marine electric

In Remembrance: The Marine Electric Sank 37 Years Ago This Month, Changing Maritime Safety Forever. Here’s How It Happened

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Note: Here is the first chapter of Until the Sea Shall Free Them. An online version of the book is available here. You can purchase a copy or audio book here.

Until the Sea Shall Free Them  

 Part One

AT SEA

And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower.
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said,
“All men shall be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them.”
–Leonard Cohen

Chapter One

CASTING OFF

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever … it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking people’s hats off-—then, I account it
high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

–Herman Melville

10 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 10, 1983
Coal terminal
Norfolk, Virginia

At the loading pier near Norfolk, Bob Cusick, the veteran chief
mate, spread steam coal into the holds of the Marine Electriclike a

pastry chef layering a cake. No chunk was larger than a Ping-Pong
ball, and some of the coal was just black powder. In bulk, the coal
formed a huge mass, heavier than 10,000 automobiles, and it had to
be loaded carefully so that the ship remained balanced.

Huge chutes passed over the ship and dumped black coal evenly
at Cusick’s command. Normally, it took three passes to load a ship
this size, but Bob Cusick had done this more than a few times. He
almost never needed the third, “finishing” pass. That was an advan-
tage of time on the water, of time on the piers. There was a lot he
knew, a lot he’d seen that the younger kids aboard ship might
never see.

Still, Cusick always felt the excitement of leaving, of casting off,
of starting the voyage. All of them, all thirty-four seamen and offi-
cers, felt it, even if this would be just a milk run up the coast,

Virginia to Massachusetts and back, shuttling coal to the power
plants of New England.

Bob Cusick

There were a number of green kids on the ship who felt the ex-
citement more than Cusick, and he wondered what they must think
he was doing now. For anyone with just a few months at sea would
think Bob Cusick was cheating. Clearly, the chief mate of the Marine
Electricwas overloading his ship—she had sunk below the legal load
line. You could see it, if you knew just enough about the business
not to know what you didn’t know. Cusick had filled the hatches
with 23,000 tons of coal on top of the 1,800 tons already there. And
now the ship was five inches below its legal load line.

Or so it seemed. The truth was that Marine Transport Lines, the
owner, never asked Cusick to overload a ship. That was one thing he
liked about this job.

Another truth was that Cusick had checked the salinity of the
harbor water carefully. It measured 1.013 on his hydrometer. That
meant the harbor water was far less salty than ocean water. So when
the Marine Electricsailed into the ocean, she would rise magically, like
some huge high school science fair display, leaving her load line
comfortably above the waterline.

Only there was nothing magic about it. It was professional pro-
cedure. And it was how Cusick got and kept a job that paid him well
at a time when American maritime work was scarce.

He liked this job, and he liked the men he worked with. Most all
of them, with their different ranks and duties, had drifted back to the
ship as he was loading it.

They were members of diverse tribes with diverse skills, and on
some ships, the tribes never got along. There were the officers, of
course. Deck officers, like the third mate, navigated and steered the
ship. Engineers, like the first assistant engineer, kept the turbines
humming and the power up. Ordinary seamen fell near the bottom
of the organizational chart, just learning the business. Able-bodied
seamen, or ABs, were veteran, skilled seamen. Oilers and wipers
worked the engine room down below, assisting the engineers. At the
bottom of the officer social order were the cadets—the men and
women still in a maritime academy who shipped out for the first
time on an American merchant vessel.

Fissures would form along these differences in rank and mission
on many ships. The deck officers and engineers grumbled at each
other and did not fraternize. Deck crews and the engine room
workers followed the lead of the officers. They blamed each other
for problems and held grudges.

But Cusick, the chief mate and second in command of the Ma-
rine Electric,mingled with all the men and set the tone for the ship.
They had their differences, as men do, but they all pretty much got
along.

Certainly all classes and ranks on the Marine Electric joinedto-
gether to poke gentle fun at George Wickboldt, the cadet. The cadet
was in love, they said. It seemed a real romance. Cusick’s friend
Mike Price, the first assistant engineer, had taken the cadet under his
wing and treated him like family, even took him home to Massachu-
setts. There Wickboldt met a pretty young girl named Cathy. They
had hit it off, became an item, and the whole ship kidded George
about his love life. Price even speculated that the two kids might get
married some day.

