THE CGC ARBUTUS-A SEA STORY
by Jack Overath
"I studied the anchored vessel closely through the "Big Eyes". Yes, the hull shape looked about right, but where was that tall stack? As we got closer I could see her name, "ARBUTUS", crudely lettered on the rusty starboard bow. It was her! The stack must have been removed with the propulsion machinery."
It was late afternoon, February 16, 1981, and USCGC CHILULA (WMEC 153) was approaching what had been reported as a possible "drug mother ship". We had been on D7OPS for the better part of a month now and this looked like our first "bust". A "perpetrator" at last? We were south of the Florida keys between Key West and Dry Tortugas. Although homeported in Fort Macon (Morehead City), North Carolina, we had been in these waters before during the Cuban Exodus of 1980. Now our .50 Cal. machine guns were manned and ready and the boarding party and boat crew were making their preparations. We would launch the boat when the water shoaled to 25 feet or so. We couldn't get too much closer because of our draft, but we could "cover" the boat from about 500-600 yards away.
I called the officer in charge of the boarding party to the bridge. It was probably the most thorough briefing on the layout of the vessel he was about to board that he had ever received from his Commanding Officer. How did I know the various compartments and passageways? Good intelligence? Sets of plans of "possibles"? Neither, I had first seen "ARBUTUS" in 1955 and had served aboard her from December 1956, after completing "boot camp", until I was transferred to Aids to Navigation School in February 1960. The rusted hulk I saw before me now had once been the United States Coast Guard Cutter ARBUTUS (WAGL 203), a former Lighthouse Service tender which had been built in 1933. Her homeport, when I was aboard, had been Coast Guard Base St. George, Staten Island, New York. As a "boot" Seaman Apprentice, a Seaman and a Third Class Boatswain's Mate I had spent many hours chipping and painting her, but now she was in terrible shape. I had learned seamanship on her decks and in the boats she had carried. I had learned about aids to navigation while working the buoys and shore aids assigned to her. I had stood helm and gangway watches on her bridge, and had taken coal, yes that's right coal, from her buoy deck to heat the manned lighthouses in New York Harbor, the Hudson River and Long Island Sound. She was the fastest buoy tender in New York Harbor. On a long run when we could really get up a good head of stem she could beat all of the other 4 tenders (FIREBUSH, OAK, HICKORY, BEECH) that were also homeported at Staten Island. She was 174 ft. LOA with two triple expansion steam engines driving twin screws and a 20 Ton capacity steam boom. She carried 2 boats, a 24 ft. Motor Cargo Boat and a 24 ft. Motor Cargo Boat (Ramp). Radial davits were used to launch and recover these boats. I had many fond memories of the old "ARBUCKLE" as we, and only we, who served on her were allowed to call her.
Only two months before, during a visit to Portsmouth, Virginia, I had invited the man who had commanded ARBUTUS, from 1955 to 1959, aboard CHILULA for lunch. We shared many a sea story about the old "ARBUCKLE" and wondered what had become of her. I knew she had been decommissioned because CWO Ken Black, USCG (Ret.) had shown me the builder's plate during my 1978 visit to his Coast Guard museum in Rockland, Maine. CAPT George E. Cote, USCG (Ret.) had been a Lieutenant when he was C.O. of ARBUTUS and he had been a Commander while C.O. of CHILULA, the position I now held. After WW II, CAPT COTE had been C.O. of LILAC, a buoy tender very much like the ARBUTUS, and had many interesting sea stories to tell about that tour. But that's another story which I hope he tells in print!
So I had found the ARBUTUS. She was still afloat, but just didn't look at all like the once proud buoy tender I had known and aboard which I had served my first "sea duty". They say you always remember you first sea duty. Well that is probably true, but I would rather remember ARBUTUS as the vessel I had served on, not as this rusted, engineless hulk which I now saw! It might have been better for her to have been broken up for scrap or her riveted hull sunk at sea!
What happened with the boarding? Well, unlike some other boarding's of this type where the former Coast Guard vessel is seized as a "drugie", before the boat got to the ARBUTUS, we received word from the Seventh District that she was "clean" and we were ordered to resume normal operations. I recalled the boat and we continued our patrol.
At the time that events described in this article occurred, the writer, CDR J. F. Overath, USCG (Ret.), was Commanding Officer USCGC CHILULA (WMEC 153).
Commander Overath enlisted in the Coast Guard in August 1956, completed Recruit Training and was assigned aboard ARBUTUS in December 1956. In addition to the 3 year tour aboard ARBUTUS he served aboard USCGC OAK (WAGL 239), and had shore assignments at Light Attendant Station Moriches and as a student at the Advanced Aids to Navigation School in Groton, CT. After OCS in 1965 he served aboard the Cutters SEDGE (WLB 402) and MESQUITE (WLB 305). In addition to CHILULA he has commanded both HORNBEAM (WLB 394) and BITTERSWEET (WLB 389). He has also been Assistant Chief, Search and Rescue Branch, Third CG District, and Assistant Chief, Aids to Navigation Branch in both the Ninth and First CG Districts. He retired in 1982 after serving as Chief, Aids to Navigation Branch, Thirteenth CG District. He now lives in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, and is the Director Of Institutional Computer Services at Bluefield State College in Bluefield, WV.
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