Editor’s Note: In the wake of the tragic loss of the SS El Faro and its crew, Congress is now considering legislation to more vigilantly inspect US merchant ships. To aid that process, I’ll be posting chapters of my book about the wreck of the SS Marine Electric here at no charge.
“Many of the recommendations that both the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board’s final (El Faro) reports both highlighted, were highlighted in the report for the Marine Electric sinking 33 years ago,” said Glen Jackson, a brother of a lost SS El Faro crewman.
This is the first in a series of posts from my books. We’ll shoot for one chapter a day on the 30-chapter book about the wreck of the SS Marine Electric, Until the Sea Shall Free Them
Chapter One, “Casting Off.” follows immediately
Until the Sea Shall Free Them
And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower.
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said,“All men shall be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them.”
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever … it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking people’s hats off-—then, I account it
high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
10 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 10, 1983
At the loading pier near Norfolk, Bob Cusick, the veteran chief
mate, spread steam coal into the holds of the Marine Electriclike a
pastry chef layering a cake. No chunk was larger than a Ping-Pong
ball, and some of the coal was just black powder. In bulk, the coal
formed a huge mass, heavier than 10,000 automobiles, and it had to
be loaded carefully so that the ship remained balanced.
Huge chutes passed over the ship and dumped black coal evenly
at Cusick’s command. Normally, it took three passes to load a ship
this size, but Bob Cusick had done this more than a few times. He
almost never needed the third, “finishing” pass. That was an advan-
tage of time on the water, of time on the piers. There was a lot he
knew, a lot he’d seen that the younger kids aboard ship might
Still, Cusick always felt the excitement of leaving, of casting off,
of starting the voyage. All of them, all thirty-four seamen and offi-
cers, felt it, even if this would be just a milk run up the coast,
Virginia to Massachusetts and back, shuttling coal to the power
plants of New England.
There were a number of green kids on the ship who felt the ex-
citement more than Cusick, and he wondered what they must think
he was doing now. For anyone with just a few months at sea would
think Bob Cusick was cheating. Clearly, the chief mate of the Marine
Electricwas overloading his ship—she had sunk below the legal load
line. You could see it, if you knew just enough about the business
not to know what you didn’t know. Cusick had filled the hatches
with 23,000 tons of coal on top of the 1,800 tons already there. And
now the ship was five inches below its legal load line.
Or so it seemed. The truth was that Marine Transport Lines, the
owner, never asked Cusick to overload a ship. That was one thing he
liked about this job.
Another truth was that Cusick had checked the salinity of the
harbor water carefully. It measured 1.013 on his hydrometer. That
meant the harbor water was far less salty than ocean water. So when
the Marine Electricsailed into the ocean, she would rise magically, like
some huge high school science fair display, leaving her load line
comfortably above the waterline.
Only there was nothing magic about it. It was professional pro-
cedure. And it was how Cusick got and kept a job that paid him well
at a time when American maritime work was scarce.
He liked this job, and he liked the men he worked with. Most all
of them, with their different ranks and duties, had drifted back to the
ship as he was loading it.
They were members of diverse tribes with diverse skills, and on
some ships, the tribes never got along. There were the officers, of
course. Deck officers, like the third mate, navigated and steered the
ship. Engineers, like the first assistant engineer, kept the turbines
humming and the power up. Ordinary seamen fell near the bottom
of the organizational chart, just learning the business. Able-bodied
seamen, or ABs, were veteran, skilled seamen. Oilers and wipers
worked the engine room down below, assisting the engineers. At the
bottom of the officer social order were the cadets—the men and
women still in a maritime academy who shipped out for the first
time on an American merchant vessel.
Fissures would form along these differences in rank and mission
on many ships. The deck officers and engineers grumbled at each
other and did not fraternize. Deck crews and the engine room
workers followed the lead of the officers. They blamed each other
for problems and held grudges.
But Cusick, the chief mate and second in command of the Ma-
rine Electric,mingled with all the men and set the tone for the ship.
