. The Sun Co., for
example, even offered to provide space for a substation for the ship’s
Moreover, U.S. harbors afford great advantages to foreign seamen, and the
advantages taken by some of the seamen filing complaints do not paint a
picture of lily white innocence. (An engineer aboard one ship, for
example, accepted the help of People’s staff, then stiffed the center on a
Still, there are oil companies here – Atlantic Richfield is one of them
– that do not allow ship’s visitors at terminals where tankers are unloading.
“Our policy is clear and consistent,” an Atlantic Richfield spokesman said.
“No member of the public is allowed in there for security reasons.”
And all the ship’s visitors here cannot counteract conditions in the
hiring halls of Piraeus, Greece, and Manila, the Philippines.
A scene in Manila at offices of the Far East Tramp Operating Co., the company that hired the crew members who jumped ship from the Terzia in Philadelphia, is
“Elevator for employees only,” the sign for the sixth-floor offices
states in the lobby. “Sailors must use stairs.”
The Far East officials freely admit there were two sets of contracts
– record books – in the Terzia affair. The crew members knew about it, they
say, and agreed to the ruse so that the ships could obtain union clearance
and avoid boycotts in European ports.
“When the men are looking for work, they will sign anything,” said a
captain in the offices of Far East Tramp. They all kiss your feet.”
More than 150,000 Filipinos hope to ship out, according to Capt. Lou A.
Atienza, the president and general manager of Far East Tramp. Only about
50,000 get jobs. The double-contract set-up helps attract ship owners to
Filipino crews. It is the unofficial national policy of the Philippine
government’s National Seamen’s Board, Atienza said.
“If the world will not understand the side of the Third World, and if they
want to force us to pay the so-called (union) wages, it will lower the chance
for employment of our seamen,” he said in an interview.
It is an argument that leaves Brian Laughton of the International
Transportation Federation unmoved and yawning in his London offices, leaning
on a stack of crew complaints that run from run-of-the-mill salary disputes
to the shackling of African crew members in their quarters.
The federation has led the European boycott of vessels that do not keep contract provisions.
“What keeps vessel owners from then going to the Burmese and then to the
Micronesians in a vicious downward spiral?” he asked. “This is all about
going back 100 to 150 years, isn’t it? To a form of capital not subject to
“Businesses think they have absolute freedom on the open seas, don’t
they? That they can do whatever the hell they want – to whomever the hell they
Said Stanley Kops, a Philadelphia-based legal expert on such matters and
counsel for the Terzia crew members:
“Two sets of contracts? Three sets of contracts? Where does this all
end? It is a bad, bad system, and I don’t know the solution. I think it lies
with ship owners who sometime, somewhere must get together and say, ‘We are
making a contract and will stand by it.’ ”
But shippers worldwide have not. And the Ypapanti rocks in the big
Atlantic swells while the Alert watches, helpless to intervene.
“The Liberian government has done about all it can,” Maitland said.
We’ve asked your State Department to intervene. “They call it a labor
dispute, which it may be, but it is the menace to the coast line, to the
entire resort shore, which should concern them.
“What happens if the crew – which is very rebellious, make no mistake
about that, although I tend to believe them in their claims – what happens if
the crew takes a meat cleaver to the captain’s head?
“What happens then? That’s the menace. Right now there is a captain and
there is a crew. But how much authority there is out there is another
question, and I hate to think about what is going through the minds of
crewmen who have been on board the ship for nine months, who are now just
waiting and waiting, cooped up on a ship going nowhere.”
Post note: A part of the mutiny was resolved when officers and crews literally jumped ships after Coast Guard patrol vessels came near. They stood on the rail and dove or jumped into the open ocean – where Coast Guard rescuers – who could not board the ship — were bound to rescue the crew once they were in peril in the water, offboard of the ship. .
The Voyage of the Pendleton
and the Fort Mercer
(Excerpt from manuscript that would develop into “Two Tankers Down,” published in 2008 by Lyons Press)
The ships were nearly identical with the same cargoes heading for the same general destination at the same speed. Across the Gulf of Mexico, they sailed, in warm temperatures in the 70’s, then rounded Florida and made the turn toward New England and colder weather. They were two huge floating containers joined by dozens of others in the coastal trade that moved oil and kerosene that helped power the frigid Northeast during the winter months.
Paetzel, onboard the Fort Mercer, knew T-2s had troubles but had faith in the crack arresters. He could see two of them on deck and knew two more were below on the hull. The big steel belts were recommended in 1947 to attempt to stop cracks from spreading in the T-2’s. The ships were among the first all-welded produced en masse in the war and mariners were suspicious of the welding process. Riveted ships with hulls of small steel-plating each held together with steel pins would suffer cracks but rarely casualties. The one plate might crack, but the crack would only run through the plate, not the entire ship. The crack would be stopped by the rivets, or the next plate over would hold firm.
Not so for the all-welded T-2s with nary a rivet in place. Welds did not stop cracks as rivets and plate-ends did. Welds might even create cracks, some thought. And when started, the cracks did not stop. They shot around the ship at the speed of sound.
And the most dramatic example of what could go wrong was the Schenectady, a brand new tanker that had been to sea trials in 1943 and was moored dockside. Without warning, in calm waters, she simply cracked in two. One crack raced through the girth of the ship in seconds and met itself in the middle. The Schenectady jackknifed down with her bow and stern pointing toward the sky, still moored dockside.
Everyone thought bad welding was the problem. Everyone was pretty much wrong. Welding was visible but at best played a bit role. The real problem existed not in view of the naked eye but at a molecular level.
The problem was the steel. Yet not even that was clear at first. Wartime steel contained too much sulfur. The steel worked fine in riveted ships, but not in all-welded ships. Not at certain times, at least.
Mostly those times were a.) when it got cold and b.) when it got rough.
And now, the Pendleton and the Fort Mercer, far from the 80 degreee weather of Louisiana, were going where it was both rough and cold.
The two tankers first felt the brunt of the gale as they rounded Long Island on February 16th. The storm was bad, but both ships had weathered far worse. Captain Fitzgerald onboard the Pendleton saw no need to alter course nor did Captain Spaetzel onboard the Fort Mercer. Miles apart, casually aware of each other on their radars, they both kept forward speed with the props rotating between 45 and 65 revolutions per minute depending on conditions.
They passed Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard and moved north on February 17th. The two ships came even with Chatham and Bernie Webber’s little outpost around, noting the lightships that guarded Chatham Bar and Pollocks Rip and marked the dangerous currents at the elbow of Cape Cod. There was a new experimental radar machine at the Coast Guard station and it picked up the T-2’s as they passed, headed for their ports of call.
At Race Point, near the tip of the cape, their paths divurged finally, each heading to her port of call.
But once there – the Pendleton outside Boston, the Fort Mercer outside Portland, Maine – visibility was next to nothing and the storm had worsened.
Independent of one another, each captain came to the same careful decision: docking in this sort of weather was not worth the risk. It would be much easier to ride out the storm overnight in deep water and come into port on a sunnier day. Ships bumped into things in ports when visibility was so poor. Or they bumped bottom in shallow water if they missed channel markers.
Off the cape, in the deep waters there, lay safety. The ships would pitch and buck in the waves there but they would come to no harm as there was nothing hard to hit. The Fort Mercer turned south from Maine and took up a position about 25 miles off Cape Cod. The Pendleton took a similar bearing from Boston and turned her bow into the waves keeping just enough forward movement to maintain steering and stability. She was much closer to the cape but under full control. Both ships turned slightly into the waves at an angle and kept up power at around 45 rpm. It was a big blow but each ship had handled much bigger ones.
This was all routine and the crews of both ships settled into the routine. The deck officers and able seamen stood watch four hours on, four hours off, as was the tradition, on the bridge, which was forward on the ship. The engineers and oilers and wipers toiled deep below decks keeping the boiler fires burning, the steam coming, and the smooth electrical drives turning the powerful props. Someone measured the ocean temperature. It varied between 38 and 42 degrees that night. The winds were 50 miles per hour and the waves, some of them crested at 30 to 45 feet.
Still, this was no big deal. Cape Cod coast was famous for its beaches, resorts and tourism now, but in the age of sail it was famous as a wrecking grounds. Thousands of sail vessels had crashed on that leeward shore in storms just like this. A dismasting, a loss of a rudder, a sudden failure of wooden seams and a ship was quickly blown into the surf line and ruin. Running ashore was not salvation; it was ruin. Ships would drag bottom hundreds of yards from safety and the waves would pound the ship and the men into the sand.
But that was then and this was now – in the age of steam and power. The Fort Mercer, and the Pendleton, took the seas. forged on. The strong and sturdy bows would plunge and be buried by the sea, then explode back into the air triumphant, pointing toward Boston, toward Maine. Just waiting for the storm to clear a bit. Most of them expected to be on land in two hours.
Chief Engineer Sievert in the bowels of the Pendleton kept the prop spinning just as Fitzgerald had signaled him with a series of bells that ran from the forward bridge to the engine room astern. Sometimes he would speed up; sometimes slow down. The bells told the engine room what the bridge desired.
She was handling nicely, Sybert thought, but early in the morning, before 5 a.m., a heavy sea washed over the poopdeck. It was nothing really, but notable enough to call to the bridge. If they changed watch and sent seamen back from the forward bridge to the stern quarters, they could be in real trouble. Sybert told Paetzel something like:
“We’ve got seas over the poopdeck — best not to send anyone back aft on the catwalk else they might get drenched.”
Fitzgerald acknowledged the seas. Had already seen them. Told Sybert that he had sent the seamen down to get copy in the forward salon. But thanks for the heads up.
Thus did little decisions above the decks of the Pendleton affect the fate of the crew as below the decks, in the very structure of the ship, inside the steel itself, very small changes in the steel of the Pendleton would have a profound impact upon them all.
The men may have been warm aboard the Pendleton but the Pendleton’s steel was far too cold and far too stressed. The metal in her hull began behaving differently. It was far less ductile. Normally, steel flexes. The whole ship bends and moves with the sea. But the ductility in this steel – “mild steel” it was called by some; “dirty steel” by others – changed with temperature. The colder it got, the more the steel took on the characteristics of crystal than a ductile, flexible metal. It became brittle. Taffy may stretch at room temperature; freeze it and it will shatter when hit with a hammer. In a sense, that is what was happening to the steel in the Pendleton’s hull.
And with 35 foot waves, that steel was most certainly being hammered.
At around 5:50AM, Sybert felt the ship take a heavy lurch. There was an explosive bang, very loud. Then Sybert felt an even heavier lurch and the explosive sound this time was even louder than the first bang.
Others felt it more than heard it. A sound. A force. A pulse of energy. Another said it was tearing sound. They were not sure what it was, only that “it” was not good.
Did it take five minutes, one of the men was asked later.
“Five seconds,” he replied.
Sybert felt the ship roll heavily and take a list to port. Then she straightened. It was normal again.
Everything seemed okay. But he could not reach the captain to find out what Fitzgerald wanted done, to see what had happened. The signals were dead and so were the phones. Had they run aground? Struck something? Sybert needed instructions now. How fast? How slow? Forward? After? What did Captain Fitzgerald want? There were no bells.
Then Sybert dispatched an oiler, Tchuda W. Southerland, to the deck to see if he could make his way forward to contact Fitzgerald. Ask the captain what we should do.
And when the Southerland got topside he ran forward against the ripping gale — and found there was not a forward there. He gaped out at the emptiness where the forward part of the ship had been. Then looked over and saw what he thought was another ship – a ship that oddly had painted on its bow the words, “Pendleton.”
But he was on the Pendleton and there was a split second before he understood that he was looking at the free-floating bow of his ship, and that the Pendleton had split in two at the number 7 and 8 tanks.
Pumpman James E. Young awakened from sleep though the ship had just taken a heavy lurch. He went to the mess where everyone else was. The ship’s split, they said. He did not believe it. and rushed topside. Instantly, he was scared. The gale knocked him about and the wind and ice and snow stung him. And there was the bow. Unmistakably. He rushed back down to confirm the bad news to Sybert. ……
Sybert kept up steam, ordered water tight hatches closed, and closed down the electrical power for a moment as a precaution. Then he summoned everyone to the mess room.
The fracture was such that the officers were stranded on the front part of the ship – the bow section. The engineers and most of the crew were in the stern section.
Circuit breakers kicked out all electricity to the forward part of the vessel, while the machinery in the rear continued as if normal. The stern section resembled a hotel that had had one wall blown away. The cross section of the ship was exposed to the elements – but functioning and to an extent seaworthy, even in a gale.
All of them waited for an explosion. Their kerosene and heating oil had sprung from the tanks when the ship halves separated. Hell, they were tankermen. Death by explosion was fore-ordained.
But mercifully, the fire never came. The wind was too strong. It whipped away the fumes. Or the break — so complete and large — dispelled the fumes quickly so no magical and deadly mixture of oxygen, gas vapors and spark created the traditional tanker bomb.
For these things the men on the stern could be thankful.
The officers on the bow on the other hand were in a different world. Without time for an SOS, without time for anything. The men were stranded on the bridge of the ship with no way to life rafts or lifeboats. The bow pitched and bucked at a 45 degree angle to the sea. It was buffeted, swept and raked by heavy seas. The bridge was like a beach at storm tide. Breakers swept over it. The bow-half bobbed about, tilting evermore toward a vertical plane.
Then the whole bow, twisting and torqueing like a rodeo bull, swung in a wave’s eddy and veered back toward the stern.
Sybert ordered the engine room men to go full reverse. Not that he thought they could. To his amazement, the stern responded as if she were just a smaller, clumbsier ship. She had maneuverability. The bow section swung close to the stern, but missed, passing through the waters that Sybert’s half of the ship had occuppied just moments before.
The thought had to strike Sybert there and then. It was strange, but there it was. He was master of a ship. His half-ship. He had given a command, maneuvered her. She responded. He was a master.
He took command. But there was one problem with that. And he quickly confessed it. He gathered all members of the survivors in the mess and told it to them straight: Boys, our officers are gone and you able bodied seamen are going to have to pick up the slack. I know engines. Don’t know much about navigation, lifeboats, and seamanship in general.
Quickly, he found that one able bodied seaman, Jacob Hicks, and another, Ray Steele, would take leadership positions. He came to think of Hicks as a makeshift chief mate, the ranking deck officer.
Did Sybert want them to check the life boats? Yes, Sybert said, but he thought the best thing to do was remain on board the stern section of the ship if it seemed seaworthy. Others were dispatched to close all water tight doors. Sybert and his engineers checked the salinity of the boilers to see if too much seawater had leaked in.
Hicks and Steele scrambled up on the deck and what they saw and felt there was disheartening. The gale was now a full blown screeching storm with winds of 50 mph and more. They struggled to reach the lifeboats and once there prepared them for launch. But below them – sometimes over them – soared 35 to 45 foot waves. Launching a lifeboat into such mountains of water would be fearsome work. It would be a miracle just to get a boat out there without the sea splintering it. Once launched, how long could a small lifeboat remain afloat?
They seemed stuck staying with the stern.
They looked across the water toward the bow. The bow and all the deck officers on it were carried swiftly away from the stern by the mountainous waves. The bow section was still afloat but increasingly it rose at an angle to the plane of the sea, lifting the bow to the sky, plunging the bridge and deckhouse down toward the bottom. In fifteen to twenty minutes, the bow disappeared from view.
Sybert was certain they would get help soon. The radioman had almost certainly sent an SOS from the bridge.
It took time for it to sink in that this was improbable and that no one on shore was aware any of this was happening. Slowly, they were understanding the fix they were in.
The splitting of the ship was clear enough; the ramifications of the split less so. The T-2’s had a forward bridge house. That is to say, the captain and most officers were located toward the front of the ship in a structure that rose from the deck and gave them a clear view ahead. The engineers and engine room were located aft.
The bow had the radio but no power. Sybert’s new half-ship had the power but no radio. Sybert did the math. The ship had split in part in about five seconds. There could not have been time, no time at all, to understand what was happening and send out a signal.
Now, Sybert took stock. The fact that they were close to shore had been a blessing he thought initially. But now?
He could maneuver the stern section a bit, but he knew they were drifting rapidly toward shore – the Cape Cod shore where so many thousands of wrecks had washed up. If he attempted to steer and control too aggressively, the ship would pitch and lurch. There was little that he could do other than go with the flow and steer to keep the stern section straight. He could not steam her farther out to sea, just keep her straight as she drifted. Everytime he attempted to steer and maneuver, he could, briefly, but the forward exposed part of the stern dipped down and got drenched.
Above him, on deck, Hicks dug out a flare gun from the lifeboat. He pointed it skyward and the flare arched out over the water into the darkness.
Perhaps they would be spotted visually from shore. Perhaps the officers on the bow would respond with a flare back. He took out another flare cartridge and aimed it skyward. The cartridge flizzled and popped but did not fire. From the bow, no reply came at all. Hicks looked at the date stamped on the flares. “July 1942.” He threw the dud flare into the water after it had fizzled. He loaded another. No luck. No signals. He took smoke markers from the lifeboat and lit them, then tossed them overboard. They put out a pathetic smudge of smoke quickly whipped away to nothing in the gale.
No radio. No flares. No smoke. No blinker lights for sending code. No one who could send or understand code, either.
No one knew they were out there. No one knew they were in trouble. No one had any way of finding out.
Well, there was one way. One ancient way.
Aaron Powell, a wiper, rigged up a whistle. Another wiper was too small a man to work the rig himself; it took some heft to pull the line. So Powell drafted George “Tiny Myers,” an AB. He weighed more than 300 pounds, not much of it muscle, it had to be said, but enough weight to heave that whistle lanyard.
They were not sure what the true naviagational signals were, but kept blowing and blowing and blowing. The danger signal was all Powell knew… a series of short blasts. They would blast out four short signals and then pause to listen for any reply.
There was none. They were alone.
Bombs on the Water:
The Story of the SS Badger State
(The following is a longer version of what appeared in the book “Until the Sea Shall Free Them.”)
Then he (Corl, master of the Marine Electric) shrugged and added sheepishly, “This may be my imagination with the way the seas are running. I can’t really tell but I think she’s settling by the head. ”
Was the tire flat or not? Was the bow sluggish or not? The more you listened for it, the more it seemed flat. Then when you listened again, you weren’t so sure. Was the ship sinking slowly in the bow? Corl had been watching and listening too long to be sure.
Cusick went first to get his friend and fellow Marine Electric veteran Richard Powers, the chief engineer. The two men mounted the stairs to the bridge and looked out to the bow. They were the old pros on the Marine Electric and knew how she rode seas.
They were horrified. It was apparent they were in trouble. The bow was not lifting properly. The seas were roaring down the deck. They had to act fast now. If they did not function as a team, all would be lost. They let Corl know they were in trouble. Maybe big trouble.
Corl did three things. He called the Coast Guard. Then he set the engineers to pumping and shifting ballast around. And he ordered all crew and officers awakened and the lifeboats prepared.
Now he faced a difficult decision. Captains could not abandon ship too soon. Most basically, they would be safer riding out the storm in a 605 foot 24,000 ton coal carrier than a 25 foot lifeboat. Even with its deck awash, the Marine Electric was a safer haven than out there.
He had only to look at the case of the SS Marine Merchant, a Liberty ship from the war, loaded with sulphur, when it ran into trouble off New Hampshire in April 1961. The ship split in two, but the main deck held the two halves together – like a broken index finger held together only by the skin. The captain made ready to abandon ship, but weighed that option against staying on board the old vessel. There were Force 10 storm conditions in the still chilly North Atlantic – about what the Marine Electric faced now. He stood pat. Morning came. The weather lightened. All men made it
For Corl, that case and others were a major factor. There was no indication that the ship was actually sinking. Only that they were having trouble. They could all walk away from this dry. Could wait out the weather and step daintily onto a rescue cutter from the Coast Guard. Even get a tow in, ship and cargo undamaged.
And that too was a concern. The master had a responsibility to his men, yes, but weighed always against his responsibility to the owner and shipper. If he left too soon, he could be held liable, lose his license. If he left the ship to the elements before it was clear the ship was sinking, he would violate civil law standards and modern laws of a master’s conduct. Settling at the head was not sinking. He had an obligation to the owners to preserve the ship unless it was clear the ship was sinking.
And if he needed a reminder of that, he needed only look at the case of the Smith Voyager, another old World War II leftover, that developed a severe 20 degree list in the South Atlantic back in 1964, on its way to India with a cargo of grain. Water had breached the hatches. Water was spraying into the engine room. The crew manned the lifeboats and most of them were rescued.
But a formal Marine Board of Investigation found the master in error for letting his men go — even though it appeared they left without his leave. The ship eventually sank, and that may not have happened had the captain kept his cool and his men on board, the board said. The master was brought up on charges and his license and livelihood threatened.
Even more powerful than the threat of formal action were the traditions and customs of the sea. The old saying about the master going down with his ship was not an ancient myth. It happened in contemporary times. The master of the Flying Enterprise stayed with his ship in 1952 and received a ticker tape parade in New York City. The tendency, the tradition, was to fight to save the ship. And these extremes were taken for granted whether or not you got the ticker tape parade.
No one, for example, made a big fuss over what the captain and crew did in the late 1960’s aboard The Badger State –one of the most heroic and least known voyages in contemporary history. And no one would have prosecuted the master and his men for leaving.
In the case of the Smith Voyager, the crew were said to have abandoned a grain ship prematurely. In the case of The Badger State, the crew would not leave a leaking, listing ammunition ship with bombs rolling around in its holds, when told to by their captain. Not just the captain but the crew was prepared to go down.
And many of them did.
She was bound for Da Nang during the Vietnam War, an old liberty ship built in 1944, about five years past the 20-year age limit where most ships are retired or officially called “over-age.” In her holds were more than 5,000 tons of bombs. Steel bands held the bombs to each other and to their metal pallet frames. So large were the 2,000-pound bombs that their noses protruded from the pallets by 29 inches. 100 pallets of the one-ton finned cylinders, unfuzed but still deadly, created a whole layer in the cargo hold. Wood planking helped hold it in place. Wood sheathing guarded the hull and the pallets from contact. Any voids or spaces were jammed with wood to keep the pallets from shifting.
Another load of munitions cargo did not arrive, and the captain, Charles T. Wilson, considered the vessel light, not trimmed optimally. He asked for more cargo. It was not forthcoming. But the loading officials and the master decided the weight of the bombs alone would hold them in place. With a few minor shifts in cargo, he was ready to go. As insurance, he asked for spare wood bracing or dunnage in case the cargoes needed further bracing. It was a prescient request.
On Dec. 14, she sailed from Bangor, Washington, and no one foresaw the heavy weather ahead. As The Badger State hit high winds and waves, the master reported the ship was uncomfortable, with “stiff” riding characteristics and a “snap roll” in the waves
The conditions grew worse. By Dec. 16, the ship was encountering “following” winds and waves – from behind it – and “confused swells” – waves that were not predictable. Captain Wilson had 20 foot swells coming from one direction, ten foot swells from another. This meant he was constantly calling for hard rudder turns, attempting to keep the bow into the seas. But where were the seas coming from?
The ship was now rolling to 40 degrees – a perilous state of affairs, then to 45 degrees. A 45-degree tilt is about the angle you place your head when you are attempting to dislodge water from your ear after a swim. But The Badger State could not afford to dislodge anything – particularly its cargo.
Without power and steering for a time, the old ship took the seas roughly and kept snap rolling to and fro. By the time steering was back, there was the worst sort of news: the 500-pound bombs shifted and came loose. The wood holding them secure had splintered and cracked from the pressure brought by the rolling. One bomb pressed against the hull.
The crew responded valiantly, entering the holds and wrestling the bombs back into place and re-securing them while the ship still rolled. The spare dunnage was handy now. All seemed stabilized. The Badger State slowed and a cement patch was placed over the ten-inch hole in the hull in the shaft area. It seemed the ship had stumbled but had not fallen.
Yet the cargo continued to shift. Constantly, the crew was using wood to brace the bombs. Worse, heavy rolling to 35 degrees continued. Even when the rolling slackened, the bombs had built up enough kinetic energy from their caterwauling below that the calamitous shifting continued. Some of the bombs packed nose to nose had burst their wood restraints and had overshot one another. When this happened, the steel strapping came loose. The bands were breaking. Now some of the individual bombs were loose. The shoring material available – the spare wood or dunnage carried on board – was rapidly disappearing.
But the weather service forecast was for improved conditions, and The Badger State was directed to hold its course.
Then, in Number Three Hold, where there was no access, the men heard heavy banging noises, as if an angry intruder were pounding on the door. The bombs were loose there. The men knew they could not re-shore those missiles. They could not reach them. Now the captain requested diversion to a safe port, and the Military command directed it to Pearl Harbor.
Constantly now, the men were reshoring the bombs they could reach. Whenever the ship rolled past 20 degrees, the bombs came loose, cracking and splintering the wood. But it looked like they would make it to Pearl. A week later, they were holding their own.
Then, on Christmas Day a severe and unpredicted storm struck hard. Hurricane force winds struck The Badger State. The seas seemed to come from all directions. Winds were at 40 to 50 knots. Waves swept over them, 30 to 40 feet high. There was no way to control the rolls or the cargo now. Fixtures that had not moved in decades – galley refrigerators, engine room equipment – were sliding about wildly. At one time, the ship rolled to 50 degrees to starboard – so close to capsizing. The bombs were loose in all holds now.
She was told now to divert to Midway, but the captain could not turn because of the rolls and the cargo. The crew struggled below and, incredibly, resecured many of the bombs. The storm slackened. The Badger State had cheated death and destruction again.
On Dec. 26, a second and worse storm struck. One mountainous wave rolled the ship to 50 degrees to starboard. Like a besotted top, the ship righted briefly and then rolled 52 degrees to port. The port lifeboat was destroyed. And the metal bands on the pallets of the 2,000-pound bombs burst like a ribbon on a Christmas present.
Now the 2,000-pound bombs were rolling and sliding, striking each other and striking the steel hull of the ship, gaining kinetic energy. Five-inch holes were punched in the ship’s side by the heavy battering ram action of the bombs. It was as if a scene from a special effects movie was being screened – the one where a huge monster hammers on steel and the steel bulges and bursts. Other bombs toppled through open hatches to lower cargo holds.
The crew rallied once again. All hands were mustered. No one could go down into the holds. So the men clustered above, frantic, as the vessel rolled in the storm, throwing anything they could find in an attempt to stop the big bombs from rolling.
First they took the hatch covers partly off. Then they threw all their mattresses down into the melee of sliding and rolling bombs.
Then they threw rags, mooring lines, anything they could find. And when that did not work, they took their frozen meats from the kitchen freezer. In desperation, they threw steaks, turkeys, pork rolls, mutton, chickens and frozen vegetables and desserts into the skittering cargo.
Finally, after they had even thrown in spare life jackets, they lowered one end of a hatch cover pontoon on top of some of the bombs.
Some of the bombs were checked. But others below frolicked about as if in a rave. Sparks flew. Heat formed. The hull was battered. Kinetic energy gave the bombs a life of their own.
The Greek merchant ship Khian Star 40 received a distress message miles away. Navy search and rescue heard it as well.
And now the last hours were playing out. An exhausted crew had not slept in days because of the emergency and the severe rolling. Captain Wilson had been on the bridge for four straight days without rest.
The men could see the Khian Star on the horizon. Hope was in sight. These were severe conditions and the heavy waves would make an evacuation difficult but it could be done. Captain Wilson considered launching the lifeboats, placing most of the men in it and letting them strike out for the Star. He would man the Fort Badger with a volunteer skeleton crew left on board.
He proposed the idea. He polled the crew. Few of them had slept in days. Yet the men stood fast. They would not leave the ship. They would not leave their captain. They all volunteered to stay. The captain stopped polling.
Then the men heard a muffled explosion. The cargo hold covers were simply blown into the air. The cargo booms were bent and twisted. Out came the life preservers aflame. Food and other debris scattered high above in the air and fell back on the deck. On the right side of the hull, above the water line, but far below the deck, a jagged hole 12 by 8 feet had appeared. One of the 2,000-pound bombs had detonated. Miraculously none of the others had. In the context of The Badger State, this disaster was a relative piece of good luck – and its only piece.
The abandon ship signal sounded instantly. The engine room was abandoned. Thirty-five crew members boarded the starboard lifeboat and were lowered away while the master and a few others stayed on board. So high were the waves that the lifeboat, upon hitting the water, was carried back up to the deck and banged about.
Despite the heavy seas and winds, the boat was launched successfully. The odds for getting away seemed good.
But the men discovered that the sea painter – a device that dragged in the water and held the ship steady against the wind and waves – had disappeared when the boat was banged about. The men began operating the hand propelling gears in an attempt to get steerage in the bad seas. But nothing happened and they could not hold their own against the swells. The rudder on the lifeboat could not be shipped or installed, so the men had no way to direct the vessel and turn it away from the boat.
It drifted after and was thrown against the ship. It drifted, helplessly, toward the open wound in the ship, the large hole where the bomb had exploded. It drifted directly under the gaping hold.
And, in slow motion, a 2,000 pound bomb rolled out of the hold through the hole and fell onto the men and the lifeboat below.
Above them on the flying bridge, the captain and four crew members were trying to launch life rafts. The life rafts were deployed. but the winds were so fierce, the rafts were swept away. The captain told them to put life rings over their life preservers. The crew prepared to jump into a sea with a temperature of 48 degrees. Life in those temperatures is measured in minutes not hours.
They looked down at the water and saw men scattered about. Burnette threw life rings to them. First, Second Mate Ziehm and Seaman Hottendorf went over, jumping together. Then Third Mate Burnette jumped. Then Captain Wilson. Only Fireman-watertender Kaneo remained. He hesitated. The water was cold and rough. Smoke still poured from the cargo hatch. .The men below him were swimming desperately away from the ship, knowing it would blow any moment. Kaneo was caught between two negatives. He looked at the smoking cargo holds. He looked at the cold water. Kaneo jumped.
To the rescue came the Khian Star. Her crew had seen the explosion and 30 minutes later came upon this scene. All around The Badger State now, there were dead and dying men in the water. Some were still clinging to the wrecked boat. Others were still swimming away from the ship – expecting an explosion any second.
Still others made for the Khian Star – but were quickly carried off by the 20-foot swells and lost.
As if in a horror film, first one albatross then another, began attacking the men, diving at them and pecking them. The large seagoing birds, with wingspans over six feet, caused no serious harm. But it was if the furies of hell themselves were dogging the men of The Badger State.
From above now, a US Airforce plane swept low and dropped rafts. They inflated. Then flipped end over end, useless save one. Third Cook Donald Byrd, near the overturned lifeboat, grabbed the line of a raft. He held fast. Seaman Henderson swam to the raft. He helped Third Mate Sam Bondy on board then jumped in himself. They pulled Seaman Richard C. Murray in. Then Bosun Richard Huges and Seam James McLure and Wiper Forencio Seafino. Electrican Konstantinos Mpountalis hung alongside, but the men in the boat were now so weak they could not bring him in. Byrd, who had held the raft, was no where to be seen. Lost.
One of the men, Murray, was so weak and sleepy he could not hold up his head. Hypothermia was claiming him. Henderson held him and slapped him roughly and revived him.
In heavy seas, near a damaged munitions ship, the Greeks made a pass at the lifeboat and the rafts with Jacob’s ladders, net slings, and lines at the ready. So high were the waves that Henderson’s raft almost washed on board by itself. But it did not. So the Khian Star crew threw lines. They tied lines arounds McLure and Serafino. And they were saved.
Then Henderson grabbed a Jacob’s ladder from the ship. And he was saved. The others were so weak they could not hold well to the ropes. The crew members above were swept by waves, up to their waists at time in the swells. Several of the Badger State men were taken by the sea in this manner, just washed away within inches of rescue, grasping for the Khian Star crewmen’s hands. Others were brought up in any manner possible. Tangled in lines. Feet first. It did not matter.
She picked up six men. But soon, the Khian Star saw only dead men floating head down in the water. The huge albatross swept in to peck at the dead. Even then, the Greeks did not quit. One Greek crew member – Ioannis Kantziakis, tied a line around himself and dived from the deck to rescue an unlucky American. But the man was already dead. The Khian kept at it, seeking out each individual seaman, and finding mostly dead bodies. There were exceptions: The last survivor it picked up was five miles from the wreck.
All told, the Khian rescued 14 men, including the master and two men who had jumped in the water with him. Captain Wilson joined the Khian’s Captain Niros on the bridge. The crewmen were given blankets and hot food.
In the end, 26 died.
And that was how masters and crews could fight to save their ships. That was the high water mark of bravery. And if not every master and crew were expected to go to those lengths, they were expected not to embarrass the standard. And expected that of themselves.
Compared to the Badger State, the Marine Electric was in positively excellent shape. On the Marine Electric, Corl really had no choice but to risk staying on the ship. He could not launch boats into those waves, only to have the ship survive. He would be the laughing stock of the merchant marine and lose his license, which he might be able to stand. But he also might lose men in the process – send them needlessly into mounting seas.
Part Three: Rustbuckets
(For five years at The Inquirer, and for another 14 as an author and freelancer, I tracked the progress — or lack of progress — of America’s rust bucket fleet. The articles I wrote, key ones with Tim Dwyer, were among the best investigative reporting I did. Tim and I and The Inquirer won The George Polk Award for National Reporting for our pieces on The SS Marine Electric. )
AGING MERCHANT SHIPS NAGGED BY QUESTIONS OF SAFETY
By Robert R. Frump
The old steamship tooted its whistle twice – two soprano pips from the theme song to “Popeye the Sailor” cartoons – then blasted the bass of its horn once as it cut across the water past Hookers Point into a dock at Tampa, Fla.
The SS Penny, on paper a proud vessel of the American merchant fleet, was home from the sea – a significant ship on that day in January 1981 for more than one reason:
It was the identical twin of the SS Poet, a vessel out of Philadelphia that had disappeared with all hands on board after a storm two months earlier. And it also served as a floating example of the tricky fiction Coast Guard safety inspections can become.
On paper, the World War II vintage ship was fit to withstand waves and wind.
In reality, it was a sad symbol of the aging condition of a portion of the American merchant fleet, and it was a rusty monument to the government programs that allow old, often unsafe, vessels to operate under the U.S. flag.
These twin problems were underscored earlier this month when the U.S. Military Sealift Command awarded a $25 million government contract to a corporation principally owned by the same man who owned the Penny and the Poet – Henry J. Bonnabel Jr. Bonnabel’s American Coastal Line Joint Venture Inc. will carry military cargoes in four old ships originally built as troop carriers during World War II.
But in a more general sense, the Penny and the other World War II-era ships that Bonnabel has operated stand as a warning to dangers as the U.S. merchant fleet – already an old one – grows older.
Almost half of all U.S. merchant vessels today are 15 years or older and fast approaching the 20-year age when most ships usually retire. Almost one- sixth of the ships operating as cargo carriers making regular stops are past that 20-year mark. And a ragged 10 percent are 25 years old or older.
Shipping officials worry about those figures because the old ships mean the U.S. merchant fleet as a whole cannot be very competitive. World War II-type troop ships converted into small freighters burn up to 375 tons of fuel a day – compared to only about 75 tons a day for some modern, monster-sized tankers and freighters. The old ships cannot compete on a world market.
The four vessels to be run by Bonnabel’s new venture are cheap to buy, tough to maintain, nearly twice the age at which most ships are retired. Their value on the market is about $1 million – the amount they would bring for scrap.
They likely could find little work elsewhere today in the world market. What cargoes they do haul are largely due to their flying the U.S. flag. Federal law favors ships with U.S. flags for contracts to carry U.S. exports to other nations, be it Food for Peace grain or grenades designed for war.
But aside from the competitive issue, an increasingly important matter for ship operators and the government will be for the safety of an aging merchant fleet. The precautions now in effect for ship safety may have not worked for some of the older ships run by Bonnabel.
Officially, his old vessels are fit. As the Poet was fit. And as the Penny was fit.
For on paper, the Penny is slick as a whistle, in fine shape. And like so many of the old ships, this Bonnabel vessel looked good on paper only.
According to crew members, so sickly was the Penny that it bled rust from the pores of its hull and wheezed steam in great heaving sighs. Just previous to docking in Tampa, the ship had broken down more than 15 times on a trip to Africa carrying government grain. It lay dead in the water for days at a time, easy prey to any serious storm rolling across the Caribbean Sea, Atlantic Ocean or Mediterranean Sea.
Yet, checking Coast Guard records today, only one problem was reported to the Coast Guard by the master of the Penny and by Bonnabel. And the Coast Guard inspectors who looked at the Penny before it sailed were obligated to approve the ship after the owner showed that repairs had been made to a long list of deficiencies and that the ship functions worked – however briefly – at dockside.
As a Coast Guard official in Tampa said, the Coast Guard procedures do not assure the old ships will work at sea. “You can say, ‘Run this thing. Bring it up to pressure.’ You watch it for a few minutes. You act accordingly. If you don’t have problems, you approve it.”
“You’re right about some things,” the Coast Guard official said in response to questions about the safety of old ships. “There are a lot of old clunkers running around out there. When do you blow the whistle and say, ‘It’s time to go to the razor factory?’ ”
When indeed? The Coast Guard has not decided. And the part of the maritime system that defends the use of the old vessels simply recites over and over only the first part of a two-verse canon.
