HOWLING WINDS; TURBULENT WATERS

by J. C. Carney ©1998

With Comments by Second Officer S. P. Rang of the SS PLATTE added 10/19/00

The Story Of The Daring Rescue Of The Crew Of The SS Ragny

December 26, 1970, proved to be anything but commonplace, as the crew of the USCGC ESCANABA (WHEC-64), after taking in all lines and setting the special sea detail, labored to get underway en route Ocean Station (OS) Echo in weather not fit for man nor beast. What with gale-force winds shrieking through her steel rigging , and snow, so intensely effected by the tempest---that it blew perfectly horizontal---the 255 foot ship under the mastery of  her captain, Commander Alban Landry, cleared the dock . . . slowly turning her bows toward the sea.

At approximately 12:00, the Escanaba passed through the New Bedford, Massachusetts breakwater; whereupon Commander Landry increased her single-propeller's rotation to only 2/3rds speed, due to the tremendous pounding she would take at any greater revolutions. It was then that the ship's Executive Officer, Lieutenant Commander William Goetz, who had the conn, announced, "Secure the Special Sea Detail; Set the regular sea watch."  The ship, while in for a very rough ride as was indicated by the dramatic increase in her pitch and roll upon entering open water, was enroute Echo Patrol.

The crew, although not enthusiastic about most weather patrols, were not entirely unhappy about sailing for Echo, as it was located 1,000 miles southeast of Boston in tropical waters. No snow!  No cold winds! . . . Yet, like all ocean stations, Echo---a 23 day stay in a 10-square mile area encompassed in a larger 210 mile circle---was strategically situated where a cutter would provide navigational aids to planes and vessels, as well as take geometric readings of both sea and air currents: Hence the name "Weather Patrol."  The only problem being that, like all weather stations, Echo could become tedious and trite. Sailing back and forth in a given area day after day tends to grow insipid within a very short time.

Suddenly, at 2000 hours, while the Escanaba plowed through ponderous seas due south of Nantucket Island (a 75 mile run from New Bedford), the captain was alerted to a very faint "SOS" that the radiomen were barely picking up in the Radio Room. Captain Landry recalls: "We checked with Coast Guard Radio New York, they too had just begun to receive a very faint distress signal."  At the same time, Lieutenant Commander Goetz, remembered the awful weather: "It was one of my most miserable nights. We rolled constantly as much as 40 degrees [reciprocally] and sleeping was just about impossible."  Yet, when  Goetz received word of the distress call, he realized that there was a vessel out there somewhere apparently experiencing greater problems then loss of sleep.  A ship was wallowing "dead-in-the-water" [DIW] in that turbulence and was in immediate danger of sinking.

Meanwhile, Radio CG-New York had located the source of the signal, which turned out to be the M/V RAGNY, a 540 foot Finnish tanker which was sinking 600 miles due east of Cape May, New Jersey. The Escanaba, being only 170 miles from the stricken vessel's known-position, was ordered by Commander Eastern Area (COMEASTAREA) to assist. Soon after, while conferring via the ship's inter-communications system (SIC) with his Engineering Officer, Lieutenant Commander Anthony Nigro, Jr., about the feasibility of  increasing to "ahead full," Landry was informed that it would cause a much greater fuel consumption but that the engineer "would give her all she had."   At 2100,  after considering all the "EO" had said over the "Squawk Box," Landry ordered the engine "all ahead full" [18+ knots]; thereby increasing her speed . . . to whit: amplifying the pounding she was taking from the ever-heightening seas.

Moreover, after increasing speed, Landry found himself in a new dilemma. The captain recollects that: "Right afterwards, we found ourselves on a collision course with a steam ship coming up from the south on our starboard hand, his relative position giving him the right-of-way."  Landry added: " I, however, didn't intend to slow down for anyone or anything 'cause all I could think of was how short the lives of the Ragnys'  crew would be once they were in that frigid water. I again asked the 'E.O.' [Nigro] to pour on the steam, pushing to 'flank speed,' and get that turbine spinning ever faster. Nigro abruptly replied that, "he had just a couple of more pounds of steam pressure in his back pocket, but that was it."  (The "Esky " [nickname] was equipped with a massive single 4000 hp, Westinghouse Turbo-Electric engine). Apparently, it was enough, as the steamship scraped astern of the Esky by just the narrowest of margins.

