January 10, 2016

A story I wish I hadn’t read

Sam Smith

Although I have a number of times seen the sign near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge as you head towards Tampa, Florida, I had never looked up why there would be a park along the bay named for the Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn. The Blackthorn was a sister ship of the cutter Spar on which I served as operations officer and navigator back in the 1960s. The other day I did a Wikipedia search and what I found made me wish I hadn’t.

One of the scariest moments on the Spar was not during one of our heavy weather search and rescue missions but on a bright, sunny day about a half mile from our dock in Bristol.

Coast Guard Cutter Spar
We were returning from a day of working buoys. The ferry that ran from Bristol to Prudence Island was coming down the channel the other way -- on the wrong side. I was officer of the deck and blew one blast of the horn, indicating that I wanted to pass like cars on a street: port to port or left side to left side. The ferry blew two blasts -- an improper cross-signal. She wanted to stick to her side of the channel. I turned to Captain Jack Flynn: "Should we let her go on?" But the captain was mad. "I'll take the conn,' he said.

"I stand relieved, sir," I said, and this young ensign was very much so.

Flynn blew a series of warning blasts and stuck to the right side of the channel but the 200 foot ferry kept coming straight at the Spar, a 180 foot buoy tender. Then the captain blew one extremely long blast as if to say, "I really mean it, you fucker" and the ferry eased over. We passed but a few feet apart with Captain Jack Flynn and Captain Manny dePino standing on the wings of their respective bridges, screaming obscenities at each other.

Later that afternoon they met in a bar and worked it out, Captain dePino explaining why being on the port side of the channel at that point made it easier to approach Prudence Island.

Now here is what I just read about our sister ship, the Blackthorn, in 1980:
Blackthorn was outward bound from Tampa Bay on the night of 28 January 1980. Meanwhile the tanker Capricorn was traveling with right-of-way into the bay. Blackthorn '​s captain, Lieutenant Commander George Sepel had departed the bridge to investigate a problem with the newly installed propulsion shaft. Ensign John Ryan had the conn.

Capricorn began to turn left, but this course would not allow Capricorn and Blackthorn to pass port-to-port, as the rules of navigation generally required. Unable to make radio contact with Blackthorn, Capricorn '​s pilot blew two short whistle blasts to have the ships pass starboard-to-starboard. With Ensign Ryan confused in regard to the standard operating procedure and rules of navigation, Blackthorn '​s captain issued orders for evasive action. Despite the Blackthorn's evasive action, a collision occurred.

Damage to the Blackthorn from the initial impact was not extensive. However, Capricorn '​s anchor was ready to be let go. The anchor became embedded in the Blackthorn  '​s hull and ripped open the port side above the water line. Then as the two ships backed away from each other, the chain became taut. The force of the much larger ship pulling on it, caused Blackthorn to tip on her side until she suddenly capsized. Six off-duty personnel who had mustered when they heard the collision alarm, were trapped inside the ship. Several crew members who had just reported aboard tried to escape and in the process trapped themselves in the engine room. Though 27 crewmen survived the collision, 23 perished.
I will never again be able to think of those few moments aboard the Spar without recalling how such similar ones turned out so tragically aboard the Blackthorn and being evermore grateful that I was young Ensign Smith rather than young Ensign Ryan.


Anonymous said...

Hard to find Blackthorn Park on Google Earth or Mapquest. Also, looked for something on St. Petersburg FL site but found no reference.
There was something on a Facebook site, but not very good directions.
Disappointed because I might want to visit site on a trip to Fl.

Sam Smith said...


Very modest locale. . . .