By Bob Cusick
February is the shortest month of the year, it's true. But for me, a few hours in February-on the 12th day, in the year 1983-seemed an eternity. The winter wind, blown by what the weather bureau later classified as "the worst East Coast storm in 40 years," whipped the ocean into a fury. The ship I was on, the Marine Electric, was on its way from Norfolk, Virginia, to a power station in Somerset, Massachusetts, carrying a load of coal. 1, the Marine Electric's Chief Mate, was just shy of my 60th birthday, and had been a seaman since 1941. But in all that time, I had never been on a voyage like this one. Although a snowstorm was brewing when we loaded the vessel just a day and a half earlier, we expected a routine voyage. Neither my 33 shipmates nor I imagined then that we would share the most terrifying experience of our lives.
The 605-foot Marine Electric, scheduled for dry-docking that spring, had been patched together in 1962 from the bow and stem of a World War H-vintage tanker and a new mid-body built in Germany. Everything on the ship was battened down and secured when I turned in for bed at 2330 hours the previous night. At about 0 1 15 hours, Duty Mate Richard Roberts had noticed that the bow was not rising properly to the seas. First Engineer Michael Price had responded by putting the pumps on to the forward tanks. But the pumps couldn't keep ahead of the water. A worried Captain Philip Corl awoke me at 0230 hours "Come up to the bridge, Mate," he said. "I can't really tell, but I think she's settling by the head." He was right. The ship had evidently fractured or opened up forward.
Soon it became apparent that the ship was losing her transverse stability: She was taking a starboard roll and not returning upright. Captain Corl gave the orders to prepare to abandon ship. The crew was mustered at the starboard lifeboat, on
"Cold Comfort" by Bob Cusick Page 2 of 4
the low side. At 0413 hours, as the ship was taking an even more pronounced list, the captain blew the whistle. We began to lower the boat. The sea was cresting at 20-25 feet. I remember thinking that, with the condition of the wind and sea and the position of the ship, there was only a slight chance of a successful
As we were lowering the lifeboat, the ship--seemingly instantly--rolled right down on her beam's end. I found myself, along with most of the crew, trapped under the deck house, in the dark, 39-degree water.
Having done much snorkeling since I was a youth, I could hold my breath for long stretches, and to this I attribute my ability to swim out from under the ship while so many could not. When I finally broached the surface of the seas, I was faced with a dim prospect: the night was as dark as pitch, and the icy ocean tumultuous, and the air temperature a mere 29 degrees. I scanned the area and, in the frigid air, was able to make out the shape of the ship's smokestack. It was now almost horizontal, and I could hear the seas slopping against it. I struck out, afraid of being sucked down as the ship continued to sink.
As I swam, the waves would crest and break, causing me to stop and hold my breath. Each time a wave cleared, I would swim some more until the next one came. I was not really conscious of time, but found myself being focused by some innate survival instinct. In time, I came across a large lifeboat oar and grabbed onto it.
Then suddenly, something happened that I've never been able to explain-at least not with conventional logic. As I clung to the oar, I felt a line wrap about my right leg, just above the ankle. Holding onto the oar with one hand, I tried to untangle myself from the line, but found that I could not. A strong tension pulled on it. The line felt like a type known as a nine-thread, which is commonly used for heaving lines and attaching life rings. But if the line were attached to a life ring, it would be floating; and in any case, there should be no tension. As it was, though, I felt the line pulling me sideways so strongly that, had I not maintained a strong grip on the oar, I'd have been yanked off of it.
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"Cold Comfort" by Bob Cusick
After a long, cold while, I discerned a shape in the distance. No moon or stars shone. The only light was the glow of spindrift on the water's surface, and the shape seemed to be just a slight variation of the darkness that surrounded me. While focusing on the silhouette, I realized that the line was gone from my foot. Still clinging to the oar, I swam toward the shape and, as I approached, I was able to identify it. It was a lifeboat, mostly submerged. It disappeared from sight each time a wave broke over it, until I finally reached the craft. Then, I discovered that it was tom wide open; air tanks were keeping it afloat.
No sooner had I climbed in and wrapped my legs around a thwart than a wave crashed down, nearly washing me out. When it cleared, the bitter wind hit, and I realized that, if I stayed in the open air, I would soon freeze to death. So I submerged myself in a water-filled portion of the boat, wedged my body under a seat, and waited, praying for daylight and a chance of being rescued.
The crashing waves took longer to clear from the lifeboat than they did in the open sea. Often, when water inundated the boat, it took so long to flow out that I despaired of being able to ever breathe again. After a time, I became exhausted, and I was increasingly tempted to let go. Just breathe in the water, I thought; the struggle will be over. It will be peaceful.
At one such a time, as I labored through a retreating wave, the words of a song that I had learned the previous summer came into my mind. The song, by Canadian folk musician Stan Rogers, was inspirational, and particularly fitting. Called "The Mary Ellen Carter," it told the story of a shipwreck. Soon I was shouting out the chorus, "Rise again! Rise again!" singing on through the long, lonely night whenever the icy seas broke away.
As I alternately sang and held my breath, the bone-chilling waves sweeping me up and washing over me, many thoughts helped keep me from giving up. I recalled that the captain had notified the Coast Guard of our situation as the ship was sinking. I reflected on what I knew of Coast Guard actions in the past, and considered their motto, "you have to go out, but you don't have to come back." And I had faith that they were on the way, and that they would do everything possible to find me.
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"Cold Comfort" by Bob Cusick
At about 0700 hours, with the sun just breaking the horizon, the angel of mercy, in the form of the United States Coast Guard Helicopter No. 147 1, appeared overhead. The crew had spotted me, like a grain of sand on a beach (for I had drifted far from the ship), and plucked me from the freezing water. Aboard were the only other survivors: Paul Dewey, Able Seaman, who was also able to swim out from under the ship; and Eugene Kelly, Third Mate, who was on the bridge when the ship rolled over. Also on board were the bodies of several of our Marine Electric shipmates. The helicopter brought us to Peninsula General Hospital in Salisbury, Maryland, where we recovered from the effects of the ordeal. Meanwhile, Coast Guard vessel crews recovered the battered bodies of our remaining shipmates, except for seven that were never found.
Following that experience, I lived-as I had 25 years previously--on the seacoast, in Scituate, Massachusetts. But storms were never the same for me afterward. Every time a gale threw waves crashing onto the beach, 1, snug in the house, would return in thought to the early hours of 12 February 1983. I'd remember the seas washing over the lifeboat, holding my breath until they 'cleared, knowing how easy it would be to just let go and slip under the water. And I'd remember feeling the guidance of the mysterious line, and being buoyed by a dozen or more inspirational forces, including a song and visions of a Coast Guard rescue.
I hope that we never take for granted the men and women of the Coast Guard. What they do is among the bravest and most selfless work to which people can dedicate their lives. It is because of their sense of duty and courage that I am here today, and I will never forget it. All of the people who go to sea-whether on Navy or Merchant ships, in fishing boats, yachts, or any other craft-know, too, that the Coast Guard is on call in case of emergency.
Next time the winds start howling and the seas begin heaping up, I'll be thinking (and perhaps you will, too): Maybe a distress signal will come from a vessel in danger. If so, the crews of the Coast Guard will be out in cutters and helicopters, risking their own safety while doing all they can to save lives in peril.