But the crew, all of them, made certain the ribbing never turned
nasty. This was so because all of them knew the Wickboldt story, and
there was an unspoken agreement among them to watch out for
the kid.

The cadet’s family lived on Long Island near the Sound, and the
four sons of the Wickboldt family had been called to sea. The family
dream was to restore a large wooded property they owned on a lake
in New Hampshire. There, no matter how far the seafaring sons
roamed, they could have places near their parents. A year earlier,
they’d begun planning to renovate the old house there.

And while George Wickboldt was quiet about the story, the
crew all knew what happened to that dream. All of them heard what
had happened only a year before to George’s older brother Steven.
And all of them knew it could as easily happen to them.

Dom Cavicchio

Take the wrong turn. Stop for a moment. Do some inconse-
quential thing you would not even think about. Go left instead of
right. On board a ship you could be dead or maimed in an instant.

Twenty-four-year-old Steven Wickboldt sailed on the Golden Dol-
phin,a modern oil tanker. He was a conscientious man who took
pride in his work. It was a Wickboldt family tradition.

But his ship had two routine maintenance problems in March
1982 as she sailed from Louisiana to Dubai on the Persian Gulf. The
first problem was common to all tankers. Sludge had accumulated in
the cargo tanks. It had to be removed. The only way to do it was the
old-fashioned way: sending men down in the tanks with shovels to
muck it out manually.

The other problem was more technical and required skilled la-
bor. The steam lines that ran into the cargo tanks were so corroded
that they did not work. These lines were important because oil
sometimes had to be warmed to make it portable and pumpable.
And the sludge now lining the cargo tanks of the Golden Dolphin
would be much easier to remove if the steam lines and heating coils
in the tank were activated. The heat turned the oil from a hard, un-
pliable solid to a more liquid, movable muck.

On the Golden Dolphin,the steam lines connecting the engine
room to the cargo holds snaked along the deck and had succumbed
to the corrosive powers of saltwater. The crew had tried to seal the
leaks with fiberglass and epoxy patches, but to no avail. Steam leaked
so badly that the pipes no longer did their job. It was clear the steam
lines on deck had to be replaced, and the only way to do that was to
break out the welding equipment and put in new lines.

Steve Wickboldt was safe in the engine room when the welding
started on deck. At the same time, about 3:20 P.M. on March 6, Sea-
men Roy Leonard, Martin Wright, and Manuel Rodriguez ended a
coffee break and entered the number-four cargo hatch to begin
mucking out the sludge. Seaman Zemlock went to the mucking
winch—a hoist that would carry the sludge up and out of the tanks
below. Norman Beavers, who as bosun supervised the deck crew,
popped down below to join the men.

At 3:45, the welding crew continued to fit new steam pipes.
This was “hot work” on a tanker, not to be taken lightly. But the
crew was some distance from the number-four hatch, fifty feet or
more away from any combustible fumes coming from the oil.

Paul Rippee, the chief engineer, was supervising the welding.

He asked the chief mate to tell the third assistant engineer, a man named Fitzpatrick, to pick up an impact wrench and bring it to the worksite. The chief mate, heading for his stint at the wheel, saw Fitzpatrick and relayed the message. Fitzpatrick fetched the wrench and was walking forward to the welding site. Just ten seconds more and he’d be there.

In the engine room, men were changing shifts. First Assistant
Engineer Cronin showed up early, at 3:45, to stand his watch. Steve
Wickboldt could now take a break. It wasn’t common to see hot
work on board a tanker, and Steve wanted to see how it was done.
He jogged forward to lend a hand.

