Fire On The Ilhavense Segundo

Author Unknown

From Doak Walkers 255 Site

On the morning of August 15, 1955 the Coast Guard Cutter MENDOTA, which was based in Wilmington, North Carolina , was drifting on station in the center of Ocean Station Delta, located about 600 miles east of Cape Race, Newfoundland. A majority of the officers and crew were worrying about what Hurricane Connie might have done to their home and families in the Wilmington area, and about what Diane, then 400 miles southeast of Wilmington, might do.

At 9:24 a.m. a "Mayday" (the international voice radio symbol for SOS) was heard. The Portuguese fishing vessel JAO CORTE REAL had rebroadcast the Mayday that she had heard, in Portuguese, to the effect that the Portuguese fishing schooner ILHAVENSE SEGUNDO was on fire to the north of the MENDOTA'S position.

The MENDOTA was under way for the reported position of the distressed ship at 9:25 a.m. at flank speed. A fire at sea can be bad, even in a modern steel vessel equipped with the latest fire fighting equipment, but a fire at sea in an old wooden fishing schooner can be terrible.

While under way for the scene, all hands were exercised at "rescue of survivors" drill. Each man went to his assigned station, such as bow recovery detail, illumination detail, ready boat crew, shark watch, etc. All assignments and equipment were carefully checked, as they had been less than a week before. The Fire and Rescue Detail was checked out in the possibility that the schooner could be saved.

These drills were made difficult by the fact that, while en route to the scene, the MENDOTA was rolling deeply, at times dipping her main deck on the lee side. At 2:08 p.m. they arrived at the reported position of the distressed schooner and commenced a search plan that would most effectively cover the area in which she might be. All pertinent information concerning the ILHAVENSE SEGUNDO was received on voice radio from other Portuguese fishing vessels, all of which were over 400 miles away. Communications were made extremely difficult by lack of a common language.

It was evidently determined that the crew of the vessel had abandoned ship at the time of sending the first and only SOS. It was further believed that the schooner had sunk. This information, received at 4:45 p.m. rendered an already serious situation extremely grim.

Finding a schooner with an uncertain position in the middle of the North Atlantic in bad weather is difficult, but finding some tiny dories in rough seas is almost impossible. The search sweep was reduced to account for the difference in expected sighting range (visual or radar) between a schooner and a dory as the search went on.


At 6 p. m. a Coast Guard aircraft arrived from Argentia, Newfoundland, to assist in the search and was directed to start an expanding search starting from a center designated by the MENDOTA to assist the plane in making their search uniform so that no areas would be missed.

Fifty minutes after arrival the plane reported sighting a burning three-masted schooner with 13 dories clustered a mile to the south of it. The aircraft orbited over the schooner while the MENDOTA closed the scene by radar. At 8:03 the dories were sighted and the aircraft was released.

The sun had been down about 15 minutes and the visibility was reduced by low overcast and intermittent rain squalls as well as flying spray. The wind was from the west at 27 knots with 12-foot seas. The dories were tied together in a cluster and looked pitifully small in the foam-capped seas. They would disappear in the bottom of the swells only to bob up again momentarily on the crests. One weak flashlight signal was visible at intervals. The MENDOTA was stopped close to the dories and the rope rescue nets were lowered on the lee bow and amidships.

The crew were all at their "rescue of survivors" stations. The dories closed the MENDOTA in a line with the rowers pulling as if their lives depended on it, and they undoubtedly felt that they did. The first dory was alongside the bow by 8:15 and 10 minutes later all 46 survivors and one dog were safely on board.

It was a hectic 10 minutes. There was a great deal of yelling in the dories which, being in a foreign tongue, gave the impression of complete confusion. Actually the discipline was excellent. There were never two boats trying to get to the same net at the same time, nor was a net never empty for more than seconds. As the dories were emptied they were pulled clear by the use of bow painters furnished by the MENDOTA. Attempts at saving the dories proved futile as they were soon smashed against the side of MENDOTA.

The transfer from the madly bobbing dories to the swaying rope nets could have only been made by experienced seamen. Different, time-consuming tactics would have been necessary for passengers of a ditched airliner, for example. Time was important with the rapidly deepening darkness increasing the chance of loss. Two swimmers from the MENDOTA, wearing rubber suits and parachute harnesses equipped with tending lines, were stationed on each side of the two rescue nets to assist the weak, injured, or exhausted and to retrieve those that might fall back into the water. Lines with bowlines at their ends were used to hoist aboard those too exhausted to climb the nets with the aid of the swimmers.

By the time the last few dories were coming alongside the bow had fallen off and the seas on the quarter were causing the MENDOTA to roll heavily. All attempts to have the remaining dories stand clear while the ship was straightened up were futile. (It was later determined that only one of the fishermen could speak even a little English.) So the last few dory loads had a rough trip up the nets.

The fishermen were highly demonstrative as they reached the safety of the MENDOTA'S main deck. They would hug the nearest crew member (to the consternation and embarrassment of the crew) or start an oration, evidently of thanksgiving. Two were observed to kneel and kiss the deck. These were brave men, but they had endured a long, cold, wet day crowded three or four into tiny 12-foot dories designed for one man. It was almost completely dark and the wind and sea were picking up ominously. The abandoned schooner burning balefully in the background only added to the desolation of the scene. There was no question that these men realized that their lives had been saved.

As the captain of the ILHAVENSE SEGUNDO later told an interpreter, they had just about given up all hope of being saved, due to the rough weather, when the plane arrived.

The second engineer of the vessel was suffering from badly burned arms and from other burns on his face and feet. He was uncomplaining in spite of the agony he must have endured all day in the open dory with the salt water soaking his skinless arms. He had received no sedative of any kind prior to being hoisted on board. The owner of the dog made sure his pet was safely aboard before he would budge from his dory.

Several attempts were made to extinguish the fire in the stern by using MENDOTA'S fire hose. The ILHAVENSE was laying in the trough and rolling heavily. The violent whipping motion of her three large steel masts ruled out placing the MENDOTA alongside of the length of the schooner where lines could be secured to unburned portions of her hull.

The MENDOTA'S starboard bow was laid alongside of the windward (port) quarter of the schooner on four separate occasions in such a position that the mizzenmast would still clear the MENDOTA'S jackstaff on the roll. Hoses were played on the burning stern and grapnels and boat anchors were used in unsuccessful attempts to hold the two vessels together.

On the third pass the foundations for the base of the mizzenmast evidently burned away from the MENDOTA'S bow, which was alongside at the time. On the last time alongside, the bow was held into the stern of the schooner of some time by going ahead on the MENDOTA'S engine for short periods.

The flames in the stern were extinguished on this attempt and it could be seen that the fires were raging under the deck well into the amidships section. It was decided then, just before midnight, that the ILHAVENSE SEGUNDO was probably doomed.

The fires on the fishing vessel flared up violently about 1 o'clock in the morning and she was aflame almost her whole length. The flames finally died down and she disappeared from the MENDOTA radar screen at 2:10 while only a mile and a half away. (The MENDOTA was engaged in tracking a weather balloon at the time.)

She was presumed to have sunk and a search of her last position immediately after her disappearance followed by a thorough visual search at dawn confirmed this belief. Nothing but charred fragments of wood, a few burned dories, and one oil drum were found.

The MENDOTA rendezvoused with the Coast Guard Cutter COOK INLET two days later, and in rough seas, transferred all the survivors and the dog, by boat, to the COOK INLET for transportation to Boston, Mass. The Portuguese government later effected their repatriation to their homeland

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