September 15, 2016

Before Obama made it an ocean monument

Sam Smith - According to the NY Times, "President Obama has created the Atlantic Ocean’s first United States marine monument, preserving an expanse of sea canyons and underwater mountains off the New England coast."

The reason this caught your editor's eye was that back in the early 1960s he was operations officer and navigator for the Coast Guard cutter Spar that would be called periodically to rescue fishing boats near this site. From my memoirs:

Because of her heavy weather abilities and because of the growing unseaworthiness of the Coast Guard's older search and rescue vessels, the Spar had been assigned responsibility for heavy weather rescue missions. In fact the 125 foot search and rescue patrol boat at Woods Hole, the General Greene, built during Prohibition and now considered of such dubious seaworthiness that she was not permitted out in anything more blustery than small craft warnings. This humiliating restriction for a ship intended for rescue was instituted after the captain sailed halfway to Bermuda during a storm because he did not dare turn the General Greene around.

The storms became one given enough time. It's a Friday evening. The crew has been granted early liberty. The wind is making up to forty knots out of the Northeast. The ship is on Bravo-2 status meaning it must be ready to leave on two hours notice. The Office of the Deck has the number of every bar and restaurant in Bristol RI handy.

I had cancelled plans to go to a party in Providence and instead was having dinner at the Lobster Pot in Bristol, first leaving the phone number with the quartermaster of the watch. About 10:30, a message, operational immediate, arrives at the Spar from Commander, First Coast Guard District, telling of a fishing vessel in distress 150 miles southeast of Cape Cod. There is a description, a loran fix and orders to "proceed and assist."

A waitress at the Lobster Pot comes over and tells me that the crew is being recalled. I pay the check and return to the ship. Bill Miller, Quartermaster First Class, is already up in the chart room plotting a course. "It's going to take 18 hours to get to her," he says.

The special sea detail is set and the ship gets underway. After an hour's cruise down the Bay we take departure of the well protected East Passage and enter Rhode Island Sound. At first, the Spar only nods gently at the sea. Soon, however, she is rolling and pitching relentlessly. The ship has been secured throughout with the exception of the bridge and it has already become stuffy below.

Lying in my bunk, waiting to go on watch, the ship seems determined to throw me to the deck. I hang on and feel the internal organs of my body trying to do the same. I wonder whether that was my liver or my spleen that took a sudden lunge in the direction of my throat. Placing my laundry bag next to the bulkhead and my life vest next to the bunk guard rail, I construct a make-shift straitjacket to keep me from sliding from side to side. Now I just roll with the ship.

To survive a North Atlantic winter gale the Spar will have to keep punching like cocky little fighter, always on her toes, always moving. She will alternate rolls of up to forty-five degrees while leaning way back and then plunging into the sea. Sailors call the motion corkscrewing. And don't like it much.

It seems better to be on watch. At least there is something to do other than just think. The red glow of the darkened wheel house is deceptively restful. Outside the wind chips at the skin, the high bow strikes out at each wave, sometimes slapping it down, sometimes ducking under.

It isn't going to be as bad as that time we had patrolled in hurricane strength winds the radar tower the Air Force had abandoned because of the storm.

A few years earlier another "Texas Tower" had collapsed in a storm with the losss of 28 personnel. Now the Air Force apparently thought it wise in extreme bad weather to evacuate the towers and let the Coast Guard patrol them to make sure the Soviets didn't climb aboard. Circling a Texas Tower 110 miles from shore in an 180 foot ship for hours in hurricane strength winds is not a lot of fun.

It might not even be as bad as the night I found myself on the bridge with the conn, supposedly 45 feet above sea level, but looking up at the crests as we dipped into each trough and then one even higher wave had suddenly stopped and shook the Spar's 180 feet, bringing a call from below, "What the fuck you doing up there? You just knocked two guys out of their bunks." This one is just an ordinary storm.

If you feel ill, you have only the marginal solace of companionship. The bridge, being the only access to the outside during bad weather, is host to crew members seeking the leeward wing from which to relieve themselves. Later I will drink Coke and eat plain white bread to calm the internal insurrection, but for the time being there is nothing to do but go about one's business feeling awful.