Then, as always in such times, events happened both quickly and
slowly, as if caught by a slow-motion camera. Fitzpatrick, walking
with the wrench, could see the welding team. Wickboldt was about
to join them; the kid had slowed to a walk. The chief engineer,
wearing his blue jumpsuit, was looking off the port side of the ship.
Fitzpatrick raised the wrench as if to say, “Hey, Chief, I’ve got what you
wanted. ”But he did not catch the chief’s eye. Fitzpatrick saw a metal
strip on the deck and looked down, afraid he might trip. He heard a
long whooshing sound, then a noise like a firecracker inside a barrel.
A wall of fire rose straight up. Pieces of metal started flying and land-
ing around him.

One piece looked like the steam pipe. Fitzpatrick did not stop to
examine it. He ran aft for his life, to the rear of the ship. A thirty-
eight-knot wind was blowing over the Golden Dolphin,whipping the
flames like a blowtorch. He found shelter from the falling debris be-
hind the deckhouse, then peeked around a corner to survey the star-
board side of the ship. The cargo tanks from below had been blown
out and up, so that now their bottoms were above the deckline,
pointing jagged steel toward the sky. The whole huge midsection of
the ship was aflame.

The general alarm was sounding. Smoke and fire engulfed the
deck. There was no sign of the small group of men who had been
huddling over the hot work. Friends and colleagues—Paul Rippee,
Wickboldt, all of them—were simply gone.

Zemlock, operating the winch when it happened, by all rights
should have been killed instantly. As he was hauling out buckets of
sludge and dumping them into fifty-five-gallon drums, he felt and
heard a vibration directly beneath him. He was looking down into
the tank, but instead of being burned, he was hurled away from the
opening. He heard one explosion. He was in the air, floating, when
the second one came. Fate had it that he was blown aft forty feet,
away from the inferno forward. He did not remember landing, only
that when he did, he was sitting.

He looked forward. The force of one explosion had blown up
part of the cargo hold bulkhead straight in front of the spot where he
landed. The shattered bulkhead had shielded him from the flames.
Yet another explosion had blown the deck out directly behind him.
He sat, stunned, protected by jagged metal armor on both sides. He
waited a moment, then picked his way toward the stern.

Steven Wickboldt, the men on the welding crew, and the men
in the tanks, all nine of them, died instantly. What had happened was
dreadfully simple. The heat from the welding torch had entered the
steam line that still ran into the cargo holds. Although the tank in
which the men were working was gas-free, the other holds were in
that most perilous of tanker conditions—empty of oil, but not empty
of vapors. The steam coils lining these tanks were connected to the
steam line the men were welding. The cargo coils were corroded.
Thus, vapor from the tanks wafted up through the steam line, vent-
ing to the deck where the men were welding. A spark or flame or
heat from the acetylene torch in effect lit a fuse running from one
part of the ship dozens of yards to the explosive vapors of the empty
oil tanks forward.

Which explains the “whoosh” sound many of the survivors
heard. It was the gaseous fuse linking torch to tank.

On the bridge, the captain ordered hard left rudder. This turned
the ship sharply and cut down the fierceness of the wind blowing the
fire forward to aft. Then he hit the abandon ship button. The re-
maining men found lifeboats. They were rescued a few hours later
by a passing merchant vessel and sat there on the deck and watched
as the hull of their tanker burned and glowed cherry red.

Nearly a year later, the men of the Marine Electricknew the lesson.
Even good men, even smart men, even men who thought they had
things under control, could die in a thousand different ways. The
flames did not care. The steel did not care. Most particularly, the
ocean did not care.

But the men of the Marine Electriccared. They watched out for
Cadet George Wickboldt. Like all cadets, he needed to prove him-
self. And he took some hazing about his love life. But in many ways,
they figured, he had already paid his dues. Anyone whose brother
could die like that, and who then went to sea, anyway, well. . . the
men did not talk about it much. Such things did not need to be said.

Philip Corl, the master of the Marine Electric,Cusick’s boss, could
look down from the bridge on all of this and figure he was a lucky
man. Captains in the American Merchant Marine could make an-
nual incomes equal to those of many doctors and lawyers but usually
paid a price. They spent months at sea.

The Marine Electricrun was an easy one. She ferried coal from
Virginia to an electric utility at Brayton Point, Massachusetts, near
Boston. It was about thirty-two hours each way, and the earlier trip
down just a few days before had been glass-smooth, unusual for the
North Atlantic in winter.

