DRAMA AT SEA

By Bob Foley

Submitted by J.C. Carney

 

Commander Bob Foley was the Captain of the Coast Guard Cutter Escanaba between 1964 and 1966. The Escanaba's homeport was New Bedford, Massachusetts from 1956 until decommissioning in 1973. Foley retired from the Coast Guard in 1968 and moved to Maine to become a farmer. This story is a composite of a typical Coast Guard mission. It originally appeared in Maine newspaper called over twenty years ago. Captain Bob Foley passed away shortly after publication of this story. It is his only known work.

 

In a moderate gale northeast of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, a Coast Guard cutter was hove to keeping a stationary position.

Five hundred yards on its starboard beam, and hove to on the same heading, was the Portuguese trawler "Santa Maria."

The cutter had been on weather patrol off Cape Farewell at the southern tip of Greenland. Thirty-six hours earlier, a priority message had come into her radio shack advising that a fisherman had mangled an arm in the trawl winch of the "Santa Maria."

There were no medical facilities on board the trawler.

The message ended with the cryptic order, "Proceed and assist as practicable."

The cutter's skipper stood hunched over the starboard wing of the bridge. He dourly contemplated the low, scudding, gray clouds and the equally gray and angry sea of the northeast gale into which he had been driving his ship for the past day-and a-half.

On the deck below where he stood, and a bit aft, he could watch the activities of the boat-lowering detail and the boat crew readying Number One boat for launching.

The men on deck moved stiffly about their tasks.

They were wet and cold, and they were being periodically soaked each time a contrary wave met the downward pitch of the heaving cutter.

The Coast Guard skipper recalled the hot, sunny days of the past summer, cruising in the protected waters of Cape Cod bay.

Boat drill consisted of lowering, launching, and retrieving the ready boat (used for emergencies) time after time until perfection was attained.

The boat crew and the lowering detail had sweated and cussed. After each drill, they were rewarded with swim call. They became expert.

There were the drills in the Gulf of Maine and out on George's Banks in all kinds of weather and at all times of the day or night.

The men had grumbled and cussed some more.

Their reward had been an occasional Nantucket sleigh ride at the end of a taut sea painter (a long line between the ready boat and the cutter) before being hoisted back aboard.

They became professionals.

Since the training period in the summer and fall of the previous year, the cutter had carried out many assistance missions during which it had been necessary to use a boat. Sea and wind conditions, however, had been moderate, and the boat work had been performed smoothly.

Now, the conditions were not moderate.

There was a long, heaving sea from the dying northeast gale. A freezing rain mixed with spindrift (sea spray) was driving horizontally across the tops of the waves and across the foam-flecked main deck of the cutter.

The cutter's pitching and rolling would make the launching of the boat from the equaling gyrating davits (cranes) a dangerous operation.

Plucking the boat out of these wild waters and bringing it-with its precious cargo-Snug aboard again would be even more dangerous.

Precise timing, good seamanship, guts, and liberal dose of luck would be needed.

It was ironic, thought the skipper, that with all the modern the technical advances of jets, rockets, nuclear subs and the like, the surest way to rescue a man in a storm was to use a wooden pulling boat.

"Ready on deck!" called the cutter's bo's'n from the boat deck below.

"Very well-lay the crew in Number One boat," replied the skipper.

His voice was sharp and ugly-sounding to cut through the tumult of wind and waves. His terms were rigidly phrased and as old as sea lore, the better to pass an exact command to the seamen on deck.

The crew climbed into the swaying boat, each giving one hand to the monkey lines, (hanging from the davit span to the boat), and one to his oar and equipment as he settled on to his thwart (seat) for the job ahead.

The boat crew readied the boat.

The coxswain shipped the long sweep oar and lashed it securely on the strongback (oar support)aft. The oarsmen loosed the light marlin lashings from their oars and placed them handily in their ready position. The stroke oarsman unlashed all but the last turn of line from the fore and aft releasing hooks. On these hooks, the full weight of the boat and crew was suspended from the davit falls. The inboard bow oarsman checked the wooden toggle securing the sea painter. He carefully noted that this line ran free and clear.

The boat was to be released with the cutter making way through the water.

After the boat was dropped from the fall (the lowering apparatus) and the releasing hooks cast off, the forward surge of the cutter would pull taut the long scope (length) of the sea painter line.

The boat would thus come alive, surging forward with its sudden pull. Leaning and straining on the long sweep oar, the coxswain would desperately sheer the boat off the heaving, and now lethal, side of the cutter.

Riding out from the-cutter's side on the necessary, but dangerous, Nantucket sleigh ride, a yank of the wooden toggle would set the boat free. It would be cast loose from the cutter and would be alone to fight toe wind and the sea, and to accomplish its mission.

The boat dropped onto the crest of an upreaching wave in a smother of spray.

The boat crew was galvanized into action.

The fore and aft fall men tossed the last turn of line from the releasing hooks.

Simultaneously with the impact of the boat onto the wave crest and the slackening of pressure on the falls, the hooks were released. The fall blocks were flung over the side of the boat toward the cutter. Theses blocks were heavy. They would be deadly if allowed to thrash around in the heaving boat.

The long sea painter yanked tight as an iron rod.

With a belly-wrenching jerk, the boat surged forward and out from the cutter's side. Once clear, a hard pull on the toggle cast loose the painter and the boat was cast free on the boiling sea.

The orders "Out Oars!" "Stand-by" "Give way together!" came as one curt phrase. Out flashed the 10 long oars from the boat's gunwales like one silver shaft. As one, they poised a moment, the dug hard into the unyielding waters.