In the interim, at approximately 2030, the SS PLATT---an American merchant vessel, bound from Philadelphia to Holland---after hearing the distress call and being in  yet closer proximity, was herself pitching and rolling towards the stricken Ragny. Also, a C-130 rescue aircraft, stationed at Elizabeth City, North Carolina (one of many employed that night), was racing down the runway affecting a take-off to pin-point the whereabouts and assist the sinking vessel and her crew in anyway possible. The Ragny would not be out there alone for long. " Now," thought the pilot, "if she could only stay afloat long enough for the rescue ships to arrive. . . ."

Time swept by. And with each passing  moment the Escanaba drew nearer Ragny's position. In that period, the Platt and the first C-130 had both appeared on- scene. The airplane circled the sinking ship whilst informing the Platt and Escanaba's radio room crew of the Ragny's plight. All incoming messages were immediately transferred to the Esky's bridge, where upon their arrival, a very worried Captain Landry scanned; then signed the reports. The data sent to the cutter, via radio New York, was not in the least encouraging. The pilot reported that the Ragny had broken in two, and that the bow section was located approximately 4 miles from the stern. Albeit that both sections were at that time yet afloat; the plane's crew wouldn't venture a guess as to how long they would float. What with the raging seas; the wind whistling across the ocean surface, it would, however, only be a matter of time before either (or both) sections sank. This had become a race with death. . . .

At 22:00, a C-130 on scene reported the Platt’s arrival, and after effecting a rescue, had all crew members of the Ragny onboard. This proved erroneous. The C-130 retracted its statement forthwith; thereafter informing the Esky (which had slowed to standard speed) that the Platt had attempted a rescue, but in that attempt had swamped their lifeboat and had a man, later reported to be a seaman named John Arthur, age 57---one of the three aboard the capsized boat---missing in the freezing  water.  Landry and Goetz, not knowing if the plane was in radio contact with Platt, or had visually observed the attempt, ordered the Esky's engine again "Ahead Full."  The Escanaba was soon smashing through unyielding seas in an effort to get on-scene.

Commander Landry was livid. He had initially ordered the Platt's captain via radio to not attempt a rescue unless deemed absolutely necessary. Yet, for one reason or another, CG Radio-New York may not have relayed his message. Now Escanaba had one more person to try and find in that tempestuous sea. A job Landry did not relish. The winds being as high as they were, coupled with the towering seas and poor visibility, caused this rescue to turn into a virtual nightmare.

Prior to arriving on scene, the captain, and departmental heads of the Escanaba held a conference wherein Landry checked all departments to make sure all was in readiness.  Questions arose, like: should the other 25' monomoy be swung out (one, the "ready boat," was already emplaced), were the boat crews ready to man their craft, had the fuel supply in the monomoys been checked, and which officer and/or petty officer was to command which boat. It was while Ensign Terrance Hart was Officer-of the Deck [OOD] that the captain called Lieutenant (jg) Gary Calverase to the bridge to insure all was ready for night rescue operations. Calverase, the First Lieutenant and Deck Department head (and Hart's immediate boss), was told by the captain that if we had to launch small-boats at night, he, because of his experience, would be assigned a boat. Ensign Hart disagreed.  He later upon reflection recalled: "Although in looking back it was probably improper etiquette on my part to do so, I voiced my objection to the idea, because we each had positions on the Watch, Quarter, and Station Bill, which outlined our duties, and had trained in those positions."  Adding, “The most critical part in the evolution was going to be lowering and retrieving the boats with seas running as they were. Gary was the man who could guarantee that was accomplished safely. My billet was in the boat and I should fill that position because we were trained that way. Now was not the time to switch players."  In the end, the captain agreed.

The Escanaba plowed on. And, with the aid of another C-130 on station, plus the Esky's surface-search radar, they located the bow section of the broken Ragny at 2400. Thereafter, as the Esky approached that section, Landry reduced speed; ordering extra lookouts to the flying bridge. He then ordered the 24" carbon-arc searchlights turned on to illuminate the bow and surrounding waters, searching for signs of life. According to Ensign Hart, there were no men sighted on the bow. The sight of the severed bow bobbing in the rough waters; illuminated by the searchlights; caused a ghostly effect, a "this could be you" message, sending a chill down the spines of all who saw it. A search was made of the immediate area, looking for any sign of Arthur [Platt's seaman], or any of the Ragny crew that may have been in the water.