Corl, like Cusick, was an old hand, in his late fifties. He had
signed on two days earlier as the relief master—the captain who took
over when the regular captain was on vacation—and did so quite ea-
gerly. Hour for hour, captains made a nice living, but only when
they worked. More and more, there were fewer and fewer jobs in
the American Merchant Marine. For years, Corl had stayed clear of
such unemployment. He’d put behind him the memories of service
in World War II and the sparse jobs of peacetime and moved west to
deal cards at a friend’s casino. That work in the desert had dried up,
though, and Corl, himself a cardplayer, knew he had beaten the odds
when he signed on with Marine Transport Lines a few months back.
Corl had a plum. Hundreds of officers were without work. He was
lucky, and he was grateful.

They were all lucky. There was none of the discomfort of long
trips to Somalia or Egypt, carrying government grain. The Marine
Electriccarried coal in the coastal trade. Miners pulled it from the
ground in Virginia and West Virginia and Kentucky and Illinois. It
came east to Norfolk by train, but it was cheaper from there to ship
north by water. And so the coal was dumped into the holds of the
Marine Electric,which carried it up the coast to the Boston area.

There, they burned it to heat the water that created the steam
that turned the turbines that generated the electricity to light and
heat homes and workplaces and to power toasters, televisions, ster-
eos, vacuum cleaners, ovens, coffee pots, and hair dryers. The Marine
Electricand the coal she carried helped make New England twinkle.
At night, as the men out at sea stared at the land, they could watch
the lights and understand that the cities were glowing because of
them and the coal they carried. It gave them meaning. A connec-
tion.

For his part, Cusick did not need to philosophize. He had always
been connected to the sea. Had always loved the life at sea. And he
loved the job he had on the Marine Electric.He had been at sea since
age eighteen and with the Marine Electricfor five years. He was sec-
ond in command, a year older than Corl, and he knew his ship in-
side out.

With Corl looking on from above, Cusick computed the load
factors again. There were nuances. Important ones. There always
were in large ships, particularly the old ones like the Marine Electric.
The ship had been built during World War II as a T-2 type tanker—
state of the art at the time—and then modified and extended in 1961
for dry cargo bulk duty with a new midsection.

There was nothing new about her now, though. The bow and
stern were almost forty years old, and the “new” midsection was of-
ficially “overage” by insurance standards. If you were in charge of
loading cargo, as Cusick was, you had to be careful how you distrib-
uted the weight in any ship and, particularly in an old girl like this.

Earlier, the hatches for the five cargo holds had been rolled back
like huge horizontal garage doors. The rail cars had dumped their
coal onto conveyor belts. The belts then carried the coal to chutes.
The chutes hosed the coal down the hatches and into the holds. This

could not be done sloppily. Dump the coal too densely into the mid-
dle hatches, leave the fore and aft light, and the ship sagged. Dump it
too heavily into the fore and aft, with the center light, and it
“hogged”—rose up like a hogs back. Either way was dangerous.
The Marine Electricwas a small ship by the standards of the new
supertankers, but immense by human scale. Stretch two football
fields end to end, and you had her. Hogging or sagging meant a
ship of that size could fracture and founder at sea, if she hit the waves
wrong.

These things Cusick knew automatically and did automatically.
Up to Somerset, Massachusetts. Down to Norfolk. Load the coal.
Two passes and he was done, really. Same old same old, and fine by
him. Just to make sure on this trip, he put in a few more dollops of
coal on that third trimming pass. In hatch number five, he added 400
more tons. In hatch number one, he placed 700 more tons. These
light touches were the equivalent of a pastry chefs signature
touches. A few hundred tons here, a few there. Then, no more. It
was finished.

He then went over his loading log and measurements with
William H. Long, a good friend and old salt, retired from his days at
sea as an officer with the Marine Electricbut still working dockside.
Bill Long copied Cusick’s loading measurements as the chief mate
read them off. The copy was just that, a sort of working checklist.
Long always threw his paper away, and Cusick carried the formal
record on board the ship.