The first verse states that age does not make a difference in a ship, that ships up to 50 years old are operating soundly and efficently. The old Matson liner Malolo, built by W. Cramp & Sons of Philadelphia in 1927, was still sailing well in the 1970s. The Cunard liner Parthia served 82 years, going out of service in 1952.
It is the second verse that is forgotten. It states that an older ship can run properly only if a careful eye is turned to maintenance.
There are no exemptions from that requirement. Old ships cost little to buy, much to operate. If a ship owner makes the argument that old vessels can be as sound as a new one, then the concomitant requirement is that he have the maintenance records flapping from his hand as proof that he has accepted the responsibility of the other half of that statement.
This Bonnabel and some of the maritime industry and its regulators appear to have not done well.
In interviews with the Journal of Commerce in New York, Bonnabel defended
himself by saying:
“The bottom line of all the investigations (into the sinking of the Poet) made by the Coast Guard, attorneys for the families of the 35 crew members, the National Cargo Bureau, the American Bureau of Shipping and the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee is that nothing was wrong with the ship or its operator.” (Bonnabel has consistently declined to speak with The Inquirer.)
Many others who have followed the case of the Poet disagree. No trace of the Poet ever has been found, so no cause for its disappearance has ever been determined. And Bonnabel was not charged with any wrongdoing.
However, the National Transportation Safety Board said that his waiting until Nov. 3, 1980, to tell the Coast Guard that the ship had not heard from since it sailed a week earlier might have contributed to its loss of life.
More telling, the Coast Guard review of the matter criticized Bonnabel for leaving much of the Poet’s safety maintenance to the crew and officers; criticized Bonnabel and Coast Guard inspectors for not requiring quick, permanent repairs to its hull after a 1978 fire, and noted that a crucial hatch cover over the Poet’s number-one hold had been patched frequently but that “permanent repair remained deferred at the time the vessel sailed on its last voyage.”
“Coast Guard personnel performing the last drydock and biennial inspection were not highly skilled in vessel-inspection procedures and lacked relevant experience . . .” the Coast Guard review concluded. “The quality of the Coast Guard inspection program needs to be improved.”
Adm. John B. Hayes, the commandant of the Coast Guard, reviewed his agency’s investigation of the Poet’s disappearance after sailing into a storm and concluded that “some loss of hull integrity (a hole in the hull) occurred.”
“The age of the ship, the fact that it deferred repairs to both underwater
hull and topsides, and the severity of the storm are factors to be considered.”
The results of all this would seem to point toward the need for some systematic government review of procedures approving the seaworthiness of old ships. Even industry lobbyists have suggested that no ship more than, say 20 or 25 years in age, should be able to participate in government cargo- preference programs.
Instead, what has happened is that Bonnabel’s company has been awarded a $25 million contract to carry military cargo on ships built for the last world war. And on Friday, a government lawyer defended Bonnabel’s company and safety record, arguing in Washington that the Coast Guard has sufficient inspectors to do the job.
No one entity takes responsibility for the safety of old ships. The military sealift command says the Coast Guard must determine such safety. A spokesman for a participant in Bonnabel’s operation, the respected Swedish shipping company Saleninvest, said the same thing regarding safety and then added:
“The Poet met all Coast Guard standards when it sailed from port. What more do people want?”
The answer might be: ships that are shipshape in the sea, not just on paper.
The Coast Guard, an agency with a decreasing budget and increasing responsibilities brought by owners who apparently do not care and government bureaucrats wearing blinders, today cannot assure that the ships are seaworthy.
STILL ONE MORE RUSTY VOYAGE BEFORE THE SS PENNY CAN REST
By Robert R. Frump
William Francis was asleep in the chief engineer’s compartment of the SS Penny at 1 a.m. when he was awakened by a sharp thumping at his door.
”Chief, we got a big hole in the bottom, and I can’t pump the water out,” the night engineer shouted. Francis responded with an obscenity and rolled over in his bunk. The night engineer is drunk, he recalled thinking.
The thumping persisted.
“Chief, there is water pouring into the engine room, and we’re going to sink before daylight if we don’t stop it!” the night engineer called out again.
This time, Francis got up and begrudgingly pounded down the steel stairs to observe that, indeed, 14 tons of seawater an hour were pouring into the No. 6 double-bottom ballast tank, threatening to flood the ship’s engine room.
So it goes these days on board the SS Penny, floating at a dockside near Tampa, waiting for Coast Guard approval for one last trip across the Atlantic to deliver a government-sponsored cargo of fertilizer and then sail on to a scrapyard.
The Penny is very old and very rusty and, according to many who have worked or now work aboard her, prone to dangerous breakdowns. She is the twin sister ship of the SS Poet, which sank three years ago, killing 34 men, after leaving Philadelphia with another government-sponsored cargo.
Henry J. Bonnabel, operator of the Penny and former owner of the Poet, repeatedly has said that the Penny is safe.
On Oct. 15, a crew member dropped a sounding pole into the No. 6 tank to measure the depth of ballast. The pole struck bottom and punched right through the ship’s hull.
That was the leak that woke Francis.
Then, on Thursday, after the hole in the hull was patched and other repairs completed, the Penny set off on Coast Guard sea trials. Ordered by the Coast Guard to drop anchor, the Penny crew did, only to have the anchor break loose
from its chain and plunge to the bottom of the sea.
If there are no further mishaps after the anchor is repaired and the Coast Guard gives the nod, the rusting 40-year-old vessel could depart for Africa one day this week.
Why is this World War II-era relic still sailing at twice the normal retirement age for the world’s merchant fleet? The answer is that government maritime policies aimed at providing economic support for a strong U.S. merchant fleet have provided financial incentive for the continued use of such ancient vessels.
A company controlled by Bonnabel has contracted with the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) to receive $1.7 million dollars for hauling the Penny’s cargo of phosphate fertilizer to Mombasa, Kenya. AID is required to place half its transportation orders with U.S. shipowners, as part of this country’s merchant-marine policy.
Bonnabel can be expected to receive $1 million when his ship reaches the scrapyard, probably in Pakistan or Taiwan, bringing his gross take from the Penny’s last voyage to about $2.7 million. He probably will pay out about $1.2 million in repair, crew and steaming costs, shipping experts say. If the Penny completes her voyage, Bonnabel’s profit will be no lower than $1 million, industry sources predict.
Last week, chief engineer Francis, 62, pumped and patched the Penny as he has for the five years he has worked for Bonnabel. His skill is near legend among the men who sail the old ships. A wiry, cussing, crotchety man, he would be living on his small ranch in Wyoming were it not for the fact that shipping companies seek him out and pay top dollar for his skill.
On a recent Saturday, however, he talked about the conditions aboard the Penny and his experiences aboard the old ships. Officials of his union, the Marine Engineers Benevolent Association (MEBA), sat aboard ship with him.
The union men, for the first time, were complaining publicly about conditions aboard the old ships that have claimed the lives of 65 American seamen in the last three years.
The interviews with Francis and Coast Guard and union officials, together with a visit to the ship at the invitation of the union, sketch a bleak picture of how ships in the condition of the Penny continue to sail.
The deck of the Penny is not rusted; it is rust. Piles of rust scale are raked up by the crew to knee height. Rust covers the hatches. Rust engulfs the winches and the doors. Pipes are rusted. Portholes are rusted. The ceiling of the ship’s forward chain locker is rusted through from the top. Rust discolors the white paint of the ship’s name and drips down the side of the ship in orange-red tears.
“Well, the circulator blew up yesterday, and the feed pump is giving us some problems, but mechanically the ship is fixed up better than on any other trip,” Francis said in his Wyoming drawl.
He drew in on a nonfiltered Pall Mall cigarette as he paged slowly through four legal-size pages of Coast Guard repair requirements on his desk. In his super-cool, air-conditioned cabin, sweat still streaked down his face from the steamy 100-degree heat of the engine room. Oil smudged his hands, face and the thin hair of his balding head. Salt from dried sweat edged his blue workman’s jump suit.
” ‘Course, that don’t mean she won’t break down a week from now when she’s out at sea,” Francis said. “You’re always going to have problems on these old ships. And ‘course, the work they’re doing now, they should have done last time, and got away without doing.”
Carleton Pirez, a former chief engineer of the Penny who often has sailed for Bonnabel, interrupted, leaning forward, a vein throbbing in his forehead as he talked forcefully and rapidly. He was representing the union.
“Look, I’ll tell you what this man wants, and what we all want,” he said. “For one thing, the wiring on these old ships is old, and it gets wet, and you can’t rely on it.
“That’s one of the chief problems. You never know what time of the day or night, what’s going to happen, what’s going to go, when you’re going to lose the plant (engine).
“You keep sweating that the son-of-a-bitch will keep going till you get into port, and you start sweating the most when you get caught in a storm, and you lose the plant. Then is when you never know, you never know what’s going to happen, and you really worry.
“The Penny was coming out of the Azores in a storm when the engine just
quit, and we were blowing toward the rocks, trying to get the engine started,” Pirez said. “It started up in five minutes that time, but there have been times when it takes days. You never know.
“This man here,” Pirez said, looking at Francis, “wants his fall-back units working. That’s all. You got two of most things in the engine room, two generators, say. He wants them all working when he starts out so when one of them goes wrong out there, which it will, he’s got a fighting chance.
“All he wants is a fair chance out there.”
Pirez finished and looked down at the floor. Francis looked straight ahead at no one, Pall Mall in hand, neither confirming nor denying what Pirez had said. A bemused smile spread over his face.
“Well,” Francis said after a moment. He spoke slowly, pausing as if to search for the last word of his sentence. When he found it, his face looked as if he had tasted a tablespoon of lemon juice.
“Let’s just say that the Penny is a ship that’s likely to make you sleep . . . lightly.”
The Penny was built in 1943 as a troop carrier christened the General Squires, and remodeled as a steel carrier in 1965. Bonnabel bought the vessel and an identical one named the Poet in 1979 after other steamship lines discarded them for the price of scrap.
The Poet sank after sailing for Egypt with a load of government corn. The cause of the loss was never discovered. Bonnabel expressed regret at the deaths of the 34 seamen.
Since then, he has sailed the Penny while major, vital repairs to the ship were pending.
For example, in 1980, the Penny sailed to East Africa. The vessel broke down more than a dozen times on its way to pick up grain in Texas. While crossing the Atlantic, the wheezy, old steam engines broke down again and again and again, leaving the ship floating without power. On the way back, it floated helplessly for two days off the Dry Tortugas in the Caribbean after its main bearing burned out. Francis angrily left the ship; Pirez signed on.
Francis signed on the Penny again in February of this year, when Coast Guard officials in Jacksonville allowed the vessel to postpone a badly needed drydocking and set sail for Egypt. Again it carried government grain.
Sources say the vessel immediately was forced to put into the Bahamas for emergency repairs to a hole in its No. 3 port double-bottom ballast tank. Water leaked from that forward hatch all the way back to the No. 6 tank through faulty pumping apparatus. The water entered the engine room in a 14- foot geyser, sources said. The vessel had taken a sharp tilt to port, before Francis demanded that it be stopped in Bermuda.
Later, the vessel took water into the No. 1 hatch, which was not watertight. The crew shoveled 100 tons of damaged grain over the side, according to a source. The fuel-oil pumps broke in Alexandria, Egypt, and had to be repaired. After leaving Egypt, the Penny was forced into port at Malta for repairs after it suffered another serious leak in its hull. A source on board the Penny said that when Francis entered the double-bottom ballast tank to inspect the hull from the inside of the ship, he saw that only a small plastic bag caught around the hole in the hull was keeping the seawater out.
“The bag looked like a mushroom, growing up out of the bottom,” the source said.
Francis disagreed with that story.
“More like a golf ball,” he said, holding his finger and thumb together in a circle. ” ‘Bout that size.”
Another officer of the Penny wrote a relative at that time:
“Here we are in Malta, with an anchor windlass that won’t work, two holes in the bottom of the ship, and various pumps and motors that don’t work in the engine room. If we hit a storm, if anything at all blows up, we’re finished. . . . I’ve never seen a worse ship, not even a Greek ship.”
Mishaps such as those suffered by the Penny endanger lives. The loss of power at sea deprives the master of maneuverability and makes a vessel prey to serious storms. Holes in a ship bottom pose obvious dangers.
“That is where we disagree,” Bonnabel once said in an interview. “The ships are safe. The Coast Guard has certified them safe. I have a responsibility to meet Coast Guard requirements. What else do you want?”
The Coast Guard has cracked down on the Penny.
After an old coal carrier called the Marine Electric sank in the North Atlantic off the Virginia coast in February claiming the lives of 31 Americans, a special traveling team of senior inspectors began monitoring the safety reviews of very old ships, including the Penny.
The Coast Guard said the Penny would not sail until all outstanding violations were corrected. And when Bonnabel said he wanted to carry grain to Africa and then scrap the ship, platoons of inspectors descended on the Penny to see if it merited a special one-way voyage certificate to Africa and then to a scrapyard in the Far East.
”We fully intend for the Penny to be completely up to standards,” Lt. Cmdr. Wayne Ogle of the Tampa Marine Safety Office of the U.S. Coast Guard said this summer. “We have living seamen on board this ship, and there is a lot of tough water on this trip.”
The Penny was put into drydock and found to be not up to snuff. The ship’s certificate – without which it cannot sail – was removed and placed in Coast Guard files in Tampa – not Jacksonville, whose Coast Guard unit earlier had approved a deferral of repairs to the ship.
That was in the spring. The ship lay dormant at dockside for months until suddenly, two weeks ago, Bonnabel resumed frantic repair work on the Penny, towed it to a wharf, loaded it with bagged fertilizer and requested that the Coast Guard resume its inspections of repair work.
“The fact that he has the ship loaded and has got a contract doesn’t change anything,” Ogle said. “The requirements hold. He won’t get anywhere with us arguing economics. He knows what he has to do.”
The four legal-size pages of Coast Guard requirements held firm. Bonnabel would have to make significant repairs to the deck, hatchcovers, hull and engine room. All told, a company official aboard the ship estimated to union officials that Bonnabel had spent $200,000 to fix up the old ship – a major expenditure.
Making such an expenditure to ready a ship for a one-way voyage to the scrap yard makes sense when the potential income is considered.
Lt. Cmdr. Ogle, dressed in a white jump suit and hard hat with blue U.S. Coast Guard insignia, seemed slightly disheartened as he prowled the rusted deck of the Penny last Sunday, clipboard at the ready.
“You heard about the hole in the hull?” he asked. Ogle then shook his head. “That has us more than a little bit upset.”
No one in the Coast Guard is empowered to say a ship is just too old to sail. The Coast Guard must come up with items to be repaired. If the owner repairs all the items, the Coast Guard cannot keep it from sailing – even if systems on the old ships fail with great regularity once they go to sea.
And there is no movement toward a policy that sets age limits on the ships. Adm. James S. Gracey, the Coast Guard commandant, recently testified that age should not be the only criterion for judging the condition of a ship and that the Coast Guard system of inspections was working well.
“Increased age of a ship does not bring the inevitable conclusion of unseaworthiness,” Gracey said.
The U.S. House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee also recently eliminated from its staff-written bill a provision that would deny cargo to very old U.S. ships, making the same argument. Good maintenance and good inspections can assure the safety of the old ships, said U.S. Rep. Mario Biaggi (D., N.Y.), chairman of the merchant marine subcommittee.
That argument that does not impress the Penny crewmen. The best of the Coast Guard inspectors examined the ship. Bonnabel agreed to spend the money to fix it up.
Most systems were essentially approved and ready to sail when the sounding rod knocked a hole in the ship’s hull last Saturday. .
“You lower it down, it hits the bottom plate,” Francis said. “Do that for 40 years, and of course it wears away at the striking plate.”
“We went over every inch of that hull,” Ogle said, shaking his head. ”Then the sounding rod punches through the bottom.”
The Coast Guard inspectors become frustrated by it all.
“You saw the condition of that ship, pretty indicative of the company’s attitude toward things” Ogle said. “It is unfortunate that we have to deal with that kind of attitude toward running a ship.”
Recently, Coast Guard Capt. T.L. Valenti tried to apply some pressure on Bonnabel and his officers by asking them to sign a statement affirming that the Penny was seaworthy. Valenti wrote in a letter dated Oct. 14:
“I firmly believe the owner of the vessel, master and chief engineer share the ultimate responsibility for the safety of the vessel and crew.”
The issue raised in Valenti’s letter puts more pressure on the Penny’s officers than on Bonnabel.
They are caught between a rock and a hard place, union officials say. If they object to safety problems, Bonnabel can easily replace them.
And if they sail a ship they know is unseaworthy – and say so – the Coast Guard can pull their license to sail.
The double bind produces strange scenes. Francis was suddenly silent in his cabin, while union officials fidgeted in their chairs. The plain-speaking chief engineer was asked a straightforward question. Was the Penny safe?
Francis did not reply. Barney Snow, the officers union representative from New Orleans, spoke instead.
“Now you have to be careful how you phrase these questions, or you could get our boys in some real trouble,” he said. “If he’s going to sail this ship, he can’t tell you this ship is unsafe. I can tell you that, and that the union is tired of sailing on these old rustbuckets. But if that man there tells you that, well, the Coast Guard would be all over him in a minute.”
So Francis skirts that issue. And Snow explains that a lesser engineer would not even dare speak to a reporter, for fear of being fired.
Bonnabel needs only to dismiss his officers from the MEBA and hire new ones from a competitive union – the Masters, Mates and Pilots (MMP). The same holds true for the crew. If the Seafarer’s International Union (SIU) complains about conditions aboard a ship, the owner then can hire members of the competitive National Maritime Union (MNU). Or vice versa.
Indeed, Bonnabel-owned or operated ships have a crazy-quilt mixture of unions on board.
The Penny’s corporation, American Coastal and Foreign Shipping Co., uses MEBA officers and SIU crews. Another, Hawaiian Eugenia Corp., a company that owned the Poet and is controlled by Bonnabel, lists MMP for the captain and mates, MEBA for the engine-room officers.
Still another, Atlantic Marine Agencies Inc., partly owned by Bonnabel, runs the old ship the California, with MMP officers and NMU crews.
And even if the problem of competitive unions were eliminated, the scarcity of work discourages complaints.
“Those young third-assistant engineers you saw in the engine room don’t have any choice but to be here,” Snow said. “They’ve been waiting for 14 months to get a ship.
“They don’t like this one? Well, the only thing they can do is get back in line and wait another 14 months.”
So it is that the Coast Guard and the officers become both allies and adversaries. Ship officers cannot easily state that a ship is unseaworthy. Yet they often root quietly for the Coast Guard inspectors, union officials say.
Few officers speak up. Few crew members file safety complaints. Francis is the exception. “He don’t care,” Snow said. “He’s always going to get jobs.” But even crusty Bill Francis will not comment directly on the seaworthiness of the Penny. Neither will he reply to Capt. Valenti’s request by affirmatively verifying the ship’s safety.
“Well, the Coast Guard asked me to sign a letter on seaworthiness,” Francis said. “I ain’t a-gonna do it. . . . That’s their job.”
The refusal will not stop the Penny, however. Valenti’s request does not have the force of law. Bonnabel easily could hire an engineer to sign the letter. The week after the Marine Electric sank, seamen in a Philadelphia hiring hall said they would be glad to sign on the old coal carrier if she pulled up to the dock that day.
The danger aboard the vessels in the American merchant marine, where 38 percent of the ships are more than 20 years old and 22 percent have passed age 30, leads to a black-humored jocularity among ships’ officers.
“I don’t think I want to work anymore on that hole in No. 6 tonight – how much water have we got under us right now, capt’n? ” Francis said. The whine of his drawl set small smiles on the faces of the other officers, who were sipping whiskey and swapping stories in the cozy cabin.
“I think I’ll sleep well tonight,” Francis said. His cabin is well above the engine room, but two decks below the other officers. “I don’t think the water will get up near this far when she sinks,”
“Oh, no, the water will come up this far,” another officer replied. “It won’t go up another deck where I’ll be sleeping.”
The smiles spread. The stories continue. Francis chuckles.
Bonnabel has complained that news reports, not the Penny’s condition, had scared the Coast Guard into thinking she was unsafe. “We will compare records with any line,” he said. “That is the state of the industry. You should have spread out the blame much earlier.”
The problems experienced by the old ships operated by Bonnabel are not typical of major lines, in the opinion of Snow, the MEBA official.
But Roger Szoboda, an engineering consultant based in New Orleans hired by the union to review the Penny, said the Penny was no worse than many other ships he had seen run by major lines.
“As the business goes, the Penny isn’t in bad shape,” he said. “It’s just like an old car. You can fix it up. Get it running pretty good. You can do your best on it.
“You look it over. Everything’s fine. That doesn’t mean a wheel won’t fall off when you take it out of the driveway.
“There is a ‘one-trip-more’ mentality among the unions, the owners and the inspectors,” Szoboda added. ” ‘Let’s fix her up so she can make one more trip. Well, it isn’t fixed right, but let’s let her go because she’s only going to make one more trip.’ ”
Usually, there is one more trip. And a trip after that. And a trip after that, he said.
But last week, some of the Penny officers decided against making one more trip.
At 8:30 a.m. Thursday, two hours before sea trials, the master of the Penny resigned, after an argument with the company concerning supplies. He was replaced.
The third-mate of the ship, telling union officials he wanted “a long and pleasant life,” also resigned. He was replaced. His replacement, after coming on board the ship, resigned a few minutes later.
“He was replaced by a mate so dead broke he couldn’t pay his union dues,” an MEBA official said.
Today, while families of the 34 men killed on the Poet gather for a memorial service at Old Swede’s Church in Philadelphia, the Penny’s crew, led by its new master, is still working to repair and prepare the ship for one last voyage.
REVIVING RUSTING SHIPS
TO HAUL CARGO
By Robert R. Frump
BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Rust covered the hull. Rust covered the deck. Clouds of rusty powder swirled from each footstep. Rust ate at the hinges of the California, and it dropped like stalactites from vents and hatches.
“What are you guys writing a story on,” Gregory Cox, a supervisor for Atlantic Repair Inc., asked a reporter and photographer as Cox inspected the ship for an estimate. “Rust?”
He placed the toe of his shoe under a piece of the deck and twisted it up and out. A small chunk flaked loose, like a piece of slate or mica fractured
from a stream bed, then skittered across the deck as he kicked it.
“How old is this tub? ” asked his partner, Robert Steakin, as he surveyed the deck and shook his head.”Thirty years old? Thirty-five?”
“It looks it,” he said, when told it was built in 1946.
The gangplank of the ship had been lowered on Friday at Pier 12. No signs posted the property as off-limits as a reporter and photographer visited the ship and observed Cox and Steakin make their inspection.
The California is one of four old ships proposed for carrying military cargoes under a $25 million U.S. Military Sealift Command contract granted to a new ship company, American Coastal Lines Joint Venture Inc.
The chief owner of American Coastal Lines, Henry J. Bonnabel, has stated his company will begin carrying cargo on two ships, the Mayaguez and the Aguadilla, then add two more ships, the Pacific Enterprise and the California, to offer weekly service on the North Atlantic.
The proposal is controversial because of the age of the ships and the poor safety record of the other ships Bonnabel sails under government programs. He was the chief owner of the SS Poet, which disappeared two years ago with all hands on board. Several other ships, the Penny, the Pilgrim and the Flora, have suffered major breakdowns at sea. All of them were built as World War II
All of them were built as World War II troop ships, and later converted into cargo carriers.
Bonnabel and the Military Sealift Command have stated that his vessels were seaworthy and safe despite their ages.
Indeed, the California did not look bad from a distance berthed at Pier 12. The California was situated along the Brooklyn waterfront so that the Statute of Liberty rose into sight on one side. Manhattan’s skyline – including 17 Battery Place, where Bonnabel’s main offices are located – were clearly visible astern. Ironically, the bright colors of U.S. Coast Guard ships were a stone’s throw away on Governor’s Island – regional headquarters from where the search for the Poet was conducted.
The man – not connected with the California – said he no longer worked the old ships. But he telephoned The Inquirer to talk about Bonnabel’s vessels and the government systems shortly after Bonnabel received the government contract. The criticism of Bonnabel had been too harsh, he said. Bonnabel was not a bad man. Yet there were points to be made about these old ships.
He knew. He had, at one time or another in his career, signed on to work every U.S. flag ship owned by Bonnabel. And in his time, he has worked every ship that Bonnabel’s new company plans to sail under government contract.
He has opinions about the system that reserves a percentage of government cargo for U.S. flag ships, and keeps the old ships at sea and about the seaworthiness and safety of the old ships.
He has come to some conclusions, too, about Bonnabel’s operations and about his own participation in the system that sends the old ships to sea: Some of the old ships should not go to sea. Mechanical failures are all too frequent. They are too undependable to operate in the North Atlantic – particularly the stormy winter North Atlantic. Bonnabel is a good man who does not know the dangers of the old ships. The man will not sail them anymore, nor will he work for a company that does.
Those are his conclusions. And he has decided to talk about them, although he requested anonymity to protect his future employment. He said he felt the maritime industry should hear from a person with first-hand experience and expertise who is able to present an analytically objective view of the vessels. Outside criticism may put the industry in a bad position, he said, and it is his hope that an insider’s comments might move maritime officials and businessmen to establish different standards for the old ships.
‘Bonnie (Henry J. Bonnabel) is a good man,” the engineer said. “What he is trying to do now with this new contract, I am not sure.
“I think he knows that because of the age of the ships and the cost to prepare them for the winter North Atlantic run (between the East Coast and Europe), which is a tough run, a real run . . . because of all that, I think he must know that it’s improbable that these old ships can maintain a North Altantic service. . . . He has to know that he can’t really do it.
“The Mayaguez and the Aguadilla aren’t bad ships. They’ve been good ships. But it is hard to take a ship built in 1945 and maintain a regular service. The ships just get old, that’s all. If you’re running them in the grain trade, if you’re running them as charters, as tramps, that’s one thing. But to run them as a liner, on regular routes sailing at set times?
“It will be real hard to do. They will break down. They will need repairs. The turn-around time . . . you cannot run these ships on a regular line. Every engineer who has sailed on one of these old C-4’s (a transport ship designation) knows that.”
“The thing about a lot of his ships are they are American bottoms (ships built here and flying the U.S. flag). That is where their total value lies. . . . They can haul government cargoes. Otherwise they’d be scrapped. There aren’t that many U.S. bottoms around. Therefore, they’re worth some money.
”I never heard of any trouble with them (the Mayuguez and the Aguadilla), any major problems with them. Of course, they haven’t run in the North Atlantic and from a weather standpoint, the North Atlantic is everything they say it is.
“The winter North Atlantic is one tough trade route, and when I say that they are good ships, I mean they’ve been good ships running to Puerto Rico and back on a route where there are few storms for a company (Puerto Rico Maritime Shipping Authority) that put a lot of money into the M and R (maintenance and repair) budget. The more M and R, the less complicated your problems at sea.
“Now with the ships traveling in the winter North Atlantic? . . . That’s a different story. For ships their age, they’ve got good plants (engines). But they are old. And the plant is the whole story.
“These ships float. There aren’t problems with the hull. It boils down to the machinery. When you lose power at sea under certain conditions, you can leave the vessel and the crew in a dangerous situation.”
The top parts of the California – the parts visible from a sideview – appeared to have been painted within the last several years.
But the deck of the California – visible only from on board the ship – showed not a fleck of new paint. In a business where one indication of maintenace care is paint and the cleanliness of the ship, there were only a few portions of the deck painted and those were dull, cracking areas rapidly giving way to oxidation. In some spots, the deck was inches lower, places worn away like dips in a field.
Government attorneys have defended the use of American Coastal, arguing that the Coast Guard has certified as safe vessels such as the California.
“The seaworthiness is not an important matter, because the Coast Guard has inspectors who regularly inspect ships that carry government goods,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney John Bayly during a court hearing on Friday.
“If any ship were found unseaworthy, it would not be allowed to go out to sea,” he said.
The Coast Guard inspectors, said the engineer, are almost always honest professionals. So are the inspectors of the American Bureau of Shipping who survey the vessels for safety purposes at dockside. The problems do not occur with the inspection personnel at dockside, but at sea, where inevitable problems pop up, where the personnel on board the ship must deal with them.
”In these old ships, the plant is everything,” he said, “and that means the engineer is everything. . . . This is why they ought to stop running them, because there aren’t that many great engineers around willing to do the job on the old ships.
“If you have a master engineer, everything is OK. They are dedicated professional engineers with a gift. They feel an engine. They’ll turn a spare part out on a lathe to make things work right. They’ll work 18 hours a day. And because they are who they are the ships run safely. They are great mechanics who love what they are doing.
“But there are fewer and fewer of them each year. And if you assign a good mechanic to one of these ships – someone who is only good rather than a great mechanic with the gift – then your chance of breakdown becomes more frequent.
”If you are on one of these old ships without a great engineer, you can expect problems. I’ve sailed on some Bonnabel ships, . . . and there were no problems.”
The engineer spoke of a specific Bonnabel ship on which he sailed. “It was a pleasure on board. . . . With the complement of engineers on that ship, she was like a brand new ship.
”You put someone else on board this same ship, it turns into a horror ship. You get anywhere near a storm, you get apprehensive.”
“Bonnabel, if you ask me – and I know how cornie it sounds – is a patriot. The patriot part is the only thing I can figure out. He’s made his money in brokering, not operating ships. . . . I don’t think he makes much money on these old ships. . . . And the only thing I can figure out is that he wants there to be some ships with an American flag flying over them. The state of the merchant marine today, all we have is a few container ships and these old ships. If it weren’t for Bonnie, we wouldn’t have the old ships, and that part of the American merchant marine would be dead.”
The two supervisors from Atlantic Repair had been hired to estimate how much it would cost to fit the ship for 40-foot containers – the type called for in the Military Sealift Command bid. They visit ships regularly in their business. They said that they were astounded by the condition of the ship and that they thought the conversion to 40-foot containers would be an involved one.
“They have quite a way to go on this ship if they want to make it a container ship,” said Cox. “The size is right, but everything is all wrong for containers. It needs to be stuffed up and made over if they want to carry containers here.
“Forties won’t fit down the holds with the hatchcovers they’ve got,” said Steakin.
Most of its life, the California has been used as a bulk transport of such materials as grain and fertilizers, according to industry sources. At one time, it carried small containers on deck, while carrying sugar in its holds.
According to Lloyd’s Register of Shipping, the owner of the California is listed as Atlantic Marine Agencies of the same Battery Place address as Bonnebel’s main office. No phone listing for such a company exists, however, and a New York shipping directory carries no mention of the company.
During the hearings on the SS Poet, a shipyard official testified that Bonnabel was at one time considering the purchase of the California.
The ownership of the vessel remains unclear, however, even to two U.S. marshals who were searching Friday for someone to serve with writs demanding payment, they said, in the amount of $20,000 for previous ship repair work that was performed but not paid for.
The engineer continues with his conclusions:
“Someone has to establish this: There comes a time when a ship is too old to put to sea. These guys, from Bonnabel to the government officials at the Military Sealift Command and the grain program, . . . do not know the effort it takes to keep some of these old (ships) running – not floating. Running.
”You ask me, would I sail in some of these old ships again?”
There is a pause as he looks away. He seems to be calculating an engineer’s problem.
“On the North Atlantic? In the winter?”
There is another pause.
Then, with his head shaking side to side slowly and resolutely, he answers: “No.”
The California was dark inside. Without power and without light, passage to the engine room was impossible, and the newsmen did not see the California’s power plant.
Coast Guard records show that the California has a long list of ”casualties” – incidents serious enough to require a Coast Guard investigation.
A sampler of the notations on the California’s Coast Guard casualty file card looks like this:
3/17/77: Heavy weather damage.
8/10/77: Material failure
11/7/77: Weather damage.
7/l/78: Grounding, loss of anchor.
One case of material failure crippled the California’s power plant and left the ship crippled in the water off Hawaii. A tug had to help it back to port for repairs.
At another point, the California encountered a storm and . . . “the vessel shipped a large sea which impacted directly downward upon number one hatch, damaging three pontoon hatch covers and four tarpaulins and flooded number one cargo hold to a depth of 10 feet,” Coast Guard records state.
The California has not faced such perils recently. Port officials said the old vessel of the new ship line has been tied up at Pier 12 Brooklyn since July.
It appears to be listing slightly to the left, slumping just a bit toward the pier.
The sister ship Mayaguez, renamed the Amco Trader, sails at midnight tomorrow from Baltimore, the first vessel in Bonnabel’s old fleet to venture out into the North Atlantic.
SLOWLY, AGING SHIPS SAIL
TO THE SCRAP YARD
By Robert R. Frump
The Penny, the Point Susan and the California wallowed in the North Atlantic this winter, old American merchant ships in various states of disrepair.
The Penny had a wobbly propeller. The Point Susan and the California were so worn out that they could not steam under their own power and had to be towed.
Yet it was not the poor condition in which these ships sailed that marked them and their voyages as significant.
Vessels with serious flaws are common in the American merchant marine, where 38 percent of the fleet is 20 years of age or older – past the age when most of the world’s merchant ships are scrapped.
Sixty-five men have died in sinkings and other accidents aboard World War II-era American merchant vessels in the last 3 1/2 years.
The significance of these voyages was that the ships were on their last trips, bound for scrapyards in Asia.
Slowly, the aged ships of America’s commercial fleet are being retired, forced to the foreign scrapping yards by increasingly vigilant Coast Guard inspections in recent months.
Eleven vessels have been cut up in the year since the Marine Electric, an aging American merchant ship, sank off the coast of Virginia on Feb. 12, 1983, carrying 31 seamen to their deaths.
The loss of the Marine Electric and life-threatening breakdowns on other old U.S.-flag vessels have put increasing pressure on the Coast Guard to require more strict enforcement of safety regulations for the old ships, making it more expensive for their owners to keep them running.
“We are making vigorous efforts to scrap old ships. A total of 30 ships (not all of them old) were scrapped in 1983. Forty now are laid up, and half of them are candidates for scrapping,” a spokesman for the U.S. Maritime Administration said last week.
The trend is seen as good news by many within the maritime establishment.
“We need to get rid of these old-timers; they’ve served their time,” said Barney Snow of the Marine Engineers’ Benevolent Association, which represents maritime officers.
Yet even at the end, the owners of these ships continued to profit from government programs that had helped keep the aging vessels afloat for so long.
The owners are taking advantage of cargo preference programs that require government-sponsored cargoes to be carried on U.S.-flag vessels, programs that
allow the owners to profit from the ships’ final voyages to the scrapyards – and, ironically, programs designed to foster a strong merchant marine.
Despite their poor condition, the Penny, the Point Susan and the California all carried government-sponsored cargoes to ports near the scrapyards. Together, their operators were paid $4.86 million by the government to carry cargoes that would have cost the government about $1.6 million to ship at competitive world rates.
Once the ships discharge their cargoes, they are free to sail to the scrapyards, where their owners can receive as much as $1 million per ship for the scrap steel they contain.
“These kind of ships contribute absolutely nothing to the merchant marine,” Snow said. “They are just a bunch of derelicts, in my opinion.”
Scrapping such ships is viewed by union officials like Snow as the first step toward reviving the U.S. maritime industry. Yet the Coast Guard cannot simply order a ship scrapped.
In cases such as that of the Penny, however, the Coast Guard can require so many repairs that the owner decides the costs are not worth it – and opts for a scrap run instead.
Penny owner Henry J. Bonnabel, who also owns the Poet, which disappeared in 1980 with 34 men on board, said during an interview last year that he intended to keep sailing the Penny, despite a long history of mechanical and hull failures in the old ship.
“We think it’s safe,” he said then.
The last profitable voyage of the 41-year-old Penny began in October, after it nearly sank at dockside in Tampa, Fla., when a sounding rod dropped into a ballast tank punched through the bottom. Union officials related the rest of the story:
On sea trials with the Coast Guard, the captain of the Penny ordered, ”Anchors aweigh.” And the anchor parted from its chain and sank to the bottom of the bay.
Later, a fire in the engine room caused one of the ship’s engineers to sound the general alarm. But nothing happened. No alarm sounded. The batteries on the alarm, designed to warn the crew and officers of danger, were dead.
A representative of Bonnabel told chief engineer William Francis to replace the alarm system’s batteries with used batteries from the ship’s crane starter motors, instead of buying new ones at a cost of $200. Francis refused, and the representative relented when the engineer threatened to resign.
The port representative then ordered the Penny officers to hoist a new anchor on board at a time when Francis believed the ship’s old generators could not stand the strain. The anchor was hoisted; the generators failed.
Francis resigned, and the Penny’s master also quit.
The series of mishaps and various other fundamental problems with the ship caused the Coast Guard to require major repairs if the Penny was to be returned to normal service.
Instead, Bonnabel asked for special permission to send the ship on one last profitable voyage. Eventually, after additional stopgap repair work, the Coast Guard granted that permission.
The ship left Tampa Bay on Oct. 25 with a new master and chief engineer and a government-sponsored cargo of fertilizer. The government was paying Bonnabel’s company $1.7 million – an amount about triple the going world rate charged by modern foreign-flag ships – to deliver the cargo to Mombasa, Kenya.