There was no distinguishable evidence of human kind . . . no rafts . . . no bodies floating . . . only the moanful sound of the driving wind---like echoing cries of the doomed---slamming against what was left of  the bow's freeboard. Captain Landry ordered the Escanaba to sail the four miles to the stern section.

The stern section was a different matter entirely. As evidenced by the beam of the searchlights, human activity abounded. The Esky's lookouts reported a number of  ship's company clustered about the fantail waiting for professional help . . . they were in fact overjoyed by the Coast Guard's arrival. After making a rather cautious pass---circling the hulk to observe the entire scene---the Esky's skipper tried to maneuver the cutter close enough to attempt a High-Line hook-up. A mistake. Bill Goetz, remembers that the wind and heavy seas, "brought us, I would estimate, within 50 yards of Ragny, so we had to get out of there [fast], which we barely did."  However, according to Edward E. Widberg,  Boatswains Mate Chief, it was even closer than that. The Chief says, "the Escanaba drifted so fast with the high waves and wind that we almost collided with the Ragny. She was sticking up by the stern about 35-40 degrees. . . ."     Adding: "It was eerie seeing a single rope ladder swinging from near her stern."   (Note: The ladder had apparently been rigged over the side when the Platt made her disastrous rescue attempt).

A jury-rigged PRC-59 communication system had to be established if all were to go smoothly. And, as the ship's Doctor, Lt. H. J. Forbes, assigned to the Esky, had to know if (and how many) injured were aboard the floating hulk, the hook-up was a necessity. The "Doc" had to be prepared for any medical emergency. Furthermore, the loud speaker employed by the cutter's CO, was negated by the roar of the winds; therefore, a line-throwing gun was utilized to send a line over to the Ragny. Attached to the line was the waterproof radio around which was secured a life jacket. After being  caught by the Ragny's crew, the line and phone were swiftly hauled aboard. Once  communications were established, Goetz learned that the highest ranking man onboard was Pere Haggblom, the Second Mate. The mate reported to the cutter's XO that the Captain, First Mate, Chief Engineer and two seamen had been forward when she broke in two. He was the only officer left. The remaining crew of 31 were with him on the stern, and all seemed to be in "satisfactory" health. It was later reported to Captain Landry by the Mate that he didn't even know the ship had ripped in half. Astonishingly, Haggblom had just finished evening chow, and as he had the mid-watch, headed forward, when---upon opening the forward water-tight door---found there was no "forward" to go to: The bow section had literally disappeared!  And, because of the shrieking wind, he (and others) never heard the wrenching sound of the bow breaking away. Luckily,  water-tight integrity had held and the stern, though leaking small amounts of oil, somehow remained afloat.

Mate Haggblom stated---in fairly good English---that the stern was riding well, and he had one boiler and electricity from a steam generator in the engine room and the pumps were working.  He believed she would stay afloat until daybreak, but the hulk was slowly settling . . . going down by the forward part of the after section. The counter was riding higher a little at a time and the pitch was around 30 degrees, which confirmed Widberg's estimation of pitch. He [Haggblom] also reported that they had one man with a sprained ankle, another had suffered minor finger burns when he fired a flare gun, otherwise, said Haggblom, "all were OK."  Also adding, " They had no lifeboats or rafts left aboard, but every man had a life jacket."

After much discussion on the Escanaba's bridge, it was decided that---due to the rising winds, and reports of "worsening weather" by dawn---they would attempt a rescue now: launch the small boats; make three trips, removing all survivors.  The time was 0230. The storm was already intensifying with winds blasting at 40-45 knots; seas heaving long rolling swells 20-25 feet high, and it was again snowing.

A question was put to Haggblom via radio, as to whether he had any line that could be used for retrieving: A lifeline, tended by his crew, whilst another line was handled by the boat crew to haul the man aboard after swimming from the ship to the monomoy. In response, Ragny reported having very little line aboard. So the Esky made another approach; putting a shotline across; thereupon passing a spool of orange nylon line. The approach in those heavy seas again severely limited the cutters maneuverability. Goetz recalls: "We then pulled away to launch boats. I suggested to the CO [Landry] that we launch our leeward boat while drifting but he responded that he wanted to be underway for launch and pickup. This meant we needed maneuvering room and would result in a 1000 yard trip over open water for our boats to get to Ragny. . . ."