Cusick could think of all the good things about the crew and ship
and be grateful. But there were also certain things Cusick tried not
to think about. Because these kinds of thoughts worked against all
the good things, all the right things about the Marine Electric.These
thoughts conflicted with the what-a-great-deal-we-got-here version
of the ship.

Cusick knew better than anyone that the ship was falling apart.
The owners were good owners, as these things went. Marine Trans-
port Lines, Inc. was a big, modern corporation that was now in the
middle of some big deal on Wall Street. The company was a joint
owner in a new project, building a new ship, the Energy Independence,
one of the few new ones built in U.S. yards. In that, the company
was among the best of shipping lines.

But every trip, Cusick would sketch on his clipboard one more
crack in the hatch covers. There were more than ninety now. He
had the crew slop Red Hand over the cracks—marine-strength
epoxy patching. They welded “doublers” over them—big sheets of
quarter-inch steel. The company sometimes put the ship in for re-
pairs, but she never came out right. Some mariners called ships like
the Marine Electric“tired iron.” They were like used cars. Even if you
treated them like classics, you never knew what would break next.

Cusick worried enough that when the Marine Electricwas taken
off the coal route a few months before to carry grain to Haifa, Israel,
he had opted out. He knew the shape of the Marine Electricbetter
than anyone. Would he ride her up and down the coast of the North
Atlantic? You bet. The U.S. Coast Guard could always come out and
get them. They were only thirty miles from shore.

But cross the North Atlantic and go through the Mediterranean
all the way to Israel? Cusick had always taken risks. Not this one,
though. He passed. He remembered that just two years earlier,
another old ship, the SS Poet,had gone down in the Atlantic carry-
ing government grain. No one was found. No one survived.

Cusick was not alone in his concern. The Marine Electricsfirst
matt , Clayton Babineau, also passed on the transatlantic voyage. He
took the summer off and worked on the roof of his house while the
Marine Electricdelivered grain to Israel. “When are they going to cut that
tub into razor blades?”friends would ask Babineau. Babineau would
grin back and say, “You can’t cut rust into razor blades

But Babineau was unamused by much of what he saw on the old
ship. He was a methodical, serious man, whose absorption in detail
drove his wife to distraction. Mary Babineau loved him dearly but
hated his endless lists. He even had a packet marked for her if he was
ever lost at sea, detailing what she should do—lists of assets, lists of
lawyers, who to call, bills to be paid, union officers to contact.

“Don’t worry,” he would tell Mary. “It’s never going to happen.
The thought of you as a rich widow is enough to keep me safe.”

Very funny, she would say, and Mary, a devout Catholic, would
pray harder, hope that Clayt would loosen up on the lists, and pray
she never would have to reach for the packet she knew was in that
desk drawer.

But Babineau found he could not loosen up on the condition of
the ship. Clayt liked the job, but hated the ship. He liked the job be-
cause the home front had been tumultuous recently. He was needed
there, and the coastal run let him spend a lot of time at home. He
had two teenagers and a daughter in her twenties, now out of the
nest. Teenagers always are a challenge, but it was the older girl’s ac-
tions that bothered him and Mary. She wanted to marry a guy who
was not in any way, shape, or form included on his lists. Mary
agreed.

The parents weren’t winning this debate, but they weren’t giv-
ing up on it, either. Their older daughter was nearly estranged.
Home time was important until this thing was seen through one
way or the other.

Clayt also liked his position in the company. He’d just gotten
word that he would be the new relief chief mate, filling in when
Cusick took vacations. And that would mean, in a few months, he
would be the relief mate on a brand-new ship—the Energy Indepen-
dence.When she came in service, he would have a scarce position on
one of the safest ships imaginable.

If Babineau could hold on a little longer, keep his nose clean
with the company, and keep the Marine Electricon the water instead
of under it, he’d be set.

So it had been no small thing several weeks back when he had
called the Coast Guard about the Marine Electric. Mary was in Clayt’s
study when he phoned. The ship was in a Rhode Island repair yard
in the winter of 1982 when he dialed up the local Coast Guard
inspectors.