They had their differences, as men do, but they all pretty much got
Certainly all classes and ranks on the Marine Electric joinedto-
gether to poke gentle fun at George Wickboldt, the cadet. The cadet
was in love, they said. It seemed a real romance. Cusick’s friend
Mike Price, the first assistant engineer, had taken the cadet under his
wing and treated him like family, even took him home to Massachu-
setts. There Wickboldt met a pretty young girl named Cathy. They
had hit it off, became an item, and the whole ship kidded George
about his love life. Price even speculated that the two kids might get
married some day.
But the crew, all of them, made certain the ribbing never turned
nasty. This was so because all of them knew the Wickboldt story, and
there was an unspoken agreement among them to watch out for
The cadet’s family lived on Long Island near the Sound, and the
four sons of the Wickboldt family had been called to sea. The family
dream was to restore a large wooded property they owned on a lake
in New Hampshire. There, no matter how far the seafaring sons
roamed, they could have places near their parents. A year earlier,
they’d begun planning to renovate the old house there.
And while George Wickboldt was quiet about the story, the
crew all knew what happened to that dream. All of them heard what
had happened only a year before to George’s older brother Steven.
And all of them knew it could as easily happen to them.
Take the wrong turn. Stop for a moment. Do some inconse-
quential thing you would not even think about. Go left instead of
right. On board a ship you could be dead or maimed in an instant.
Twenty-four-year-old Steven Wickboldt sailed on the Golden Dol-
phin,a modern oil tanker. He was a conscientious man who took
pride in his work. It was a Wickboldt family tradition.
But his ship had two routine maintenance problems in March
1982 as she sailed from Louisiana to Dubai on the Persian Gulf. The
first problem was common to all tankers. Sludge had accumulated in
the cargo tanks. It had to be removed. The only way to do it was the
old-fashioned way: sending men down in the tanks with shovels to
muck it out manually.
The other problem was more technical and required skilled la-
bor. The steam lines that ran into the cargo tanks were so corroded
that they did not work. These lines were important because oil
sometimes had to be warmed to make it portable and pumpable.
And the sludge now lining the cargo tanks of the Golden Dolphin
would be much easier to remove if the steam lines and heating coils
in the tank were activated. The heat turned the oil from a hard, un-
pliable solid to a more liquid, movable muck.
On the Golden Dolphin,the steam lines connecting the engine
room to the cargo holds snaked along the deck and had succumbed
to the corrosive powers of saltwater. The crew had tried to seal the
leaks with fiberglass and epoxy patches, but to no avail. Steam leaked
so badly that the pipes no longer did their job. It was clear the steam
lines on deck had to be replaced, and the only way to do that was to
break out the welding equipment and put in new lines.
Steve Wickboldt was safe in the engine room when the welding
started on deck. At the same time, about 3:20 P.M. on March 6, Sea-
men Roy Leonard, Martin Wright, and Manuel Rodriguez ended a
coffee break and entered the number-four cargo hatch to begin
mucking out the sludge. Seaman Zemlock went to the mucking
winch—a hoist that would carry the sludge up and out of the tanks
below. Norman Beavers, who as bosun supervised the deck crew,
popped down below to join the men.
At 3:45, the welding crew continued to fit new steam pipes.
This was “hot work” on a tanker, not to be taken lightly. But the
crew was some distance from the number-four hatch, fifty feet or
more away from any combustible fumes coming from the oil.
Paul Rippee, the chief engineer, was supervising the welding.
He asked the chief mate to tell the third assistant engineer, a man named Fitzpatrick, to pick up an impact wrench and bring it to the worksite. The chief mate, heading for his stint at the wheel, saw Fitzpatrick and relayed the message. Fitzpatrick fetched the wrench and was walking forward to the welding site. Just ten seconds more and he’d be there.
In the engine room, men were changing shifts. First Assistant
Engineer Cronin showed up early, at 3:45, to stand his watch. Steve
Wickboldt could now take a break. It wasn’t common to see hot
work on board a tanker, and Steve wanted to see how it was done.
He jogged forward to lend a hand.
Then, as always in such times, events happened both quickly and
slowly, as if caught by a slow-motion camera. Fitzpatrick, walking
with the wrench, could see the welding team. Wickboldt was about
to join them; the kid had slowed to a walk. The chief engineer,
wearing his blue jumpsuit, was looking off the port side of the ship.