Almost immediately, said engineer Carleton Pirez, he heard “an irregular sound.” The propeller of the Penny began emitting a doo-rrromp, doo-rrromp sound. Pirez said he knew the prop was either bent or snarled in a rope. He
sent down a diver. The prop was bent.
The ship crept forward at only 8 knots – half the speed of a modern ship. The officers hoped for good weather.
The 38-year-old California, owned by a Bonnabel company, Atlantic Marine Agencies Inc., pulled into Hampton Roads, Va., to load grain in October, about the same time the Penny was leaving Tampa.
A U.S. Coast Guard official in New Orleans had said the ship was safe after crew members complained of safety violations during the summer. But in Norfolk, Coast Guard Cmdr. Gary Johnson withdrew the vessel’s safety certificate after his inspectors found a foot-long hole in the hull 12 feet below the waterline.
“It was caused by an accumulation of years and years and years of rust,” Johnson said. “It was a case of general wastage of the hull.”
In fact, he said, the California was rusting from the inside out. And even though the vessel was partly loaded, already carrying 13,000 tons of its scheduled 18,000-ton load of grain, Johnson ordered the vessel drydocked.
At that point, Bonnabel applied for certification of the ship as an unmanned barge.
The Coast Guard, after further inspections, eventually issued a certificate for a one-way voyage to a port of unloading and from there to a scrapyard. The company had difficulty obtaining tugs and insurance, but eventually did.
The California passed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel at 2:15 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, bound for Egypt, under the tow of the Curtis Bay tugboats Thunder and Cape Henry. At last report, it was still en route for Alexandria.
The owners were being paid $1.2 million to carry 18,000 tons of grain.
The 39-year-old Point Susan also arrived in Tampa last fall, to load fertilizer and then be towed as an unmanned barge to Karachi, Pakistan.
The Point Susan was not owned by Bonnabel. The converted World War II tanker received some notoriety, however, when its owner, Point Venture Co. of New York, was contracted in 1981 to deliver a replacement cargo of government-sponsored corn for the one lost when the Poet disappeared in the Atlantic.
The Point Susan had to be towed up the Delaware River in May 1981 to be loaded at Tidewater Grain Co. in Philadelphia. Crew members complained of problems in the hull at that time. The Coast Guard ordered temporary patches.
The ship sailed for Egypt. But when it reached Alexandria, a fire broke out in its engine room and so damaged the vessel that it could not steam under its own power.
That did not keep it from continuing to carry government cargoes, however.
In 1983, the Agency for International Development chartered it as an unmanned barge in Tampa and paid its owners $1.97 million to ship 25,000 tons of cargo to Karachi.
The tugs and “barge” left Tampa on Dec. 5 for Karachi, given a one-way certificate by the Coast Guard good only for a trip to the scrapyard.
The Penny’s bad luck continued on its last voyage.
When the ship put in at Durban, South Africa, for supplies in early
December, the pilot made an error, Pirez said, and grounded the Penny on a reef. Ballast and fuel tanks were ruptured. The propeller was damaged further. A representative of the American Bureau of Shipping immediately inspected the ship and required extensive repairs.
The throbbing propeller was fixed for the short trip up the coast to Mombasa; the Penny dodged a major tropical storm off Mozambique and on Dec. 14 reached Mombasa, where it began discharging its cargo.
By mid-January, Pirez was the last officer left on board the ship. Then he left, and the Penny, with 40 years of service, was alone at anchor.
Maritime Administration records show that the Penny has been sold to West German interests for scrapping in Pakistan, Bangladesh, India or Taiwan.
No scrapping application has been received by the Maritime Administration for the Point Susan or the Penny, but Coast Guard and industry sources say they almost certainly will be scrapped because they have been granted only one-way certification.
The Point Susan’s owners could not be reached for comment. Bonnabel, during a brief interview last week, said he was not certain of the status of the Penny or the California.
Lloyd’s Intelligence Service reported last week that the California was near Gibraltar, still under tow and headed for Egypt – and presumably from there to the scrapyard.
Ultimately, the stories of the Penny, the California and the Point Susan contain a happy ending for the American merchant seamen who risked their lives aboard the aging vessels.
The ships, after all, will be retired from use at a cost paid in taxpayers’
dollars – not seamen’s lives.
And as the Mercury Reporter, an English-language African newspaper, said:
The Penny – “one of the oldest, if not the oldest, dry-cargo vessels in the world” – was bound for “Karachi shipwreckers, which can be the only destiny for an old lady near the end of her days.”
THE SISTER SHIP:
FLOATING DEAD IN THE WATER
By Robert R. Frump
The Poet no longer sails.
But the system under which it sailed and sank continues, unexamined by
government officials, unchecked by government programs, a fact underscored by
the incredible voyage last winter of the SS Penny, the aging sister ship of
the Poet, owned by a corporation controlled by Henry J. Bonnabel, chief owner
of the Poet.
The Penny set sail last October from the Gulf of Mexico bound for Mogadishu,
Somalia, on the east coast of Africa, with a cargo of government-sponsored
corn. Before it returned to Tampa, Fla., on Jan. 19, the crew lived through a
frightening series of breakdowns that left the ship helpless on the high seas.
All but one of the Penny crew members interviewed by The Inquirer requested
anonymity. They said they feared that publication of their names might prevent
them from obtaining future work. They agreed on the facts of the account
below. And they agreed that the Penny was a bad ship, an unsafe ship, a ship
that they never would sail on again.
” In 21 years at sea, the Penny was the worst ship I have ever sailed on,
” said one crew member. Another described it as a ” deathtrap.”
The ship’s power system failed 15 times as the Penny crossed the Gulf of
Mexico between Tampa and Galveston, Texas. The Penny lay helpless in the
water, vulnerable to any storm. The crew of the Penny labored to fix the
engines by kerosene light, even though fuel oil had leaked throughout the
engine room. All electrical power was dead. Only when eight members of the
engine room crew refused to work further on the dead engine was the ship
towed to Galveston so that it could pick up its cargo of corn.
The Penny was repaired in Galveston, and upon returning to the Tampa area,
it was inspected by the U.S. Coast Guard once again. Yet, shortly after the
ship sailed from Tampa on Oct. 30, the Penny again began breaking down,
wallowing in the Atlantic without power and steering, and sometimes without
power for the radios.
There were numerous breakdowns during the voyage; a remarkable record for a
ship that had just passed a Coast Guard inspection. One crewman thumbed
through his log, picking dates at random.
” Nov. 3. Bermuda. Lost feed pump. Generators.
Nov. 23. Lost feed pump. Lost place in line at Suez.
Jan. 13. Twenty ’til eight this morning, lost plant.
Jan. 14, Lost plant.
Jan. 15. Another breakdown.
Jan. 17. Another breakdown.
” You have two of everything in the engine room. Two of everything down
there, right?” he said. ” Well, everything is gone. You make that ship run
by holding your breath.”
According to the crew, the Penny’s fuel pump chronically malfunctioned. The
fan blowers that provide the forced draft for the ship’s boilers also failed
regularly. Each of those malfunctions could by itself leave the ship dead in
the water. When one didn’t stop the ship, another did.
Records show that the Penny was cited by the Coast Guard for most of those
malfunctions before sailing from Florida and that the problems were corrected
to meet Coast Guard standards.
But at sea, the problems resumed. And when none of those chronic problems
afflicted the Penny, new ones did. The main engine bearing, for example,
malfunctioned as the ship approached its home port on the return trip.
At the beginning of its trip, the Penny put in at Bermuda, where its captain
was replaced. The original captain, William Beck, reached at his home in New
Jersey, discussed the incident only briefly. ” I was relieved . . . ,” he
said, pausing. ” I think there might have been a difference of opinion as to
how to run the ship. I was too old-fashioned, you might say. I came up on
American Export Lines, and I was accustomed to things being done in a proper
Beck stopped the story there, stating that he would ” have to think it over”
before talking about the Penny.
As the Penny sailed from Bermuda with a new captain, the crew learned of the
disappearance of its sister ship, the Poet, which had sailed from Philadelphia
on Oct. 24. The crew of the Penny held a meeting to pray for the crew of the
” When we were saying words about the Poet, we were thinking about the
Penny,” said one crew member.
Another man recalled, ” The meeting was more like a memorial service,
because we figured we knew those men were gone. We prayed that the ship was
just lost, but we knew that nobody was going to find the Poet.”
Then, off the Azores, the Penny encountered its other sister ship. The Flora
was slightly larger and three years younger than the Penny. But it was in
worse shape than the Penny, the crew members said.
The Flora’s plant had gone down, permanently this time. Its powerless old
hull floated helplessly in the Atlantic.
The Penny circled the Flora for a night, standing by, trying to help.
The next day an ocean-going tug arrived and the Flora was towed to the
Azores, where the Penny dropped off a spare blower fan for the Flora’s use.
A few days later, the Penny developed a new problem. It was forced to put in
at Gibraltar – for a blower fan.
The star-crossed adventures of the Penny were beginning to have an effect on
the crew even before the worst had occurred. For example, Marc Staley of
Wyndmoor, Pa., a crewman on the Penny, sent this letter to a friend, Bob
Bradley, on Dec. 18.
” Hey Bob. . . . Do me a favor. This ship is hurting. They won’t give us a
draw advance pay . I’m beginning to wonder if it’s going to make it back.
If it doesn’t, help my mom in finding out what happened. We lost the plant
so many times already. Thanks Bob. Take care of yourself. Love, Marc.”
That letter was sent before Staley, 23, discovered that his best friend,
Gene Bradley, also of Wyndmoor, had shipped out on the Poet and was presumed
On Nov. 23 the Penny lost its plant and its place in line at the entrance to
the Suez Canal. Later, in Mogadishu, the crew went on strike, refusing to open
the cargo hatches until they were given the customary advance on their pay.
Then, on the day after Christmas, Bryan Tatum, an able-bodied seaman who often
slept on deck when the old ship’s air conditioning failed, fell into the hold
to his death through a hatch opening as he searched for a place to store his
In the Mediterranean, the Penny weathered a serious storm as the crew
members kept a close eye on lifejackets and lifeboats. The trip back across
the Atlantic went smoothly – until, off the Dry Tortugas near Key West, Fla.,
the Penny lost its plant again when the main bearing gave out.
Crew logs obtained by The Inquirer show that the Penny limped back at 5
knots to the berth of International Ship Repair at the foot of 17th Street
near Adamo Street in Tampa. There, Bonnabel’s ships are patched to keep them
in the grain trade.
Ships suffering problems at sea affecting the seaworthiness of the vessel
are required to file casualty reports with the Coast Guard describing those
After the dangerous voyage, after a half-dozen problems affecting almost
every major system on board the ship, the owners of the Penny filed two
casualty reports with the Coast Guard in Tampa, according to officials there.
One reported Tatum’s death.
The other mentioned in only four words the last of the breakdowns off the
And despite the series of serious breakdowns in November, December and
January, the Penny passed Coast Guard inspection again early this year and set
sail on Feb. 16 with a cargo of Food for Peace grain tucked in its hold bound
for Mogadishu, Somalia, on the east coast of Africa.
It reached Mogadishu on April 9 and was last reported in Port Said, Egypt,
on May 23, destination unknown.
Part Four: The Scams
(Never were there shortages of scams on the waterfront. Slip and fall cases were common and the International Longshoremen’s Union in Philadelphia and New York had its own problem with corruption and organized crime infiltration. Anyone who saw “On the Waterfront” knows that story. But the one I found involved the ship owners and government officials and showed just how bent well-intended programs could become.)
HOW SHIPPING COSTS
EAT UP MILLIONS IN FAMINE AID
By Robert R. Frump
American ship operators have extracted more than $40 million in questionable income from the U.S. Food for Peace program over the last two years – an amount that rivals the total amount raised by the recent Live Aid concerts to relieve world hunger.
Even as starvation has plagued the African continent, some ship operators have managed to multiply their profits from Food for Peace by taking advantage of regulatory loopholes and extraordinary price increases.
They have also profited from a maze of parallel government subsidy programs that give shippers double and even triple subsidies for the same voyages – and cost government food-export programs tens of millions of dollars.
The Reagan administration is now arguing that such multiple subsidies are improper. Eliminating overlapping subsidies, the administration has said, would by itself save $20 million in government money each year – $40 million over the last two years of the African drought.
“We cannot continue to protect a sick industry in a sick way,” U.S. Rep. Jim Leach (R., Iowa) said this summer in a position paper. “As the drought and starvation rage in East Africa . . . government is responding inordinately to well-heeled special interests rather than profound humanitarian concerns.”
Were the $40 million to be diverted to relief efforts – used for food and not shipping services – it would feed at least one million men, women and children for a year. But despite the increasing criticism, the system continues unchecked.
Here is how some of America’s free-wheeling maritime operators, aided by a wasteful government system, have accumulated millions of dollars intended for victims of hunger.
METHOD I. THE RUSTBUCKET ROUTE.
Some American ship operators are costing Food for Peace about $500,000 per ship by charging for return voyages that are never made.
They simply load rusting World War II-era cargo vessels with Food for Peace grain, and then scrap the ship – for an additional $1 million profit – after unloading the grain at a foreign port. Although such ships go to their graveyard at Asian scrap yards, the operators still collect money from Food for Peace for the return voyage to the United States. If the money for the return trip – about $500,000 on the average – were refunded, it could buy and transport to Africa food for 14,000 persons for one year.
Such rustbucket scrappings resulted in questionable government freight payments that totaled $1.5 million between 1981 and 1983, according to government audits. More recent government losses from such scrappings have not been measured because the process is only loosely monitored, but a total of 43 American ships were scrapped in 1984 alone, and the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) warned in a June report to Congress that the practice continues.
METHOD II. EXTRAORDINARY PRICE INCREASES.
Although world shipping rates have fallen this year, American ship operators have increased their income by a total of $6 million by raising their charges for shipping emergency famine-relief cargoes.
They were able to do this because federal law guarantees that American ships will carry half of all Food for Peace cargoes. The provision – known as the maritime cargo- preference program -helps insulate American shippers from far-cheaper foreign competition.
The additional $6 million going to shippers, mostly on cargoes bound for Sudan and Ethiopia, would pay for the nutritional needs of 170,000 people for one year. Despite GAO audit recommendations, no guidelines exist to limit freight rates charged by American cargo liners.
METHOD III. THE DOUBLE DIP.
Some ship operators collect from cargo-preference programs twice for the same voyage, carrying government grain one way at high rates and government oil the other way at high rates, with neither government agency knowing about the other trip.
GAO auditors believe the practice may result in “excessive profits” because the high Food for Peace rates are based on the assumption that the ship will return without a profitable cargo. In this manner, one company earned $2.5 million – or enough to feed 70,000 people for a year – by setting up five such trips in 1984 and 1985.
METHOD IV. OVERLAPPING BAILOUTS.
A number of American ship owners cash in on three different government subsidy programs on the same ships.
The cost of cargo vessels built in American shipyards has been reduced by as much as 50 percent through government subsidies. The government then pays annual subsidies to the owners of these ships to help them compete with foreign vessels by offsetting their higher operating costs.
Then, when these already twice-subsidized ships carry Food for Peace grain, the cargo-preference program enables them to charge far above the going world rate.
The Reagan administration has estimated that such multiple subsidies account for $20 million in excess profits each year.
METHOD V. THE MIDDLEMEN.
Many shipping agents arranging famine-relief cargoes seek out the highest shipping rates possible for Food for Peace trips because their commissions are based on the amount of the freight charge.
A GAO audit found $370,000 in excess freight charges from just one such 1982 shipment. Money is also siphoned off through inflated dock charges in foreign countries and tie-ins between cargo brokers and the Washington embassies of foreign countries arranging the grain shipments. A conservative estimate of the money lost through such practices is $2 million in 1984 and 1985.
Many American ship operators and their government supporters strongly defend the existing programs and deny that excessive profits are being made.
Even with subsidies, American operators face some higher costs, according to Thomas Caponiti, chief of subsidy analysis at the U.S. Maritime Administration. For example, he noted, fuel costs are not subsidized and American steam turbines can cost twice as much to operate as cheap foreign diesels. Under the cargo-preference program, American operators are not allowed to use the cheaper foreign vessels for three more years.
James Amos of Lykes Bros., an American ship operator, noted in a recent telephone interview that U.S. ships often face “opportunistic tramp” ships on foreign runs that undercut world rates, and therefore inflate the apparent difference between American rates and foreign rates.
Defenders of the existing system also assert that the maritime programs are needed to buttress the national defense by keeping afloat an American merchant fleet in the face of intense economic competition from foreign ship operators.
However, most U.S. maritime industry observers say that the expensive system of government subsidies has done little to halt a steady decline in U.S. shipping. At the same time, some studies have concluded the national defense is only marginally served, because most ships used in the subsidy programs would be of little utility in time of war.
Even for some strong supporters of the industry, the waste from subsidy programs has grown to distressing levels.
Following the bankruptcy of a heavily subsidized ship company, U.S. Rep. Mario Biaggi (D., N.Y.), chairman of the House merchant marine subcommittee, told Garret E. Brown, the acting deputy maritime administrator, on June 25:
“There are people out there robbing us of money. There’s a superior brain out there working that is taking advantage of the law. This is your money. If it were my money, I’d be after them with a pistol.”
Despite such strong words, there has been little congressional action to reform the existing system.
The Reagan administration has proposed legislation that would eliminate the so-called “double subsidy” system under which ships collect a direct operating subsidy while also charging high rates for famine-relief shipments.
The Reagan proposal has not advanced beyond congressional committees, but even if it became law, it would not, in its present form, produce any savings for the Food for Peace program.
Under the plan, ship operators could continue to charge Food for Peace far in excess of the going world shipping rate. They simply would have to refund parts of their operating subsidy to the Transportation Department.
More-effective changes have not been embraced by Congress, whose members received lavish contributions from maritime union and industry sources. The maritime unions, small in terms of members, are among the largest political donors in the country – accounting for $2.4 million in legislative and presidential campaign contributions in 1983 and 1984, according to the Federal Election Commission.
In the absence of reform, here is how the system has worked:
THE RAID OF THE RUSTBUCKETS
The last voyage of the old ship Coastal California as described by the GAO illustrates how ship companies can turn ancient, rusting cargo vessels to gold with government help.
The vessel, built in 1949, was carrying a cargo of grain to Egypt in April 1982 for Food for Peace. Part of the high rate charged to Food for Peace was based on the supposition that the ship – emptied of its cargo – would have to make a profitless return voyage to the United States.
But the Coastal California never returned to the United States. With its overhead covered, it dumped its grain in Egypt and then picked up a commercial load of oil in the Middle East. The worn-out vessel discharged that oil in Singapore, and then sailed on to a Taiwan ship scrap yard, where the vessel was cut into scrap and the owners – the Sequoia Tanker Corp. – received an additional scrapping fee of about a million dollars.
The U.S. Maritime Administration said that although the ship never returned to America, it encountered an equivalent cost during its voyage to the scrap yard and therefore was entitled to all the money it received from Food for Peace. GAO auditors disagreed.
“We do not believe the U.S. government should have to pay the additional costs to transport the vessel to the scrap yard, ” said a recent GAO report on the government’s cargo-preference programs. “If the owner accepted a lower transportation rate based on a one-way voyage, the United States would have saved about $450,000.”
Sequoia Tanker Corp. executives could not be reached for comment on the last voyage of the Coastal California.
An audit report by the U.S. Agriculture Department in 1981 suggested that immediate action be taken to end such practices.
“The dollar magnitude, approximately $500,000 (per ship), and the number of older vessels in the U.S. fleet justifies immediate corrective action,” wrote Hubert N. Sparks, director of the Agriculture Department’s foreign audit division.
Even when the government has attempted to crack down on ship operators who make money on junkyard runs, shippers have found loopholes and steered their vessels neatly through them.
For example, the Perryville, an old World War II tanker operated by the Philadelphia-based Keystone Shipping Co., carried 24,000 tons of soybean oil to Pakistan in 1981, near a major scrapping yard at Karachi.
So fearful of a Coastal California-type scrapping run were the Food for Peace officials at the Agriculture Department that they included a ”scrapper” clause in the Perryville’s contract. The ship would be paid $71.87 per ton if it dropped its grain and returned to the United States, and only $61.58 a ton if “voyage terminates at Karachi for scrapping.”
But the Agriculture Department erred in listing the junkyard so specifically. The Perryville simply discharged its cargo in Pakistan – and then steamed past the Karachi yard directly to a scrapping yard in Bangladesh – a yard that did not trigger the lower price because it was not mentioned in the contract.
The owners collected a payment of about $1 million from the scrap yard. Then it collected the higher freight rate. As a result, the Agriculture Department and the Trading Corporation of Pakistan had $242,000 less to spend on food for the hungry – enough to feed 6,855 people for a year.
Keystone executives did not respond to recent telephone inquiries about the last voyage of the Perryville.
THE DOUBLE DIP
There are other methods of working the Food for Peace program for extraordinary profits.
A comparison of records of Food for Peace voyages with Lloyd’s Intelligence Service records of ships’ voyages shows a curious pattern for three modern vessels, the Golden Endeavor, the Ultramar, and the Ultrasea – built with federal subsidies totaling $44.2 million.
Each ship carried Food for Peace cargoes of grain from America to ports in Egypt or the Sudan at rates double the going world rate. And each made an interim stop on the way back to pick up a cargo of oil – and extra profits – before returning home for another load of grain.
The extra profits came from another loophole in American maritime policy. Under the cargo-preference program, the high fee paid by Food for Peace is based on the vessel returning to the United States empty, according to the GAO. The Golden Endeavor’s rate – $65 a ton – covered the cost of carrying a cargo of wheat to the Sudan in February 1985 and then returning home empty.
“At that rate, I would estimate they are making a $5-a-ton profit, or about $300,000, based on one leg of the trip (being empty)” said a ship- chartering agent of a major ship operator who asked not to be identified.
But the Golden Endeavor did not settle for that one profit of about $300,000, and it did not make a return trip without cargo. After dumping its grain in Port Sudan on Feb. 28, the Golden Endeavor steamed to Mina al Fahal in Oman, Lloyd’s records show.
There, on March 21, it picked up a cargo bound for America’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which also is subject to American cargo-preference laws. The rate paid on that cargo by the Defense Fuel Supply Center was $27.90 a ton – meaning a profit of about $8 a ton, said the ship chartering agent, or more than $500,000.
“The U.S. Maritime Administration should consider allowing rates for Food for Peace programs based on only one leg . . . of the voyage when tankers pick up ‘backhaul cargoes,’ ” the GAO stated in its June audit report, suggesting pointedly that failure to regulate such shipments results in potential “excessive profits.”
“That is absolutely not true,” said Capt. Jack Ostromongilsky, director of maritime operations for Avon Shipping, the operators of the Golden Endeavor in a recent telephone interview. “We are barely producing (revenues) above the lay-up level (the cost of idling the ship for a long period of time),” he said.
Moreover, he said, the Golden Endeavor’s bid came in below the rate ceiling set by the U.S. Maritime Administration for such voyages, and therefore is a function of the market. The backhauls, he added, “very rarely happen.”
An inspection of Lloyd’s Intelligence records show that the Golden Endeavor and two sister ships also operated by Avon Shipping, the Ultramar and the Ultrasea, made several trips to the petroleum reserve in 1984 and 1985 after dropping off grain cargoes.
The Golden Endeavor made two such voyages, the Ultrasea two, and the Ultramar one. Even with costly waits for oil shipments after the grain drop- off, such two-cargo trips could be expected to produce what the GAO described as possibly “excessive profits” totaling $2.5 million.
The GAO and Agriculture Department auditors disagree with Ostromongilsky’s statement that his “market rate” bid means there is no questionable profit.
On the same issue, a 1984 Agriculture Department audit memo said: “Proposed regulations do not address the issue of fair and reasonable rates for U.S.-flag . . . vessels carrying backhaul or cross trade cargoes. Since the (freight differential) is computed based on the vessel returning empty, we believe that provisions are needed to adjust this rate when cargo is hauled on return trips.”
While some ships in the American merchant marine are subsidized cradle-to- grave by the federal government, that does not stop them from collecting extra income from the cargo-preference program at the expense of the U.S. government.
The American ship Robert E. Lee, for example, was built in 1974 with the assistance of $12.47 million in government subsidy money paid directly to the shipyard.
Once in operation a ship of its size and type can collect up to $4.2 million in annual operating subsidies designed to offset the higher operating costs of American ships.
The already heavily subsidized Robert E. Lee carried flour to Sudan in 1984 under the Food for Peace program for $133 a ton – more than twice the normal world freight rate at that time. The result of those higher costs: $119,000 less that could be spent on food, enough money to support the minimum nutritional needs of more than 3,000 people for one year.
Hundreds of times a year, the process is repeated by American ships that receive construction subsidies, operating subsidies and then additional indirect subsidies in the form of high rates.
The indirect Food for Peace subsidy for the Robert E. Lee alone cost more than $1.2 million last year – enough to feed 33,000 people for a year.
Waterman Steamship Corp., owner of the Robert E. Lee, did not return recent telephone inquiries about the ship. But others strongly defend the system.
Said a spokesman for the Council of American Ship Flag Ship Operators, which represents subsidized American ship liners: “Almost without exception, liners generally have freight rates identical to the foreign-flag competition, so there is little differential. We do not consider cargo preference to be a double subsidy at all.”
A check of government records shows that Lykes Bros. and other subsidized lines are consistently paid cost differentials on government-sponsored cargoes in addition to their operating subsidies.
For emergency famine-relief cargoes, the differential between American rates charged to Food for Peace over world rates rose from $11 per ton in 1984 to $40 a ton in 1985. Individual differentials can be as little as a few
dollars and a few percentage points above foreign rates – as in many of the Lykes Bros. cases – to nearly double the foreign rates for other carriers.
Overall, the Reagan administration has estimated, the government could save $20 million a year by reducing operating subsidies for American ships that also receive cost-differential payments. The Food for Peace cargoes carry the
bulk of the double-subsidy burden.
Jesse Calhoon, the former president of the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association (MEBA) used the phrase “sleaze factor” earlier this year while telling a Senate subcommittee that the cargo subsidy system could be reformed and costs reduced by centralizing government chartering operations, which are now scattered among a number of Agriculture Department and State Department offices.
“Nobody’s watching the shop,” he said, adding that consolidation of many separate chartering operations would “drive the sleaze factor out.”
What he called the “sleaze factor” creeps in through a number of windows left open in the system. Under Agency for International Development programs, for example, foreign governments are given responsibility for buying and shipping American grain.
“Currently, freight rates are often unnecessarily increased during the tendering process by middlemen, foreign agents and brokers – an increase that in today’s system is beyond the control of ship operators and the U.S. government,” Calhoon said.
“This increase (in Food for Peace rates) is not the result of a cash- filled envelope handed to some foreign official,” he said. “It is built in with great sophistication by the recipient country through methods such as . . . inflated off-loading fees. I think it is time to clean this up, and a joint federal chartering entity could do the job.”
Yet Calhoon’s proposal for eliminating that middle layer is opposed by operators of subsidized American liners, and a recent GAO study offered reasons why the current system is attractive to some.
Foreign countries generally hire agents to book the cargoes, and the agents, often with personal or financial connections running back to the foreign country officials in charge of procuring the food, charge up to 2.5 percent of multimillion-dollar cargo freight charges.
“Disincentives exist for (foreign) country agents to attempt to significantly lower U.S.-flag rates through negotiations. . . . Lowering rates through negotiations would decrease the contract amount, thus lowering the agent’s commission,” the GAO said.
“For example . . . on a $4 million contract, the agent’s commission would be $100,000. Assuming a 10 percent reduction in rates, the agent’s commission would be $10,000 less.”
And there are other reasons for choosing more expensive vessels.
In one case documented by the GAO, a foreign country’s agent turned down a ship offered by a broker, even though that offer would have saved $370,000 – money that could have bought more food.
Why choose the more expensive vessel?
An agent dealing with a vessel broker often must split his commission with the broker. By choosing the more expensive ship – which did not have a vessel broker – the agent received $140,000 in commissions. The cheaper ship would have netted him only $66,000.
Public opening of competitive bids would help combat the problem, GAO auditors say. They also suggested that fair and reasonable rates be set by the U.S. Maritime Administration for the liner segment of the American merchant marine, where rates are now unregulated. And, the GAO said, transportation rates should be adjusted for scrap-yard-bound or backhauling vessels.
To help address such problems, the Reagan administration has suggested, among other reform proposals, that U.S. operators immediately be allowed to buy foreign ships that burn half the fuel of most U.S. steam ships and use them for the cargo-preference program.
The administration is also pursuing the GAO proposal that maximum rates be set for U.S. cargo liners. Proposed regulations to impose such controls are being worked on by the Maritime Administration, and reform of similar existing regulations for bulk ships has also been proposed.
But none of these recommendations are new. Most are years old. None have been implemented. Each has run into stiff opposition from the strong maritime lobby. And even when those within the industry have suggested change – Calhoon’s anti-sleaze proposal, for example – reform efforts have consistently run aground.
U.S. GRAIN FOR AFRICA SHIPS OUT
AT NEW, FATTER RATES
By Robert R. Frump
Over the last 17 months – a period when world shipping costs have been in decline – American ship operators have increased their fees to carry emergency famine-relief cargoes by $6 million – enough money to feed 170,000 starving people in Africa for a year.
Those rate increases, when added to the already extraordinary costs of using American ships, have required the government to spend $34 million more on transportation of African food aid than would have been needed if foreign vessels had been used, an Inquirer review of shipping records indicates.
If that money had not been diverted to American ship operators, it could have been used to purchase and transport enough corn to Africa to feed 960,000 starving people for a year.
“There is an absolute correlation between shipping costs and the amount of food we can send overseas; the cheaper the shipping costs, the more food we can send,” said a State Department spokesman.
American ship owners and operators say that higher unloading fees and delays at African ports have increased their costs of carrying famine-relief cargoes.
But rates charged by foreign vessels to carry relief cargoes between the U.S. and African ports have not climbed even though the foreign ship operators face the same problems.
And critics charge that American shippers have been able to increase their rates at a time when world shipping charges are in decline because they have a monopoly on a portion of the famine-relief trade.
“I am unhappy to confirm that it is true,” said a spokesman for the World Food Program in Rome, a U.N. agency that distributes American relief grain. ”I am unhappy to confirm that some American ship operators have increased their rates on certain routes to Africa.”
U.S. laws require that at least half of all government-sponsored cargoes be carried in American ships – a measure designed to assure a strong merchant marine for commercial and national security purposes.
Yet an Inquirer review of government ship records and cost data shows that the vessels supported by this cargo-preference legislation frequently are of limited national security value, and are so commercially uncompetitive that rates charged by U.S. bulk cargo carriers generally are double world rates, and frequently triple.
So far this year, the average cost of carrying emergency relief cargoes to Africa on American ships jumped to an average of $115 a ton from $105 a ton during 1984. In comparison, average rates for foreign ships hauling the same cargoes dropped from $69 a ton in 1984 to $58.90 a ton this year, the Inquirer review of U.S. Agriculture Department records shows.
As a result, the “differential” between U.S. and world rates – the measurement that best reflects the cost of shipping on American vessels – jumped by 56 percent from $36 in 1984 to $56.1 a ton for all types of American ships engaged in emergency famine-relief shipments in 1985.
The higher American shipping charges have helped push the transportation budget for the emergency relief efforts of the federal Food for Peace program up from 30 percent of the total emergency relief budget in 1984 to a projected 41 percent of the 1985 budget.
“Staggering,” said Stephen Kearns, a vice president at Daniel F. Young Inc., a New York freight forwarder that books many relief cargoes, when asked about the increasing difference between U.S. and foreign rates.
“I believe it is due mostly to the decrease in foreign rates, but some of the American rates have increased. . . . American lines are aware there is a cargo preference program which requires the use of American-flag vessels when they fix their rates. There is no doubt about it.”
Still, U.S. ship operators disavow any price gouging or unfair practices.
Kearns said one reason for the sharp disparity between American and world rates is that shipping is in the midst of a worldwide depression.
Foreign-based ship operators sometimes carry cargoes at losses in order to save a vessel from lay-up or scrapping and attendant greater losses. Moreover, Kearns said, many foreign ships quote low rates in order to position ships and shipping containers in African ports so they can carry African exports back to the United States.
Edmund T. Sommer Jr., counsel to the Council of American Flag Ships, said that agricultural statistics and freight rate data are misleading, and that the higher U.S. rates are readily explained.
“Raw numbers are being used by agricultural interests to try to make an argument that we are gouging on ‘must-move’ cargoes,” Sommer said. “In fact, there have been dramatic increases in the volumes of these cargoes, and dramatic cost increases in the shipping of them.
“Therein lies a twofold problem,” Sommer said. “Sudanese and Ethiopian port officials are sticking it to the U.S. carriers by charging exorbitant port entry fees and cargo handling fees.”
And, he said, inadequate port facilities in these countries are causing lengthy shipping delays.
“These are the principal reasons for the increases,” Sommer said.
But others disagree.
Excessive costs and delays at Ethiopian ports do exist, but they apply to both American and foreign carriers, and have not changed since last year, according to a spokesman for International Shipholding Corp., a New Orleans company that runs both the American-flag Central Gulf Lines and the foreign- flag Gulf Mideast Lines between the United States and Africa.
And some critics say the reasons for mounting American shipping costs in the famine-relief trade can be found in this country, not Africa.
“We have seen the difference in U.S.- and foreign-flag shipping rates rise
from $11 per ton to $37 a ton in one year on liners (a type of cargo vessel),” said John Baize, a lobbyist for the American Soybean Association. The association represents U.S. soybean producers, who see themselves losing income from sales of that commodity because of high shipping rates.
“I am trying to think of a different phrase than price gouging, but I cannot think of one,” he said.
“If the maritime industry needs subsidies to compete, and I would agree it probably does, then those subsidies should be included in the budget of the (U.S.) Maritime Administration and paid directly to the shipowners. . . . No longer would maritime subsidies be disguised as food aid.”
Steve Singer, deputy director of the Food for Peace program at the State Department’s Agency for International Development (AID), agrees in part.
“The question is not whether the merchant marine should be supported,” he said, “but where maritime supports for national security purposes should come
from – famine relief or the military.”
In human terms, the consequences of spending famine-relief funds to pay the rising costs of chartering American-flag ships can be dramatic.
In 1984, the American ship Commanche carried 20,500 tons of relief cargo
from Houston to the Sudan at a rate of $95.66 a ton. This year, the American ships
Overseas Marilyn and the Sugar Islander each carried the same amount of cargo on the same route, but at a rate of $106.59 a ton.
That rate increase – approved as “fair and reasonable” by the Maritime Administration – came when foreign rates for those same cargo volumes and ports dropped from $36.41 a ton to $32.80.
If the American rates had held steady between 1984 and this year, $596,000 would have been saved in the relief budget – enough to feed 16,000 starving Africans for a year.
A Maritime Administration official said the higher rates were approved
because the Overseas Marilyn and the Sugar Islander were carrying only a part of their capacity and therefore faced higher per-ton costs than the Commanche in 1984.
Even the extra cost of carrying a single famine-relief cargo aboard an American ship can subtract more than a million dollars from the budget of the food-relief program.
For example, a foreign ship operator bid $30.30 a ton, or $757,000, to transport a cargo of sorghum from Houston to the Sudan this year. Instead, the American ship Spirit of Liberty made the trip, charging $107 a ton, or a total of $2.69 million.
That amounts to an indirect subsidy of $1.93 million from the U.S. famine- relief funds for the American ship on one voyage – enough money to buy 14,296 tons of corn, with the potential for feeding 54,000 Africans for one year.
United States Lines has increased its rates to South Africa, where some relief cargoes are shipped for other points in Africa, from about $62.50 per metric ton in 1984 to $120 per metric ton this year following the bankruptcy of a competitor and the surge of relief cargoes, according to officials of the World Food Program.
Despite the rate increase, a U.S. Lines spokesman said that the company was not charging excessively high rates for relief cargoes, and that competition assured that could not happen.
But Agriculture and State Department officials say that the competition often works the other way, with many shippers chasing a few American-flag ships.
“We are sweating blood this year finding American carriers,” said one AID official.
“We are not making our cargo-preference percentages (50 percent) for U.S.-flag ships, and we’re not going to let that interfere right now with our shipments,” said AID official Singer. “It is increasingly difficult to find available American-flag ships, and we’re really going to have to scramble toward the end of the year to make the 50 percent requirement.”
The program that forces government officials to search for scarce American vessels to carry cargoes at high costs does not appear to have achieved its purpose of maintaining a fleet of American ships useful for national-security purposes.
Most of the nation’s cargo-preference bulk fleet is composed of tanker and dry-bulk carriers. Said a 1984 Congressional Budget Office review of militarily useful vessels: “Large tankers and dry-bulk carriers . . . are among the least useful ship types for military support.”
A large number of America’s liners are container vessels, commercially useful, but the budget-office study said: “From a military standpoint, an old-fashioned, break-bulk freighter, with its loading booms and cargo nets, is usually more useful than a commercially efficient modern container ship that depends upon special port facilities for loading and offloading.”
Moreover, some of the American ships chartered under the government cargo- preference programs are very old. Others are rated poorly.