“Listen,” he said, “here’s what’s wrong with the ship. Go on
board and just take a look. You’ll see the cracks in the deck. You
can’t miss them. Check the hatches.”

“Will do,” said the Coast Guard guy.

But theMarine Electricsailed a short time later, and the complaint
made in Rhode Island was not forwarded to other ports where she
put in. Babineau never got any response, never saw any results of his
call, and watched in fact as inspectors of the American Bureau of

Shipping and the Coast Guard stepped over obvious safety viola-
tions. The crew had circled cracks in the deck with chalk, then
spraypainted circles around them. The inspectors were careful both
not to trip over the deficiencies and to ignore them in their inspec-
tion reports. Clayt’s list of what was wrong with the ship grew
longer as the condition of the ship became uglier.

Still, the men took pride in their work and in the Marine Electric.
They kept her painted, and the rust didn’t show from a distance. Cu-
sick kept the deck crew busy on that, though when they scraped the
rust off the hatch covers, sometimes daylight would show through.

Eugene F. Kelly, Jr., had caught that spirit of pride, even though
he was only the relief third mate—a part-timer. He liked the ship
and liked the crew and hoped the Marine Electricwould become a
permanent hitch.

He had a wife and seven-month-old daughter at home, and this
was, as the third mate often said, a “milquetoast run.” He thought
every once in a while it would be nice to work on the new big
tankers, use his head a little more, run the modern inert gas systems
that kept the supertankers from exploding. Or maybe work on one
of the military sealift ships, oversee refueling in mid-ocean. That
would be a challenge. He was only thirty-one and needed chal-
lenges, he thought. A little more danger could be good for him.

But life on the Marine Electricwas perfect in so many ways. He
was a sportsman, and the winter waterfowl season was open. When
he was landlocked, he could hunt and be with his family.

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
Electricparked their cars at the power plant in Massachusetts. When
Kelly and the crew came in, they zipped home. “Like we were shore
workers,” an officer once remarked.

Besides, the Energy Independencewould be finished soon. Six
months, Kelly figured, and all of them would have the same cushy
job on a brand-new ship.

There is a saying among the families of seamen, among wives,
lovers, mothers.

Some men go to sea to get away. Some men go to sea to get home.

The Marine Electrichad its share of the former, men who knew
no other life and were most comfortable at sea. Like the men of the
old clipper ships or the fictional whaler Ishmael, they needed the sea
to get away from land and all its social complexities.

But most of the Marine Electriccrewmen were “home ported”—
with a regular departure port close to their homes. They went to sea
so they could get home to land. The sea provided for their land life,
and they were grateful. They didn’t want to worry about the age of
the ship. They thought themselves blessed.

Besides, new ship, old ship, always there was risk. A state-of-the
art West German ship, the Munchen,had gone down in the mid-
Atlantic a few years earlier. A brand-new British ship, the Derbyshire,
sank in the Pacific in 1980. All hands perished, including some
women on the Derby.

It was a global story, a global worry, that stretched back to the
first man who floated atop a log in saltwater. Those who went to sea
faced peril, period. Worrying too much was a waste.

Perhaps it was the knowledge that he captained a rust bucket that
made Corl do what he did. Or perhaps a premonition. Cusick
couldn’t figure it out. Not on the face of it, at least. Was the old man
superstitious? They were both old-timers and seasoned professionals.
So Cusick was surprised at Corl’s decision about his wife, Alice. It
was more and more common these days for officers’ wives to ac-
company their husbands on trips, particularly milk runs like this one.
So the plan had been for Alice Corl to board in Massachusetts, take
the trip to Norfolk, see a bit of Virginia while the ship loaded, and
scoot back up the coast with her husband.

But Corl hemmed and hawed about her coming. Finally, he de-
clared that the quarters weren’t large enough. “Alice,” he said, “skip
this trip. Stay in a hotel in Boston, Alice. I’ll see you on the flip-flop,
on the return trip. Have fim in the city.”