Insofar as the launch went, the boats contained a minimum crew to accommodate survivors. It was decided that the port boat (ESC-2) would be launched first with Earl Sorensen BM3 [coxswain], Frank O'Scier SN [bowhook], Pete Gabiga MM2 [engineer], and Ensign Hart as sternhook/boat officer. After they were safely away, the second boat (ESC-1)---Coxswained by Frank Sullivan, BM2, Jeremy Grant, SN [bowhook], Tom Tooker, MM2 [engineer], and Steve Little, GM3 as sternhook---would then be launched. Lt. Calverase was in charge of the deck, and with Chief Widberg directing the lowering, they launched into the heavy seas, riding the sea painter, consequently releasing same when far enough away from the rolling ships freeboard to do so. When one boat was safely away, the Esky turned; thereafter lowering the second boat, again, alee the wind. The boats then struggled across the 1000 yards of open ocean to the Ragny's stern. Ensign Hart in the lead boat states: "I was in communication with the people on the Ragny, and they were ready when we got there, just as planned."  Still, the boat could not lay under the Ragny's Jacob's ladder due to the proximity of the ship's screw to the point where the ladder met the water. The angry swells would have easily picked them up, tossing them into the propeller. They decided, unanimously, that before they allowed the crewmen to descend the ladder, the coxswain had to acclimate himself to sea conditions, drift, and dangerous wash near the ships prop, which sequentially seemed to pull the momomoy towards the propeller, then push the boat away. Sorensen's exceptional skill in countering these problems; placed the boat crew in position where the Ragny crew could toss one of the tending lines to the boat below. The line was then passed forward to the bow of the boat; thereby keeping it away from the small boats prop, and a Ragny crewman descended the Jacob's ladder. Ensign Hart recalls that: "With one line tending from above on the Ragny; another to the small boat [both secured to the swimmer], we had positive control of the individual. As each individual neared the bottom of the ladder, he would jump into the water. The coxswain would then back away to pull him away from the ship, while the remainder of the boat crew hauled away on the line pulling him to the boat." 

Sorensen and crew found that the best place to haul the survivors aboard was just aft the mid-ship gunwale. The most difficult task being the hoisting of the exhausted and freezing men over the boats high rails. Once aboard, they removed the tender, tied the securing-ends together---after which Ragny hauled the connected line aboard; ready for the next man---while the boat crew held the bitter end. The next person only needed to secure the two lines [one each side] to himself, descend the ladder, jump in, and be hauled to the boat---where once aboard the process would be rapidly repeated---until there were ten very cold souls aboard. During this constant maneuvering, the second boat arrived, and Sullivan was able to observe the evolution and condition himself [and crew] to the heavy seas. "Sully" patiently awaited his turn as rescuer. . . .

Once they had the first ten men aboard, they passed their end of the tether to the second boat and headed for the Escanaba. Captain Landry---realizing how tired, wet, and cold the survivors and boat crew were---elected to hoist the boat rather then make them climb the ships ladder. Says Hart: "We came alongside the underway Escanaba, took the sea painter, rode under the falls, hooked on and were hoisted to boat deck level. The survivors were disembarked and rushed to sickbay. And, since Sorensen [coxswain] was fatigued, Chief Widberg volunteered to coxswain ESC-2 for the final run, while Lt. Calverase took over the boat lowering detail. I, while waiting, lounged against the gunwale, which brought an immediate call from Captain Landry asking if I were all right. I told him yes, I was ready for another run. . . ."  Widberg took Sorensen's wet suit, as they were both about the same size,  and after donning it and a life jacket, climbed into the boat. They then proceeded to the Ragny to retrieve the final load of survivors.