The boat came alive. It was in its element.

Each stormy wave it met was a battle - a climax - and a victory.

First, the drive into and up the surging swell of each snarling monster.

Then, the victorious thrust of the slender white bow through the angry gray crest.

Last, the long, exhilarating dash down the further slope and into the grasp of the next opponent.

A thousand years of design and seamanship had molded the form of the gallant little boat.

Its earliest ancestors had been conceived and born on the shore of some distant Viking fjord. They had scourged the coastlands of Europe. They had battled similar Atlantic gales westward to fabled Vineland.

Now, the book took up this ancient combat.

Its planking and ribs flexed and quivered under the onslaught of the driving seas. It repelled each attack. Its fine molded form appeared about to be engulfed by each rioting crest. But it cut through each crest and drove on to the next.

The boat crew was not thinking in terms of heroics of combat. It had a job to do, and it was doing it.

The crew's bodies were damp with sweat from the murderous pace of the oars. Their hands were wet and raw from the icy winds.

To the hypnotic beat of the oars stroke, they howled out that Coast Guard dirge:

"GOTTA go out; don't GOTTA come back. GOTTA go out; don't GOTTA come back."

Aching muscles, freezing hands, fear and awe of the sea about them were buried under the monotone -physical, vocal, and mental - of the chant and of the regular pull on the oars.

Aboard the "Santa Maria," the captain peered into the murky cauldron of the stormy sea.

Arriving on the scene out of the storm, the cutter had made one pass close-aboard the trawler.

By megaphone had come the message that the injured fisherman would be picked up, treated, and rushed to a hospital in St. Johns.

Then, the cutter had drawn off to port where only infrequently it could be discerned through the driving gale.

Faintly out of the howling gale came the demonical song of the oarsman:

"GOTTA go out; don't GOTTA Come back."

The captain crossed himself invoking the patron saint of his ship. "Santa Maria," he prayed as he peered into the raging unknown of the storm.

Again came the sound - louder this time - followed at increasing intervals by the now-identifiable chant of the oarsmen.

The captain was - above all - a sailor. Immediately, he identified the chant as an oarsman's beat. He climbed the ratlines on his stays and peered to windward towards its source. His first sight of the Coast Guard boat came as his vessel lay in the trough of an enormous sea.

Topping the crest of the approaching giant wave, he saw the boat poised above him. The keel and the forward third of the boat could be seen. It paused an instant - glistening white shaft against the ugly gray tones of the sky.

Then, completing its conquest of the wave top, in a smother of foam, it drove down toward the "Santa Maria."

It swept round the stern of the wallowing trawler and brought-to in her lee.

The transfer of the stricken fisherman was made without incident.

The trawler threw the end of a haul line to the boat, After it was secured, it got underway. Riding on the end of this improvised sea painter, the coxswain had his crew righting their oars. He then sheered the boat close to the trawler's rail.

The cutter's hospital corpsman - a regular oarsman in the boat crew - waited for the right moment, then leaped the intervening distance and landed in a heap on the trawler's deck.

Waiting for the next favorable moment, the boat crew then hurled a wire mesh litter aboard.

The coxswain sheered the boat off and rode the sea painter at a safe distance from the heaving side of the trawler.

Meanwhile, Doc - cutter corpsmen are known and addressed by no other name - administered a sedative to the injured sailor.

The patient was lashed securely in the litter and hoisted out and over the vessel's side from a fish davit.

Still, on its Nantucket sleigh ride at the end of the sea painter, the boat swerved under the swaying litter to receive it patient and all - as it was swiftly lowered and gently received in the waist of the boat.

At this moment, Doc repeated his hazardous leap.

Choosing to risk a few bruises in order to gain better odds for his jump, he dove head first into the pitching craft.

With the patient lashed securely to the thwarts in his litter, and with Dock shaken, cut safely back at his oar, the coxswain swerved off the trawler's side and the painter was cast off.

The return was another lonely battle with the angry and merciless sea.

Oars flashed to the now-croaking dirge of the boat crew.

Hands were raw and numb.

All sense of awe or apprehension was now wiped away by the knowledge of their approach to the warmth and safety of the cutter.

The slowly cruising cutter passed close-aboard to the windward, making a lee for the toiling boat.

A heaving line snaked out from its side, and the bow oarsmen quickly hauled in and secured the sea painter.

As though drawing life from its mother vessel through this long manila line, the boat surged forward with the cutter's pull.

It moved in close to the cutter's side and under the davits. Oars were rigged and secured.

Fall blocks were grasped by their cheek straps and hooked on fore and aft.

Fall lines tightened and the boat was plucked from the raging sea.

The cutter's bridge log has these terse entries:

1615 - At position 46 degrees 55'N, 48 degrees 25'W Number one boat sent away to remove injured crewman from Portuguese Trawler Santa Maria.

1710 - Portuguese fisherman Manuel Joseph of the F/V Santa Maria brought aboard. Number one boat aboard and secured. Underway o course 282 degrees T speed 20K enroute to St. John's Nfld.

The cutter's bridge log has these terse entries:

  1. Patient treated as specified. Condition good.
  2. Issued twenty-four (24) oz. medicinal spirits to the following members of the ready boat crew.

Diagnosis - Exposure. Condition good.

The boat gripped in secure at the davit head and ready for the next mission of mercy that might come up, creaked softly in its lashings as the cutter sped into the gathering darkness.

 

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