From the Archives: The SS Penny, Sister of the Lost Ship SS Poet, Makes One Last Trip

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(Circa 1981. The Inquirer had given me a lot of leash to follow the story of the SS Poet and its aftermath. But even my fans among the editors wondered whether I was pulling one off here. I left wintry Philadelphia in February bound for Tampa for a few days to meet the SS Penny. But the ship was delayed and at the time, I came down with the flu. So the few days turned into a week then two. The ship finally made it and by that time, I had recovered. But I took a ribbing for supposedly taking “sring break” on the Inkie’s dime.)

THE SISTER SHIP: FLOATING DEAD IN THE WATER

By Robert R. Frump  
Inquirer Staff Writer

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 preventthem from obtaining future work. They agreed on the facts of the accountbelow. 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 ofMexico between Tampa and Galveston, Texas. The Penny lay helpless in the water, vulnerable to any storm. The crew of the Penny labored to fix theengines 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 thosemalfunctions 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 captainwas replaced. The original captain, William Beck, reached at his home in NewJersey, discussed the incident only briefly. ” I was relieved . . .,” hesaid, pausing. ” I think there might have been a difference of opinion as tohow 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 properfashion.”

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 Poet.

” When we were saying words about the Poet, we were thinking about thePenny,” 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 Florawas 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 oldhull 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, BobBradley, on Dec. 18.

” Hey Bob. . . . Do me a favor. This ship is hurting. They won’t give us adraw 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 plantso 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 dead.

On Nov. 23 the Penny lost its plant and its place in line at the entrance tothe 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 oftenslept 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 cot.

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 5knots to the berth of International Ship Repair at the foot of 17th Streetnear 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 vesselare required to file casualty reports with the Coast Guard describing those problems.

After the dangerous voyage, after a half-dozen problems affecting almostevery 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 Dry Tortugas.

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.

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