The Sister Ship of the SS Poet Makes One Last Voyage

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When I first began covering maritime safety, I was assured that old ships could be safe ships. Which technically is true.

But in the real world, they are far more likely to be represented by old rust buckets like the SS Penny. This story is from 1983, but keep in mind that the average age of Military Sealift ships is now 46 years old. You can check and fix everything you can see on a 46-year-old ship. You can’t do that on what you can’t see.

Here’s the original piece on the sister ship of the SS Poet, which sailed out of Philadelphia 39 years ago in October — and disappeared.


By    Robert R. Frump, Inquirer Staff Writer

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA); 3688 words

Published: 1983-10-23

Section: NATIONAL   |   Page A01   |   Edition: FINAL

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 loosefrom 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. 

© Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA) 

All content is copyrighted and may not be republished without permission.

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