For example, the Spirit of Liberty, Cove Trader and the Golden Endeavor have been given a 1 rating – the least favorable – by the Guide for Selection of Tankers, a respected publication used by the oil industry to rate the reliability of oil tankers. The best rating is 5.
The Inger, a World War II-era tanker, was converted and enlarged in 1962 to carry bulk grain. The ship is of the same type and age as the Marine Electric, which sank in 1983 off the Virginia coast, killing 31 crew members. And it is a near relative to the old converted World War II troop ship Poet, which sank in 1980, killing 34 crew members.
The Inger, Spirit of Liberty, Golden Endeavor and Cove Trader carried famine cargoes this year and last at costs that, combined, were $9.45 million above prevailing world rates – enough money to buy a pound of corn for 260,000 people for one year.
Coast Guard records show that the Inger reported difficulties in November 1984 “after explosion of main turbine and generator.”
Reynolds Metal Co., the ship’s owner, performed those repairs and did extensive work on the ship’s rusted hull, and the Inger was cleared by the Coast Guard to carry grain to Kenya in February at a cost of $102 a ton – just short of triple the cost of a foreign bid of $34.75 a ton to carry the same cargo.
A spokesman for Reynolds said the ship exceeds all safety standards set by the Coast Guard.
Thanks to the scrapping of other old vessels like the Inger, the acquisition of larger and more efficient ships and reduced manning requirements of more fully automated vessels, there have been some reductions in high cargo-preference costs in recent years.
Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole recently stated that the cost differential for shipping Title I and III Food for Peace cargoes aboard American ships has declined from $56.72 a ton in 1981 to $32.43 a ton in 1984 – a 43 percent decrease.
Yet the Title II program, under which most of the emergency famine-relief cargoes are carried, has not experienced such a decrease. Its per-ton differential is $56 – even though the Titles I and III differential has been a much lower $37 a ton so far this year, according to an Inquirer review of Department of Agriculture figures.
Moreover, key maritime interests now oppose further revisions of the cargo- preference system that could reduce costs further.
For instance, the Reagan administration has proposed the formation of a joint transportation office to coordinate the administration of Food for Peace cargo-preference programs, including State, Agriculture and maritime officials in one unit.
Said Peter J. Luciano, the director of the Transportation Institute, a nonprofit Washington agency designed to promote the merchant marine and supported by a variety of commercial maritime interests:
“Such an office could significantly lower transportation costs by booking longer-term charters, utilizing better competitive bidding processes, and placing the responsibility for choosing the carrier with the U.S. government, rather than with brokers who receive commissions based on percentage of the freight, and therefore have little incentive to minimize transportation costs.”
The liner segment of the U.S. maritime industry is quietly opposing creation of such an office.
“They have not signed off on it . . .,” one Transportation Institute official said.
“They are afraid that it will cut into their profits.”
Such is the state of affairs that has helped make cargo preference a topic of debate now on Capitol Hill. Baize, of the soybean association, and others aligned with agricultural interests are seeking repeal of the cargo- preference law, a move they believe would allow grains and soybeans to be exported in greater quantities.
But if the repeal does occur, much of the American merchant marine could virtually disappear.
American ship companies – some of them efficient world competitors like U.S. Lines and Sea-Land Services Inc. – depend upon American preference cargoes for 37 percent of their volumes, according to U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley (R., Md.), a former member of the Maritime Commission.
“Destruction or serious reduction of the cargo-preference law would be a fatal blow to the merchant marine,” Bentley wrote recently in a letter to Baize. “Our agriculture industry is not threatened with extinction, but most assuredly, our U.S. merchant marine is.”
Baize said agricultural interests have “never objected to the government subsidizing the U.S. merchant fleet. We do, however, object in the strongest terms to tying that subsidy to U.S. commodity exports and then ‘hiding’ the cost in the budget of the Agriculture (and State) Departments.”
Part Five: The Yard
(It is hard to tell it now but the Delaware River once was lined with shipyards and was among the world’s great ship building ports. The Philadelphia Naval Shipyard was on its last legs when some adept political maneuvering by U.S. Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. and others obtained a massive contract for overhauling and reconditioning several aircraft carriers. A funny thing happened on the way to the christening.)
WHAT WENT WRONG
WITH THE SARATOGA?
By ROBERT R. FRUMP .
TEXT: I. WHAT ALFORD SAW
BOILERMATE FIRST CLASS Mark H. Alford balanced on the wood planking in the bowels of the ship and pretended that he belonged there. He knew what they were up to, these civilian jerks. He had seen the rusty tubes – rusty! – cut jagged when they should have been rounded off smooth. And the trash! He could pick up their trash by the handfuls.
Here came one now – a welder, by the tilt of his brown hardhat. Time for Alford to act casual and give them no hint. Just listen. Just take notes. Just act like any dumb Saratoga sailor. Check that card of how things were supposed to be, compare that with the incredible things he had seen here, and just be “everywhere you weren’t supposed to be.”
Deep in the engine room of the aircraft carrier Saratoga, in the summer of 1981, Alford played his game of espionage . . . with his own countrymen! He shouldn’t have to do this – but the civilians had no pride! He saw them, welders from the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, civilians who didn’t really give a good care, to tell you the truth, just butchering his ship. He had the card in his back pocket, about how you were supposed to do it, this welding in the boiler room. At sea, it would take 20 years to straighten things out if these
knuckle-dragging oafs botched it now.
Lord knows Alford got no support on this from his own chief engineer. But there would come a time when these civilians who were almost like traitors the way they botched up and then covered up . . . oh yes, there would come a time when these boo-birds from Philadelphia got theirs.
Oh, and they would, too. In the end – or what everyone thought was the end, there in the summer of 1983 – Alford and his boss and friend, Chief Boiler Technician William R. Goodyear, would push the bureaucratic equivalent of the trim tab, the little rudder on the huge immobile rudder of a gargantuan ship that turns first and, in so turning, channels the flow of water so that the immobile rudder moves and turns itself. An ounce of pressure on the trim tab turns 10 tons of ship.
And yes, well, the trim tab was stuck at first on this particular military-political-bureaucratic ship of state, certainly; but in the end, the little guys would win out, would turn the trim tab, and the trim tab would turn the rudder and the huge ship of state would turn around and fix what was wrong on board the USS Saratoga, just as any right-fitting, tight-fitting fighting ship should be fixed up.
But the trim tab would turn the ship of state too so that its wake engulfed and swamped the hardhats of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, politically drowned them like rats, leaving only a distasteful image, tattered and tarnished, of the Philadelphia Worker, Mr. Northeast Smokestack 1983, this dark and grubby slob who dragged his knuckles on the ground and pitched his hoagie roll one way, the cellophane wrapping another way and his beer can straight up in the air, to plop down among the delicate and sensitive ganglia of the Saratoga.
And that’s not all – for the same engulfing wave would threaten to swamp the Philadelphia area’s congressional delegation, too. After all, what good was it for the politicians of the Philadelphia region . . . what good was it for these cogs in the sputtering Philadelphia economic-societal machine to actually come through, to not just do well, but to turn about and do good, to perform brilliantly on Capitol Hill, to actually rewrite pork barrel history, as they had in 1979?
They had turned a political tide themselves by grabbing off this huge aircraft carrier contract for the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. The Saratoga was going to Newport News, Va. – until the Philadelphia-area politicians met the Sun Belt boys who wanted it bad and always got the military contracts they wanted. Until they had taken on these Johnny Reb political admirals in an open fight on the floor of the Senate and had outflanked, outfought, outsmarted and outright defeated them, to save the Philadelphia region’s largest remaining single-site smokestack industry!
That is just what had happened back in 1979, when the Saratoga budget came up in the Senate. But what good was any of that if down deep at the workers’ level there were these knuckle-calloused primates who dumped their garbage down the superheater tubes of the Saratoga and welded hoagie crumbs into the boilers?
This was reverse Abscam, reverse Watergate, reverse Rocky. These guys had a chance to keep the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard going. Eleven thousand workers. Had a chance to revive a piece – a right good size chunk – of the local economy. The $450 million contract, if diverted to buildings, had the sort of capital muscle that could remake Philadelphia’s skyline. The Saratoga money alone could build five or six Franklin Plaza Hotel-SmithKline buildings. All the carriers that could come to Philadelphia would make Bill Rouse’s taller- than-William-Penn office complex a blip on the region’s economic health chart.
The Philadelphia Worker had only to do a passable job. And what had happened? He did exactly what the Johnny Reb politicians warned would happen!
Oh. And then there is the even bigger picture to be zoomed up. Summer of 1983. Lebanon is exploding. Nicaragua has imploded. The Iranians and the Iraqis are frothing at each other. The Strait of Hormuz threatens to be bent out of shape. High Command counts up carriers, divides them by trouble spots – and there are not enough big ships to go around. The carrier Ranger is sent to Central America, and then the Vinson, too, and there are no carriers off the Persian Gulf for the first time in anyone’s memory, in an area that is as volatile as the 22 percent of the Free World’s oil it supplies. And in the clutch, now, the brass looks to the Saratoga, a “major combatant” as they would put it, to see exactly how soon it can show the flag.
“We want a carrier – fast” is the way one folk tale at the shipyard goes.
“Sorry. You can’t have it,” comes the reply from the shipyard to the High Command.
“Why not?” says High Command.
Ultimate Philadelphia story. “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is” was the old slogan. Then along come the Philadelphia boo-birds to prove: “No. It’s much worse.”
Or so it seemed. Or so the Alford version of it seemed, and so was the public perception in the dark days of the summer of 1983, when the aircraft carrier Saratoga, after two years and nearly half a billion dollars’ worth of work at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard was . . . recalled . . . like some defective piece of Detroit-made junk.
- WHAT QUINN DISCOVERED
BUCKY QUINN SQUINTED AGAIN. HE knew something was wrong somewhere. The superheater tubes were still leaking.
Deep in the boiler room of the Saratoga, the metal opening looked to be polished bright. Quinn could see himself in its reflection, the curvature bending his face and bulging his lips like a funhouse mirror. He rubbed a finger along the opening in the header, the huge metal frame that held the tubes in place in the aircraft carrier’s boiler. It felt perfectly clean and smooth. How could there be a contaminant here?
But something was wrong somewhere. When a leak was fixed, other leaks would pop up in some other part of the superheater tubes. It didn’t make sense. Baffled, the shipyard’s welders and boilermakers, civilians working under Quinn, had even named the phenomenon. The Phantom, they called it.
Well, Quinn would try the welder’s trick on this one – the trick old Sol Rubell, his mentor, had passed on to him 10 years ago. He reached for his penlight and the handkerchief in his back pocket.
It was September 1981. The Saratoga had arrived almost a year before for SLEP, the Service Life Extension Program that would make new vessels of a whole class of old steam-powered ships that were wheezing their last. SLEP would rip them stern to stem, take every exterior surface down to bare metal,
gut out all old wires and then install Star Wars electronics, radar-guided Gatling guns, extend the decks, devise new sophisticated weapons magazine systems, zap up the old launching catapults and . . . oh yes, put in new boiler systems.
The boilers, with their superheater tubes, were an integral part of the Saratoga propulsion system. Steam passing through the tubes would be heated to such a temperature under pressure that the accumulated energy zapped the turbines that powered the big carrier in a hyper, more powerful way than normal, non-super steam. Imagine a mild breeze wafting through a pinwheel and you have an idea of what normal steam does to turbines. Now picture the pinwheel being spun about fiercely by a direct stream of compressed air – that’s superheating.
In such a manner would the eight boilers in four main machinery rooms power the Saratoga, this three-football-field-long, four-acre floating, fighting parking lot, at speeds up to 30 knots, while still providing enough power to catapult a 70,000-pound plane from 0 to 150 m.p.h. in 2.9 seconds (or throw a Cadillac through mid-air for a mile, if that’s how you like your stats sliced), while still providing enough power and water for a city of 5,000 people.
That’s what Quinn and his men had to provide. But as important as the superheater tubes were, there was a sense in which they were nearly taken for granted. After all, welders had been installing them for decades, using the old, hand-held arc-welding method. In those days, welders had to heat the whole header to 400 degrees, and in some cases lie flat on their backs and reach through a 10-inch-diameter hole in the hot metal with one hand clasping an arc welder, then reach through another small hole with their other hand holding a dental-like mirror so they could see the weld . . .
But now the vital boiler system depended largely on the new, slick welding robotic process they were using on the Saratoga. Mate a household quarter-inch drill with an Uzi submachine gun: The ugly offspring would look like the business end of the Astro-Arc robotic welding device.
The new process applied decades-old technology in a new way. Bucky Quinn was old-line, in his 50s, grew up in the shadow of the Shibe Park stadium before it became Connie Mack. Structural superintendent by rank, GM-15 by civil service pay scale – high as you could go as a yard civilian. Welder by trade, in charge of both the boilermakers who polished and inserted the tubes into the headers and the welders who then Astro-Arced the tubes in.
He was old-line, but the savings from the Astro-Arc welder were not to be argued with. No massive pre-heating of the header. Just insert into tube; pull trigger; wait; inspect; go onto the next tube. Beep, beep, beeep, zzzappp, zzzzapp. In its plodding, faithful robot way, old Astro-Arc would tick off a 60-second weld cycle that would fuse the tube and the header that held it in place in a baby’s-bum-smooth weld. Using the old manual method, skilled welders could do, say, seven tubes in three hours. In Astro-Arc tests, an inexperienced welder did 21 tubes in the same amount of time.
Moreover, the device – Project B1047 – had been pioneered in Philadelphia, with Quinn’s help and cooperation. Astro-Arc had been used before at the shipyard on smaller vessels, on several destroyers. Quinn had even presented a technical paper on the process – “Pulsed Arc Welding of Boiler Tubes” – at a welding trade workshop at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.
IN THE HUGE ENGINE ROOM OF THE CARRIer, Quinn’s men were scattered about him at various heights on the wood planking, here one at chest level, there one eight feet below him, another just popping out of a barely-man-sized hole in the boiler. First, the movement of a hand, then the arm, then the head and shoulders, then the whole man’s body up to the hips wiggled through like a woman trying to get out of her girdle.
They were like little men small enough to pop in and out of the engine’s valves and chambers, like shrunken mechanics dispatched to explore the V-8 of an old car. Well, they were doing the job. They were good workers. Workers? They were artisans. If you were a worker, you slapped in the tube and that was that. If you were an artisan, you had the wisdom and the experience and the caring to go one step further.
Or, you knew the welder’s trick. In the guts of the Saratoga, where the cold rolled down from above like dry ice from a playhouse stage, Quinn took out his handkerchief and his penlight flashlight. He showed the light on the header opening directly. Clean as a whistle. Then he wrapped the flashlight in one fold of the handkerchief. He shined it on the opening again, and turned the light as slowly as a diamond inspector.
The handkerchief sent diffused rays of light starring out from the handkerchief like rays of sun through a stained glass cathedral window, and Quinn saw what no one else had. Little relief-map canyons and hills – whole islands of crud – popped up from the header.
The opening was coated with mill scale – an unwanted product created when the huge headers were “stress-relieved,” baked until they were mooshy at 1,300 degrees to give the header the proper metallurgical properties, so that it would not bend and break under the heat cycles of a steam boiler.
The scale – formed when the metal combined with oxygen under heat – was to have been rubbed and polished off so that the bare, clean metal of the tubes met the bare, clean metal of the header. The boys in Boilermakers Shop 41 had polished the headers, all right, but this mill scale was particularly persistent, and, unknowingly, they had polished not down to bare, clean metal as the specs had called for. No, they had polished the persistant mill scale, had polished the mill scale so bright that the scale looked like shiny metal.
Well, Quinn knew that was a problem. He could see it well enough now with his flashlight-in-hankie trick. He had caught it, but his catch was late. Of the 2,048 superheater tubes, 1,334 already had been installed when Quinn discovered the oxide. The pipes had been “rolled” into the headers, stretched by mechanical expanders so that the top part of the tubes was jammed into the header, making a sandwich of tube, oxide and header.
And then when the Astro-Arc welder had hit the oxide contaminant, the pinhead leaks occurred. Or so they thought.
ON ANY SUPERHEATER TUBE JOB, the welders and boilermakers knew, you always had flaws. You always had leaks. And always, you fixed your way out, as you had on every other ship you’d ever worked on. You re-welded until you stopped the leaks.
But for some reason, it just wasn’t working out that way on the Saratoga. They would fix one leak and then hydrostatically test it – rig the pipes up to a hydrostatic testing device that would force water through the tubes at pressures above those of the actual steam in the pipes. The suspect weld would hold. It was fixed. But 10 tubes over a perfectly good weld was now leaking.
It was as if some force were teasing them. The Phantom, the men said. And in November 1981, the Phantom began his mischievous romping in earnest when the men began hydrostatically testing Boiler 1A. Four leaking tubes popped up. So the men re-welded joints 35a, 13b, 4a and 5a. Some of those welds were fine. But the men found a new leaker at 25a. It would be re-welded, it would pass a hydro test. Then they tested again and found 4c and 4d leaking, and, far removed from those leakers, 10c, 13b, 20c, 20a and 40d leaked, too!
Quinn knew how to find polished oxides where none seemed to exist. And he knew, too, how to handle the ship’s force, the blue-suiters like Boilermate Mark H. Alford who were always running around trying to play “gotcha.” There were always splits between the uniformed boys and the civilians. It was natural: The yard was industrial, the ship’s force was operational. And the ”snipes” like Alford, the ship’s operating engineers who worked far below deck, just hated to see their vessel torn apart.
A lot of the ship’s force were strange kids, guys from landlocked states in the South or the Midwest, and a lot of them would stop their car for you if you even hinted you were about to step off the curb at mid-block. (God help them in Philadelphia if they ever stepped off the curb at Broad and Vine.) And a lot of them, despite the cultural offerings of an international city, with New York nearby if Philadelphia was too low-key for them . . . these guys tooled their ’69 Camaros and old Dodge Chargers over to New Jersey to the Silver Saddle Saloon to hear country & western music.
Yes, Quinn knew how to find polished oxides, and he knew how to deal with these military characters. He knew how to make a bad weld good, knew how to fix his way out of a leaky boiler. But Quinn did not know – nor did anyone at any level of the yard at that time know – exactly how to deal with this blasted Phantom.
III. TRACKING THE PHANTOM
DECEMBER 1981 TO FEBRUARY 1983
CAPT. THOMAS U. SEIGENTHALER, commander of the Philadelphia shipyard, had a genuinely warm and wonderful smile that could cut short the worst bureaucratic nastiness, a smile that spread good will and fellowship through a conference room as it spread over his face with a message that said, “Hey, we’re all in this together.”
More important, Seigenthaler was just what Philadelphia politicians and the Chamber of Commerce boys had been looking for: a real comer, a man who could get a star. They figured that Seigenthaler, young and aggressive, could take the SLEP project, bring it in on time and on budget, and in consequence make commodore, maybe even admiral someday. No one had gotten a star in Philadelphia for decades.
And in December 1981, after just five months on the job, the new commander seemed to have things shaping up. As he saw it, the Saratoga project faced three problems. First, the ship’s big steam turbines were late coming back
from the manufacturer’s shop. Then there were two major engineering challenges: the Integrated Weapons Handling System, the new design elevators that brought weapons to the deck for the planes; and the new catapult systems, aligned by lasers, that launched the jets.
Those were problems of delays or technology, something firm and touchable, not at all like the Phantom, this will o’ the wisp who, in the winter of 1981 and then in 1982, was romping through the boiler rooms of the Saratoga, playing the superheater tubes as if they were an off-tune marimba, harassing the welders, driving them mad, with the randomness of the leaks.
The Phantom had cut loose with a real belly-buster of laughter late in 1981. There were 59 leakers in Boiler 1A! The conclusion by all concerned was that the welds had been contaminated – contained those hidden oxides – and that re-welding and stricter cleanliness and tube polishing would allow them to fix their way out.
It had better work, after all. The April 1982 deadline for the LOE – the Light Off Examination – was beginning to crunch the pink hats and the brown hats, the civilian boilermakers and welders. The Light Off Examination, in which the boilers would be lighted, was crucial because only with the boilers working and the ship’s power up could the really tricky parts of the ship – the elevators and catapults – be tested.
Alford, the lowly snipe, was not the only man in a Navy uniform who was concerned. In addition, Jim Classick, one of the technical specialists at the yard, had analyzed the problem as cleanliness on Sept. 24, 1981. And Capt. John Ulrich, the assistant repair officer for SLEP, was so edgy about the leaking superheater tubes that he had brought in outside experts – Starr Associates, a welding consulting firm in Camden, N.J.
Later, Navy officers would swear they had not seen the Starr report – because it contained “eyebangers” they could not have missed. Some workers, the report said, were grinding out the leaking Astro-Arc welds and attempting to re-weld them with traditional welding methods. Can’t be done, said Starr. In addition, boilermakers weren’t trained well in the fitting of the pipes. Plus, the headers were stress-relieved in ovens but in a manner that deposited heavy scale formations on their surfaces: the hidden mill scale.
Many of the tubes were improperly rolled into the headers, so that only slight contact held them in place. And when welders complained that they were given poor-quality joints to weld, they supposedly were told: “Weld it anyway since we are a service shop and are here to complete the job given to you. Production is King.”
Eyebangers, indeed. Headbangers to Bucky Quinn. Thanks for telling us what we already knew, and too late to do anything about it. Quinn knew the problem. And here these guys were telling him to go by the book when he had written it, and in a project for which the book was being rewritten faster than anyone could read it.
But there were other problems, remembered later by supervisors and officers, that reflected directly on the Philadelphia Smokestack Worker. Capt. George Fink, the SLEP production officer at the shipyard, recalled that he had had trouble with these headstrong Philadelphians. When cleanliness was an issue, he had warned Tommy Spilker, the production superintendent of Boilermakers Shop 41 who worked under Quinn, that the tubes must be kept clean. Spilker told him that they were being very careful, that the tube ends were polished, and then bagged, to make sure they stayed clean.
So here comes Fink, up on the hangar deck of the carrier, and he spies this roll of tubes and the plastic is torn, and on the tubes is a thin coating of oxide. Right after Fink has just asked Spilker nicely to be super careful on cleanliness.
Then there was Quinn himself, Spilker’s boss. Fink walks around the Saratoga some more. He finds this welding rod – 7018, it’s called – lying around. Some 6010 stuff is lying around, too. Cans of rods are sitting in the open – not protected in ovens as they should be. And Fink goes off “high order” to Quinn.
And Quinn is hurt. “Hey, look,” Quinn says to Fink, pleading for understanding. “I was a welder. I can give you a water-clear joint with a soaking wet 7018 rod.”
And Fink just shakes his head. “Buck, you don’t understand. We don’t have control of the process. And you might be able to make a water-clear joint with 7018 that is soaking wet, but, no, averages, a welder can’t do that, and you’re going to control rod.”
That is how the officers remembered it. But at the time, those concerns did not translate into official action, memos, notations, complaints. Everyone seemed in agreement. Dirtiness had gotten them into the fix; cleanliness would get them out.
Anyway, they could not start again, jerk all the tubes and start from scratch. They had considered it, but new headers were not available. So they buckled down in February 1982 and began fixing their way out. Again. First 30, then 20 leakers, then 18, then 16, then . . .
Finally, in April 1982, it looked as if they had fixed their way out just as that crucial LOE – the Light Off Examination – was approaching. On April 7, the boilers in one and two main machinery spaces hydro’ed out OK. Even the cantankerous boilers in 4A and 4B checked out. They closed up the boiler systems, and the LOE was passed on April 26 for boilers 1A and 1B, then later for the other boilers.
So far as the yard commander, Capt. Seigenthaler, was concerned, the yard was taking care of it. The hydroes were OK and the real test of the boilers would be the operational, at-sea examinations. In the coming months, as it turned out, leaks did develop again. But even then it was thought that they could be taken care of by the Tiger Teams – the mobile, at-sea repair crews.
Finally, the Saratoga SLEP came to an end. The ship left Philadelphia for good on Feb. 2, 1983, for its last official sea trials. (It would sail on to Mayport, Fla., its home base, and a new crew would be trained; active duty was to begin in April 1984.)
At the send-off, hundreds of sailors lined the deck. Some held a sign, ”Goodbye Silver Saddle Saloon.” Others sailed their hats toward a restraining rope that held back young, pretty Philadelphia women who had gotten to know these Saratogans. Boilermate Mark H. Alford was getting married soon. To a Philadelphian.
Seigenthaler was there with his family, wearing a Buddha smile of contentment. It was the first SLEP ship completed. On time. On budget. Seigenthaler’s wife clasped his arm as their small child toddled alongside. He was still Captain Seigenthaler, but in a few short months he would be promoted to Commodore Seigenthaler. He would get that star.
And now the Forrestal, the second great carrier to undergo SLEP, was already being ripped apart in the Philadelphia yard. A third contract was a cinch . . . so long as the Phantom stayed buttoned up inside the Saratoga boilers, that is.
In truth, the Phantom had never been found at all. It had been buttoned up for a time, but it had not been banished.
- THE TRIM TAB
JANUARY TO JUNE 1983
SENIOR CHIEF BOILER TECHNIcian William R. Goodyear was on a jungle gym set in the dark, crawling around inside the Saratoga boilers, down in Mayport, Fla., in March 1983. Yes, Alford’s friend and boss, Mr. Goodyear, was back
from another assignment, and the bottom line was that an operational man like Goodyear was decidedly not snowed by all these assurances from the industrial shipyard folks.
Alford had been writing him, for one thing, and now the man in charge of boiler repair was there to “see how bad it was.” Goodyear had returned to the Saratoga before it left Philadelphia for the final sea trials. It looked bad then. Even without steaming it looked bad. Even without entering the boilers, just on paper, it looked bad. While still in the yard, Goodyear had climbed around this big jungle gym with a flashlight and, Christ, there were Phantom footprints all over. He told the chief engineer about the problems, and the chief responded patiently, as he had before to Boilermate Alford: “We have a 14-month guarantee from the shipyard; they’ll make it good.”
Then they steamed out of Philadelphia, left the yard for good, and the trip had exceeded every snipe’s nightmare. One weld failed in boiler 1A, seven failed in 1B; six failed in 2A; nine failed in 4B; 19 failed in 4A, and 29 failed in boiler 2B, where they only had six failures before!
Goodyear had found 10, maybe 11 tubes plugged by the shipyard and thus made unusable. Goodyear went to the manual. It was legal. But two or three more plugs and the ship would be maxxed out – would exceed the maximum number of superheater tubes allowed to be plugged.
Now, in Mayport, the tiny little trim tab was about to turn. One ounce of
pressure on the trim tab turns the gargantuan ship. And Goodyear began pushing that trim tab harder and harder until it . . . finally . . . swung over. And then not even the chief engineer could keep saying, “The shipyard promised . . .”
Goodyear plugged five more tubes, and the Saratoga maxxed out. The report by the Navy Board of Inspection and Survey was clear: “Due to the extremely large number of superheater tubes which are plugged or have required rework . . . the board has no confidence in the reliability of superheater tube welds in any of the eight boilers and considers it MANDATORY that they ALL be replaced prior to ship deployment.”
ON JUNE 26, 1983, a delegation of military and civilian brass from the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard met briefly in the lounge of the Jacksonville, Fla., airport. Seigenthaler, a commodore for little more than a month now, was briefed on the story to date.
Then they went to the officers’ mess on board the Saratoga and sat down with the Navy’s technical experts. The rolling was wrong. All the technical experts said so. The tubes should have been rolled tighter, so that the roll, not the weld, held the tubes in place. The weld could not hold the tubes in place, and that is why they were cracking.
A few minutes later, Capt. Leonard G. Perry of the Saratoga, back ramrod- military-straight, ready to go to the wall with anyone on this now, walked into the room. Seigenthaler had always told Perry: “The ship comes first.”
So now, the technical boys had found the Phantom. So now, what did Commodore Thomas U. Seigenthaler and the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard plan to do? Seigenthaler didn’t bat an eye. The Saratoga was owed eight new boilers. Period. The yard delivered. It would put in new headers, new tubes – the old way, with hand-held stick welding.
TOMMY SPILKER, WHO had been the boilermakers’ production superintendent, wasn’t seriously worried when, working in Mayport, he got a call to come back to Philadelphia. The Judge Advocate General’s office was conducting an investigation and wanted to interview him. They called them JAGs. Run by Jagmen.
The stakes had escalated. Why? The folk tales say High Command got mad. (“We need a carrier, fast,” says High Command. “You can’t have it,” says the shipyard. “Why not?” “It’s broke.”) All the Philadelphia boys got engulfed and swamped in the JAGs. All of them were censured in one way or another.
Seigenthaler was called before an admiral’s mast. It was a reaming for a bright young man with a good shot at admiral. He never alibied. The JAG transcripts show he took responsibility. With a smile. “He is an old- fashioned officer,” said a colleague. “He more or less saw the s- rolling downhill, and rather than run, he turned and faced it.”
But he was still in his job. And Fink was still in his new job, having been transferred to commander of the Long Beach Naval Shipyard. But while Spilker and Quinn were still employed by the Philadelphia yard, they were removed from their production jobs. Fish out of water. Artisans barred from their craft.
And throughout it all, the Phantom laughed and laughed. Water trickled down
from the superheater tubes, the Phantom laughed so hard. Now they were fixing him out of business, ship’s force and Philadelphia civilians re-welding new superheater tubes the old-fashioned way in Mayport.
True, true, he was beaten. But the reason they had given. Rolled improperly. Hah! That was a rich one. Imagine that. They thought the tubes were rolled improperly. They thought that was the reason.
- SPECTER’S GAMBIT
SEN. ARLEN Specter smiled politely at the radio reporter and said, “Keep your hand down, please.” Specter and Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey had toured the Forrestal on Oct. 11, 1983, the latest ship to enter the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, and though they had been on board only 20 minutes they were telling a gaggle of reporters that yes, yes, the work was going fine, and the Saratoga scandal was now something to put behind them.
Only when Bradley talked, the radio reporters had to reach up and over to get their microphones in front of him, up and over Specter’s face while the television cameras were churning, recording Bradley’s words of wisdom, Bradley standing next to this headless person who ducked and bobbed and
weaved, trying to get his mug on the tube. Television is political money, and Specter was at the bank window.
“Keep your hand down, please,” he had said with a baby-kissing smile, and the reporter dropped it, only to bob his arm back up reflexively when Bradley’s mouth opened again. Specter’s face darkened. The eyes narrowed. He grabbed the reporter’s arm and held it down. Then, without missing a beat, Specter turned to the cameras, smiling, to tell how he and Bradley were fighting for the Forrestal and all other carriers and the very survival of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.
It was damned tough fighting, though, when you thought about it. Two senators inspecting the Forrestal for 20 minutes impressed practically nobody. They could sure use some help in this War of the Carriers, Part Two. Navy Secretary John Lehman had said the yard could lose future carrier contracts if it fouled up on the Forrestal as it had on the Saratoga. The Independence was due in around 1985. And the Kitty Hawk class of carriers was due in around 1987 through the rest of the century.
And some help was on the way. Bucky Quinn and Tommy Spilker had run tests in the spring of 1983 which seemed to show that the Astro-Arc process caused stellite hardness in the welds. That was fine if you were making, say,
surgical instruments, but it was absolute death in a boiler, where rising and falling temperatures require of the metal a kind of metallurgical give and take to keep it from cracking.
None of the technical boys placed much credence in this theory, though – until an Oct. 19, 1983, memo began making the rounds. The memo discussed a metallurgical study done by an expert from the Navy’s Pearl Harbor Yard with no conflict of interest in all of this.
Rolling? No way that I can see, metallurgist R. W. Helliwell said. There would have been circumferential cracking in the welds, and there weren’t many circumferential cracks. “Light rolling of the tubes in the headers was not a cause of the deficiencies found in the CV-60 superheater headers.”
Dirt? The equivalent of hoagie crumbs? “Based on the available evidence, the unclean welding conditions reported as existing . . . were not the source of . . . impurities and did not cause the observed cracking.”
So what did? Well, it seems that the Astro-Arc pre-heat cycle didn’t quite do the job, the metallurgist said. That swipe of the pre-heat cycle did not quite get rid of the normal condensed moisture on the joints, so water was present when the robotic device made its second, welding pass. The water decomposed and formed hydrogen, which made the weld much, much more brittle than it should have been. “The proximate cause of the failure was hydrogen embrittlement . . . the ultimate cause of the superheater cracking is inadequate pre-heating associated with use of the Astro-Arc process.”
There you had it . . . very hard brittle metal in the weld that would crack with thermal cycling.
Spilker saw that Pearl Harbor memo and waited for the call to come that would tell him he had his old job back. It never came.
Alford and Goodyear had turned the trim tab, and the trim tab had turned the rudder, and the rudder had turned the big ship in one direction: The Navy’s investigation had concluded that the roll was the problem, that cleanliness was the problem. But no one, after the Pearl Harbor memo appeared, had turned the ship back away from that course – a course that could ram the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.
MOST MEMBERS OF THE Philadelphia-area delegation favored trying to ease the trim tab back gently, but Arlen Specter saw the Pearl Harbor report as a sledgehammer to be swung at it. So here was Specter appearing before a House Armed Services subcommittee, sitting down alongside Vice Adm. Earl Fowler, the head of all Navy shipyard operations, chewing out Fowler for Washington’s original approval of the Astro-Arc process.
Fowler bristled. There was indisputable proof, sir, that the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard had done poor work. Even if the metallurgy was the problem, Fowler said, there was enough evidence to show that poor supervision did exist. The Pearl Harbor report did not tell the whole story, he said. On his desk, he had a Saratoga weld cut out of the header. Inside, clear as could be, was a pinhole caused, he said, by a contaminant.
So did Specter’s gambit help Philadelphia’s cause? Did any of it help? Quinn and Spilker had set out to nail the Phantom. And they had missed. The Jagmen had set out to nail the men who missed the Phantom. And they missed. Now Specter was trying to nail the men who missed nailing the men who missed nailing the Phantom. And now Specter had missed.
QUIETLY, OUTSIDE THE limelight, Vice Adm. Fowler stepped off that merry-go- round. His official position remained unchanged. The yard seemed ”mesmerized” by the fact that it had done Astro-Arc before on destroyers,
Fowler said. (Astro-Arc worked on the destroyers, according to one theory,
because the pre-heat cycle was adequate for their smaller boiler headers.) The ”psychology of the moment,” Fowler said, was to hurry up and finish.
But unofficially, his rudder seemed to be swinging. The Navy had stated at one time that the “fatal flaw” was improper rolling. In a January 1984 memo, Fowler says the cause of failure has not been directly determined, but the likely cause is listed as:
“Defects in Astro-Arc weld” caused by lack of fusion, penetration, porosity or slag, which means, essentially, inadequate pre-heating. And down below in this memo there is another heading, potential cause, that says, ”lack of control Astro-Arc process,” followed by “contaminants.” The supposed fatal flaw of rolling is confined to a note even farther down in the memo.
The Astro-Arc process is not being used on the Forrestal. It is not scheduled for other aircraft carrier work in the near future, and Fowler notes: “Until better understanding of thermal transitions, must consider A/A pre-heat insufficient in cold weather climates. . . . The process transitioned incremently from a labor procedure to an evaluation on a few ships to a full production use in Saratoga. This occurred without a full thorough technical assessment and evaluation . . . .”
- SARATOGA PRIDE
SLAM! AN F-14 Tomcat has dropped onto the deck, hook dragging behind it like a dragon fly’s behind. Slam! The plane has hooked the cables stretched across the deck to catch it, insane jet whine screeching, tearing the night 100 miles off Florida, on board the Saratoga, all fixed and at sea in March 1984.
The airplanes hang there above the flight deck – looking more like breakaway Mattel toys than airplanes – and then . . . fall somehow. Slam! Down on the deck of the aircraft carrier, like skidding kites.
“Wave off! Wave off! Power! Power, power, power, power!” shouts Paddles, nickname of the man who brings the jets in, to an F-14 jet pilot. This Tomcat’s landing hook is down but not catching. The pilot guns the plane for all it has, for now he must take off again. Whooooooshhhhhhhh! The plane hangs for a second, like a kite caught in a crosswind, the hook hopping along the deck of the carrier, scratching up sparks in a three-foot furrow, afterburner glowing cherry red in the dark night . . . then howwwwllllinggg off with an enraged vengeance.
“Uh, what’s bingo on 123?” Air Boss, the nickname of the man in the tower, asks of the plane that has just departed. Bingo is the computation of fuel, flight time and distance to the shore field that says when a pilot, having missed too many landings at sea, can be dispatched safely to shore. It is upsetting to proud pilots, who equate bingo-to-the-beach with failure. But it is a cushion for the carrier, a check on pride: the point at which the pilot will either pass the test of landing or go back to shore to start again, with a minimum of risk in a high-risk game.
“One more pass for 123 and then bingo him to the beach,” says Air Boss.
New Life, New Spirit is the Saratoga’s motto now. And the carrier emanates pride like fresh toast radiates warmth. The problem of the superheater tubes slammed the crew face down on the deck when it happened, but the bounce back was one of those sweet miracles. The training was compressed, with the snipes down below welding like crazy, yard personnel from Philadelphia working there, too.
