The Fatal Voyage of the Puffin

By Stan Barnes and Jay Schmidt

 

People try unusual or high risk events to gain fame. In May of 1966, two British journalists under contract to The People, a London Sunday newspaper, attempted to row across the Atlantic from the United States to England in a 16 foot custom-built red and white rowboat named the Puffin. They would be seen alive for the last time by crewmembers of the USCGC Duane (WHEC-33) two months later.

The story began on May 26, 1966 when the Puffin left Virginia Beach, VA with lots of publicity and photo coverage. The two crewmembers David Johnstone, 34 and John Hoare, 29, expected to reach England by rowing across the Atlantic Ocean. It seems that back in those days, there was a competition to see who could row across the Atlantic the fastest.

At that time, the Coast Guard provided assistance to transatlantic shipping and aircraft by maintaining ships at strategic locations in the Atlantic Ocean. These locations were known as Ocean Stations. Ocean Station Delta was located some nine hundred miles east of St. John’s, Newfoundland. It consisted of a one hundred square mile grid broken down into ten-mile square grids. The cutter assigned to the station would situate itself in the center and either drift or remain underway in order to remain centrally located. The purpose was to provide emergency assistance to ships and aircraft if needed. The cutters also provided weather observations for transatlantic commerce.

On August 11, 1966, the Coast Guard Cutter Duane was drifting in the center of Ocean Station Delta. The weather was partly sunny with a visibility from the flying bridge of five to seven miles and a sea of two to four foot swells.

QM3 Stan Barnes was on watch with Ensign Potter, QM2 Gallagher and with a seaman (lookout) on the flying bridge. The Duane was drifting and Barnes was the helmsman. He went to the flying bridge for a breath of fresh air with a pair of binoculars hung around his neck. In the early afternoon, Barnes thought he saw a red object off the starboard bow at some distance. As he concentrated on the area, he saw it again. He asked the lookout if he could see it, and the lookout replied that he did.

Barnes called down to the bridge through the pipe and told the OOD, Ensign Potter. Mr. Potter came up to the bridge and also saw the object. The object was only visible as it rode over the crest of a swell. Captain Frost was notified and the word passed to make ready to lower a boat and to take the people aboard if needed. The wind and sea were favorable, and the little red row boat came alongside on its own.

All hands were totally amazed to see two men who left Virginia Beach two months before, rowing a boat on Ocean Station Delta.

When the boat came alongside, a ladder was put over. By rules, one person had to stay on or in the boat at all times. The gentleman who came onboard immediately became seasick due to solid footing and was taken to sick bay for medication. The captain and others interviewed him there. Their only request of us was that we notify their club of their location and get some provisions in the way of candy bars, cigarettes and Playboy magazines, which we had no problem supplying. After a while, they were on their way happy to have made our acquaintance.

The Duane newsletter, known as the Press, was written each day by RM1 Bill Gulledge. The August 11, 1966 edition of the Press had the following story:

"OS Delta, Aug. 11. The 21 foot custom-built, self-righting boat “Puffin” which is valued at $6,000, paid OS Delta a one hour and 21 minute visit today. They arrived at 1437 and departed at 1558. The “Puffin” which departed Virginia Beach, Virginia on May 21st is bound for England. Crewmembers Mr. John Hoare of Lancastshire, England and Mr. David Johnstone, of Surrey, England appeared none the worse for spending the past 83 days at sea aboard the cramped quarters on the “Puffin.” Mr. Hoare became “landsick” aboard the stationary “Duane” though. Mr. Johnstone remained aboard the “Puffin” since one man must remain aboard at all times. He reported that they were alongside a Russian merchant ship 10 days ago, while downing four cups of coffee in record time. After passing navigational charts, water, magazines the past two days copies of the “Press” and the taking of numerous pictures by crewmembers of the “Duane,” Mr. Hoare reboarded the “Puffin.” Mr. Johnstone took to the oars and away they went—with the “best of luck” from the crew of the “Duane.”

Nothing more was heard from the Puffin, and it was not seen again. In early September, hurricane Faith hit the Atlantic. The British passenger liner Ocean Monarch reported spotting an overturned red and white small boat in mid-Atlantic. It was believed to be the Puffin. They passed within 200 yards and saw no signs of life. They reported the position as 46.04 North, 37.35 West which is about 200 miles east northeast of the sighting by the Coast Guard.

CGC DUANE

The Associated Press at the time reported that the men were last seen alive in the mid-Atlantic on August 11, by a U.S. Coast Guard cutter. The Duane was not given credit.

UPI in September, 1966 wrote that Canadian Search and Rescue Headquarters had reported that the Canadian destroyer-escort Chaudiere picked up the Puffin some 600 miles southeast of St. John’s, Newfoundland and found no signs of life.

Although capsized, the small craft contained one set of oars, binoculars, a direction finding receiver, cameras, exposed film, compass charts, food and personal items. The Puffin was found in the same location where the British liner Ocean Monarch reported sighting an overturned boat on September 16.

A ship’s log was discovered on board the Puffin. Log entries indicated the men were getting discouraged and were on short rations. On Sep. 2, the entry read: “But where are the ships?’ One of the last entries on Sep. 3 included the phrase, “no rowing because of north-northwest winds of force two.”

 On our return to Boston, an interview of our Captain with either Life or Look magazine took place. The article was printed with pictures sometime in the following months.

The Duane was the last ship to see the crew of the Puffin alive. To the best of our knowledge, their bodies were never found.

 

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