His decision made no sense to Cusick. Or to anyone. The quar-
ters weren’t huge, but they were big enough for a couple. People ate
in shifts anyway. Of course, men in the maritime trades often talked
around things. It was rare that a softness of heart would surface.

Premonitions were not part of the science of navigation and engine
room maintenance.

What else could Corl have said? That the trip didn’t feel right?
That the ship was unsafe? The men would have muttered all thirty-
two hours south and thirty-two hours north about that one. About
how the old man felt that the ship was jinxed.

And in that sense, it made perfect sense to Cusick and everyone
else on the crew. They just didn’t want to talk about it.

They didn’t have to talk about it. If the officers felt concern
about the ship, they could go to the bridge and watch the radar.
Etched in green flows on the scope was their salvation. Off there on
the left going up. Down there on the right coming down. The con-
tinental shelf. Land. The Coast Guard was only thirty miles away.
Jobs were scarce. They didn’t get any better than this. Who wanted
to complain? Who wanted to lose this good thing?

The crew had all signed on over the last few days as the ship loaded,
and there were the usual manning mix-ups, misunderstandings, and
last-minute quirks.

Jose O. Quinones had just made chief cook, and there was no
way he would miss his first voyage with that tide. He was making
certain his galley was well-stocked with comfort food. He wanted to
keep the Marine Electricsreputation as a “good feeder.”

Others were more casual about the trip.

Walter Parkhurst was a relief able-bodied seaman, an “AB,” and
had sailed down from Massachusetts. Edward W. Matthews, a Balti-
more man, had been on leave. But there was a misunderstanding,
and now both men showed up on the pier in Norfolk. Men on the
ship took sides. Some, mostly friends of Matthews, told Matthews he
should demand his berth, that it was his by rights. Matthews wanted
the ride.

Cusick knew his union rules, though, and took Parkhurst aside.

“Parkie, you have a right to sail now,” Cusick told him. “I’ll
back you with the union. The rules are the rules, and you can sail if
you want. You’re cleared to get on the ship. Just give me the word.”

Parkie gave it some thought and a few minutes later found the
chief mate.

“Oh, what the hell, Mate,” he told Cusick. “I’ll get off here.”
Matthews got his berth.

Davy Wright, a steady AB, was coming back to the ship, too, but
was careful to follow the rules. He had been on vacation. The union
had strict rules about time off and time on and rigorously enforced
vacations. Because jobs were scarce, the union spread the jobs out by
demanding mandatory times on the beach. Now Wright had been
on the beach long enough to go back to sea. He stopped by the
union hall to make sure all was in order.

He was out the door with his ticket punched when the union
man ran out after him. “Hey, sorry, Davy. There’s a mistake here.
You’re one day short. You need one day more on land. You’re going
to have to catch the ship up north.”

So Davy joined Parkie on the beach.

And then there was the Gashounder. He was a good guy when
you could catch him sober, but Kelly remembered giving him a ride
one night and how the liquor fumes from the guy filled the cab of
his truck. The Gashounder would go to sleep and snore, slip a little
on the seat, then slide over and slump against Kelly, drooling on
him. It got to the point where Kelly had to shove the guy hard over
to the door. There he drooled against the window, emitting fumes of
vomit and booze.

“Thank Christ!” Kelly said, when he learned that Cusick had
fired the Gashounder. It was something the chief mate had hated to
do. Drinking was a problem on board ships, and not just among the
seamen. Cusick had a good friend, an officer, who was a bad
drinker, so bad that the story of the guy was a legend in the fleet.

In Da Nang, South Vietnam, in the old days, the friend once
took the ship’s small motor launch to a bar across the bay. When the
Viet Cong mortared the area after a few hours, the launch came
hurtling full speed back to the ship. The Marine guard on the ship
watched as a man stood in the bow of the launch, stripped off all his
clothes, and dove into the water.

The launch swerved out to sea, and the naked man swam madly
to the ship. He ran up the ladder yelling that people were shooting at
him, waved his arms wildly, then disappeared down below. The
young Marine ran to the officer on the bridge and said, “We just had
a crazy guy run stark naked onto the ship. We better tell the captain.”

“Good luck,” the officer on watch said laconically. “That wasthe
captain.”