Fitzpatrick raised the wrench as if to say, “Hey, Chief, I’ve got what you
wanted. ”But he did not catch the chief’s eye. Fitzpatrick saw a metal
strip on the deck and looked down, afraid he might trip. He heard a
long whooshing sound, then a noise like a firecracker inside a barrel.
A wall of fire rose straight up. Pieces of metal started flying and land-
ing around him.
One piece looked like the steam pipe. Fitzpatrick did not stop to
examine it. He ran aft for his life, to the rear of the ship. A thirty-
eight-knot wind was blowing over the Golden Dolphin,whipping the
flames like a blowtorch. He found shelter from the falling debris be-
hind the deckhouse, then peeked around a corner to survey the star-
board side of the ship. The cargo tanks from below had been blown
out and up, so that now their bottoms were above the deckline,
pointing jagged steel toward the sky. The whole huge midsection of
the ship was aflame.
The general alarm was sounding. Smoke and fire engulfed the
deck. There was no sign of the small group of men who had been
huddling over the hot work. Friends and colleagues—Paul Rippee,
Wickboldt, all of them—were simply gone.
Zemlock, operating the winch when it happened, by all rights
should have been killed instantly. As he was hauling out buckets of
sludge and dumping them into fifty-five-gallon drums, he felt and
heard a vibration directly beneath him. He was looking down into
the tank, but instead of being burned, he was hurled away from the
opening. He heard one explosion. He was in the air, floating, when
the second one came. Fate had it that he was blown aft forty feet,
away from the inferno forward. He did not remember landing, only
that when he did, he was sitting.
He looked forward. The force of one explosion had blown up
part of the cargo hold bulkhead straight in front of the spot where he
landed. The shattered bulkhead had shielded him from the flames.
Yet another explosion had blown the deck out directly behind him.
He sat, stunned, protected by jagged metal armor on both sides. He
waited a moment, then picked his way toward the stern.
Steven Wickboldt, the men on the welding crew, and the men
in the tanks, all nine of them, died instantly. What had happened was
dreadfully simple. The heat from the welding torch had entered the
steam line that still ran into the cargo holds. Although the tank in
which the men were working was gas-free, the other holds were in
that most perilous of tanker conditions—empty of oil, but not empty
of vapors. The steam coils lining these tanks were connected to the
steam line the men were welding. The cargo coils were corroded.
Thus, vapor from the tanks wafted up through the steam line, vent-
ing to the deck where the men were welding. A spark or flame or
heat from the acetylene torch in effect lit a fuse running from one
part of the ship dozens of yards to the explosive vapors of the empty
oil tanks forward.
Which explains the “whoosh” sound many of the survivors
heard. It was the gaseous fuse linking torch to tank.
On the bridge, the captain ordered hard left rudder. This turned
the ship sharply and cut down the fierceness of the wind blowing the
fire forward to aft. Then he hit the abandon ship button. The re-
maining men found lifeboats. They were rescued a few hours later
by a passing merchant vessel and sat there on the deck and watched
as the hull of their tanker burned and glowed cherry red.
Nearly a year later, the men of the Marine Electricknew the lesson.
Even good men, even smart men, even men who thought they had
things under control, could die in a thousand different ways. The
flames did not care. The steel did not care. Most particularly, the
ocean did not care.
But the men of the Marine Electriccared. They watched out for
Cadet George Wickboldt. Like all cadets, he needed to prove him-
self. And he took some hazing about his love life. But in many ways,
they figured, he had already paid his dues. Anyone whose brother
could die like that, and who then went to sea, anyway, well. . . the
men did not talk about it much. Such things did not need to be said.
Philip Corl, the master of the Marine Electric,Cusick’s boss, could
look down from the bridge on all of this and figure he was a lucky
man. Captains in the American Merchant Marine could make an-
nual incomes equal to those of many doctors and lawyers but usually
paid a price. They spent months at sea.