Free of the protection of the land, the wind is blowing stronger. I grasp the handles of the radar set and try to find my balance. I try to amuse myself by plotting the course of a large blip that has appeared on the scope. I am reminded of the even larger blip I had once spotted in the fog that kept closing on our stern. I called the captain and by the time he had come to the bridge a large Russian fishing and surveillance vessel had broken through the shroud 100 years away. The captain went to wire Washington.

As the ship takes a heavy roll, the quartermaster slides past me and hits his shoulder hard against the starboard bulkhead. On the radio I hear a freighter tell the Narragansett Bay pilot he'll be at the entrance in two hours. The blip on the scope is the freighter. Its crew will be pulling liberty in Providence tonight.

During a normal watch there are three men on the bridge: the officer of the deck, the quartermaster of the watch and the helmsman. The rest of the ship is tending to its business or asleep. During the lonely hours of the mid-watch, those on the bridge are a trio of adventurers on an empty planet. They are the only ones who will known what took place that night. They will become acquainted with the thousand voices of the sea.

A few curt bits of information are exchanged when the watch is relieved: "This black beast is on a course of 136 degrees true, making good eleven knots, 0330 position is on the chart, the radar scope is empty. , . ." But aside from that no one will ask them about the watch. And the log will read simply: "Underway as before."

Throughout the next day the Spar pounds along towards the object of her search - a 69-foot green fishing vessel with a white superstructure, orange dory, 7 persons aboard, and engine failure. Towards mid-afternoon we approach the area and make radio contact with the trawler as we have several times during our trip out. The skipper speaks on 2182 kilocycles with a thick Scandinavian accent. He says that all on board are well, that his vessel comes from New Bedford, Mass., and is owned by a man whose name had an unmistakably Portuguese round. Leif Erickson, Prince Henry the Navigator and Captain Ahab have found a common heir 150 miles southeast of Cape Cod.

The Spar's only radioman, who has brought his mattress to the radio shack so he can grab a few moments sleep between messages that flowed in and out around the clock, asks the trawler for a long count. The skipper counts slowly, the Spar's radio direction finder searches for the direction of his voice, the needle finally coming to rest five points off the starboard bow. The ship alters course and heads for the disabled craft.

A mast is sighted ahead. The Spar approaches the trawler wallowing in the heavy sea. Our gunner's mate, wearing a bright red vest, aims his line-throwing gun across the bow of the other ship. There is a report and a thin line soars over the water. In less than ten minutes the fishing vessel is in tow and the Spar headed back towards New Bedford.

Now the seas begin to abate. I start to feel like eating good food again. Early in the trip I had given my lobster saute to Neptune as a peace offering and thereafter had subsisted on dry bread and Coca Cola. But now the smell of the cooks preparing cream of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches wafts through the passageways, a sure sign that good weather was back.

Finally, we are in Rhode Island Sound and then Buzzards Bay. The fishing craft is turned over to the commercial towboat Captain Leroy at the entrance to New Bedford harbor. We haul in the towline and where once had been a fishing vessel find a sack of deep sea lobsters, secured there by the trawler crew. The Spar turns back down Buzzards Bay towards Bristol. Steaming up Narragansett Bay in the morning light, the sun causes a million reflections on the water to play tag with one another. Rose Island, Buoy 17TTR,
Poppasquash Point and Bristol Harbor draw closer at a steady 12.1 knots. It is neither hot nor cold and the wind does not bite. There are no disabled fishing vessels, no gales, no Vietnam, no Dallas, no Birmingham, no hunger, no fear, no weariness, no pain, nothing but a world in which all is well.

The Spar approaches the dock.

"Put out all lines when you can."

A gentle nudge and the Spar is home again.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Before Barry made it a monument, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management vetted it for extraction potential and came to a negative determination.
Not to worry oil companies, there's still plenty more on the Atlantic seaboard up for grabs and leases will still be offered up through at 2017.
So, for all of the hype this proves more an act of misdirection to avert attention away from the fact that further oil exploration beyond the monument still has the government OK.