In the rough culture of the Merchant Marine, stories like that
were numerous and—too often, perhaps—accepted as part of life
at sea.

But no one accepted the Gashounder. Just a few days earlier, in
Massachusetts, as they were getting ready to leave for Norfolk, he
was drunk again in his cabin, and this time he would not get up. He
told Charlie Johnson, the bosun, that he just wanted to sleep. When
he was told of the problem, Cusick sighed and went down to the
man’s berth.

“Come on, fella, time to go to work,” Cusick said.

“I ain’ta gonna,” the Gashounder said.

“You gotta,” Cusick said twice. The man lay still, in a stupor.

Then Cusick said, “Listen, you’re a good man when you’re sober,
but this can’t go on like this. Get your O.T. sheet and your gear and
get off.”

A few minutes later, the Gashounder was back, a supplicant. He
wasn’t a mean drunk. “Look, Mate, you’ve been fair with me all
along and I’ve been an asshole. I know that. Can I ask you one favor,
though? Can I keep my gear on the ship and pick it up in Brayton?”

“Sure,” Cusick said. And then the Gashounder left for the bars,
and a young seaman named Paul Dewey signed on.

For Cusick’s part, there were no ominous premonitions on this trip.
Just common sense. And precision.

This night, he took additional precautions. There was a very bad
storm bearing down on the East Coast, and the Virginians, not used
to driving in ice and snow, would soon be skidding into one another
left and right. Already it was cold and rainy. Gale warnings were out.
They could expect winds of twenty-five to thirty-five knots.

The Marine Electric and Cusick had seen dozens of storms like

this one. It would be a bad one, but nothing to write home about.
Not “the perfect storm.” It had formed over the Gulf of Mexico and
was headed north. The Marine Electricwould plow through as she
had for nearly forty years. The bow would plunge. The waves
would pump high. There would be a whoosh and bang of water hit-
ting steel and a ka-thump as if someone had whacked a very big
washtub with a board. Sometimes green water would bury the
frontmost part of the ship, actually submerge the bow and much of
the deck beneath a big wave. Then the buoyancy of the bow would
assert itself, and she would clear the wave to meet the next one.

Cusick instructed the crew members to pay special attention to
the huge hatches. The covers were very heavy affairs and normally
needed only a few fasteners—or dogs, as they were called—to secure
the hatches, one dog at each corner, one or two per side. With heavy
weather coming, Cusick ordered them all dogged down to the max-
imum. The hatch covers weighed tons. The water in the waves
could weigh tons more. If water crashed through the hatches? Many
a ship had sunk precisely because that had happened. So in the cold
and the rain, the crew put down every dog they could. Not all of
the fasteners worked. Many of the hatches had holes in them and
gaskets that did not fit well.

Still, it seemed good enough. She had seen worse, the old girl.
She was good enough. In as good a shape as ever she was these past
several years.

There were 745 tons of fuel, food, and fresh water on board,
about 24,800 tons of coal, and thirty-four men. The bow drew
thirty-four feet of water on the button. The stern, thirty-four feet,
eight inches. The center, thirty-four feet, four inches. No hogging
or sagging here. Over the course of two full football fields, only an
eight-inch difference, stern to bow. Cusick was a pro.

They had only one small problem as they left. Steve Browning
was not there.

Corl and Kelly thought it odd that Browning was a no-show.
The guy was a responsible assistant engineer and serious about his
work. The storm must have delayed him.

Well, they could make it without him. They had enough engi-
neers. This was just a little coastal run.

And then she was set to go. Shortly before midnight, in the last
hour of February io, a Thursday, the propeller of the ship surged.
Tugs pushed and pulled the old collier away from the dock. The
thick mooring lines were heaved on board and stored. And she was
off, the crew and officers feeling the little thrill that accompanies any
voyage. They were casting off. They were en route.

The tickle of excitement soon settled into cozy routine.

It would be many hours before the ship’s officers heard the radio
crackle news about a fishing boat in trouble.

Theodora was her name, and she would change everything.

An online version of the book is available here.

Or buy the book here.

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