SNOW STORM AT SEA

 By Donald H. Ward

 

Cold, snow, and blowing a gale, we had to bring a ship into harbor. The wind was about 40 knots and gusting. Going out of the harbor, two of us went forward and hoisted the mainsail; hauling the mainsail was religious because it had the word PILOT on both sides so as to be recognized from a distance. Most ships knew that the pilot boat had some type of flag or distinguished marking.

We began icing up as soon as we left the mouth of the harbor at Portland Head Lighthouse. The minesweeper opened the nets to let us pass and then closed as soon as we went through. The lighthouse was blacked out so we had to depend on the compass for making way to the lightship off shore—Portland Lightship, the big RED BOAT.

We laid off for about an hour and then someone spotted a ship coming with no lights. We were trained to look for a ship by looking 10 degrees above the horizon where you could see the outline of a vessel if one was present. In small boat training we were taught there was always a light shining at the horizon’s edge.

The mainsail was close hauled, slapping back and forth, but it was nice to hear. The helm was put hard over to whichever side that would allow the boat to heave into the wind and then fall off, to repeat the same over again. She would make a little headway but not too fast. We took turns in the dory, and I had the luck his time to stay aboard and tend the wheel. The pilot was put aboard the ship, which headed into port. We had to wait outside in the storm for a ship to come out and take the Pilot off. It was always the same, whether taking a pilot off as putting one on board.

The pilot boat had to have a light posted on the mainmast and lights shown to denote we were a pilot boat—one red horizontal lights under a white masthead light. I had some experience at signaling and would signal the ship to get its name for the pilot if they were coming in, but never flashed a light as they went to sea.

We took the pilot off the ship coming out and headed into port. The wind had picked up and the sea was 20-25 feet, shifting to the east, making it difficult to port. The sea would be just off our starboard quarter and made steering tricky. This wasn’t the best vessel to steer as the wheel was outside on the deck—the old-fashioned Bank type schooner that plied the Grand Banks fishing for cod and hake. We began to freeze up solid—the lines and cables were starting to increase in size due to the ice; what was a ¾-inch cable became almost two inches in size.

As we headed in the waves would break over the aft quarter of the boat and wash forward leaving a slippery deck to walk on. I was at the wheel for about half hour when Capt. Lubee, one of the pilots, came up on deck and took the wheel and ordered me to go forward to keep an eye out for the buoys. I took my station but could not see the stern and knew then we were going to have problems, even with an experienced pilot at the wheel. He was familiar with handling big ships but not these play toys, as they referred to the boat.

I was getting cold, my rubber gear was starting to freeze solid, and I could barely walk. With the wind blowing and waves breaking over the boat, I could not hear the bell buoys. It was at this point I saw through the snow, waves and surf breaking in front of the boat. I slid back to the wheel and grabbed it from Capt. Lubee and shouted, “Rocks ahead!” I pulled the wheel to starboard as fast as I could, and Capt. Lubee went on his butt, sliding on the icy deck. I thought we were going to end up on the rocks at Portland Head Light.

As the boat swung to starboard, I gave a blast on the horn to let the minesweeper know we were entering the harbor. The wind kept us to the westward side of the harbor. All hands were on deck now. I don’t know what they thought, but they knew they would not be able to stand on deck and went back down below. The nets opened and we went through and were safe in the lee of Great Diamond Island. We were happy to get back inside and could breath a little easier; the waves were not as bad as outside. We dropped the sail as we headed into the docks.

I apologized to Capt. Lubee and said I was sorry for pushing him away from the wheel. I added that he was not handling a tanker carrying half million barrels of oil, and he was to stay below whenever he was aboard the pilot boat, even if he did own it—the Coast Guard commissioned her and it was manned by the Coast Guard. He said in a joking way, “OK, sir, and when you get out of service you can have a job on this boat.”

I did go to work on the pilot boat for a short time after leaving the service but went back to my trade of sheet metal work and became a Ham radio operator later on in life. Life at sea any place off the coast of Maine is rough and is dangerous. I learned to respect the sea and mostly not to go it alone—always have some one with you.

 

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