For the first time in its history, the Saratoga passed the Operational Propulsion Plant Examination on its first trial – a rarity for any carrier. On another day in March, the ship claimed a record 321 landings in a 24-hour period – just to see what this born-again ship could do. And the Navy has another way of measuring morale: Marijuana usage kicks in at about 15 percent on most carriers; 485 recent, random urine samples on the Saratoga showed zero THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.
Mr. Goodyear still prowls the boilers, happy now with the new tubes, though his friend Alford is gone, out of the Navy, living in northern Florida with his Philadelphia wife and shooting ‘gators in the swamp. Both men were praised by the Navy for their persistence “even in the face of apparent indifference.” Goodyear got commended; Alford got the Navy Achievement Medal.
The ship was out on time in April 1984, deployed to the Mediterranean. All the welding repairs cost $18 million, a piddling overrun in Navy terms that did not keep officials from declaring the Saratoga SLEP an overwhelming success. But that doesn’t mean there are no complaints on board. Candid opinions about the yard seem critical, sometimes hostile. Some paint is peeling. Some pipes are loose. Cut it anyway you want, this slob stereotype of a yard worker pops up.
“You want the truth?” says one officer. “I think the taxpayers got ripped off.” From the rear of the crowded room comes a voice, “F- them, they f-ed us.”
The final judgment on what precisely went wrong with the Saratoga work will be made as the result of a Navy study due in September. Meanwhile, Philadelphia is assured of the Independence carrier contract. The Kitty Hawk contracts are still pending, though Fowler has suggested that Philadelphia receive them.
THE FINAL POINT FOWLER wants to make is that human beings, not robots, were to blame for not saying at some point that this problem of the bad welds “is of extraordinary concern.” No one checked the Astro-Arc progress, the allowed time, the problems, computed them and said, Air Boss-style:
“Uh, Astro-Arc is bingoed to the beach.”
It is tough to argue how understandable it was that the problem didn’t get caught. The ship was screwed up. All told, 403 of the 2,048 tubes failed while the ship was in the yards and an additional 100 failed after the June 1983 trials. It is tougher still to argue that recognition of the problem, and its correction, belonged solely to Washington. “Any way you cut it, it was a Philadelphia responsibility,” a Philadelphia officer says glumly.
But if Bucky Quinn and Tommy Spilker are held as the chief culprits – and they seem to have taken the toughest fall – where was their fatal flaw? The investigations, the editorials, the word on the street all point to sloppiness and carelessness. But listen to Capt. Ulrich, SLEP’s assistant repair officer:
“It was always difficult for me during my five years there and difficult for everybody who dealt with Bucky, to get him to admit that there was a problem. Bucky is a very strong individual. . . . We, Philadelphia, had done it on several previous ships . . . he was the expert. . . . As I look back on it, I think it was . . . Bucky . . . not wanting either the blue-suiters or outside people to tell him how to run his business. . . .’
That seems the worst-case scenario of what the Philadelphia Smokestack Worker did wrong. The problem was not sloppiness. Not sloth. Not hoagie crumbs in the weld. Not cover-up. Here’s Sam J. Gagliano, second in commmand on SLEP, looking back:
“Buck and Tom (Spilker) would be around at all hours of the day and night. But what they brought to the job was not a cavalier not-caring, but rather a belief that what they were doing was professionally adequate and perfectly correct. And they’re strong indviduals, so they were outspoken about that: ‘I’m doing the right thing.’ ”
Pride. Stellite hard pride was the worst that could be said of them. The pride of the shipyard helped create the Phantom, the pride helped hide it . . . and then the pride helped nail it, before and almost in spite of the technical boys.
It was pride, stellite pride, that kept the yard alive; pride, brittle pride, that nearly killed it; and pride, tempered pride, the more flexible type, that may still save it.
THE IOWA (CREAK) (GROAN) MOVES
By Robert R. Frump
The giant warship stirred to life yesterday after a slumber of nine years.
The Iowa, or BB-61, a battleship of awesome proportions and horrible
firepower, was being nudged, towed and shoved by seven tugboats, tiny by
comparison, at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.
So slow was the movement, the ship’s first since April 30, 1973, so subtle
the progress, that the dreadnought seemed not to be moving at all. Rather, it
seemed simply to grow bigger. And bigger. And bigger still as it approached.
Suddenly it was there at Pier Two, a mammoth wall of gray steel replacing
the New Jersey landscape.
Spectators gaped as if seated in the front row of a movie. The raked bow,
the sleek lines, the huge guns, the sculptured stern. The ship was too close
to take in at such close range; the eye could only look up and scan.
The World War II vintage vessel was shifted from its berth at the yard
– where it was ” mothballed” – to Pier Two, less than a mile away, in order to
” facilitate pre-activation access,” according to the Navy.
Translation: The ship is being prepared for a new suit of clothes and
weapons, a half-billion dollars in hardware installation and overhaul work,
all part of the Reagan administration’s ” quick fix” proposal for beefing up
U.S. naval power.
Some of the old guns, the smaller 5-inch turrets, will come off. The ship’s
old fire-control directors, the protective coating and the four big propellers
will also be removed.
All of that work will be done at the Navy yard. But it totals only $3
million – small potatoes in the ship-refitting game. The higher stakes are for
the add-on work: the installation of 48 missiles, new sewage systems,
Gatling-type guns and new radar and propulsion systems. The Navy has ruled
that the big contract would go to a privately owned shipyard – not a public
yard such as the Philadelphia facility.
In Chester, the Pennsylvania Shipbuilding Corp., heir to the former Sun
Shipbuilding & Drydock Co., has a shot at the contract. It is estimated that
winning it would provide 1,000 jobs to the economically depressed Delaware
County river city.
But competition is stiff from other private yards along the North Atlantic
coast, particularly from those in Brooklyn and Newport News, Va.
And sources knowledgeable about the work involved say the Chester yard faces
one major problem: establishing a channel deep enough for the battleship
between the central river channel and the yard’s drydock. The regular
customers of the yard are empty freighters and tankers riding high in the
A shipyard official conceded that such a problem existed, but he said the
yard would solve the problem if it were awarded the Navy contract. The
decision will be announced in July.
Part Six: The Ports
HEY, SAILOR WANNA
GOOD TIME AT THE JEAN SHOP?
By Robert R. Frump
Will Little smiled at the foreign seamen drawn straight from their ship to
the magnet that is his small establishment in Philadelphia’s one bona-fide
He knew they were fresh from a sea voyage of many, many days, and he could
tell from the expressions on their faces and the money in their pockets that
they had spent much of their time at sea thinking of this moment.
But he knew, too, that there were other men like him on this block, selling
the same goods and providing stiff competition in satisfying the sailors’
The price would have to be right, Will Little knew, or he would never sell
his product – American blue jeans.
Never mind what ancient mariners lusted after. While sailors docking in
Philadelphia today still pursue some of the same pleasures of the senses,
their most fervent passion seems to be reserved for discounted blue jeans in
an area of East Market Street near Front.
” They come up Delaware Avenue there,” said Little, manager of the Jean
Joint at 235 Market St., as he gestured toward Penn’s Landing and the river.
” They congregate in this area and hit the stores. I guess because the word
just comes along. They seem to know this area.”
That is not to say that shore leave here is all nice with no vice. There
remains a subtle but sizable trade in sex, with prostitutes commonly going to
the sailors on their ships, rather than their clients going to them.
Still, shore leave has taken a new tack. In part, that’s because
Philadelphia’s most notorious sex strips for sailors have been ” cleaned up.
” But mostly it’s a result of the changing nature of shipping.
In the old days, the crews could shop for four or five days while
longshoremen struggled with cargo hooks and small cranes to unload loose
But modern container ships, which are all cranes and automation, load and
unload quickly, sometimes in just a day. That means that seamen scarcely have
time to get tattooed, let alone carouse. And, given their choice of what to
do on limited leave, they are more likely to sink their money in Will Little’s
Jean Joint than into a few hours of honky-tonk heaven.
There’s money in their madness: When they return home, they can resell the
jeans for a handsome profit.
In quest of their denim treasure, the sailors journey to shops as far uptown
as City Hall, and drivers for the buses of the Seamen’s Church Institute, a
charitable aid organization at 249 Arch Street, say they frequently carry
seamen to the Gallery, at Ninth and Market. But the foot of Market Street is
the undisputed shore-leave district for blue jeans.
Since the jeans often can be resold abroad for many times their American
price, the sailors buy in quantity. ” They look for the names. Wrangler. Lee.
They buy 10 or 12 pair at a clip,” Little said. ” I had one guy buy 18 pair.
At 15 bucks a pair. Sometimes they make our day.”
Little estimates that jeans sold to seamen account for 5 or 6 percent of his
business, although this year things haven’t been so good. The port used to
produce at least one ship every week for the blue jeans trade, but now Little
says that the Jean Joint is lucky to have one crew every two weeks.
In years past, ship crews would tour the honky-tonk strips like
Philadelphia’s old Barbary Coast area on Arch and Race Streets. Nests of
hookers’ hangouts, clip joints, burlesque palaces, tattoo nooks and rough bars
flourished during World War II and the postwar years when the economic impact
of the sea – the merchant fleets, the Navy Yard, and the wartime trade – was
at its height in Philadelphia.
After the war, such activity became offensive to more and more people.
Church leaders marched down Arch Street from 12th Street toward the
waterfront. Raids were launched and urban renewal programs begun.
In the 1950s, the moral crackdowns and economic downturns of the postwar
shipping world helped end the section of Philadelphia that had resembled Hong
Kong’s fabled Wanchai district.
Its obvious successor would appear to be the city’s centralized vice strip
at 13th and Locust Streets, yet the sailors apparently have not firmly claimed
The blue of flashing police lights washed over that corner recently as
police officers and the women walking there performed their nightly routine.
It is a cotillion of hustle, hassle, hustle. The women hustle, the police
hassle. But the nature of laws and lust are such that the women always hustle
A police officer seated with his partner in one of several patrol cars
parked near there at 1:30 a.m. watched the scene with a bored expression. ” I
don’t know where else they would go in this city other than here,” the
officer said when asked about seamen.
But anyone who knows the action on the waterfront knows that the seamen
don’t have to go anywhere these days. The action comes to them.
A pier manager recalled a scene on a local dock two years ago. A woman still
carrying many of her clothes pounded angrily down the gangplank of a Greek
freighter, turned and swore at the men, saying they had cheated her. She also
had words for the stevedore foreman who had arranged her visit.
Such arrangements are not uncommon these days. ” The women just sort of show
up,” said the pier manager. ” There seem to be certain women for certain kinds
of ships. You have some women who only come down for Greek ships. Others who only come down for English crews. Certain women come down here for Norwegian ships. It all seems to depend on what nationality of ship.”
Exactly how the women get where they go is another thing. There is a
handle the needs of a ship while it is in port – actually make the
Others who regularly make the rounds of the waterfront say the system
functions on more of a free-lance basis.
” We see prostitutes on the unguarded piers,” one source said. ” They come
up to the ships and deal with the crew. They get an idea whether they’re
welcome or not and they go from there.
” A lot of them provide extra services to the seamen, like bringing them in
to Market Street or showing them where to dial home,” another source said.
It is not uncommon for officials at the seamen’s institute to chase away
hookers who want to check the lists of incoming ships.
But if there are the seamy scenes, there are also comradely ones, like the
scene played out recently in the lobby of the institute.
There, Ricardo Amaya, captain of the Argentine ship Dolores de Plandolit,
sat quietly with three of his six young sons – all crewmen of the ship. They
were planning the next day of a shore leave in Philadelphia that already had
lasted more than a month.
” We walk, we have rented a car, we have seen the Liberty Bell, we have gone
through Fairmount Park, and twice times through the Franklin Institute, and
twice times through the zoo,” he said.
His crew of 32, he said, has settled into a life of listening to jazz at the
Khyber Pass Pub. Or they down beers at the Olde City Tavern. On Sundays, there
is an Argentine barbecue on board ship. If there are racier times, the crew
has not told the captain.
Only a few days ago, sailors of the Dolores de Plandolit defeated the crew
of another ship in a soccer game arranged by the seamen’s institute. The
losers were Greeks from the ship Master Petros. (Greek sailors, by the way,
traditionally make a beeline from their ship to one restaurant and bar – the
Dionysos Supper Club at 611 S. Second St.)
But the kind of long shore leave that allows soccer games and family outings
is unusual, brought on by a sharp blip upward in the port’s jagged chart of
Both the Argentines and the Greeks crewed coal ships.
With the recent boom in coal exports, so long is the wait for the pier that
the Master Petros was here for a month. Captain Amaya berthed the Dolores de
Plandolit at Pier 100 on Feb. 4. He is still waiting for a spot at the coal
terminal at Pier 124 South, and may have to wait two weeks or so more.
Even so, he’s not impatient. To him, the wait affords the luxury and comfort
of spending shore leave with his sons.
IN THE PORTS WAR
By Robert R. Frump
The scrapple sizzled behind the counter of Frank’s Lunch, and one of the longshoremen filing through the small trailer-turned-restaurant muttered under his breath, “Man, does that grill look good this morning.”
But there was no time to linger in the coziness of the diner, and at a little before 8 a.m., bundled in sweaters and hooded sweatshirts, the men drifted toward the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal in South Philadelphia. A ship was in. Their time was up.
The scene was routine, but it has taken on a different meaning these days along the Delaware River. The longshoremen walking to their posts are, in a real sense, the foot soldiers in the opening battles of a cutthroat shipping war among the port cities of Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia.
Red meat is what New York is hungry for right now. Hit hard by a recent drop in cargo volume, the other two North Atlantic ports have turned an eye on Philadelphia’s major cargoes, and recently, imports of frozen meat have attracted the attention of New York terminal operators eager for business.
During the last five years, Philadelphia has been developed into the top meat-import port in the country. Roughly 55 percent of the one billion pounds of meat imported from New Zealand and Australia enters here, industry analysts estimate, and the two countries account for almost 90 percent of U.S. beef imports. Only about 25 percent of Australian and New Zealand beef goes through New York.
Philadelphia presents several attractions to the meat trade. Four shipping lines servicing the Australian region call here. Another factor is the abundance of freezer warehouses. More than a dozen freezer companies in the three-state area, the farthest in Newark, Del., are capable of handling the beef imports.
Moreover, according to Al Leifer, president of the Pierce Trading Corp. and of the Meat Importers Council, Philadelphia is a good distribution center for westbound beef. “If the meat is intended for use in the New York area, it may go through New York,” he said. “Most of the meat bound for the Midwest goes through Philadelphia first for shipment west. That’s worked out well.”
But now, New York is attempting to regain some of the meat-import business that it has lost to Philadelphia.
“There is definitely an effort, but whether New York will get the trade back or not, I can’t tell,” Leifer said. “New York may get some. Philadelphia happens to be really excellent, though, with great cooperation, and a good labor force; this is not a cargo you can bang around like coffee.”
The quality of work performed by longshoremen here is a key element in the struggle over the future of the meat trade.
Import officials do not talk much about this aspect of port competition. Longshoremen are a touchy subject. But when officials use words like ”cooperation,” and when importers note that meat “is not a cargo you can bang around like coffee,” they are talking about the quality of labor.
And in that department, Philadelphia gets good marks from the shippers using this port.
“Packer Avenue Marine Terminal is the most efficient terminal for handling meat in the entire United States,” said Stephen George, regional manager for Columbus Line Inc. “There’s no way anybody can beat the Delaware Operating Co.,” which provides stevedores at Packer Avenue.
And that is so, he said, because of the skills developed by the longshoremen in unloading the containers.
The refrigerated containers – most of them cooled by liquid nitrogen these days – that are used to forward the unloaded meat must be handled gently but quickly. Nitrogen cooling units on the containers must be charged with the gas and moved immediately.
Then, too, there is the “cooperation”; frozen goods cannot lie on the pier waiting for disagreements, confusion or labor problems to be resolved.
The term can have a broader meaning as well, say some port businessmen.
Because longshore labor is able to put a choke hold on commerce, businessmen will pay hard cash to relieve delays caused by labor problems.
Shakedowns and corruption have been established practices for so long on the nation’s waterfronts that a recent long-term FBI investigation – under the code name “Unirac,” for union racketeering – produced arrests and convictions of more than 50 port officials, businessmen and officers of the International Longshoremen’s Association, ranging from New York to Miami, and covering every major port in between. Except one. Philadelphia.
“The Philadelphia waterfront isn’t completely clean,” said one longshoremen’s union official recently, who asked that his name not be used. ”I wouldn’t ask anyone to believe that. But as things go, we are a very, very clean port. We were the only port not touched by Unirac, and that is because that sort of built-in corruption did not occur here.”
Pilfering on a smaller scale is discouraged in Philadelphia by anti-theft procedures that are in force at no other North Atlantic port. Philadelphia longshoremen who are caught three times with pilfered goods are fired. Period. And the rules were implemented with the cooperation of the longshoremen’s unions – not against their wishes.
“The longshoremen in New York and the longshoremen in Philadelphia are all brothers in the same union,” said one longshoremen leader during a recent interview. “But we are well aware that we are competing with the longshoremen in New York to see which ships go to which port.”
Two years out in the cold wind of a recession have helped drive that point home to Philadelphia dockworkers, the official said. So have the tactics of New York and the rumblings of Baltimore.
In 1980, Philadelphia’s imports dropped nearly 30 percent over the previous year. Since then, the port’s trade volume has rebounded weakly – but rebounded nonetheless at a time when the other North Atlantic ports seemed to be feeling the pinch experienced by Philadelphia two years back.
Figures in Baltimore show, for example, that general cargo imports and exports there dropped 9.6 percent for the first six months of this year, compared with the same period last year, while Philadelphia’s figures show an increase of about 1.1 percent. New York’s general cargo activity was off 2.1 percent in the first six months, compared with last year.
The result has been some tough talk in planning sessions from Baltimore and more than talk from New York. Delaware River ports handle more cocoa beans, Chilean fruit and frozen beef than any other North Atlantic port. And New York port officials or businesses within the New York area have mounted major efforts to attract all three kinds of cargo.
New York port officials said they merely wanted to “share” in the Chilean trade, but then dropped all pretense when discussing their designs on Philadelphia’s cocoa cargoes. One New York port official called the effort the “Great Cocoa Raid of 1982.”
Such wars are common in the cutthroat competition of North Atlantic ports. New York once handled most of the trafficking of frozen beef and cocoa beans that now pass over Philadelphia piers. And Hampton Roads, Va., ports have, in recent years, captured a big chunk of the cocoa-bean trade from Philadelphia.
None of the contending parties can really tell yet how the ports wars are going right now.
Philadelphia countered the Chilean fruit offensive by forming a council whose membership ranged from U.S. Customs officials to stevedores. Raymond Heinzelmann, director of the Delaware River Port Authority’s World Trade Division, has noted encouraging signs: A number of fruit importers have established offices here for another season.
But the end results – including the meat situation – will not be fully known until the ships start arriving in January.
Gilbert Augenblick, the president of Port Newark Cold Storage – the company that is largely responsible for the major push to obtain beef cargoes for the New York region’s ports – says he believes that January may therefore tell the tale. And if he has scored early successes, he does not sing about them.
“It is very difficult to to tell exactly what’s taking place in the long pull,” he said.
“We just want to get across that the costs involved to ship through New York are not higher and that the facilities are available,” he said.
102 MILES UP THE RIVER:
THE PORT OF PHILADELPHIA
HAS A LONG WAY TO GO IF IT IS
TO SURVIVE AS A WORKPLACE
First in a four-part series
By Robert R. Frump
Bundled in layers of clothes against the cold January morning, the old
longshoreman stood at the pier’s end and took a slow look at the churning,
brown currents of water that have provided him a living for more than a third
of a century.
” The river has been good to me all my life,” Joe Budd Sr. said calmly as he
turned away from the water off Pier 3. ” I have no complaints.
” The people who have problems,” he said with a pause and a nod, ” are up
High above him, a golden stream of corn arced into the hold of a ship.
Budd’s son, Tom, and a crew of younger longshoremen grappled on the cold,
steel deck of the ship for the lines of the grain chutes. Gusts of wind
buffeted the deck like surf on a beach. The chutes swayed perilously.
Yet when Budd’s crew clambered down the side of the Silver Arrow at 11:45
a.m. to huddle over lunch in a cozy warming shed along Pier 3, the talk was
not of the cold or the dangers, but of the prospects for more work.
” I don’t know what’s five years ahead,” said Tom, shaking his head. ” I
just don’t know.”
” The work isn’t here anymore,” Willie Corbitt Jr., 30, added in a
concerned and emphatic tone. ” When I started on the river 10 years ago, it
was here. In 1983 one-third of the men you see right here won’t be here,” he
said. ” They won’t be here because there won’t be any jobs.”
The men in the shed exchanged worried glances. In one way or another, they
acknowledged that they might be Philadelphia’s last generation of
For 300 years, Philadelphia has been a great port and the underpinning of
this region’s economy. The trade routes of the world have looped in great
circles, and always the ships have traced the circles to the mouth of the
Delaware Bay and from there 102 miles upriver to the low banks of the
Yet as the city prepares to celebrate the beginning of its fourth century by
focusing on the very waterfront that nurtured the settlement of 1682 into a
great city, the waterfront is slowly dying.
Now the men and women who make their living from the river see their jobs
endangered. Once a great gateway of trade, Philadelphia is, like Boston, San
Francisco and some other once-great destinations of the world, becoming a
Rising fuel costs, Philadelphia’s position so many miles upriver and
competition from the strategically located ports of Baltimore and New York
have left the Delaware River ports the odd port out. Moreover, at a time when
coordinated action is needed for this basin’s amalgamation of ports to
survive, no such action exists; the organizational structure of the Delaware
River ports lies in disarray, fragmented by rivalries and jealousies.
On the river, no one is in charge.
So, commerce fades. The river trade changes. The once-solid routes leading
here become spotty, dotted lines. The maritime community of the Ports of
Philadelphia – that loose confederation of river ports scattered in New
Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania – is threatened as never before in its
The Delaware’s decline is not a local disease. Dozens of other ports, both
in this country and around the world, have been stricken by a failure to
adjust to technological change in a cold-eyed, competitive business that
dispatches the weak and lame without sentiment or regret.
” Half of the ports of this country alive in the 1950s have disappeared,
” said Leo J. Donovan, vice president for Booz-Allen Hamilton Inc., a
Washington consulting company now studying the Philadelphia ports. ” The
other half of them are fighting for survival, and half of them will die.”
The Ports of Philadelphia, which handles more international tonnage than the
great harbor of New York, still has a chance to survive. Consultants like
Donovan are now preparing strategies that would give it a fighting chance if
it acts quickly.
It is no small fight. About 32,000 jobs directly related to maritime
activities could die with the ports, according to studies by the Delaware
River Port Authority, which markets area ports to shippers. The immediate
economic impact of river trade on the region – the money paid for goods and
services directly linked to the river – is $1.2 billion.
Yet the effect of the ports’ demise would reach far, far beyond the river’s
edge to people who have never touched a cargo hook or who have never seen a
pier. There are nearly 10 times as many people whose livelihoods depend
indirectly on the port. So vast is the scope of the ports’ influence on the
regional economy that Willie Corbitt’s proclamation had the ring of truth
” People in the rest of this city do not understand that there’s no work
uptown if there’s no work down on the river,” he said while digging into a
bowl of beans at the Pier 3 warming shack. ” There’s nothin’ uptown if
there’s nothin’ comin’ into this port.”
It is an exaggeration. But it is true that in 11 counties of Pennsylvania,
New Jersey and Delaware that were surveyed, the port authority found 300,000
men and women employed in industries dependent on the ports. (The survey
covered Chester, Montgomery, Delaware, Bucks and Philadelphia Counties on the
Pennsylvania side; New Castle County in the State of Delaware, and Mercer,
Burlington, Camden, Gloucester and Salem Counties in New Jersey.)
Those men and women earned about $2 billion. The investment in facilities
for docking oil tankers has been estimated at $250 million. The investment in
general cargo facilities is about $200 million, according to the port
The total direct and indirect impact of the ports to the local economy runs
to $3.6 billion, the port survey concluded.
The river runs like a spinal cord through this region’s economy, yet there
are maritime interests perched above Battery Park in Manhattan and in the
World Trade Center above Baltimore’s Inner Harbor who feel that the
Philadelphia system has already snapped like a piece of dry wood. These
competitors for the most desirable cargo of containers and breakbulk items,
such as cocoa beans, have grown cocky about it.
” You can’t put the Radio City Music Hall in Salisbury, Md., and expect to
fill it up,” W. Gregory Halpin, director of Baltimore’s Maryland Port
Administration, said during a recent interview.
With a satisfied twinkle in his eye, he added: ” You can’t put container
facilities in Philadelphia and expect to bring more traffic to Philadelphia.
Why? Because the ships will come to us instead because we are where we are.”
Tough as it is to swallow, there are more and more signs that Halpin is
right. Imports of general cargo dropped by almost 30 percent here in 1980.
Bulk oil shipments, the bread and butter of the river-port operations, also
slumped with the decrease in oil demand.
Those figures, when tallied, might be up some for 1981 from the previous
year’s slump, but every sign of long-term change on the river seems to tell of
powerful pincers of economic forces moving harder and harder against
The big squeeze has come slowly, certainly and forcefully. It is in town to
stay, and looks like this:
* The trend toward container ships, vessels carrying large, metal boxes
that can be lifted quickly from the ship to the beds of big trucks, has forced
shippers and ship lines alike to cut costs by shipping large volumes through
centralized ” load centers.”
* Philadelphia, 102 very expensive miles from the sea, lies between the two
load centers of Baltimore and New York. Ports drain economic basins as a river
drains a valley. Baltimore drains the Midwest. New York City is its own
massive market. Philadelphia tends to be the one in the middle, bypassed.
* Rising fuel costs, now 45 percent of a ship’s operating expenses, have
underlined in red the drawback of Philadelphia’s location. The increases
intensify arguments within ship lines for cutting from their list of North
Atlantic stops the long trip to Philadelphia.
* Channel dredging, historically a federal duty, will almost certainly
shift in part to local interests under current Reagan administration policy.
The expensive maintenance of Philadelphia’s long channel to the sea would be
assessed against the users – the ships whose operators are already showing a
reluctance to make the trip.
* Cargo tonnages needed to provide work for area laborers of the
International Longshoremen’s Association have fallen short of levels
guaranteed in union negotiations. This means that a ship’s freight could be
further surcharged, making Philadelphia even less an inviting port of call.
* There are some strategies, such as cargo specialization, that could save
the port. However, at a time when decisive and coordinated action is needed to
plot such strategies, the organizational structure of the river ports lies in
a confusion that has intensified the crisis. The ports’ organization is the
most fragmented of any in the nation, with four autonomous public agencies and
six autonomous private ones performing major maritime functions in
In one sense, the fragmentation is understandable. It fits the form of the
ports. The working waterfront more closely resembles a sprawling suburb than a
city center. The ports start 25.9 miles north of Chestnut Street, where
Fairless Works of the U.S. Steel Corp. in Bucks County receives ships, and
stretch 102 miles south to the sea.
The sprawling riverfront here includes the modern, monster-sized container
piers – the Tioga Marine Terminal and the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal
– controlled by the Philadelphia Port Corp., but leased to private operators.
The corporation also owns and leases out a number of finger piers to operators
who handle breakbulk shipments.
But the waterfront also includes privately owned and privately run general
cargo piers – Northern Metals in Philadelphia and Holt Terminals on the New
The Camden Municipal Port Authority leases out a freezer warehouse operation
in the Beckett Street Terminal on the New Jersey side. The South Jersey Port
Corp. handles both the Beckett Street Terminal and the Broadway Street
Terminal, which is the former site of the New York Shipbuilding Co.’s
Where the Christiana River meets the Delaware, the City of Wilmington
operates its own marine terminal. The southernmost conventional port on the
estuary is in Delaware City, Del. But in the deep water of the Delaware Bay
off Big Stone Beach, near the ocean, a huge, informal port operates. At
anchor, the big tankers transfer their cargoes into barges there, and then,
riding higher in the water, come upriver.
So the Ports of Philadelphia is no simple organism at all. The
conglomeration is complex and multibrained, with scores of legs moving in a
dozen different directions.
And it is there, in the tugs of those forces moving in different directions,
that the fragmentation becomes troublesome.
For example, even the organizations placed in regional command of some
operations have trouble making decisions with any sort of consensus. The
Delaware River Port Authority, the bistate authority that runs the bridges
and trains running between Philadelphia and New Jersey, set out in May to hire
a new director of its World Trade Division, which deals with the ports. The
job is key to the authority’s port-promotion efforts. It was clear to
everyone at the time that the ports had just suffered their worst year ever in
1980 and that they were vitally in need of promotion.
Yet, it took six months of confusion and political squabbling for the
commissioners to choose a winner from among a handful of candidates – all of
them clearly qualified for the job.
The mission in the beginning was clear, and clear opportunities showed the
path. The very first expeditions to Pennsylvania received orders from William
Penn: Find the spot where ” it is most navigable, high, dry and healthy;
where most ships may ride of deepest draught of water and load and unload
The search stopped 300 years ago, and the growth began where the Schuylkill
flowed into the Delaware. Philadelphia’s two rivers drained rich basins to the
north and west. The inland site for the port made it secure from coastal
Ore and coal came down the rivers for the early forging industry. Soon, a
profitable triangular trade route developed. Wood products, such as barrel
staves and lumber, reached Philadelphia by river. They were shipped to the
West Indies, where they were traded for sugar and rum. Those products in turn
were shipped to English ports, where they were traded for manufactured goods
that were carried back to Philadelphia by the same ships originally loaded
” Everybody in Philadelphia deals more or less in trade,” wrote a visitor in
1756, and Philadelphia soon became the third most-important business center in
the British Empire, overshadowed only by Liverpool and London.
True, there was cutthroat competition, at times of a violent sort. In the
1740s, local pilots guided a raiding party of French and Spaniards up the
treacherous river during King George’s War, and the enemy attacked two
Still, with its port, the city thrived as a maritime center, and maritime-
based industries and services rose up around it. The Insurance Co. of North
America based in Philadelphia became the country’s first marine insurer when
it underwrote the 1792 voyage of the sloop America from here to Ireland.
Even as Philadelphia’s prominence faded and New York’s light glowed brighter
and brighter in the early 19th century, the stake of the city in the port was
At that time, there were six shipbuilders, 12 boat builders, 93 shipwrights,
23 ship carpenters, 17 chandlers, 30 riggers, 43 sail-makers and 15 caulkers
in the city of 90,000 residents. More than 300 families were connected to
shipbuilding and its support industries.
Countless others knew well that their daily bread floated in only when the
ships were cast upon the waters.
In the mid-19th century, clipper ships from Philadelphia raced with those
sailing from New York to the gold fields of California. And in 1861, the
Elizabeth Watts, a 224-ton, two- masted, square-rigged sailing ship,
embarked on a trip from Philadelphia that would forever change the maritime
history of the world.
The fumes from the barrels in the hold of the Elizabeth Watts were so foul
on that first voyage that the captain could not assemble a crew to work the
decks. He followed time- honored maritime traditions by hauling drunken
sailors on board the ship from Philadelphia’s waterfront bars. By the time
they regained their senses, the ship was on its way to London.
In its hold, the ship carried the world’s first cargo of oil ever to be
transported across an ocean, from a region destined to become one of the
world’s great oil ports.
Times change. Markets come, then they go. For more than 200 years, the
patterns of international markets and the technology of transportation joined
and filled the ports of Philadelphia with trade the way strong and constant
winds puffed out the sails of the ships that journeyed 100 miles downriver and
into the sea.
When sails disappeared, the port community handled the change that chugged
in with the advent of large steam-powered ships. Between 1890 and 1920, the
city reorganized its government structure, built modern piers, established
cargo-marshaling yards and straightened snarled rail- traffic patterns. The
port adapted. The port thrived.
Now, the technology of container shipping and load-center marketing poses
another threat to Philadelphia’s status as a great maritime center. The scheme
of the port has changed so.
In one sense the Philadelphia region remains a great port. ” We still have
the refineries,” Samuel W. Schellinger, a fourth-generation river pilot, said
And indeed, over the years oil has kept the Philadelphia regional ports
As recently as 1978, the ports here handled a total of 132 million tons of
foreign and domestic trade. By some calculations, those figures made the
Philadelphia region the third-largest port in the world, behind Rotterdam in
the Netherlands and New York.
So long as the refineries exist and the United States imports oil, the river
system will continue to function as an international port.
Of sorts because, although the ports here easily compose the largest oil–
shipping center on the East Coast, the nature of the shipments exaggerates
its status and health as a maritime center. This is because of the
differences between bulk and general cargoes.
It is no small task, unloading one of the big tankers of its bulk cargo. A
ton of oil brought through the port produces only $8 in direct economic
benefits to the region. A pilot must guide the ship upriver. A tugboat
operator must help dock the ship. Refinery workers must help unload the oil.
Chandlers must supply the vessel and the crew with tons of food and drink for
their prolonged voyages.
But when all is said and done, oil is much simpler to unload than general
cargo and its economic benefits are slight. Back the ship up, park it at a
pier and press some buttons. Valves open, the oil flows and the ship leaves,
all in a matter of hours.
In contrast, the freighters and container ships, carrying general cargoes,
bring the waterfront alive with action. And dollars.
Ton for ton, general cargoes – such items as Scotch whiskey, bananas, canned
hams, auto parts, Chinese licorice root, auto tires and newsprint that are
handled in separate containers or pallets – contribute almost five times more
to the regional economy than do oil or other bulk cargoes, such as grain, coal
About $38 in direct economic benefits flows from every ton of general cargo
moved through the port. That is to say, for every ton of auto tires brought
through the port, $38 is spent to get it up the river, unload it, store it
and ship it on to its final destination.
In 1979 about six million tons of the more than 100 million tons of
Philadelphia imports and exports were general cargoes. New York handled close
to three times as much – 15.4 million tons.
But, up until three years ago, the Philadelphia ports maintained a
respectable share of the North Atlantic general-cargo trade – about 20
percent, the same as 1971’s share. New York’s share was about 51 percent.
Baltimore’s share was about 17 percent. The share of Norfolk-area ports was
about 12 percent.
Then, in 1980, the flow of general cargoes through the Ports of Philadelphia
ebbed sharply as traffic in a wide range of imports plummeted.
Years before, the port had lost its status as the place to import cocoa
beans. But in 1980, imports that had filled that gap evaporated, too. Iron and
steel imports decreased by 40 percent. Fruit imports dropped slightly. Lumber
products tumbled by 41 percent, lube oils by 53 percent. The export of motor
vehicles dropped by 11 percent.
General-cargo imports did not just decrease. They dove 29 percent. And
Philadelphia was the only North Atlantic port to register a decrease in
When the final figures were tabulated by the U.S. Department of Commerce
recently, the ports’ North Atlantic market share of general cargo had
plummeted from about 20 percent to about 16 percent, from almost six million
tons to 4.7 million tons. This occurred at a time when Baltimore’s share rose
from 17 to 20 percent, from 5.3 million tons to about 5.9 million tons. (New
York and Norfolk-area ports remained nearly constant.)
Simultaneously, with decreased domestic use, oil imports declined by about
20 percent, from 69 million tons to 55 million tons.
The direst predictions of the port cynics seemed to have been met and
exceeded. The economic losses in 1980 staggered the port community. This was
no flesh wound. More than $157 million in economic benefits hemorrhaged from
the area with the decreased trade.
“Everyone is alert and aware of what’s going on,” said Schellinger.
“Everyone knows what’s going on, and they are working hard on it.”
Yet, it has taken a year of quarreling and bickering along the river for the
maritime community to come to that point of awareness. There still is no clear
consensus among port leaders on what action to take, even though port
consultants have determined that cargo specialization – carving out a niche in
world trade – could save the port.
The circumstances have set people on the waterfront to wondering.
Jeff Lappin, a pollution monitor for I.O.T. Corp., stood on a barge at the
mouth of the Delaware Bay in the spring and remarked about the decreased
number of ships sailing past Cape Henlopen. He wondered aloud what steps his
Philadelphia-based company, the largest barge company on the river, might
take. Would a boom in coal exports turn things around? Would the whole port
operation improve by being moved to the naturally deep water of the bay with
its capacity to handle larger ships?
Others wonder, too, each with his own question and solution. The declining
cargo figures are watched by men like tugboat captain Clark Cain, the
longshoremen Budds family and river pilot Bob Bailey.
All of them, in one manner or another, wonder what is happening to the
tonnages that affect their lives. And most workers on the waterfront are
wondering something else these days, too:
Who or what is to blame?
That list is a long one. It includes the unions. And the politicians. One
might tack on a few local industries. And poor worker productivity. Add
fragmented government, petty politics, badly run railroads, and there is
still room for poor planning and government underfunding.
But the list of people to blame is quite apart from the list of people
responsible for the port’s present situation.
There is one main man on that list of people responsible for the situation,
and he is not running for office this year. His name is William Penn, and his
location of the port, a blessing in 1682, is the port’s curse 300 years
Location, interacting with today’s market and technology, set what the port
leaders of 1982 can and cannot do. And the problems for which they can and
cannot be held responsible.
There are plenty of both.