Meanwhile, a not-so-funny incident occurred while Sully brought the survivors aboard his boat. When one man tried to grab the gunwale the Ragny men started to beat his hands free in an attempt to set him adrift. Finally Sully yelled: "knock-it-off"; thereafter making sure his order was complied with. And, later, when he had the survivors safely aboard Esky, he mentioned the incident to the captain. As the last boat approached the Ragny, they (according toWidberg) lost sight of the her, due to the increased snow and swells. "However, because the ships broken handrails and oil pipes were clanging like a big bell buoy,  I had a general idea of where she was located, " said Widberg. Adding, "We managed to get under the ships rope ladder, and one by one, the last survivors dropped into the sea."  The last man to enter the water was, the Second Mate. As he was a powerful man, he---having only the boats line attached---made it to the monomoy with relative ease. All 31 men were now safely aboard. The chief recalls that, " It was difficult at times to maneuver in close to the Ragny, because the waves [repeatedly] tried to push us under the ship's counter."  And to add to that problem, the bilge-pump was still discharging oil and dirty water from the ships engine room, which would have made for one messy cleanup.  Widberg said: "Once we got underway with all survivors, we searched for (and located) the Escanaba a good half mile from the derelict. I maneuvered under the falls; someone threw the sea painter to the bowman, while Captain Landry quartered the rolling sea, so the boat could be hooked-up fast for a quick ride up the ships side."  After securing the boat; mustering on the mess deck for hot coffee, the chief recollects thinking, "I'm glad this is over and all [on the stern] were saved."

The remainder of the night was spent in search of the other 6 men. Yet all that was found was a prone body lashed to a raft; frozen stiff. The bow section had long disappeared, leaving an oil slick to note it was ever there.  Landry, not wanting to again risk the exhausted crews lives in that heaving sea over the departed, left the body where it was, as nothing could be done for him. And, when all hope of finding the additional people was gone, the ship was directed by COMEASTAREA to Bermuda to off-load survivors.

Landry then called Haggblom to the bridge, asking him what the story was concerning the umbrageous sailor. Accordingly, the fellow was a thief. He had stolen money from his contemporaries and that was why they didn't want him saved. Envisioning the possibility of a potential murder aboard, Landry ordered Haggblom to guard the man, not letting him out of sight until the disembarkation in Bermuda. Mate Haggblom complied with the order: All arrived safely. 

On December 31st, the Escanaba pulled in to Hamilton; thereupon anchoring off the Navy Base. There they topped off fuel from a fuel barge. Also, some of the crew were allowed two hours ashore, after a tug pulled alongside to take off the survivors of the lost Ragny. And, after some long good-byes and heart-felt "thank you's" from  Haggblom and the other survivors, the lucky survivors disembarked. Just another “routine” week for the crew of the USCGC Escanaba. . . .

. . . A few hours later the Esky sailed to keep her appointment with Ocean Station Echo. . . .

 

--- The End ---

  Comments from the Second Officer of the SS PLATTE follow below.

Reprinted by Permission. DO NOT recopy this story without the express permission of Mr. Carney.  

Copyright Information:

James L. Carney , 113 1/2 West 3rd. Street                            First North American Rights, Apartment #1; Park Rapids, Minnesota 56470-1572

Tel. (218) 732-1346

©Copyright 1998

Revised 8-17-99

 

This email was received on 10/19/00 from the Second Officer of the SS PLATTE.

Interesting story on your web site concerning ESCANABA operations with Finnish tanker RAGNY in 1970. Have no intention of trying to detract from the success of ESCANABA which was nothing short of monumental, but might add some info from the perspective of SS PLATTE mentioned in the story. I was second officer on PLATTE that trip and cox'n of her ill fated lifeboat which was lost in the initial rescue attempt. I remember PLATTE hearing RAGNY's distress signals about 3PM or so....certainly well before dark. One "chore"
undertaken that trip was to test and evaluate the then new Omega navigation system with the view of the company purchasing the system for its fleet. The position RAGNY sent in her distress signal and to which PLATTE immediately proceeded was a DR position. PLATTE's position was much more accurate,being based on OMEGA. RAGNY's DR position,we later figured,was about 80(!) miles off so there was no possibility of PLATTE proceeding directly to her. Point being,had PLATTE not been equipped with Omega, we'd also be operating from a
DR position and since both ships were being influenced by the same weather system we'd have likely arrived at the scene before sunset. As it developed,USCG aircraft eventually located RAGNY and directed us to her position much later that night. Regardless of our failure later at the stern section, had we arrived at RAGNY earlier, perhaps we'd have found the bow section still afloat and have been able to achieve something then.

Speculation is futile but that's not stopped me from thinking about it for these last 30 years.

Regards,
S.P.Rang

   
 

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