CROSSING THE BAR
By R. E. Anderson
An account of the events involving the USCGC BONHAM on 28 February 1956 Reprinted from The JANUARY 2000 (COAST GUARD) RETIREE NEWSLETTER - Posted by Permission
In 1955, as a LTJG, I was the Executive Officer of the CGC BONHAM (W129), a 125 foot CG Cutter out of Coos Bay, Oregon. I am relating the events that occurred on a very stormy day with extremely heavy seas on 28 February 1955, when the BONHAM crossed the Yaquina Bay Bar off Newport, Oregon. During this passage, BONHAM was hit by large seas broadside, causing her to roll so far to port that her wheelhouse was under water and her bottom screws were visible to observers on the beach.
In February 1955, we departed Coos Bay for Seattle, Washington to undergo our annual shipyard overhaul. Enroute our Commanding Officer, LT E.W Payne, decided to stop overnight at Newport. We crossed the Yaquina Bay Bar inbound with no problem and moored at Newport with sailing orders to depart the next day, the 28th of February for Seattle.
The morning of the 28th, unfortunately, brought a very severe storm with wind speeds raging up to 75 mph. The CO decided to delay our departure to await moderation of the weather. At about 1300, we received a message from the 13th CG District to proceed and assist a reported vessel in distress. The vessel, the MILMAR, sent out a distress message saying that she was taking on water and was sinking.
Preparations were made to get underway, and conditions set for heavy weather. We got underway, and as we proceeded out of the harbor, three young seamen came up and asked permission to go on the exposed flying bridge to watch the crossing of the Yaquina Bay Bar. Permission was denied and the men were told to go below and stay there; an order that, without doubt, saved their lives.
At the entrance, we found the seas were running 20 to 30 feet, breaking across the channel and extending out to the deeper water. We paused at the entrance to observe the frequency of the highest seas. The CO was at the conn. I was on the port side of the wheel house to keep track of the buoy on the port side and another officer was on the starboard side to track the channel buoy on that side of the channel.
At what we considered was the appropriate time between seas, we made a run for it. As we proceeded out of the channel entrance, we encountered very heavy seas. The BONHAM was pitching heavily with seas breaking over the bow. The larger ones would slam against the wheelhouse, and it felt like they stopped the ship in her tracks. The ship would shutter and shake when rising and throwing off the seas that inundated the forward portion of the vessel from the bow to the wheelhouse.
We were also rolling heavily from side to side, but we were still making forward progress, slowly but surely. The CO, who had a fresh cigar clamped in his teeth, was holding on to the grip rails to maintain his position. Also, I was holding on tightly to the hand rails on the port side of the wheelhouse to keep from being thrown around by the sea action.
The wind at the time was still blowing at about 75 mph and the seas seemed to be getting more violent. Suddenly, I heard the Captain shout, "Right full rudder, all engines ahead full!". The quartermaster on watch rang up full speed on all engines, and the rudder was shifted to right full.
Next the Captain ordered "All engines ahead flank speed". I looked to starboard to see the reason for these rudder and engine commands. Then I saw the "why" cross seas! There were three huge seas to starboard heading directly toward the starboard side of the BONHAM. Each sea was larger than the one preceding it, and the first one was about 20 to 25 feet from trough to crest. The ship was slowly coming right to stem the approaching seas.
The first sea struck us and caused us to roll heavily to port. Almost all that we had gained coming around to the right was nullified by this sea, but the head of the ship was still slowly coming to the right. The next sea slammed into us and we rolled violently about 65 degrees to port. The force of the roll slammed my body tight against the port side of the wheelhouse, but we slowly started to right ourselves.
I now looked to starboard again and could see a huge sea coming directly toward us. I squatted down to get a better look at the size of it. When we were in the trough, the height appeared to be the same as the height of our mast, approximately 50 feet. The crest was a solid mass of sea foam curling and breaking just as they do when they break on the shore. But due to the other two seas, the bow had not come around to the right, and we were now physically broadside to the sea.
The sea struck us with tremendous force, water rushed in through the starboard door and completely flooded the wheelhouse. I was pressed tightly against the port side, but someone slammed into me, causing me to lose my grip on the grip rail. The force of the water running from starboard to port through the wheelhouse washed me out of the wheelhouse. The last thing I remembered seeing was the port bridge wing go under water as we rolled rapidly to port. I was completely under water, and my body pushed against something solid. It was the gyro repeater stand on the port bridge wing. I grabbed it and held on for dear life. I was so deep under water that everything was pitch black. I thought the ship had capsized and I was under it. I figured that I had better make a move to free myself and get to the surface. Then I noticed the water started to get brighter, meaning I was coming to the surface.
Finally, after what seemed to be an eternity, I stuck my head above the water and took a deep breath. I was still on the port bridge wing. Sea water was swirling around me and was coming out of the wheelhouse with a lot of force. I knew that I had to get back into the wheelhouse. The sea water was pouring out of the wheelhouse, and we still listed to port as I crawled backwards with water cascading over my body to the wheelhouse.
When I got to the door coaming, I put my right hand on it, and at that moment the door slammed shut on my hand.
Inside the wheelhouse, I came to my feet, with the water still almost knee deep. As I glanced around, saw the Captain, he was still standing, facing forward, white knuckled hands still hanging on to the grab rail. He still had his hat on, and his glasses had slipped down to his nose. And there was that cigar, so large and fresh just moments ago. Now, it was still clinched between his teeth, only it was no longer straight. It was hanging like a piece of wet rope. For only a split second, in this dire situation, I chuckled.
Water was still pouring out of the wheelhouse, and I noticed that the rudder was no longer at right full. I grabbed the wheel, with the quartermaster, and brought it back to right full. It was at this time that I saw blood on the wheel and yelled
"Someone is hurt!"
About this time, the Captain yelled, "Give me a course to get out of here".
The gyro was out, so I went to the chart table and grabbed the parallel rulers to plot a course. My right hand collapsed in a pool of blood, my right index and middle fingers were 3/4 severed at the first digital. The other officer came over and gave the Captain a magnetic course.
We slowly crept out into deeper water where the seas were not so high and we made our way northward.
All of the radios were inoperative due to salt water immersion, except a small radio at the upper starboard corner of the radio shack. We learned from the Coast Guard Station at Newport that the MILMAR no longer required assistance. We advised Newport that we were alright, and continued on our way.
The Captain put me ashore at Neah Bay, Washington to be hospitalized at the U.S. Marine Hospital, Seattle. I was treated and the doctors were able to save my fingers. After a short inpatient stay I was released.
Enroute to Neah Bay, I made a tour of the vessel. I found that all of our lifeboats and life rafts were gone, as well as the after deck lockers. The port running light was missing. Below, I found steel deck plates in the engine room had been tossed about and some had stuck in the insulation on the hull sides.
Also, I saw footprints high on the port side of the engine room where the engineers stood during the last roll. But during all this they answered all bells.
When undergoing repairs, I learned that they found salt water in the radar dome at the top of the mast and also in the yardarm blinker lights. An investigation of the foregoing events was conducted, and if I remember correctly the final roll of the BONHAM was officially listed as 80 degrees.
The local Coos Bay newspaper reported that a Coast Guardsman at the CG Station Newport said he saw BONHAM’s mast touch the water when she rolled on her side while crossing the bar.
There is an old Coast Guard saying "you have to go out, but nothing says you have to come back"….but that old "buck and a quarter" the BONHAM, commissioned in 1927 took us out and brought us back until she was decommissioned in 1959.
....... R.E. Anderson is a retired Coast Guard Captain
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