Part Seven: The Rescuers
SLIPPING BENEATH THE WAVES HOW AN AGING SHIP CARRIED 31 SEAMEN
TO THEIR DEATHS
By Robert R. Frump and Timothy Dwyer
Second in a series on how government programs keep
old worn U.S. ships at sea.
His ship was sinking. On the darkened bridge, Captain Phillip Corl reached for a life jacket, the last man to put one on. Now he was fumbling to get his arms through the holes of the awkward vest when the Coast Guard rescuers radioed back.
”What color are your lifeboats?” the Coast Guard asked. “State the color of your lifeboats,” the radio sputtered. Eugene Kelly, the third mate, reached past his struggling captain for the radio mike.
“Orange! International orange!” Kelly yelled back.
The shrill whistle to abandon ship blew. Kelly found himself with a walkie-talkie in his hand, standing at the top of an interior set of stairs leading down to the lifeboat deck. The radio crackled. Engineer Michael Price was still at his post, deep within the ship. Did the officers want the engine- room pumps tied down?
“Mike!” Kelly yelled into the walkie-talkie. “Get the hell out of there! We are going down!”
Then he jumped from the stairs, the walkie-talkie tumbling in front of him. It shattered to pieces on the lower deck. He crashed on top of them and lay there for a moment thinking: I’ve got to get out of here before we go down.
Outside he rushed, to this scene: Above him, Corl was climbing the rail of the deck, trying to get free of the ship. Below him, chief mate Robert Cusick was launching a lifeboat.
The lifeboat lines were paying out, paying out, paying out. Seaman Paul Dewey was on the deck reaching out, reaching out, reaching out for a line.
The ship jerked. Dewey tumbled over the rail and into the water. The vessel righted and then, with a sucking noise “like the sound of the water going out of a bathtub amplified one billion times,” the old ship turned onto its right side.
The water seemed to just come up and meet Kelly.
Dewey felt the steel of the ship pressing him down wherever he tried to swim up. The ship had capsized on top of him.
Cusick, the old chief mate, was swimming underwater as if in a dream, past the lighted porthole of the cabin where he had stood just a moment before. He looked in. The room looked normal. He clawed against the steel and swam some more.
Kelly just slipped easily into the water, only to see the huge stack of the ship poised like a hammer above him. Now it was coming down, directly on top of him, and he could only look up at it.
Freeze the scene at that moment in time. It is 4:16 a.m. Feb. 12, 30 miles off the Virginia Coast, and the men of the Marine Electric have begun the final chapter of the story of their ship.
It is a gripping story that could stand by itself, worth the telling for what it has to say about courage, survival, tragedy and luck among human beings at sea.
Yet the prologue to that story – of how the Marine Electric came to sail years past the age at which most ships are scrapped – is as compelling in its way, with moments as crucial, as the scene above.
An Inquirer investigation into the loss of the Marine Electric, based on interviews with survivors and relatives of lost crewmen, an inspection of Coast Guard records and testimony before the formal Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation show that the wreck of the Marine Electric should never have occurred. The ship’s violations of Coast Guard safety standards should have kept her in port.
Members of the Marine Electric crew knew she was unsafe, and they were afraid. Many would not cross the Atlantic on the ship. On occasions when the ship changed from its normal coastal trade route to transatlantic grain trips, these men would take their vacations rather than make the trips.
Seamen said they looked to the Coast Guard to rescue them if the Marine Electric went down on one of her normal coastal trips. For some, it was not a question of if the Marine Electric would sink, but when.
The ship was riddled with deficiencies – a hole in its hull and holes in its hatch covers. Yet she sailed, in part because some inspections by the Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping were bogus.
Checks of some crucial areas of the ship never took place, despite records that indicated they had.
Other claimed inspections were reported as having been made on days when they could not have been done. A supposed hatch-cover inspection occurred when the ship had no hatchcovers.
The result was that the Marine Electric, sailing out of Norfolk to its end and the death of 31 of its 34 crewmen, had holes in its hatches, deck and
hull, all in violation of U.S. safety requirements. Some of the holes and many of the temporary repairs went unreported by the ship’s owners – also a violation of U.S. safety codes.
Despite the ship’s many flaws, the Marine Electric was certified by the Coast Guard as seaworthy and given a Maltese Cross A1 by the American Bureau of Shipping – the highest rating for insurance and safety purposes.
It was the poor condition of the hatch covers that most worried Cusick before he sailed. Cusick was second-in-command of the vessel. He had frequently complained about the covers to his superiors and had avoided transatlantic trips on the old ship whenever he could.
All this was far from his mind as he clawed along the steel of the capsized ship, his lungs straining. Past the lighted porthole, he found a railing and turned past it. His life jacket and air-filled polyester underwear popped him to the surface. He sucked in air.
Dewey was still underwater, his oxygen all but spent, still swimming up, still hitting steel. Then, on the edge of panic, it struck him. Up was the wrong way. The ship was slanted above him. He turned and swam down. He dove down against instinct and the buoyancy of his life jacket. He reached a rail and turned past it. Freed from the underwater trap, he shot up.
He broke surface like a cork and spit up water, coughed and caught his breath. He swam on his back away from the capsized ship. He was surrounded by shipmates in the water.
“Help me, help me, ” they cried out.
He would try to help them. He would do nothing but try to help them in the next hour.
Kelly was looking at the huge stack, still falling toward him through the air in a lazy arc. He stared at it, frozen; he felt unable to escape.
A hand grabbed his life jacket at the scruff of his neck and dragged him through the water. The stack hit the water where he had been.
When Kelly looked up, he could see nothing. There was nothing to see except the strobes of the life preservers blinking eerily. No rescuers. No stars. No clouds. Nothing. The water was the same. Black. “Unbelievably black.”
It terrified him. But there would be worse moments. When there was enough light to see, he would watch his men, his colleagues, his friends, just drift away on the water, into the interminable night. Only a half-hitch held him to a life preserver; he clutched a tankerman’s red light in his hand.
Cusick, other officers and crewmen knew what they had in the old ship. Still they sailed. They liked the Marine Electric for one reason and one reason only: It was in the coastal trades.
The coastal trades meant steaming from Norfolk with coal for Somerset, Mass., and back. Thirty six hours up the coast; 36 hours back.
Dewey in fact felt lucky to have been hired 10 days earlier. The schedule meant only a few days at sea, compared with months in the transatlantic, deep- sea crossings. Family men could stay close to home. And the work was steady.
It was, as third mate Eugene Kelly said, a “milk-toast run.” The old salts could have the transatlantic runs, two weeks each way, with just the ocean to stare at. Most of the men on the Marine Electric could park their cars at the Somerset power plant; when they came in, they could zip home, ”like we were shore workers and get a night at home,” Cusick said.
The bad news was that cargo carried between two U.S. points must be moved on U.S. flag vessels – built in the States and crewed by Americans. And many of those vessels are old rustbuckets. “Almost 80 percent,” Capt. H.A. Downing of the Marine Transport Lines (MTL), owner of the Marine Electric, would say.
It didn’t take experts to tell that the ships were rustbuckets.
A month before the Marine Electric left on her last voyage, Sheree Browning visited the ship. Her husband, Steve, a ship’s engineer, was working late. He said that she might as well come down to the dock and hang around the ship watching television until he got through at midnight.
On the way, they drove by a sleek, new ship, and Sharee asked her husband: ”Is that your ship?”
No, it wasn’t, he said.
“Then we drove down to this little rust boat in the back and I said: ‘Don’t tell me this is it?’ And he said: ‘Yes.’ And I said: ‘My God’ and thought to myself: ‘This thing is terrible-looking. I’d be scared to go across the harbor in this thing.’ ”
The men who worked on the ship weren’t afraid to go across the harbor. The ship’s second mate, Clayton Babineau, for one, took last summer off and worked on the roof of his house while the Marine Electric delivered grain to Israel
because he didn’t think the ship safe enough to make the trips.
Cusick, who had been a merchant mariner for nearly 40 years, had in fact declined the command of another old vessel for that very reason. He would have earned more on the other vessel – would in fact have been skipper, not just chief mate.
Cusick mightily feared the condition of the hatches of the Marine Electric and the other aging members of the U.S. bulk fleet.
“Bill, you know what you got here, these old ships,” he said at dockside to his old friend, William H.C. Long, a fellow officer of the Marine Electric. ”You know these old ships, these hatchcovers on these old ships. . . . ”
The Coast Guard makes few rescues in the middle of the Atlantic, but the sea lanes sailed by the Marine Electric in the coastal trade were only about 30 miles out.
If the Marine Electric sank, Cusick knew the Coast Guard would be near. “I always figured the Coast Guard would come out and get me,” said.
He rejoined the Marine Electric in November when the ship resumed its coastal route.
There was no time for talk of safety matters on the docks Thursday, Feb. 10, for the crew members were busy getting ready to sail, and a long mechanical arm attached to Norfolk and Western Pier 6 was filling the Marine Electric’s five cargo holds with 24,800 tons of granulated coal.
A fierce winter storm that was to bury the East Coast under a record accumulation of snow, was closing in. Sherree Browning’s husband bid no lingering farewell to his wife. She dropped him at the dock. He turned and said, “Put your foot to the floor of the truck and don’t look back until you get home.”
Still, she thought about turning back. She almost did – to see him leave. She felt something was wrong, but the thought passed, and she went home.
Captain Phillip Corl, who was substituting for the ship’s permanent master for this run, had a last-minute thought too. He acted on it. His wife, Alice, was to have accompanied him on this trip. But the weather gave Corl pause. At the last minute, he sent her ashore.
By 11 p.m. the loading was done. It was, Cusick noted, a good job. The bow was drawing 34.04 feet. The stern drew 34.04 feet. Marine Transport Lines, Cusick said, was good about that. The company never tried to overload. Never even hinted that it would like to. There was no percentage in it.
The ship cast off almost immediately upon loading, and Cusick set his men about the business of dogging down the hatches – fastening clamps as the ship approached the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and headed for the ocean.
The pilot was dropped to a launch at 2 a.m. Friday as the Marine Electric neared the tunnel-bridge system that spans the mouth of the bay. A good-size sea was running. A gale was blowing from the northeast. None of this concerned Cusick particularly. “We had gone out many times in this type of weather.”
When he turned in about 3 a.m. any apprehension he had about the ship coming through the storm was put to rest by this recurring thought: If we go down, the Coast Guard will come out and get us.
He trusted the Coast Guard capacity for sea rescues, but he had seen enough not to trust the Coast Guard ship-safety-inspection procedures.
The ship heading out into the storm was riddled with holes. None was big enough to sink the ship by itself. And none was big enough to make the owners retire the old ship. But added up, they were enough to keep it at dock for not meeting Coast Guard regulations. More than enough, in fact.
Richard Roberts, another third mate, told Kelly it was his last trip on the old ship. The officers had long complained about the condition of the ship. Clayton Babineau used to kid Kelly about the ship’s condition:
“Think they’ll be chopping her up for razor blades?” he would joke, once they had made it home safely from another trip. It was a reference to the universal seamen’s metaphor – “Cut her into razor blades” – for scrapping a ship.
Kelly would answer him: “Can’t make razor blades out of rust.”
Once over dinner, Kelly said, chief engineer Richard Powers, who was in charge of maintenance on board, had told him the company was reluctant to put a lot of money into the Marine Electric because it planned either to scrap the ship within two years or place it under a foreign flag of convenience.
“It was a calculated gamble,” Kelly concluded. “If it paid off, they made a lot of money. If it didn’t . . .. ”
Kelly himself would not walk over the hatches, as some crew members did when they were closing them up. “I always expected to look down in the hold one day and see him lying flat on his back,” he said of one crew member who did.
One day, Kelly beamed a flashlight on the deck and was horrified when the light passed through a hole and shone on the bottom of the hold.
Cusick drew dozens of sketches of the wasted areas of the hatches, which had been patched with common duct tape and epoxy glue – Red Hand, they called the glue. He gave the sketches to the company, expecting that repairs would be made. They were not.
Kelly and Cusick were concerned about a discovery they made at the dock in Somerset before embarking on the trip immediately preceding the last voyage.
“Mate, come quick,” Kelly said to Cusick. “There is a hole in the
There was indeed. The number-one wing tank on the port side was being filled with water to steady the vessel. But water was pouring out from this tank through a jagged hole in the hull three inches in diameter and about five feet down from the deck, well above the water in calm weather, but a hole in the hull nevertheless.
They figured the hole had been made by a bulldozer while the ship was being unloaded at Somerset.
The law states that such a breach of the hull must be reported to the American Bureau of Shipping and the U.S. Coast Guard. Regulations also state that repairs made to a hull must be inspected and approved.
Cusick reported the hole to Captain James K. Farnham, the permanent master, and then patched it crudely. He put the bottom of a three-pound coffee can over the hole, backed it with a cement-filled box and braced it with a timber. Farnham in turn reported it to Joseph Thelgie, the superintendent of maintenance for MTL. But nothing was done to replace it.
Did Thelgie report it? Cusick wondered. Thelgie had not.”This was an oversight on my part,” he was to say later.
Marine Transport Lines, owner of the Marine Electric, had a reputation as one of the best bulk-ship operators in the U.S. “A first-rate company in all ways,” said a ship surveyor active for 30 years. MTL, as it was known in the trade, was in turn owned by a large international, transportation-oriented company, the Chicago-based GATX Corp.
Unlike some operators with their one-ship corporations, MTL had money for maintenance. It traced its ancestry to 1816. In 1982, its revenues were $112.9 million with a net income of $2.4 million.
It did not have just two or three ships. It owned, chartered or operated a fleet of 34 vessels under U.S., British, Liberian and Panamanian flags.
There were, in fact, three fleets managed by MTL. The Military Sealift Command wing, with nine tankers, had a $185 million contract that made it the 79th largest defense contractor.
MTL had not cheated the Navy – as was the habit of some U.S. shipowners – by offering to carry Navy cargoes in good ships but then charging outrageous rates while using decrepit old ships.
The MTL fleet used to carry Navy cargoes was built in the mid-1970s and financed by the Irving Trust Co. These modern ships, like the Sealift Pacific, which rescued 186 Vietnamese boat people in July 1980, enhanced the reputation of the American merchant fleet.
In its second fleet, MTL had some of the largest and most commercial tankers in the world. The B.T. Alaska and the B.T. San Diego brought oil from Alaska under a U.S. flag. MTL also had foreign flag ships. There was the new $13 million ship the Oswego Prima, which it operated for the Oswego Chemical Corp., and just recently, MTL bought a new tanker for about $28 million from a Spanish shipyard.
Finally, MTL had a fleet of six World War II-era ships like the Marine Electric called T-2s – all of them more than 35 years old, hardly to be expected in a first-class fleet. In fact, the 22-year-old Oswego Peace, a foreign-flag ship operated by MTL, was scrapped in Taiwan in 1982, while the 38-year-old Marine Electric sailed on.
Only if they flew a U.S. flag would MTL ships live past 30.
Yet the T-2s served a specific and profitable purpose. They were, after all, built in this country. They were patched and kept afloat to participate in the protected trades reserved for U.S. vessels.
For instance, occasionally some of the old ships would sail in the cargo- preference trades under which U.S. Food for Peace grain was carried abroad. (Those cross-ocean trips to Haifa, Israel, with loads of grain were the ones Cusick and Roberts feared most.)
New American ships that could participate in the preference trades cost too much to build in U.S. yards – sometimes three to four times the cost of similar construction in foreign yards. So old U.S. merchant ships were saved.
The T-2s operated by MTL included the Marine Chemical Transporter, owned by Union Carbide Co., and the Marine Eagle, owned by the Du Pont Co. The fleet also included the Marine Floridian, a chemical carrier owned by an MTL subsidiary, as well as the Marine Texan and the Marine Duval, two MTL sulphur carriers.
All were well over 30 years old. Each had been jumboized – enlarged to carry more cargo. And all but one had a record of accidents and breakdowns typical of old ships operated so long past their prime. Age-related equipment-failures had left some drifting helplessly at sea, vulnerable to disaster.
For example, the Marine Chemical Transporter’s main propulsion system failed in the Straits of Florida in January 1978. A Coast Guard report noted the cause was the failure of a part “due to deterioration” that allowed acid to enter the steam system. (Another Coast Guard inspection on Feb. 19, 1981, found that a pin on a lifeboat on that ship had simply sheared off “due to fatigue.” The lifeboat therefore could not be launched properly.)
There had been many other T-2 problems for MTL, including the loss of 39 men on the Marine Sulphur Queen in 1963.
Then, there was the Marine Electric.
According to MTL officials, the 38-year-old converted T-2 was lost because she turned at a crucial moment on her last voyage to aid a fishing vessel named the Theodora.
The Marine Electric and the Theodora first crossed paths on Friday, after the coal carrier had reached the stormy North Atlantic. All that night and for most of Friday the big ship had battled 25-foot waves and blizzard conditions with winds gusting at Force 10, more than 55 miles per hour.
Kelly, Cusick and Dewey watched as the Marine Electric passed well to the east of the Theodora about 3:30 p.m. The fishing boat was struggling slowly but successfully on a westbound course toward shore and shelter.
However, a short time later, as the storm intensified, the Theodora began taking on water. Her pumps could not keep up with the flooding, and the Coast Guard asked the Marine Electric to turn back to help the Theodora.
Corl, the captain, agreed. But he warned the Coast Guard that the Marine Electric was also struggling in the seas. In fact, the ship was “hove to” at the time – going as slowly as she could, maintaining just enough forward motion to avoid falling into the wave troughs and wallowing helplessly.
Under the circumstances, Corl executed the full 180 degree turn without much trouble, avoiding being swamped in the troughs, a hazard of such maneuvers. The Marine Electric was only in the trough briefly – for maybe two or three rolls.
Kelly, outside the deckhouse at the stern, felt no discomfort as the Marine Electric swung about at 4:10 p.m. Friday. Once the ship was turned, the wind came from astern, and Kelly, now exposed to the elements, hurried back inside.
Later during supper someone commented on how well the “old man” had handled the turn.
“Can you see us on radar?” the Theodora asked the Marine Electric by radio at 4:36 p.m.
“Yes,” came the reply. “You are 1.2 miles due south of us.” The Marine Electric continued to shadow the Theodora as the fishing vessel, then well off the Winter Quarter Shoals of Virignia, moved toward shelter.
An hour passed, and the Coast Guard asked the Marine Electric at 4:38 p.m.: ”Can you stand by until midnight?”
“Well if you want me to stand by . . . ,” came the reply from the Marine Electric. It is believed Corl was speaking: “I’m having problems out here myself in this . . . weather.”
“Marine Electric, if you can, we would like you to stand by as long as possible,” the Coast Guard answered.
It was 6:22 p.m. The lights on the bridge would have been lowered then to enhance visibility and the reading of instruments.
“I don’t know if I’m going to be able to keep this course,” came the answer from the Marine Electric. “I’m taking an awful beating out here. I’m going to be in trouble myself pretty soon.”
Two minutes later the Coast Guard gave the Marine Electric’s officers permission to resume their northward course. A rescue boat was nearing the Theodora. A chopper had arrived and had lowered a pump to the fishing boat. The captain of the Theodora reported that his boat was proceeding without any problems and no longer needed the Marine Electric’s assistance.
Sometime during this errand of mercy, MTL executives now theorize, the ship sealed its own fate.
The ship was in an area spotted with shoals. The water was as shallow as 40 feet and the vessel, which drew 34, easily could have struck one, the company executives have testified. Such a grounding would have been virtually unnoticeable as the ship pitched and bucked in 35-foot waves, said executive vice president H.A. Downing.
A little hole opened and then widened into a long crack that eventually grew into a gap 36 feet long and 7 feet wide, a tear from port to starboard across the hull of the ship, 40 feet back from the bow, company executives theorize.
There is no doubt that the rip is there: Divers have documented it. But did it result from hitting a sandbar?
Cusick was on the bridge during the turn and the escort of the Theodora. He recalled nothing that would indicate a grounding. No thumps. No bumps. Nothing. Kelly and Dewey felt nothing either.
“This is no reflection on the crew or officers,” said MTL’s Downing, who is a sea captain himself. “But they are wrong. With waves running 30 to 35 feet, you come down hard in the water. You could hit sand bottom and never know it.”
Cusick, however, has said he would never be convinced of that. He was on the bridge. He had kept an eye on the charts and depth-readings, he said. And, he noted, the Marine Electric never came close to the old coal route that ships he had served on used to follow; a route that was well west of the Theodora’s position and close to the shoals.
At no time did the ship enter water shallower than 16 fathoms – 96 feet – according to Cusick. Moroever, the fishing boat captain, with a fish-finder that recorded depths, said the Marine Electric never went into water shallower than 110 feet. The Coast Guard’s estimate indicates that at the Marine Electric’s closest approach to charted shoals she was 3 miles from the nearest shoal in water more than 12 fathoms.
It was at that point – 38 degrees 50.2 minutes north; 74 degrees 57.3 minutes west – that the Coast Guard released the Marine Electric from escort duty.
Theodora captain Jennings Hayward radioed the Marine Electric: “I thank you very much, old dog, and I really appreciate what you did. . . . Thank you very much and good luck to you.”
The Marine Electric turned back north, with no luck in sight.
Dewey, Cusick and Kelly all thought at the time that the worst of a bad storm had ended. Kelly was the officer on the bridge until midnight. All seemed routine. Dewey rested, awaiting the start of his shift at midnight. Cusick was bushed. He turned in.
None had a hint that the turn they made from the Theodora put them on their final course.
Yet the last two years of the Marine Electric’s existence could be seen as a succession of crucial moments leading squarely to that end. Each voyage the old ship made might well have ended in disaster that lay just ahead.
An episode two years earlier may have been the last best chance the Coast Guard had to avert disaster. The worn hatch covers of the old ship were to have been repaired as part of work scheduled for the Marine Electric at the drydock at the Jacksonville Shipyards Inc. in January 1981. The hatch- cover work was included on 86 legal-size pages of repair orders.
Some work on the hatch covers was done. Thirty-one metal patches were welded on to renew them and reinforce their strength.
But other work on the covers was not done properly.
New gaskets were to have been installed to improve the cover seal against water. But almost the reverse happened, according to Cusick. The original 59mm gaskets were replaced by shorter gaskets, he said. The result was an ”ineffective” seal between gasket and hatch lid.
The hatch covers had been taken off during the drydock inspection for work and were brought back only the day before the Marine Electric set sail again. When the hatch covers were placed back on the ship, they were warped, still contained holes and would not open or close properly.
“The hatches were put on at the last moment, at the last day,” Cusick explained. “We spent the whole night trying to get them to open and close. They were in
much worse condition as far as opening and closing the hatch covers than they were when we took them off. None of the sealing bars would work, because this particular gasket, this short gasket, wasn’t even reaching in many cases to the sealing bar. Instead of the gasket itself coming down in the middle of the knife-edge of the gutter, it was missing it entirely.
“It was very, very fouled up. It was so bad that they got the MacGregor company down to work on it.”
Maxwell S. Graham represented MacGregor Land and Sea, the manufacturer of the hatch covers. He worked on them beginning March 8 – 12 days after the vessel was cleared and approved by the U.S. Coast Guard and American Bureau of Shipping inspectors in Jacksonville. His assessment: “Covers will not open or close correctly. . . . Once again it is emphasized that the panels are not considered watertight and much work is required to make them so.”
However, on June 8, 1981, the Marine Electric was “certificated” – it officially received a Coast Guard certificate that stated all was well with the ship. The hatch covers still had not been repaired or tested for strength or weathertightness by the Coast Guard or the ABS. In fact, inspectors for both agencies never even looked closely at the hatch covers. Their inspections were done while the covers were open and stacked like dominoes so only the surface of the first and last panel in each stack was visible.
More than a year later, Graham was still being called to work on the hatch covers. In November 1982, he noted that he had found the panels of number 3 hatch in poor condition during a March 1981 post-drydock visit to the ship. Said Graham in an invoice and analysis:
“They have deteriorated badly in the interim. At present the coamings (raised edges of the hatch) have holes in the wheel tracks and are so wasted that there is no strength left to support the weight of the panels without further distortion. The coaming compression bar is badly scaled and wasted such that it should be renewed . . .. The top plates are weak, wasted, buckled and holed in many places . . .. The rubber gasket channels are of an incorrect size and do not fit correctly to the adjacent panels.
“To compound this problem the side skirts bend inboard and foul the compression bar. . . . The panels on the remaining hatches appear to be in a similar condition. A judgment as to the seaworthiness and cargo protection capabilities of these panels must be examined” according to the ship’s classification to fully determine their exact state “with an eye to the duration of further use (of the covers), if any.”
The position of Marine Transport Lines was and is that the ship was in good shape with sea-tight hatches. “The cargo never got wet,” said Thelgie, the fleet superintendent. He said Graham was simply trying to hawk his wares – not seriously assess the condition of the ship.
Captain James D. Farnham, the permanent master of the ship, said he felt the hatch covers were worn but seaworthy. He said he had sailed the ship in seas similar to those the Marine Electric faced on its final trip, and that they had held up fine.
And Basil Andriopolous, MTL’s land-based port engineer, agreed: The ship was in good shape. The hatch covers were sound. If there were problems with the ship, they were there only because Richard Powers, the chief engineer, did not report them. And Powers? He could not answer these questions. He died when the Marine Electric went down.
The MacGregor representative had a slightly different analysis.
“My understanding is that Mr. Thelgie was caught between two positions,” Graham was to say later. “One was operating within a budget and the other was operating the vessel.”
How could the old ship sail in violation of the regulations that required hatch covers to be weathertight and able to sustain 210 pounds of pressure per square foot?
The Coast Guard inspector, Lt. James Guidish in Jacksonville, said he never looked at the hatches. He said he didn’t even know how to go about testing the seaworthiness of a hatch cover and never attempted a test because the owner’s representative assured him that the crew would carry out the tests after the ship left Jacksonville.
The tests were never conducted.
The ABS inspector, Serge V. Simeonidis, said he inspected the hatch covers on the ship carefully. The problem with that assurance is that he said he inspected the covers on the ship when the ship had no hatch covers; they were not there during his inspection.
Cusick, who was on the vessel at the time, said no ABS inspector looked at them. The ABS man said he looked at them last on Feb. 22, 1981, and had looked at them several times during the week prior to that. In fact, Cusick said, the hatch covers were not returned until Feb. 23.
Not until November 1982 did the company replace any of the cover panels – and then only one. The month before the Marine Electric sank, Farnham asked Cusick to sketch the hatch covers for possible future repair. The sketches detailed many badly worn areas – some up to 16 feet long by 2 feet wide. There were so many pinholes in the covers that the daylight came through when they were closed.
The hatch covers were so bad that the deck crews no longer tried to control the rust with scrubbing and many coats of lead paint. When rust ate through the covers, the crew just slopped flat black paint over them to cover it.
By the time the Marine Electric went to sea on what would be its last voyage, the hatch covers had deteriorated even further. They still did not close tightly. Cusick said the hatch covers were in awful shape.
The deck, too, had some holes in the area between the hatches. Those holes would also be plugged by the crew with the Red Hand, an expoxy glue. Cusick asked that “doublers” – big iron patches – be welded on the deck in some places.
Kelly noticed a hole in the deck that had been circled with white chalk. It was only three inches long and a little less than an inch wide. But it had penetrated the full depth of the metal deck. The hold below was visible. That hole worried him more than the one he had found in the hull, he said later.
Those were some of the deficiencies of the Marine Electric. Any inspector aboard would have to notice them. There were plenty of occasions when inspectors were on board:
In 1981: May 5, 10, 24; June 8, 11; July 1, and Dec. 19 and 31.
In 1982: Jan. 18; Feb. 8; March 21, and Nov. 3.
And the last on Jan. 15, 1983. A notation in the Coast Guard computer says: ”Mid-period inspection. Okay.”
The vessel was never stopped.
If there were any consolation in sailing on such a ship during the winter of 1983, it was that the required bienniel drydock for repairs was not far off. It was scheduled for February.
But then on Dec. 27, 1982, there was a letter from Thelgie to the Coast Guard requesting a delay in the drydocking until April 1. He said that New England Power Company, which was receiving the coal being carried by the ship, had asked that it remain in service until then.
The power company was to say later that it made no such request in
December, and in fact had a barge lined up to replace the Marine Electric. It also had a 35-day reserve of coal on Feb. 10, the day the Marine Electric left on its final voyage.
But the Coast Guard agreed to the MTL request. The drydock could wait.
Now, all the chances to avert disaster were gone as the Marine Electric left the Theodora to resume course 040 north about 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 11.
The helmsman constantly had to swing hard right rudder to hard left rudder just to keep the ship on course for what would be the ship’s last eight hours.
Kelly was on the 8 p.m.-to-midnight watch – in charge of the bridge as a third mate. He could hear the Coast Guard cutter and the Theodora exchange radio messages as the fishing boat headed toward the safety of Chincoteague Passage.
Then he settled in to the peaceful rhythyms of a ship’s bridge. All the electronic equipment was working well. The winds had subsided some – from Force 10 to Force 5 – though it still was a rotten night at sea. Captain Corl had been up all night. Now, he was napping in the chartroom behind the bridge on a settee.
The ship was making little progress. Sometimes its speed was a little over a knot. But at times it was less than 0.3 knots. By midnight, when Kelly’s watch ended, the ship had traveled only 1 1/2 to 2 miles, rolling with the 20-foot waves.
But there was no list or harbinger of disaster. Waves broke across the deck, washing over the hatch covers – but not breaking on them.
It was almost back to routine now. The Marine Electric had seen worse weather. Other ships were untroubled. Richard Roberts, the other third mate, relieved Kelly at midnight. He looked at the chart, and Kelly told him that Corl wanted to be kept posted every half-hour.
Kelly, exhausted from a day and night of bad weather during which he could not sleep, turned in and finally slept. Dewey, an able-bodied seaman, took the lookout outside on the starboard wing, the exposed area projecting to the right of the bridge. Cusick had turned in an hour before.
Calmly in the mess room, Dewey read a novel after he was relieved, waiting until 2 a.m. when he was scheduled to take the wheel.
But then, at 1:15 a.m., the handling of the vessel changed.
The bow was sluggish; it was not coming up from the water as much as it had, Roberts would tell Kelly. It seemed as if the ship was down at the head. Roberts shook the captain awake.
Dewey took the wheel at 2 a.m. Captain Corl and Roberts puzzled over the bow. They were certain something was wrong. They tried to call the engine room to start pumping operations. But the telephones had failed. About 2:45 a.m., a seamen was sent to round up the other officers and send messages to the engine room. Clearly, something was wrong.
Cusick had been awakened by Corl. “Come up on the bridge, mate,” Corl said. “I believe that we are in trouble. I think she’s settling by the head. This may be my imagination,” Corl continued. “With the way the sea is running, I can’t really tell.”
Cusick raced to the bridge. He took one look. He ran to get Powers, the chief engineer. It was apparent: The seas were breaking over the bow.
The seaman who had stirred Kelly told him there were problems. The captain wanted the officers to report to the bridge, wearing their life jackets.
The third mate washed his face and brushed his teeth. He dressed calmly and
went to the bridge. He stood in the rear, away from the large forward window, to let his eyes adjust. Then he stepped forward to the window and stared into the storm.
It was his first glimpse of the Marine Electric’s fate. The waves that had broken over the bow earlier now covered the front portion of the vessel. Green water covered hatch number one and almost all of number two. The waves were breaking on hatch number three and against the base of the ship’s house from which those on the bridge looked out.
The Marine Electric was going down. It was nearly 3 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 12, and the 38-year-old converted World War II-tanker and most of its crew had only hours to live.
Powers, Cusick and Corl decided to call the Coast Guard. At 2:51 a.m., Corl asked for assistance:
“I am approximately 30 miles from Delaware Bay entrance and I’m going down by the head. I seem to be taking on water forward. I’m going to try to head for Delaware Bay. . . . We are positively in bad shape. Positively in bad shape, we need someone to come out and give us some assistance.”
Corl told them that he did not really know what was wrong.
Trying to discover what was happening, the crew shined flashlights from the bridge. But the beams died in the spray of the waves. Powers ran below to get his big red light with two handles on it.
He gave it to Kelly and told him to shine it toward the bow. The beam pierced the storm. Kelly could see the small white doghouse on the bow. It would appear and disappear. He thought the entire bow was under 6 to 7 feet of water. He could not see the hatches.
Powers came inside and told Kelly he thought the number-one hatch had been stove in. Kelly still could not see for sure. There was too much water and 400 feet of distance between the bridge and hatch covers.
Pumping continued. There was a good head of pressure from the starboard wing tanks, which meant they probably were flooded.
At about 3:30 a.m., Corl told Cusick to ready the lifeboats. The chief mate mustered his crew on the starboard boat deck. It was as if a routine drill were being held. It went like clockwork. Farnham had drilled the crew well. They took the covers off the lifeboat, carefully folding and stowing them.
Cusick believed the covers would be replaced soon, that the crew would be rescued before they had to use the lifeboats. If we get into trouble, the Coast Guard will come and get us.
“It was the farthest thing from our mind that what was about to happen would happen,” Cusick said.
On the way to check the lifeboat operation, Kelly stopped where the life rings were stored and piled them up on the deck. “I don’t know why I did it,” he would said later. “I was never trained to do it. Nobody told me to do it. I just did.”
Kelly functioned with an automatic sense that amazed him. He freed the EPIRB, the emergency radio transmitter that sends a continuous SOS. He headed back to the bridge.
There, Dewey, still at the helm, had some steerage, but not much. Corl had ordered a course change from a northeasterly 040 to 000 – due north. The vessel was traveling at 1.3 knots. Dewey could see and feel the front of the ship continuing to sink slowly.
Did the ship have survior suits? the Coast Guard asked by radio.
No, just life jackets.
Cusick said the lifeboats were swung out over the water but not lowered. He feared they would be damaged in the heavy seas if lowered as the ship rolled. The inflatable life rafts had been hauled down to the boat deck in their canisters. They were ready.
About 3:40 a.m. Dewey noticed the Marine Electric was no longer sinking only at the bow.
It was listing to starboard. By 3:55 a.m. there was a five-degree list. It would increase to 14 degrees when the ship rolled in the waves. That left the lifeboats only about five feet above the sea.
They asked the Coast Guard if there were any vessels in the area. Minutes later, Albion Lane, the radioman, was told there were two merchant ships in the vicinity: The closest one would reach the Marine Electric at 6 a.m.
There was a sigh of despair from the officers. Everyone knew, Kelly said, that the Marine Electric would not last until then. They hated the thought of going into the water in lifeboats.
At 4:07 a.m., the ship shifted more to starboard. A little later, there was a further shift to 10 degrees.
It was enough for Corl. He radioed the Coast Guard: “I think I’m going to lose my ship here . . .. We are taking a real bad list to starboard.” Then he called the engine room on the walkie-talkie: “Secure the engine. Stop the engine. Evacuate the engine room.”
Corl told Dewey there was no sense trying to steer. Dewey left the rudder hard to port and began to leave by the outside passage. Kelly yelled to him. Go down the inside passage. There was too much list for the outside ladder.
On the radio, Corl told the Coast Guard he was going to abandon ship. Now.
At 4:14 a.m., the Marine Electric broadcast its final radio transmission: ”We are abandoning ship right now. We are abandoning ship right now.”
He put down the radio and reached for a life jacket – the last man to do so.
The whistle blew. The men rushed through their duties, Cusick and Dewey at the lifeboats, Kelly on the bridge. He paused on one deck and heaved life rings into the black void.
Then the boat turned.
“It just went like this, it just went like this,” Cusick said, moving his hand in the arc of an inverted “U.”
At one instant he was at the forward end of the lifeboat. A second later he was in the water, clawing and swimming below it.
Cusick passed the porthole of the room where he had been standing. The
lights were still on. He looked in as if in a dream. He swam by it, clawing, swiming, swimming.
Then he broke the surface and began swimming from the ship, turning onto his back to catch his breath and rest. Then he would swim again.
He swam for half an hour. Then he found an oar. He hung onto it. The seas would raise him from the water. He would look back. There were all the strobe
lights of the life jackets winking away. He could hear cries. There were groans from the darkness.
He thought he saw Powers flashing his light – the tankerman’s light. As he came up on the crest of a wave in the pitch dark, he saw the shape of a lifeboat. Not the one they had tried to launch, but the other, which had been torn lose from the ship. It was swamped. Cusick swam for it. It took him half an hour.
Dewey, trapped under the ship, had reversed direction by now and popped to the surface. He swam on his back away from the ship. He was surrounded by people in the water.
“Help me, help me, ” they cried.
Dewey, reaching as he swam, felt a line in the darkness. He turned to look.
On the end of the 10-foot line was a life raft in its canister. He placed his feet against it. He pulled hard on the rope. The canister popped open and the raft inflated – and in the process it blew Dewey from the raft.
He swam back. Three other seamen were there. Dewey struggled for 15 to 20 minutes. The raft had a canopy with the front and back sides open. The sides were high. Finally, Dewey clambered in.
Another seaman – Dewey, who had been on the ship only 10 days, could not remember his name – tried to get in. Dewey tried to pull him in. Heavy seas washed over them.
Dewey could not pull him in. The seaman was nearly motionless, frozen by the sea.
Dewey yelled to the other two seamen: Hang onto the life line around the raft.
The second mate, Clayton Babineau, swam over. Dewey could not get him in the raft either, even with Babineau trying to help. The second mate was in control, though. He was doing what officers are there for. He commanded.
Put the ladder down, he told Dewey. If Dewey would help him get in, he would help Dewey get everyone else in.
There was no ladder. Dewey found a cargo net draped over the other side. The seamen were pleading for help, unable to help themselves.
Follow the line! Dewey told them. Work your way around! A cargo net was draped over the other side. He yelled and yelled.
And the men worked their way around.
Babineau tried the cargo net.
Even with Dewey’s help, he could not get in.
His hands just did not work. He could not grab on top of the raft. The net was flush there, providing no handhold.
Dewey placed Babineau’s numbed hand in the net. He gathered the net so Babineau could grab it. It didn’t work.
Get a foothold in the net! Dewey yelled.
I can’t! Babineau cried.
Then Babineau put his feet on the edge of the raft. Dewey pulled the second mate’s knees up over the edge.
But that way, the mate’s head was underwater.
Dewey was losing him that way, so they stopped. They had struggled in the cold for half an hour. Now, Babineau could only try to hang on. He was going to sleep. The cold water was stealing his energy.
Dewey looked in the raft for something else, anything to help. Was there another ladder? There were canisters. One was marked “one small oar.” Another said “hot catch rain water.” Another said “fishing line.”
Then Dewey looked back. Babineau had drifted away.
One of the other seamen struggled to get into the raft. The other two were in shock and made no effort to get in. They could only cry: “Help me. Help me. Help me.”
Then one by one, they all drifted away.
Dewey was alone in the raft.
He shivered convulsively as he sat in the darkness. When he heard helicopters, he shined his flashlight toward the sound. The chopper did not stop. Dewey was not worried. He was going to make it.
The chopper circled and came back.
A basket was lowered. He saw a picture showing him how to huddle inside. He just fell in. Then he was in the helicopter, door open, freezing, shouting above the noise: “There’s no one else in the raft!”
But when Dewey looked down, he could see a man swimming in the water. It was a Navy diver, James D. McCann.
McCann, in wet suit, snorkel and fins, was finding a lot of dead seamen. But among them, he was finding men alive.
From the first, Kelly had not been a likely candidate for the rank of survivor. He had narrowly escaped the fall of the ship’s huge stack, thanks to an unknown shipmate’s tug on his collar. He never saw who it was.
In his words:
When I turned around there was nobody there. I think we got separated by the seas. And it was about a half an hour, maybe a little bit less, that I swam away from the ship. . . .
Finally, after some time in the water, I came across a life ring, and there were five other people hanging on. .
It was the chief engineer (Richard Powers); the third mate, Richard Roberts; one of the ordinary seamen, his first name is Harold – I don’t know his last name; the day man, Joe, I don’t know his last name; and it was the radio operator, (Sparks Lane), and myself.
We were on the life ring.
Everybody was pretty well stunned. We sounded off so we could find out who was there. We sounded off by number and came out with six.
And then it was just talking, giving each other encouragement, that we thought daylight was coming pretty quick. Several times the chief thought we saw a ship in the distance, or saw lights in the distance when we got to the top of a wave.
The only lights I could see around me were the strobe lights of the life rings, the water lights, and I could hear people calling all the time, but I couldn’t see anybody else . . ..
And I don’t know when I started to notice that people weren’t on the life ring.
I noticed that Harold wasn’t there at one time.
And then I turned around and the day man wasn’t there.
Right after that, I called out to Rich Roberts and I asked him how he was doing. He responded that he was okay, that he was cold, he was okay.
I don’t know how long it was on the life ring before I noticed that the only ones there were the chief engineer and the radio operator.
He was stiffening up. He kept saying, “I’m cold. I’m cold. Help me.”
At that point, I noticed that the chief – the chief – when we went into the water, had his spotlight and he had been shining it up into the air all this time.
I noticed that he wasn’t shining it any more. I thought he might have lost it. So I whacked him on the back of his life jacket, and there was no response
from the chief. And as I hit him, his flashlight floated away from him, and I was able to grab that, and use that as my signal.
I never looked at my watch in the water because I was afraid that I would lose my grip on the ring. So I wasn’t concerned with the time element. I kept talking to Sparks. Sparks was the last one on the ring with me.
The helicopters arrived, and it seemed like I could see them passing over me two or three times before they spotted us.
When they lowered the basket, I turned to tell Sparks that the basket was here, and Sparks wasn’t on the life ring anymore.
It was just myself.
Kelly had tried to flash the tankerman’s red light at boats and ships earlier. But he could not aim it. He did not have fingers and toes. That is how it felt. He would shiver for a minute, be still for 10 seconds and then shiver again, repeating the cycle over and over like convulsions.
When he heard the chopper he tried to point the light straight up. He did not even know the Coast Guard diver was near him, helping. The chopper looked so close, almost floating on the crest of the waves. He could reach out and touch it.
Then he was in the basket, heading toward the chopper and he thought:
I should have taken the light. I should have saved Power’s light.
On board the chopper, Dewey and Kelly were freezing. Kelly’s pants were down around his knees. He was sobbing uncontrollably, throwing up water and oil. There were three dead men with them in the helicopter as the crew searched and picked below like a pelican scooping fish.
One corpse had its eyes open. Kelly took a blanket and pulled it over his own eyes to keep from looking at the dead man.
Then the copter crew found a lifeboat. They brought a body up. Kelly yelled to Dewey. “Was that the chief mate?” Dewey could not hear him. Kelly yelled again.
“Was that the chief mate?” Finally, Dewey read his lips.
He wasn’t sure. The body was covered with oil. Finally, they could see it was Cusick. But was he alive, or dead? They could not tell.
When he had reached the swamped lifeboat, Cusick put his hand on the gunwale. Only then did he let go of the oar and grab hold with his other hand. He paused, then kicked off his heavy, water-filled rubber boots. His stocking feet found a rail that ran along the underside of the boat.
He did not struggle. He waited, poised for the right moment. Then it came: A wave carried the boat and Cusick up together. Then, when the boat started down – Cusick was still going up – he heaved, shifted his weight and allowed the momentum of the wave to topple him in.
Cusick sat on a thwart of the swamped boat as it floated only inches above the sea. The air was freezing cold.
A wave nearly washed him back overboard, so he lowered himself into the water within the boat and thrashed about to stay warm.
He began to yell: “Lifeboat here! Lifeboat here!”
But no one answered.
So the old chief mate sat in the water and prayed for daylight.
When it came, a Norwegian tanker had also arrived. It was a big one, the Barranger. It pulled alongside the small lifeboat.
Norwegian seamen dropped a Jacob’s ladder down the side and valiantly clambered down to help. They reached for the American. But the waves were too big.
The captain of the Barranger saw the danger clearly: The waves threatened to smash both the tiny lifeboat and Cusick against the steel hull of the ship. So the ship pulled back.
Cusick, realizing why, was relieved. Better this way, he thought. There was a better chance this way.
So the old mate sat in his boat, hanging on now, hanging on, hanging on, . .
Suddenly, the copter whirred overhead. A basket dropped from the sky.
He tumbled in and, as he was being hoisted up, he looked below: The small orange lifeboat grew smaller and smaller.
Then hands were working on him, pressing on him. Dewey and Kelly watched, still wondering: Was he alive? Or dead? The Coast Guardsman asked: What month was it? What month was it?
“February,” Cusick finally coughed. Kelly and Dewey knew there was a third survivor.
A short time later, rescue ships, including the Tropic Sun out of Philadelphia, approached. Crew members spotted men in life jackets, bobbing about on the sea, and messmen exuberantly prepared coffee and soup for them.
But as the ships drew closer, it became clear – the men who were left were dead. Their bodies drifted by the ships in packs, rising and falling with the waves.
Jim Walsh of the Tropic Sun said the dead floated eerily, in relaxed positions. They reclined, their eyes staring, as if they were in their living rooms watching television.
The Marine Electric stayed afloat belly up for several hours. Then, at 37 degrees 51 minutes north, 74 degrees 51 minutes west, it turned and sank.
THE DEAD CREW
Bernie Webber to the Rescue:
Excerpt from Initial Manuscript of Two Tankers Down
(Here is an excerpt from my original draft proposing Two Tankers Down, published by Lyons Press in 2008. “Webber” of course is Bernard C. Webber, one of the most famous “coasties” ever. Two Tankers Down grew from a large part of “Until the Sea Shall Free Them” that needed to be cut from that book – but would not leave me alone until it was published in another book.)
Sunday, February 18, 1952
Chatham Lifeboat Station
5 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.
Webber was warm inside the Chatham Lifesaving Station and soup was bubbling on the mess-hall stove. Outside, the gale was gaining strength, it seemed, and howling for their attention. He had mixed feelings as he always did on such nights. They were rescuers, and that is what they did. So storms meant business. Action.
Firemen had to have the same feelings. You did not want conflagarations. On the other hand, it was what you lived for, and if you had none, ever, what was the point.
Certainly there was a small voice in Webber saying, “Please, God, not another Landis. Don’t make me go into the cold, cold water like that again.”
Then there was another voice that sounded a lot like Masachi’s and it wanted another Landis. Wanted to make the Landis rescue good. To do it over again. Have a happy ending. Fill in the holes in their hearts that the Landis sank into.
It would seem a natural thing, remorse over lost seamen. But in the Coast Guard, remorse became magnified to something more. In a culture where one had to go out, one need not come back, there was a stigma to those who came back without rescuing those in peril. And this stigma seemed to attach itself even in the most unfair cases.
Nothing illustrated that better than the case of David Atkins, the heroic keeper of a cape lifesaving station near Provincetown. In April 1879, a coal carrying schooner, the Sarah J. Fort, foundered a quarter mile off shore. Atkins lead his me to rescue the ship’s crew and officers by shooting a line from a small cannon out to the ship. The lifesaver was skilled in the use of the gear of its time, the Parrot Gun. A new, more efficient cannon had arrived recently – the Lyle Gun – but Atkins was not familiar with its operation.
In the gale that blew, the Parrot Gun could not reach the ship. Eventually, lifesavers reached the ship by boat and saved many of those on board, but lost many as well.
An inquiry specifically stated that Atkins had done all he could, but also noted that had he been able to use the Lyle Gun, he might have saved more people. The inquiry board held him blameless and praised his courage, but Atkins himself felt huge self-guilt. Nor was it helped by the townspeople of Provincetown who he said subjected him and his crew to the “goading slur.” What was in their behavior or his mind is unclear, but there was no doubt that the goading slur was real to him.
Next season, he said to his wife, he would redeem himself and end the goading slur, or die in the trying.
Which he did. In November 1880, he lead a crew to rescue those stranded on the C.E. Trumball. He hauled a boatload back to shore, but on the return trip for more, the lifesaving boat capsized and Atkins was lost.
So a man of great courage and heroism died in disgrace, in his own eyes at least. History redeemed his reputation, but made it only clearer that on the ground, in real-time, this was a culture of extremes. You had to go out, you did not have to come back. If you came back empty handed, you might just as well have stayed.
So yes, it could be a culture of courage. It could also be a culture of cruelty.
Some of Webber’s tension this day was relieved when he got a plain brown-bag routine assignment in the early morning hours. Warrant Officer Daniel W. Cluff, the new guy, gave it to him. The Virginian said in his thick drawl that Webber and a crew needed to get the CG 36500 going and check the harbor for boats torn loose from their moorings. Given the givens, this was routine and easy duty. The CG 36500 was the boat that faced the Chatham Bar. No way anyone was crossing the bar in this sort of storm. If anything, it was worse than the Landis storm. But this part of the harbor had better shelter and it would be an easy ride out in the dory to the CG 36500 and they were not going anywhere near the open sea. It was all harbor work.
Just a few boats were adrift. They taxied the CG 36500 from one to the other. The lifeboat had a ton of bronze in its keel and it did not move quickly. But once it was underway, its 90 horsepower motor provided deep torque and purchase in the water. The covered part of the lifeboat could hold up to 20 suvivors sheltered from the elements. She could also tow a lot, the CG 36500 and with the bronze in her keel, she was “self-righting.” A wave could roll her over, and if you hung on tight, she would turn right-side up. Eventually. If you hung in there. Held your breath while you were wrong side down.
This sort of routine tow-the-boat duty Webber had the hang of. You had to be careful, but it was no big deal. Truth of it was, he was pretty good at this stuff and the CG 36500 was his favorite boat. Was he as good as Bangs? Probably not. Not yet. But there was no doubt Bernie Webber was good. With any luck now, he might be able to cut out for home and check on Miriam, his wife. She had been sick for two days, but he had been on duty. It would be nice to be able to check in on her, to take care of her.
He was getting the hang of this married stuff now. It had settled him. He was no longer the lost young lad easily led. The Coast Guard and marriage had built his character.
But, brother, had that taken some time. If he had been confused during his teenage years, his dating days were pure chaos and it was only through the grace of God that he had met Miriam, now sniffling and coughing back in their cozy apartment in Chatham.
Two years earlier, he and some friends from the station had set out for Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod, to meet some P-town girls. The Provincetown scene was much wilder than Chatham, and Webber’s intentions may not have been wholly honorable.
But the carful of would-be rakes got no farther than Orleans, a good 45 minutes from Provincetown when the car threw a rod. Webber, the preacher’s son, dialed the operator and tracked down the young women in Provincetown. He was ever so polite and such a gentleman as he explained the situation and apologized that they could not make the dates.
Such a display of manners may have been lost on the P-towners, but they were not lost entirely. For a few days later, a woman called the Coast Guard station asking for someone she thought was named Webster. They figured that had to be Bernie and so they transferred the call to him. The young woman was both shy and direct. She had heard a lot about him, that he was nice. Had a nice voice, had nice manners.
Hey, Bernie replied, if you’ve heard so much about me, why don’t you know my name. The young man was flabergasted. Only two days before, he was pursuing a young woman in Provincetown, and know, it seemed, this young woman was pursuing him.
What’s your name, he asked. “Wait a sec,” she said, and there was a pop and crackle on the line. Then she was back to him. “I have to get to know you better before I tell you my name,” she said. “Can I call you back?”
Webber was reluctant. But there were long, long one-man watches where he just killed time on the ten to two shift late at night. She could call then.
She did. Night after night. They talked about everything and she learned Webber’s life story. She knew everything. He did not even know her name. Always, she would call and they would talk for hours. But every few minutes she would say, “Wait a sec” and there would be that pop and click, a pause and she would be back a moment later.
Finally, Webber had enough. He still did not know her name. “Listen,” he said, “we have to meet or you have to stop calling me. I have to know how you found out about me and I have to meet you.”
“Wait a sec,” she said. And then she agreed to a meeting, with her parents consent, at a drug store in Wellfleet, halfway down the cape toward P-town. How did you know about me? he asked. You have to tell me that, too.
She paused. “Wait a sec.” Was back.
“I was the telephone operator the night your call broke down,” she said shyly. “I listened in on your call and you sounded like a really nice guy, but I had to check you out. I call you when I’m at work and business is slow. I talk to you in between calls.”
And so they met. Webber and a friend went to the pharmacy-soda fountain on the weekend. He saw a girl at the counter, but when she talked it wasn’t Miriam. She’s back there, the woman said, pointing toward a phone booth.
All Webber could see was fur and hair in the phone booth. The sight scared him. He had a blind date with Bigfoot!
And then Bigfoot turned around. She was wearing a fur coat with her back to him. She was dressed to the nines. Long blond hair. Piercing blue eyes.
And Webber thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. A funny feeling came over him then. He got on the good side of her strict parents when he said he was the son of a minister, and the young man and woman were “sanctioned.” They saw each other every time they could, and on one date, in the car, Miriam turned dreamily to Webber, and told him, “Bernie. We should get married.”
Webber clutched. He was not expecting this. This, he did not have the hang of. Did not even know there was a hang to it. Stuttered. Sweated. Then blurted out:
Fine, Miriam said. She was crushed of course. “You should take me home then,” she said.
Webber started the car and prepared to back out and head home. His head was clearing, clearing and he realized what she had said, what he had said.
“I mean yes!” he said. “I meant to say yes!!”
No, you don’t mean that at all, she said. You don’t mean it at all.
I do, I do, Webber said, and he really did and eventually he convinced her of it in every sincere way he could.
Now, if he could just get the fishing boats taken care of, there was just enough time to pop home and show her again how much he still meant it two years later…
But it was early morning before the stray fishing boats were secured to moorings and piers. The storm was a blizzard now, spitting alternate pellets of frozen rain and slanting sleet. The men were soaked and tired when they finally tied up the 36500 and returned to the lifesaving station about 8 in the morning.
hen and only then did they get word that there might be trouble off shore. There would not be time to check on his sick wife. To show Miriam how he felt. The word was that there was a big ship in trouble.
The word, when it came, came not from the Pendleton, but from her twin, the Fort Mercer. The Pendleton, drifting in two halves now for nearly four hours, still lay undiscovered because the men on her could not radio for help.
The Fort Mercer was not in great distress as yet and still had her radio. The word was not definitive. Only that she was experiencing some trouble. The officers were not certain. She might, in fact, be splitting in two.
They were not sure. Could the Coast Guard send help just in casse?
Sunday, Feb. 18, 1952 – Monday, February 19, 1952
8 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.
Onboard the SS Fort Mercer
The Pendleton’s crack up began and ended in seconds. On the Fort Mercer, it began with a puzzle that solved itself only hours later.
The shifts changed every four hours on the For Mercer so at 8 a.m., a new bunch of officers and seamen trudged to the bridge and those on the old watch stepped down. The off-dity seamen would return aft, navigating the catwalk back to the deck house near the rear of the ship; off-watch officers generally would return to their quarters in the forward deckhouse.
So Perley W. Newman, a quartermaster, had just joined the bridge when he heard a metallic snap, a crack-like noise.
“What was that?” Captain Paetzel said the bridge. At first he thought that Newman had slammed the door hard. He was more annoyed than alarmed.
“I think the ship cracked,” Newman replied.
“My god, I hope not,” Paetzel said.
Newman nimmediately craned his neck around looking backward toward his ship for damage.
The crew and officers had little problem confirming something was wrong. Thomas Gill., the first assistant engineer was eating breakfast when he heard a sharp “snap” sound. He rushed up to the deck to look around. He looked out and sure enough there was heating oil leaking from the tanker. A small amount. He hailed the chief engineer who noted it almost routinely. No big deal, Gill thought, and he went back to finish his breakfast.
Paetzel too could see the oil leaking and knew there was some problem with the ship. Some tank or something had given away. His first thought was to inform the Coast Guard but not panic his crew. He had been a wartime officer. He knew that panic could be the worst enemy here. If they rushed for the lifeboats? Tried to launch them?
At such times as these, Paetzel knew the lifeboats were all but useless. The seas were rocking and rolling, 35 to 45 feet high sometimes. Some wave measurement instruments later would show them peaking at 60 feet.
So if you were lowering a boat into such waves, here is what you faced. At one moment, the top of a wave the height of a four-story building would be just even with you. The next moment, the trough of the wave would be 30 to 40 feet below you.
Time it right and you might launch a boat in conditions like this one time out of a hundred. But then what? A small boat with no cover in waves far larger than the boat itself?
He’d lose at least half the crew, he figured. At least 20 men.
Better for them to take their chances on the ship.
So he called the Coast Guard then and told them his position and that he needed assistance. No, he said, he could not say he was in dire straights. But he needed the Coast Guard to be ready in case he did.
Roger that, the Coast Guard station at Chatham replied, and Cluff told Paetzel he was dispatching cutters to the area and asking all ships at sea to standby and assist. The good news was that there were several cutters in the general area. They had been searching for a vessing vessel, the Paolina, and another, the Julia K.
The Eastwind, a 269-foot cutter that was actually a polar icebreaker, was nearby. She had one problem in these seas. She’d been called upon to break ice in the Hudson River – an unusual chore during an unusually harsh winter. And to do that, the Eastwind had dumped ballast water so she only drew about 22-feet of water. Heading back to Boston, she kept the shallower trim and did not re-ballast because she was going to take a full load of diesel and head north to the arctic.
This meant that icebreaker, a big “;roller” to begin with in normal weather, was really lively in the seas of this storm. She had difficulty maintaining good headway at times bobbed side to side almost like a buoy.
The cutter Unimak was in Boston when she got the call to assist. It was a casual enough call that Commander Frank McCabe invited his father and 11-year-old son along for the ride.
The Legare and the Frederick Lee were smaller cutters and scoured the ocean for the two missing fishing boats, but soon found that 125-foot ships were no match for 40-foot waves. Both were ordered back to base, such was the pounding they received.
Two other cutters – the Acushnet and the McCulloch– might also be brought into play. The Acushnet, at dockside in Portland, Maine, heard the first Fort Mercer distress call and began preparations for sailing south. Such were the conditions that the deck hands found they could not cast off the hawsers from the dock. They struggled with the huge frozen ropes – then took fire axes to them and cut their ship lose.
Cluff forwarded the distress call to First District Headquarters in Boston and the response was prompt and clear. The Eastwind and Unimak would cease the fishing vessel searches and head for the Fort Mercer. Later, the Acushnet was ordered to delay its scheduled overhaul and head south as well.
So that was the good news. There seemed no bad news. Yes, the cutters were heading toward the Fort Mercer through 120 miles of high seas. But there was no absolute urgency to the Fort Mercer’s plight. Paetzel had told his crew to standby, but he sounded no general alarms. Panic was the enemy here, so far as he was concerned.
Still, Cluff, Bangs and Bernie Webber stayed close to the radio that morning. You could never tell what might come up. The thought of sending 36-foot boats into 45-foot waves was unlikely. Not 25-miles out to sea at least. So it was good that the cutters were at hand.
Not everyone on board the Fort Mercer felt as comfortable with the crack arrestors as the captain. Not everyone, in fact, felt comfortable with the captain.
Patezel had ordered the men to be alert but had not sounded a general alarm. He did not want to sound any signals or bells that would stampede the crew. Word got out to some; not to others. What followed was a combination of near-panic by some and ennui among others.
Julio Molino, a seaman, was one of those who heard nothing about the 8 a.m. crack. He was standing with a friend.
“Look in the water, the ship is broke,” Molino said matter of factly. “There’s oil.”
“I don’t want to look, “ his friend said. “I’m scared.”
“Let’s go tell the captain,” Molino said. But his friend was too scared and would not even look at the oil.
Then Molino saw a plate floating away.
These guys are all too scared of the old man, Molino thought, because the captain is too tough on them. Well, the hell with it, Molino would tell him. He marched forward to the bridge and confronted the master of the ship – a rare and unthinkable breach of etiquette on most ships.
“What do you want?” Patezel asked him on the bridge.
“The ship is broke,” Molino said.
“That’s none of your fucking business,” Molino heard Paetzel say. And then the captain physically pushed the seaman off the master’s bridge.
None of my fucking business? It was completely Molino’s business.
He ran down, got his life preserver, and began yelling out to anyone he could see, “The ship is broke!”
Jack C. Brewer, the chief mate and second in command after the captain, chased him down and cornered Molino.
“Who are you to tell the crew,” the mate demanded.
“I’ve been at see long enough to know when there’s danger,” Molino said.
The bosun intervened at this point. The bosun is the equivalent of seargent at sea – the head non-commissioned officer, so to speak, in charge of the men. He channeled Molino’s fears in a constructive manner.
“Take the covers off the boats,” he told Molino. And Molino did just that. He ran to the starboard lifeboat at the stern and cut the cover the boat. Then he jumped in. The quartermaster moved to swing the boat out and lower it. The starboard side was taking the most wind.
“Calm down, calm down!” the bosun said. “Move to the port side.”
And Molino did. There was far less wind on that side of the ship. He prepared the boat for launching, but this time did not jump in. He stood watch for two hours, never leaving the side of the boat, but grew too cold and eventually went below.
About the time Molino went below, around 10:15 a.m., the Fort Mercer steel snapped again, with a loud gun-like sound. Robert Mackenzie, a seaman, heard three reports, loud, as if a machine gun had squeezed off three rounds. On the bridge, Prettyman turned to the purser, both on the bridge and said, “That sounds bad.”
Paetzel again radioed in the news. The ship continued to handle well. But below them, they could see heating oil pulsing out like arterial blood from a ruptured artery.
But they stayed the course. They stayed their watches, too. Every four hours, the seamen would rotate in and new officers would man the bridge. Paetzel stayed through all watches in this emergency situation. He’d been on his feet so long that he went down briefly to his quarters and took off his big seaboots and exchanged them for a comfortable pair of loafers. He was a big man, heavy, and this little gesture gave him a moment’s relief from aching feet.
At 11:40 AM, the Fort Mercer crew heard a third loud report and they saw a crack run up the starboard side of the No. 5 tank several feet above the waterline. Patezel sent out an urgent message now for all vessels nearby to standby to come to the aid of The Fort Mercer.
Still, the noon shift occurred without fanfare. Prettyman left the bridge and said to his relief man, Louis culver:
“Don’t let her go midships, keep her into the sea”.
Prettyman went after tothe galley and was sipping soup when he heard another snap, a terrific crack of noise and energy. He knew instantly what it was and rushed upstairs.
Down below, Tony Roviaro, the chief pumpman was working with the chief engineer. They heard the snap, the crack, felt the pulse of energy and thump through the hull. There was a moment, a pause. Then Chief Engineer Jesse Bushnell said,
“Pumps, I think one of the tanks midships is crushed.”
“Yes, I think so too,” “Pumps” Roviaro said.
Did the captian give any alarm? Roviaro asked that question, but no one seemed to know. He put on a lifejacket and yelled back to the chief:
“I think she cracked up.”
He ran onto the deck to hear one of the boys say, “oh there’s another ship ahead of us.”
“Heck no, “ someone else said. “That’s the Fort Mercer floating…”
For certain, along the side of the “other ship” was the name Fort Mercer. But how could that be. They were on the Fort Mercer.
Then there was a rush to realization. They had split in two. Cleanly in two. And then there was a rush, or near-rush, to panic. A wave came up on the bow of the Fort Mercer and cleanly sheared away the two lifeboats there. Then the bow began drifting directly back to the stern, on a collision path, it seemed.
Word went down to Bushnell in the engine room and the chief engineer gently backed the engines astern. The smooth electroglide nature of the T-2 was still there; the half-ship responded and Bushnell maneuvered out of harm’s way.
On the stern, though, the men were near panic. They rushed the lifeboats. They were crowded around the starboard lifeboat again, intent on piling in, lowering the boats and getting off the ships anyway they could. The wind was blowing directly into them, the spray, the snow, the rain.
Laurence Whilley, an ordinary seaman, was there when a man from the mess – he did not know his name yelled to Whilley above the howling weather: “Do you know how to pray?” “
“Sure, I’m a Christian and member of the church,” Whilley yelled back. “No one should be ashamed to pray.”
The man and Whilley left the boat and went to the mess. There they got down on their knees and prayed for their lives, prayed for the men, prayed for the ship, and prayed for their world.
Above, the bosun looked at the men jostling the lifeboats, looked at the surging seas, looked at the relative calm and steadiness of the stern and told the quartermaster, “Tell the boys to take it easy.”
Roviaro, the pumpman, ran to the stern above the men and yelled out: “There’s no danger.”
Newman, the quartermaster, chimed in:
“Take it easy; it’s too rough a sea.”
And seaman Robert Mackenzie yelled out a flat-out order.
“Don’t’ touch the boat!”
“Don’t get excited,” the quartermaster yelled again. “Let’s see what we can do.”
All of those men kept cauctioning the crew. Let’s see what we can do with the stern, which seemed steady, all things considered. There’s too much wind on the starbord side, some added.
“Let’s try the port side,” someone else said.
“We’ll do that,” the bosun said.
And the men moved over to the port side, the more sheltered side, and that seemed to calm them. Soon, thoughts of taking the boats had subsided. They made sure the port boat was prepared and then went down below. It was more stable and calming there. Darkness fell and the stern still seemed steady.
Still, it was a long night, sleepless for most. But in the morning, there was word from above that lights had been sighted. A plane flew over. A bit longer and the shape of a ship emerged from the gloom. It was the navy ship the Short Splice and she pulled astern. The Short Splice was not equipped for a rescue but was in radio contact with the Coast Guard. From across the seas, the officers of the Short Splice told the survivors of the Fort Mercer that cutters were on the way.
Then a second and a third shape appeared. They were the cutters Eastwind, Unimak and Acushnet. The Eastwind fired a line aboard the stern and passed over walkie-talkies. The plan was to evacuate the stern, if the men wanted to come off.
Bushnell, the chief engineer, took a loose command then. The stern was relatively stable then. He thought they should stay on the stern and perhaps they could salvage the ship.
Those who wanted to stay could muster with him on the upper deck. Those who want to evacuate could go to the lower deck.
Only three other men joined Bushnell on the upper deck. Below, 30 men voted with their feet to evacuate.
They may have demanded a recount when they watched the Eastwind for a while. She was pitching side to side in the big waves, far less stable it seemed than the stern section. In fact, this was due to the light ballast in the cutter – an arctic icebreaker. She was stable enough and seaworthy, but she rocked and she rolled like a carnival ride.
Bushnell was unsure whether anyone should try to transverse the gap between the two ships. The plan was to rig a raft between the two ships and pull the raft over to the cutter.
A mild confrontation of sorts occurred then.
C.W. Hindley was just the assistant cook, but he had been a combat marine, and wanted to know what Bushnell thought. Hindley was disgusted at the lack of leadership and the panic at the boats. Never mind that Bushnell had been below, steering the stern out of the way of the bow. Bushnell was the senior officer. He should take charge. What was his assessment of the raft rescue, Hindly demanded.
And Bushnell said something like, “It’s too hazardous.”
And the cook shot back, saying essentially, “Well, isn’t it hazardous staying here on a half ship?”
“You want to be the first across?” Bushnell shot back.
Yeah,” the cook said. He wanted nothing more to do with Bushnell.
And so it was to be. The Hindley stood on the rail of the stern. Busnell had given him a hand-copied piece of paper with the names of the all the men still alive. He stood on the rail and jumped the 30 feet down, trying to time it so he hit the small raft below.
He missed and was plunged into the churning seas. The cold of such water, as it always does, left him breathless. But the cook fought his way to the raft, grabbed it and hoisted himself in.
Then the Eastwind crew pulled on the ropes and Ben Stabile, a gunnery officer on the Unimak, thought it resembled the Cyclone ride he had seen at Coney Island. The raft was twisting up and town, torqued this way and that by the sea, blown about, turned nearly upside down, corkscrewed through the air.
But the raft made it and so did the cook. He scrambled up a net alongside the ship and soon was onboard turning over the muster list to the captain of the eastwind.
Two more men made that trip.
Then, aboard the Acushnet, Lieutenant Commander John Joseph radiod to Captain Peterson aboard the Eastwind. The Acushnet was essentially a sea-going salvage tug. Joseph thought he had a plan that might work better. Would Peterson consider it?
It couldn’t hurt to try, Peterson said, so they ceased the raft operation and let Joseph go to work.
He then brought the 213 foot ship in close to the stern section of the Fort Mercer. The men from above could see the big tug rise and fall with the wave cycles. One moment, the cutter would be a 25 feet below deck, the next she would rise like an elevator with the waves and be right even with the deck of the half-ship.
And that is how they did it in the end. The men gathered on the stern, timed it just right, and just stepped across onto the Acushnet. It was simpler than disembarking at a regular port of call. It was that easy. Seven men went on the first pass, before the cycle of the sea dropped her. But the cutter neatly steered in again and more men scampered aboard, high and dry now. Eighteen in all made the passage and Stabile, staring on from the Unimak, though the seamanship of Joseph among the most remarkable ever he had seen. The skipper had managed to come that close in horrendous seas, hold the ship steady and cause no damage to the cutter, the half-ship, any of the men or any of the crew.
Bushnell, the chief engineer, meanwhile had convinced much of the rest of the crew that he could steer the Fort Mercer stern well enough to maintain headway and control against the waves. The Coast Guard was offering a tow, and the company had actually called salvage tugs. So 16 men stayed on board with Bushnell and for all practical purposes the rescue was done. The Fort Mercer stern was not in the same fix as the Pendleton. The Fort Mercer was still far out to sea and the buoyancy, while not ideal, was strong. There was no danger of running aground.
As for the bow of the Fort Mercer?
That was a completely different story.
Like the men on the bow of the Pendleton, the officers and crew on the bow section of the Fort Mercer seemed doomed.
It turned ever more perpendicular to the sea. Paetzel and his men were thrown about the bridge and went crashing into each other and the sharp corners of instruments and machinery that were designed only for slow, deliberate movements. Water crested over the bridge and drenched them all and they clung to whatever they could to save their balance and their lives.
Paetzel ran down to his quarters to get drier clothers. He was drenched. A huge sea washed through the half-ship then and filled his cabin.
He was drowning. He was drowning in his own cabin. His own cabin was a tank of water now that he could not escape.
Then, a moment later, the sea receded and dumped him on the floor. He was soaked, of course, and so was all the clothers in his cabin.
Worse than that, even, the sea had stripped him of his shoes. He had only his socks now as he trudged back up toward the bridge and the relative safety there.
He took charge, then, as masters of ships are supposed to do. He would give the orders,.
One good thing: They were all calm. They were nine men. The captain, the chief mate, the second mate and the third mate.. They were Jack Brewer, Fahner and Vince Guilden respectively. Ed Turner, the purser, who paid the bills and was essentially an accountant was there. John V. Reilly, too. The radio man was a good man to have on the blinker lights, they knew. Then there was the quartermaster – Culver — and the two seamen who had just joined the bridge five minutes before the ship split. Hurley W. Newman was an experienced able bodied seaman; Jerome C. Higgins was a young kid, an ordinary seaman.
From the start, hey looked after each other. Fahner, the second officer, saw his drenched captain and dug out a blanket and offered it to him. Then Fahner saw Higgins was without a lifejacket. The kid had looked scared as he was coming up the catwalk beore noon to take his shift. What lousy luck. Fahner took off his own lifejacket and gave it to the kid. Not to worry, he said, I’ll find one.
Guilden, the third officer told Fahner that was just fine. Give away your life jacket. But you’re wearing this. And Guilden passed him a length of line, a rope, and then tied it around Fahner. The other end of the line was tied to Guilden who wore a lifejacket. The theory was: We’re lined together; you wash over, I wash over; both of us will float. All of this happened more or less without Paetzel having to give any orders.
Exactly what orders Paetzel should give? Who knew. Who knew how to captain a half-a-ship tilted at a five degree starboard, 45-degrees to the sea, with the bridge window pointed toward the quartered sky and seas washing through the doors ?
Open one door and keep it opened, Paetzel said. The last thing we want to do is get trapped in here and drown. My god, he’d come close enough to that already today. Everyone agreed this ws the right thing to do.
Then the captain shucked off the blanket and retrieved an old fur coat he kept on the bridge. It felt warmer. But all of them were going numb. He searched for anything to tie around his feet, but found nothing. The winds ripped through the bridge and the spray and waves and rain and snow were relentless. The bridge itself was taking water so they moved into the closed chart room adjoining the bridge. They could look up and out and see their own bow high above them, relatively clear of the waves. Of course. That’s where the buyouancy was. The fore tanks were empty, filled only with air. The mid-tanks were ruptured and flooded with water.
They kept the stern section in sight for perhaps ten to fifteen minutes. Twenty at the most. Then they were alone.
Sunday, February 18, 1952
Chatham Life Saving Station
When he heard that the Fort Mercer split in two, Commander Cluff did some quiet calculations. True there were cutters heading toward the scene. But even if they got there, those big ships might not be able to maneuver in close to the tanker.
The lifeboats could. And if they made any sort of time through the storm, they could be there at the Fort Mercer in three or four hours, much faster than the cutters.
But those boats in these waters? 36-foot lifeboats in 40-foot waves? Some of them peaking at 60 and if the cutters could be believed, 100-feet high? More than 25 miles out?
Cluff was the new guy and for the old guard coasties like Masachi, he was too new and abandoned all traditions. Newcomb, the old commander, had a family — a wife and two sons — in Chatham, but he did the same ten days on, two days off that his men did. The two sons would gather after school at the entrance to the Coast Guard station, hoping to catch a glimpse of their dad. But their dad would not go out to meet them. For the ten days on, his kids were all coasties inside the building. He would do benevolent prowls about the facility, puffing on his smelly pipe to let the Coast Guard kids know he was coming. Forewarned by the pipe, the coasties would stop whatever they were doing wrong and start doing what they were supposed to do. And at that point, Newcomb would instruct them in a gentle collegial way. A modern business school tract might have dubbed it “management by walking around” or “catching them doing right.” Newcomb knew it instinctively and through his technique passed on Coast Guard culture. The men admired him.
No, they loved him. There was a direct connection between Newcomb and the old lifesaving service guys — the ones who would live for months at a time in beachhouses in the company of men and a culture of courage. He was far, far more like family, like a big brother or a father than a “manager.”
But Newcomb had been promoted and Cluff was….well, more modern. More a corporate modern manager. He lived in Chatham and slept at home each night. When storms came, he was known to leave the lifesaving compound to drive by his house and check on his television antenae — one of the early ones sprouting on Chatham roofs.
And if this change of culture for the men was not enough, Cluff literally seemed to speak a different language. Many of the coasties were Boston, with “r’s” on their vowels and a clipped Massachusets diction. Cluff was Virginia all the way and at times the men honestly looked at him blank-faced when he gave orders. They sincerely did not understand him.
It was not long before Masachi bristled under Cluff’s command, and soon he was gone, promoted and gone to a cutter. But then Cluff brought in Boatswain’s Mate Donald Bangs to replace Masachi as number two. Bangs was Masachi with a sense of humor. He was demanding, but he could chuckle about his demands. And soon, Webber included, the men came to like Cluff and Bangs. Not like Newcomb and Masachi, but the looser approach had something going for it. It was good to be able to sneak off base for a few hours during your ten days on. It was good to know you could drive over and see your young wife when she was sick.
Looser did not mean sloppier though and now, Cluff had to make some hard decisions. He looked at his men, he looked at his boats. He turned to his best crew, his number two in the command structure.
Chief Bangs, he said, pick a crew and go out to the stern section of the Fort Mercer. Take the CG 36580. Run her out of Stage Harbor. You’ll never make the Chatham Bar. And God bless.
When he saw Bangs go out, Webber thought, “ My God, do they really think a lifeboat could actually make it that far out to sea in this storm. If the crew didn’t freeze to death first, how would they be able to get the men off?”
Webber saw the men leave around 1 PM and in his mind said goodbye to each one of his friends. He thought there was a good chance he never would see them alive.
Cluff turned to Webber and dispatched him to round up more fishing boats. Many more of them had broken lose in the storm. It was cold work but easy work and he welcomed it. The torque of the CG 3650 pulled a parade of small boats back to their moorings. It was past 3 PM when he had completed that work. He should call Miriam, he knew, but instead stood near the radio room and operations room, trying to follow the storm. Wondering if his friend Bangs could possibly make it. He couldn’t see how.
How could you send 36 foot boasts into 45 foot waves?
The 125 cutters had come in, the seas were so rough. Even the big cutters were taking a beating out there. How could they send Bangs to his death?
Sunday, Feb. 18, — Monday, Feb. 19, 1952
Onbord the Pendleton, Bow and Stern
For the officers and seamen on the Pendleton, life fell apart nearly as quickly as the ship had. One moment, they were on con, warm and in control. Within minutes, they were thrown against each other by the pitching seas, tilted at 45 degrees to the surface of the ocean – if the surface of the ocean could be defined because it was a mass of heaving, 30 to 45-foot waves.
It was not unknown for men to be rescued from the bows of splintered tankers. This was the “factor” that Eugene Ericksen had experienced five years earlier on the SS Sacketts Harbor, a T-2 cruising peacefully enroute to Alaska in a cold but calm sea in 1947.
He was on-watch near the stern at around 1 a.m., embroidering the war stories he told now in peacetime, when he heard a thunderous crack and felt the ship rise up gently as if she had nosed over a speed bump. All the lights went out.
“We’ve hit something,” he thought, but knew that was improbable and began running toward the bow of the ship.
Then, at midship, he grabbed the rail and came skittering to a halt.The ship simply ended. With no warning, in quiet waters, she had split in two.
His half of the Sacketts Harbor, the stern half, floated evenly and seemed almost stable. But in front of Ericksen, the bow section of the Sacketts Harbor bobbed at a crazy angle. He could see the officers hanging on to slanted decks. He could see the whole cross-section of the ship as if it were the cutaway view of a dollhouse. They were hanging on madly to anything they could on the bow, as it bobbed and bucked, twisting to a 45 degree angle in the water.
The Navy, thank god, was right there and pulled those men off quickly in the quiet waters of the Pacific, but Ericksen did not think the officers in the bow would have stood much of a chance if the destroyer had not been right there and seen it happening. For starters, the officers in the bow had the radioes but no power. And the stern had the power but no radioes. They would have had no way to get the word out. And if there had been any sea at all? He was fine in the stern section. The officers would have been toast.
And on board, the Pendleton, they were, or nearly so.
Visibility was a few feet as spray, snow, sleet and rain pounded them. Green water – heavy duty waves – crashed through the bridge. Yes, there was an emergency power source for the radio, as Chief Engineer Sybert, in the stern, had thought. But no, there was no chance, no chance at all, to send out an SOS. The offices, the radio man, the AB’s who had stayed behind at the shift change, were thrown around like rag dolls.
Most of them were trapped in the bridge or down below. The foretanks of the bow were empty and boyouant so the aft of the new half-ship plunted downward at an acute angle – 45 degreees at least. So they were at best poorly protected against battering seas; at worst, they were exposed to them wholly, dunked down into the cold ocean repeatedly.
Even those were able to cling to something solid and stayed aboard the ship found little future or hope. They were not prepared for this, were not wearing heavy clothing, had been safe and sound in sheltered, warmed spaces. Wet, cold, whipped by 50 mph winds, the officers and seamen were in peril of hypothermia and exposure could claim lives in minutes under these conditions.
Still they fought it. Fitzgerald, his officers and the crew on watch.
By contrast, life on the stern section of the Pendleton was almost calm, a broken half-ship under the command of a chief engineer and an able seaman.
Order and routine of a sense had returned to the stern section – not that any of this was routine.
Hicks and Steele, with Sybert’s agreement, decided to post two-man watches. The two seamen would stay alert for passing ships or planes or signals from a far. They also would watch for land – for the Nauset and Chatham coastlines they knew could not be too far away.
Without being told, the cooks and messmen fired up a big kettle of boiling water and poured dozen of eggs in to cook. They weren’t comfort food – not like a hot bubbling bowl of soup. But they were portable protein. A big kettle off coffee bubbled constantly as well and the seamen, the engineers would pop in, grab a few eggs and a cup of coffee, and chat. Or they’d pop a half-dozen eggs in their pockets both to keep warm and “fueled.”
None of them stayed for below for long, though. Most of them instinctively crowded toward the top of the ship, and there, in a passageway that was heated, passed the time, exchanging stories, speculating on where the rescuers were, listening to the repeated danger signals that Tiny Myers blew, hour after hour.
Much of the talk was about launching the boats – and how impossible that seemed. Much of the talk, too, was what happened if the ship ran aground. Would she turn turtle then, dumping them into still-deepwater too far from shore? This was the story of most ship wrecks along the coast. The ships ran aground in water that was shallow for ships but still deep enough to drown humans. Huge surfs and currents would rip the shore.
Hicks and Steele actually had been able to rig auxiliary manual steering in the engine room. They had a “wheel” to steer the rudder. And Sybert could maneuver using the single propeller as well. The good parts of the T-2 were working well. It was nice to have that electrical power and the abilityt to steam aft when needed.
But it was not the same as having a ship – this half ship. The control was tentative at best, downright hazardous at worse. The water got rougher as they neared the shore and the ship bucked and heaved more, `slamming down hard on its new, open bow. This new half-ship looked more like the stub of cigar than a sleek panetello. There were no “lines” left to part waters or funnel waves aside.
And the men on top needed to be careful. “”Green water,” serious waves that were more of the sea than of the wave, would cover the decks.
One man would stand after, one man would stand forward. That way they could keep an eye on each other and look out to the sea and up to the sky. And none would grow too cold or too exposed.
In one sense, Sybert and the seamen Hicks and Steele had taken control of the situation. In another sense, they seemed to just channel order. The men never seemed to panic. There was no rush to the boats. They followed orders. In another sense, they seemed to act as one.
But it was all getting old and cold after awhile.
Help was coming, they thought at first. The SOS had gone out from the bow.
Then an hour passed, and another. Two hours passed and then two more. Then four more hours had passed. Ten hours in all, 20 two-man shifts. And nothing.
It was around 2 pm when Tiny Myers was blowing the distress call – had been blowing it with the help of others, for the past nine hours.
In Chatham, on land, snug indoors against the n’oreaster, Joe Nickerson, a carpenter, thought he heard a noise mixed in with the wind, a noise that did not belong to the storm. Outdoors, he cocked his head and listened again. The noise grew stronger. It was a ship’s whitstle. It would blow four times, then stop, blow four times, then stop.
Nickerson sped to Fire Chief George Goodspeed’s home and reported the distress call. There, they found Bill Woodsman, the radar man, looking intently at his screen.
None of them realized it at the time, but they had discovered the wreck of the Pendelton – nearly ten hours after she had split in two.
It was then that the radarman reported to Cluff. We have two tankers down.
Actually, if you looked at the situation, it was even worse than that. … They had four ships down, not two. The little Coast Guard station had gone from one ship, the Fort Mercer, in possible trouble, to four half-ships in dire trouble.
Webber sucked in his breath and held it to calm his nerves now. He was watching Cluff closely. What to do? What to do? Finally, Cluff made his move. He radioed Bangs. Head for the Pendleton, he said. Forget the Fort Mercer for now. The cutters can get her. Come back for the Pendleton.
“You,” Cluff told, Webber. “I want you to head down the beach on land and see if you can get a line to the Pendleton.”
Webber exhaled. For a moment there, he thought Cluff was going to send him out in a boat.
In the CG 36850 with Chief Bangs
February 18, 1952
At 1230 Bangs and his crew had launched to rescue the Fort Mercer, and found that its radio transmitter was out. B angs could hear fine, but say nothing. He headed toward Monomoy on his way to the Fort Mercer and stopped at the Pollock Rip light ship to check in and tell the station he could only receive.
There he received new orders. Head for the bow of the Pendleton. There were two wrecks now. He was needed at the bow of the Pendleotn.
The seas were overwhelming. In a 36-foot lifeboat, Bangs and his crew faced 45 to 60 foot waves. Cutters, merchant ships and the lightships themselves were having difficulty maintaining stability in such a storm. The 125 cutters had turned back.
But the little boat cut through the spray, the foam and the monstrous swells, climbing up the slope of one wave like a cog railroad engine, then slushing down the wall of the wave like a speed skier.
And soon, a mile on, just s they said she was, there she was, the bow of the Pendleton. Tilited and rocking, bow pointing skyward, bridge awash in green water, the bow rocked and twisted still.
Bangs came in close. He sounded his klaxon constantly. He completely circled the ship. There was no sign of life. No lights. But to be sure, he circled again, klaxon wailing, hailing anyone on board to signal back.
He paused, assessed the situation, made one last pass in close and concluded no one had survived. The bow was perilously close to the shore now. There was nothing he could no more. He headed back to the light ship.
But once there, there was more news. The Mcculloch, a cutter that could not get in close to the bow because of shallow water, was close enough to spot lights and life on the bow of the Pendleton. The CG 36850 had apparently roused a survivor. But he had not made it to the bridge in time for the small boat to see him.
So Bangs now turned his little boat back through the same wild waters he had transited twice before. He and his crew were soaked to the bone and growing ever more hypothermic themselves. Still, they bore down on the Pendleton again.
And yes! You could see him. 1700 hours first time, 5 pm. Second time, 7
pm., dark. The McCulloch was circling near the bow. She was pumping over oil – a practice at the time intended to calm the seas. Bangs put his spotlight up on the starbord side of the Pendleton bridge and there the man was.
A lone figure at the railing on the wing of the bridge. He was yelling to them. They could hear his voice – that there was a voice at least – but could not understand the words. They thought they said he was the last man, the only one left. They could not make out his face, did not know who he was .
But they could get him. They knew they could. It was not impossible if they timed it correctly. Bangs had line-throwing equipment and other tools of rescue. He wanted to get in very close, find out for sure how many men there were to be rescued, not do this in a slip-shod manner. Quick movements now could cost lives, not save them. This is when you had to be coolest.
Just then, a great curl of water, rose from behind the Pendleton bow and swept through the bridge and over the deck. It came from behind the man after covering the bridge. The man on the rail was caught up from behind by the weave and carried by it. Still, he held on. He was on the outside of the ship now, on the wrong side of the rail, the ocean side of the rail, but he held d on the rail and held on.
He held on a long time. Then, he seemed no longer able to keep his grip. And as his grip lessened, he leapt with all his might out from the ship, out toward Bangs and the rescuers.
And Bangs headed straight for him. It was dark. But the man landed only a boat-length away, just 30 to 40 feet away. The crew picked him up in their spotlight and they crept toward him for the rescue.
From behind them, a sea rose up and carried the boat forward. The CG36850, more buyouant than the man in the water, ran faster with the sea. So when the men next looked, the man was now several boat lengths behind them.
Bangs did not waste time turning to. He kept the spotlight steadily on the man and backed the boat toward him. They were closer than before now, less than a boat length. He was not going to turn-to and lose sight of the man. That was the important thing. Keep him in sight, in the spot light.
Just twenty feet away and they threw him a line. It was that close.
And again the sea rose and carried them….carried them farther this time than the last time. The searchlight stayed on the man, lost him, found him, lost him, found him.
Lost him. Found him. Lost him.
Bangs thought he saw the lifejacket, then lost it. Thought he saw it, could not confirm it. Back and forth, they plouoghed the waters, trying to fix where he was, where they were, all in a swirl of monster waves, eddies, cross currents, ripping winds, snow, sleet and spray, in the dead of night.
They searched for more than hour. The McCulloch could not come closer for fear of running aground. Bangs looked up at the bridge and saw that for the most part, it was completely immersed.
He returned to the light ship and there, fastened a line-on and road out the night. The conditions in Pollock Rip were nearly impassable. Sent to save seamen from two ships, he and his crew had tried valiantly. But they could no more that night. There was no worse feeling.
February 18, 1952
A strange procession of vehicles crawled out from Chatham toward Nauset Inlet. A DUKW and a jeep moved over the slippery beaches, buffeted by spray and wind.
Soon, they came up to where the Pendleton stern ought to be but they could see nothing.
But for a moment, the blow broke and the snow and drizzle slackened. And through that hole in the weather, Webber could see the ghostly outline of the stern of the Pendleton. She was huge, even a quarter mile offshore. No way he could shoot a line to them at that distance in these winds. No chance of a resuce via line and trolley.
Through the wind they could hear a whistle, Tiny Myers and his crewmen, pulling down on the lanyard. Four blasts and then a pause. Four short blasts and then a pause.
Webber could not answer them. The best thing they could do was get back to the Coast Guard station fast. They slipped and slid back to Chatham to confirm the sighting.
And Webber could hear how it was all shaping up on the radio. He hard how Bangs and his boat were like a ping pong ball. Deployed here to the Fort Mercer, there to the Pendleton bow, here to the Pendelton stern, then back to the Pendleton bow.
And it grew in him a sickening feeling. Up until now, he has worred about his friends out there in the boat. But now he knew what was coming his way. Cluff had no one for the Pendelton stern. He was delaying it, but Webber knew this assignment was coming his way.
He knew what Cluff was thinking. They arrived back at the station dripping wet and told Cluff what they had seen.
Cluff was silent for minutes. And then Cluff, knowing he was almost cerainly pronouncing a death sentence for the young man, said slowly in his Virginia accent.
“Webber, pick yourself a crew. Ya-all got to take the 36500 out over the bar and assist that thar ship, ya-heah?”
Webber heard all right, and a sinking feeling came to his stomach. No chance at the Chatham Bar. No chance! And why me? Why me? My wife is sick. I haven’t spoken to her in two days. Why me?
Instead, Webber said, “Yes Sir, Mr. Cluff, I’ll get ready.”
Bernie Webber knew exactly who he wanted for the crew, all men he had worked with before. The only problem was, none of them were there. There wasn’t even a full crew left in the station. Just a junior engineer, one seaman and a guy from a light ship who was just in in transit, waiting for the storm to break to go out to his ship. He wasn’t even a rescue guy. Another reason not to go. Another reason the mission was impossible. He could tell Cluff that.
“Bernie, we’ll go out with you if you want,” Engineman Andrew J. Fitzgerald said, and the other two, Seaman Irving Maske and Richard P. Livesey, the light ship guy, chimed in.
Well, hell. He knew Livesey. A funny guy. People didn’t take him that seriously around the station because he was always joking, but Webber had seen him in action and knew he was a good man. He had this odd habit, a humble one, forget about the jokes and stuff. Whenever they finished a patrol when Livesey was on board, no matter how trivial or routine, Livesey would have a single parting phrase to Bernie.
“Thanks, Webb,” he would say. And there was no hint of a joke in it, no irony. Livesey was a good man.
And the other guys? Well, he didn’t know the lightship guy at all, except that he cooked for them sometimes – and he was pretty good. Fitzgerald he knew was first rate.
Not his regular crew. But they were willing. They were able. He would be lying if you he used them as an excuse not to go out.
Solemnly, Webber lead his little band of volunteers out to the CG 36500 mooring and along the way a friend and neighbor, a veteran fishermen named John Stello, hailed Webber. Stello had a reputation as a fearless risk taker, a man who went out anywhere there were fish.
“You guys going out in this?” Stello looked worried.
Webber nodded grimly.
“You guys better get …lost … before you get too far out,” Stello said. In other words, say you gave it a try, then come back. This was about as official cultural permission to play it safe as Bernie could get. The roughest toughest fisherman in a tough fishing community was telling him to take a dive, to hit the mattress and stay down. There would be no goading slurs if Bernie did that.
“Call Miriam,” Webber bellowed back.
Let my wife know what’s up. In so many words: tell her how I died.
Stello thought about that one. The upside of making that call. Tell Miriam now? Let her know she’s a widow, or about to be? Or give her a few more hours thinking her husband was alive and well. He did not tell Webber yes or no about that one. He’d have to give it some thought. Webber knew he’d do the right thing. They were both men of the sea and he knew Stello would see that Mirriam learned of his fate appropriately and would handle it right.
For Webber, Chatham was like a snow globe, with him inside it; a village with small cottages and glowing lights that showed through the snow. He loved this place. It was magical.
The 90 horsepower motor sputtered and spat and Webber steered it from the aft-most position. One could ski behind a 90 horsepower engine attached to a normal boat but that was not the job of a lifeboat. The job of a lifeboat was to get there and back, carrying a load slowly and surely.
And now they were heading at 8 knots through the protected harbor, already soaked to the skin and shivering, facing darkness broken only by the white of the blizzard. The shore looked like a Christmas card. Lights of houses soft through the snow. Blurry harbor lights.
Webber keyed the radio mike and checked in. He was positive they would receive orders to return.
“Proceed as directed,” the radio crackled.
And in the dark, with the lights of the town of Chatham muffled by the blizzard, the young men did an odd thing. One of them began humming an old hymn, someone picked up the words and they all began singing. Webber did not even recall knowing the words before then.
“Rock of ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide thyself in thee;
Let the water and the b lood,
From thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Save from wrath and make pure.
“While I draw this fleeting breath,
When mine eyes shall close in death,
When I rise to worlds unknown,
And behold Thee on Thy Throne,
Rock of ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide thyself in Thee.”
They reached Morris Island and now they could hear the water roaring on Chatham Bar. Webber called in again, thinking, Come on, come on, recall us, return to base. This is impossible
“Imperative you continue to sea,” the radio crackled back.
They could not see the waves ahead, just hear the crash and bang ripple down the shore in front of them. The noise was fearsome. Breakers of this sort sound as if a thousand fork lift trucks are dropping a thousand loads of lumber in succession from a height left to right across miles of the shore.
Webber maneuvered the little boat closer, into the vortex of the noise. Still they could not see the waves, only hear the explosion of thundering surf.
One more time, he checked in.
Then Cluff was on the horn, his voice earnest, in a sense giving Webber a chance to return.
“Can you make it?” Cluff said. He was asking now. But it was still an order.
Could they make it? Hell no, they couldn’t make it!
Stand at the sea shore as the breakers hit your ankles. Or your knees. Catch a three-foot one at your waist. Take a four-footer breaker at your chest.
Then imagine monster breakers twice your size, some three-times your size, tall as a house, hammering hard on the sand. Pounding the sand. Tons h
eavy. Not the hammer coming down on an anvil. Like the very anvil itself.
This is what they faced. Anyone could see they couldn’t make it. The boat would be thrown back by tons of water, smashed to splinters on the sand with the men inside.
And Webber thought: No one will blame us if we turn back. I’ll just tell them we couldn’t make it. Everyone heard what Stello said and he’s one of the toughest fishermen about. No one would criticize him. Stello had given him the code words. They were dog whistle words. Anyone but Bernie would have heard Stello just say “you better get lost.” But Bernie heard it differently. Knew it was a pass from the culture. No loathsome slurs here. All Bernie had to do was say they were lost. Could not get their bearings.
Webber’s whole body shivered and did not stop. Take it a step further, he said to himself. Suppose we survive the bar? He only had a magnetic compass, no radar. They’d never find the ship. There probably weren’t any survivors on the stern. Even if he did risk the lives of his crew to cross the bar, this would be senseless. They’d never find the Pendleton.
He would turn back now. Why waste the lives of these good men on his boat. He was responsible for three souls here.
Then he thought: Who am I? What’s my job? The question came to him in a calm way and the answer came in the same manner with great clarity.
“I am a Coast Guard first class boatswain mate… My job is the sea and to save those in peril upon it…”
And the tradition of the Coast Guard, the pure simple heroic tradition of saving lives, the tradition and the “book” propelled Webber. Every Coast Guardsmen who had trained him, encouraged him, drilled into him the tradition, every man who trained the men who trained him, everyone of them was there with him. Spoke to him. The Landry. Newcomb. Masachi. The old guy at the light tower. Bangs. Cluff. All the way back to Pea Island and the lifesavers who coined the phrase. Back to Etheridge.
You have to go out, you do not have to come back.
Webber keyed the mike.
“We’ll try,” he said.
He still could not see the bar. He could only hear it. Feel it. He did not sense any heroic spirit. No bravado. He felt resigned. He was like a soldier ordered into battle, into a hopeless charge. He had his orders. He had his discipline. Now he would die.
He was harnessed into the boat by a rig that lashed him to the wheel. His men had no harnesses.
“Hang on!” Webber yelled to his crew, and then gunned the engine and the CG 36500 full speed into the darkness, into the vortex of the horrible, growling Chatham Bar.
The first wave seized the CG 36500 with no respect at all for its ton of bronze. It flipped the boat, her ballast and all four men completely clear of the water as if she were just a flimsy balsa wood model.
They were airborne, hanging there above the monster waves, clear of the water, a part of the snowy blizzard and the air now, little prop speeding, whining, clear of the water, biting only air. The hang time seemed an eternity.
Then they hammered down hard in the trough of the wave, hard on the boat’s side. They were far, far over on their side. Too far over. Webber struggled in the rear to turn the bow into the next monster, try to meet it head on.
They were not going to make it. Already, the curl of the breaker hung above the boat, and the base of the wave too was crashing, crushing down on CG 36500.
Sunday, Feb. 18, 1952 – Monday, Feb. 19, 1952
Onboard the Bow of the Fort Mercer
In the chart room of the bow section of the Fort Mercer, the general alarm – a klaxon like siren – continued to sound, powered by the emergency batteries on board the bow. None of the men seemed to notice the annoying sound. It was juast a part of the general chaos. Then Second officer Fahner snapped the alarm switch off. The general was load enough to let men on board the ship know there was a problem, but not load enough to serve as any sort of rescue-us signal to searchers.
The officers took stock. They had no food, no radio, no water, no flares.
What they did have was a blinker to communicate to any ships that came near. In the stern section, the blinker would have done no one any good. No one aft knew code. The officers were engineers. Only the deck officers and radio man – “Sparks” as he was called on every ship — could blink back and forth morse code. It was terribly old-fashioned even then, but it was the most modern technology the men on the bow possessed.
And soon, they would have a chance to use it. Out of the gloom, they saw ship lights. It had been hours since the wreck. Out of the gloom and the spits of snow and foam and rain sailed the Short Splice, a navy utility ship. And it was blinking out rapid code to them – a series of dots and dashes via its blinker.
For Fahner, it was a joy to see Sparks and the chief mate work their battery-powered blinker. Geez, these guys were pros. Fahner knew some code but Sparks and the mate? It was as if Fahner spoke high school french and these guys were fluent Parisians.
A burst of blinks, of dashes and dots of electronic light, would flash from the gray shadow of the navy ship and Sparks would translate.
This is the Navy ship Short Splice.
The Chief would flash back a detailed report of their status. No food, warmth or water. Fear capsizing. Help?
No good for us to try, the Short Splice winked back. We’re not equipped for rescue.
But Coast Guard cutters are on the way. A boat is on the way. Estimated time of arrival is three hours for the Coast Guard. Hang in there. We’ll stand by.
A cheer and groan rose within the men on the bow. Help was on the way. This was good. You couldn’t argue with that.
But three hours to wait? It was cold and getting colder. Hypothermia and frost bite were taking their tolls. The men could not remain functional for much longer. It had been nearly five hours. Most of them were drenched. They’d try putting their hands in their pockets, in their pants, to warm up their fingers and restore feeling to them. It would work for awhile, but even in their pockets their hands grew colder – a sure sign their overall body temperature was dropping. Captain Paetzel still was in his soaked socks and his feet were frostbitten pegs of meat now, with little feeling in them.
It was 5 pm and light was fading. So the rescue ships, when they arrived, would be approaching in the dark.
Still, they were glad to see her when she arrived. The cutter Yakutat with Commander Joseph W. Naab in command, beat the Short Splice estimate by about half an hour and came into sight, well lit, around 7:30 pm.
Fahner could not keep track of the code as it flashed between the two ships. It went something like this.
This is the Coast Guard cutter Yakutat. What is your situation?
And Sparks and the Chief let them know.
Dots and dashes flashed back between the cutter and the half ship and the short version of the long message from the cutter was this. We’re going to fire lines to you. Then we’ll take you off using trolleys, or haul you off with rafts. Stay inside as we shoot the lines.
Soon, there were muffled explosions from the cutter as their line cannons detonated and shot out lead-ed lines to the Fort Mercer.
Three times they fired. Three times, the wind, the waves, the spray, carried off the lines, and none landed.
The fourth time was the charm. The line passed over the Fort Mercer bow section and stayed there. Problem was: it landed in the radio antennae above the bridge house.
The men on the bow could see it. They set out to retrieve it.
Huge waves! Wind of 50 mph and more. Three times they set out to retrieve the line. Three times they were driven back. It was just too dangerous. Water was sweeping the bridge housing. The bow was listing more to starboard now as well. The bow had the floating action of a bottom-weighted fishing bobber. The front of the bow section and its empty tanks floated free of the fray, for the most part, above the deck house, which was regularly dunked and drenched by the sea.
And so it was the officers of the Yakutat blinkered over the question: Can you make it to the bow area? You’ll have better protection there. And we’ll have better access to you. Forget about us shooting lines in this dark soupy weather. We’ll float some lighted rafts down to you. But you have to get out of the bridge and down to the rail level some how.
Great idea. How?
There was no longer any interior passage. God down the stairs to the main deck? The passageways were flooded, just as the captain’s quarters had been.
If they had some rope, they might make it out the bridge windows or off the deck or out the portal on the side where the wind was not so hard.
If they had a rope. Might as well say, if they had a helicopter. Better yet, wings. They had neither rope nor helicopter. No wings either.
And Culver, the quartermaster said, guys, let’s tie the blankets together. It was like the classic escape caper where one ties sheets and blankets together.
Fahner thought about that. He fingered the blankets. They would have to rip them and tie them. He doubted they would hold up – particularly for Paetzel, who was a heavy guy.
Fahner fished out the signal flags from the bridge. These were the lines and the flags that were run up the mast to show various states of the ship or the weather. They were tough cords, tough flags. They could use them instead of the blankets.
Everyone agreed in an instant and they set about the work. The chief and Sparks blinkered back the plan. All of them were happy to be doing something, and doing something they knew: knots and lines were a primary skill of seamen. All of them, Captain through the ordinary seamen, set to work on forming this makeshift line.
It seemed good. It seemed strong, one half hour later when they were finished.
And aboard the Acushnet, the rescuers were buys tying their own knots and lines. This was a makeshift effort they were assembling: A line of rafts, lighted, tied together by lines that were also lighted. They would use almost every piece of rope and line onboard the Acushnet to assemble the rescue apparatus.
If the men reached the deck level, the Acushnet would drift this line of rafts in close to them. The men could jump and swim to the rafts and lines. Or if lucky, if the drift was right, they could jump into the rafts.
If the men reached the deck level. If the signal line rope held.
It was well past 9 pm in the evening and the storm was not slackening. The men had been exposed now for more than nine hours to freezing temperatures and raking, wet winds.
Fahner looked down the side of the bridge house. It was a long drop down to a catwalk that let forward. Peering through the spray, he could see that there were four grids missing on the catwalk. He rethought the entire idea.
So cold. He had no choice. It was the last thing to do. No choice now. They would die on that bridge. Slowly by exposure. Or quickly by drowning. The starboard list was greater now. The bow section was tilted up but increasingly tilted over.
The chief mate Jack Brewer was the first man down the rope. He moved through a large porthole on the bridge, dangled for a moment, and went down the line. Waves nipped at his heels, but his feet caught the catwalk and he was down. Perfect.
This gave Fahner strength and hope. He took the line that lead to the third mate and removed it. And without a lifejacket, he too, went down the line of cord and flags.
His legs flailed out for the catwalk. They caught. He gained purchase. He was down. And then he was moving forward. No time to stay and help the next man down. You had to hurry forward or the waves would catch you.
Third down was the the third mate, and Guilden too made it and rushed to Fahner. They reattached the line. Both men were high up on the bow now, looked down the ramped deck of the Fort Mercer toward the bobbing bridge house. They opened the carpentry shed on the bow and began looking for a lifejacket for Fahner – and anything else dry that could keep them warm.
And so the men descended from the bridge to the main deck level. Paetzel and the radioman were the last two left. Paetzel was big, with a comfortable layer of fat to keep him warm. Sparks was very thin with no insulation from the cold. Still it was hard to tell who was shivering the hardest.
“Captain I’m not going to make it., Sparks said to Paetzel.
“You’ll make it!” Paetzel replied. “hold on until you reach the catwalk.”
Sparks climbed through the porthole and hung onto the metal of the porthole for a long time before grabbing the line. He stared down at the catwalk, trying to time the waves. They were perhaps 30 to 40 feet apart, the wave cycles, and the timing needed to be right.
Down the line Sparks went. He saw a lull in the waves and descended toward the catwalk.
The wave cycle was right. But he missed the catwalk with his legs. He landed on the deck itself with no purchase, no leverage, no point to catch himself. He flailed on the rope as the wave cycle, which had receded, built again and blew up a big monster that washed over him and the catwalk.
And Paetzel could see it all happen from above. He could see that Sparks held onto that line for a good long time before the sea just took him and washed him off to his death.
Paetzel did not waste time or second guess his own descent. Death was certain in the bridge house. He ducked out through the portal, swung his considerable weight over onto the side of the ship, and nimbly enough for an overweight out of shape old seadog with frostbitten feet, caught the catwalk and moved forward.
What the men saw then was both phantasmogoric and utterly beautiful. The cutter had pulled upwind of the Fort Mercer bow. The Yakutat rescuers had tied a string of well-lighted rafts together and floated them down from windward. All of this in a roaring blizzard. All in the dark of night.
The rafts drifted down, lights glowing through the snow, like someone’s fantasy of a Christmas procession. Luminaries on First Night. On the forecastle, the men had a chance now to make for the rafts out there in the water. The Yakutat had said to jump when the rafts got close.
Fahner and Guilden were in forecastle carpentry shop rummaging for a lifejacket. Fahner found one and the two officers, literally bound together, undid the line between them.
Paetzel was maneuvering up the tricky catwalk.
And the chief mate and the two seamen looked at the line of rafts, the rescue processional. Up above, coast guard planes dropped flares. Lights cut through the motes of snow and rain. And down drifted the rafts towards them, even with the bow now.
Was this close enough? How far away were they? The chief and the seamen did not hesitate. They had seen Sparks washed to his death. All three men climbed the railing of the Fort Mercer bow and jumped for the rafts. Only Higgins, the ordinary seaman, held back.
Paetzel and Fahner met at the forecastle. Where’s the chief and the other men? They asked each other the same question because none of them had seen the men jump. Only Higgins was left. They jumped, he told them.
Fahner looked out at the rafts. Did they make it? No way. No way they could have, he thought. The rafts to his eye were 300 yards away across an expanse of mountainous seas. You got five minutes in these waters, he figured. Five minutes before you either drowned or succumbed to hypothermia.
As if to confirm the problem, the lines on the processional of rafts parted then, and were rapidly carried away. With them went every piece of line and equipment the Yakutat carried, so the cutter chased after its runaway rafts. The rescuers needed that equipment and there was always a chance, too. Always a chance that one of the men had made it, climbed into the raft, was riding out the waves now.
It took the Yakutat the better part of two hours to recover its gear. All this time, the men on the bow hunkered down, finding whatever warmth they could. The top of the bow was more stable; it was not warmer. Paetzel found a flag and draped it over his head. His feet were still shoeless. And increasingly the men felt more hopeless. The chif and the radio man both were gone now – their aces on the blinker and code. There was little they could say now to the cutter and less they could understand as to the cutter’s attention.
The Yakutat rounded in the water, her gear secure and headed back to the bow of the Fort Mercer. She got as close as she could. The thought was to hail the survivors via loud speaker, tell them the cutter would stand off until morning.
Higgins interpreted it as another rescue effort. The cutter seemed convincingly close. He jumped the rail and leapt for the cutter, falling into the chaos of ocean between the ship and the half-ship. He was gone in ten seconds. No one had a chance to reach him. The sea just took him and there was no sight of his orange life jacket after one cycle of waves.
The Yakutat backed away then.
The cutter turned to and left the Fort Mercer. It was well past midnight and there seemed little it could do . The storm was not slackening. The flares from the plane comprised mood lighting for a horror scene, not visibility. The survivors would have to hang on until daylight. Further rescues would lead to more harm now. They had to wait for better conditions.
The four men, Paetzel, Fahner, 3d mate Guilden and Turner, the purser, watched as the rescuers retreated. Guilden found a bell near the forepeak and began ringning it. Paetzel, in the glare of the flares from the plane, took off the flag from his head and waved it wildly skyward.
We’re still here, they were saying. We’re still alive.
But the plane stopped dropping flares and departed soon after. The Yakutat was a good seven miles away. The Coast Guardsmen were exhausted too. All day they had been about the deck, working in the same cold conditions of the survivors, after hours bucking through high seas. They were shot.
Sunday, Feb. 18, 1952, 6 pm.
With Webber at the Chatham Bar
The wave hung above him and Webber was trying to right the boat, right the boat, right the boat before the next big curler crashed down on him. He pulled on the wheel with all his might and gunned the little engine.
But the wave beat him easily and crashed down on the helpless little vessel. It smashed the glass windshield like a boulder slammed to a champagne flute and exploded the glass into Webber’s face. Shards missed his eyes but embedded in his skull bone. They stuck out like ornaments. The compass was ripped from its fitting. The canvas canopy was just torn away. Water crashed through the windshield and pulled him away from the wheel — or tried to.
With all his might, Webber held on, trying, trying to steer the boat’s bow to meet the next wave. The keel, the ton of bronze was righting them, righting them, bringing them back. He was gunning the engine, powering the boat bow to the next wave.
Then the third wave crashed onto them and laid them, far, far even farther over on their side again in the trough. Worse, the engine failed. The line was gravity feed. The little boat had been so rocked, the gas, like the men, did not know what was up or down. The line had lost its “prime” and needed to be re-primed. The only way for that to happen was for someone to crawl into the small enclosed engine room.
Fitzgerald slithered in as the boat was pummeled by the sea. He was thrown against the hot engine block and badly burned, then battered when the boat swung sharply the other way. But he got the engine going, and Webber hit the throttle and they met the next wave head-on.
Then the boat did not so much motor as it fell from the top of the next wave into the trough of another, crashing, throwing the men about, the engine shrieking as the props lost grip on the water then grabbed torgue and traction, then lost it, falling from the roof of one house -sized peak into the basement-like trough that followed.
The bow was completely airborne one moment, then submerged as the stern tore free of the water. CG 36500 reeled from one wave, fell, crashed through another, was battered, covered by tons of water, staggered, righted and then roared, still there, still there, toward the next breaking wave, like a little halfback throwing off murderous tacklers, no time left on the clock, still heading for the goal.
And then CG 36500 was through. It had by god crossed the Chatham Bar.
But through to what?
The big waves of the deep water came at the boat and still tossed and tore at the boat, but these CG 36500 could handle. Some of these monsters, the Coast Guard would say later, were 60 feet in height. Webber strained up the first wave as if he were climbing a mountain. The boat crept slower and slower, like an overloaded roller coaster car, straining, straining.
Then on the other side, he faced a new danger. So steep were the waves, so deep the troughs, that the CG 36500 started speeding faster than ever she had before, gaining great speed and momentum with its 2,000 pound bronze ballast in the keel hauling it downhill very fast.
Now, when they hit the very trough of the wave, the little boat would just keep going, driving its bow, crew and stern under the water, propelled by the momentum of the one ton bronze keel.
Webber slammed the engine into reverse in an attempt to slow the boat. Still, she sped down the far side of each wave at an immense speed for the dowdy old girl. Even in reverse, the CG36500 was speeding, speeding down the wave, down the mountain, bow and a ton of lead in the keel pointed toward the bottom.