The Marine Electricrun was an easy one. She ferried coal from
Virginia to an electric utility at Brayton Point, Massachusetts, near
Boston. It was about thirty-two hours each way, and the earlier trip
down just a few days before had been glass-smooth, unusual for the
North Atlantic in winter.
Corl, like Cusick, was an old hand, in his late fifties. He had
signed on two days earlier as the relief master—the captain who took
over when the regular captain was on vacation—and did so quite ea-
gerly. Hour for hour, captains made a nice living, but only when
they worked. More and more, there were fewer and fewer jobs in
the American Merchant Marine. For years, Corl had stayed clear of
such unemployment. He’d put behind him the memories of service
in World War II and the sparse jobs of peacetime and moved west to
deal cards at a friend’s casino. That work in the desert had dried up,
though, and Corl, himself a cardplayer, knew he had beaten the odds
when he signed on with Marine Transport Lines a few months back.
Corl had a plum. Hundreds of officers were without work. He was
lucky, and he was grateful.
They were all lucky. There was none of the discomfort of long
trips to Somalia or Egypt, carrying government grain. The Marine
Electriccarried coal in the coastal trade. Miners pulled it from the
ground in Virginia and West Virginia and Kentucky and Illinois. It
came east to Norfolk by train, but it was cheaper from there to ship
north by water. And so the coal was dumped into the holds of the
Marine Electric,which carried it up the coast to the Boston area.
There, they burned it to heat the water that created the steam
that turned the turbines that generated the electricity to light and
heat homes and workplaces and to power toasters, televisions, ster-
eos, vacuum cleaners, ovens, coffee pots, and hair dryers. The Marine
Electricand the coal she carried helped make New England twinkle.
At night, as the men out at sea stared at the land, they could watch
the lights and understand that the cities were glowing because of
them and the coal they carried. It gave them meaning. A connec-
For his part, Cusick did not need to philosophize. He had always
been connected to the sea. Had always loved the life at sea. And he
loved the job he had on the Marine Electric.He had been at sea since
age eighteen and with the Marine Electricfor five years. He was sec-
ond in command, a year older than Corl, and he knew his ship in-
With Corl looking on from above, Cusick computed the load
factors again. There were nuances. Important ones. There always
were in large ships, particularly the old ones like the Marine Electric.
The ship had been built during World War II as a T-2 type tanker—
state of the art at the time—and then modified and extended in 1961
for dry cargo bulk duty with a new midsection.
There was nothing new about her now, though. The bow and
stern were almost forty years old, and the “new” midsection was of-
ficially “overage” by insurance standards. If you were in charge of
loading cargo, as Cusick was, you had to be careful how you distrib-
uted the weight in any ship and, particularly in an old girl like this.
Earlier, the hatches for the five cargo holds had been rolled back
like huge horizontal garage doors. The rail cars had dumped their
coal onto conveyor belts. The belts then carried the coal to chutes.
The chutes hosed the coal down the hatches and into the holds. This
could not be done sloppily. Dump the coal too densely into the mid-
dle hatches, leave the fore and aft light, and the ship sagged. Dump it
too heavily into the fore and aft, with the center light, and it
“hogged”—rose up like a hogs back. Either way was dangerous.
The Marine Electricwas a small ship by the standards of the new
supertankers, but immense by human scale. Stretch two football
fields end to end, and you had her. Hogging or sagging meant a
ship of that size could fracture and founder at sea, if she hit the waves
These things Cusick knew automatically and did automatically.
Up to Somerset, Massachusetts. Down to Norfolk. Load the coal.
Two passes and he was done, really. Same old same old, and fine by
him. Just to make sure on this trip, he put in a few more dollops of
coal on that third trimming pass. In hatch number five, he added 400
more tons. In hatch number one, he placed 700 more tons. These
light touches were the equivalent of a pastry chefs signature
touches. A few hundred tons here, a few there. Then, no more. It
He then went over his loading log and measurements with
William H. Long, a good friend and old salt, retired from his days at
sea as an officer with the Marine Electricbut still working dockside.
Bill Long copied Cusick’s loading measurements as the chief mate
read them off. The copy was just that, a sort of working checklist.
Long always threw his paper away, and Cusick carried the formal
record on board the ship.
Cusick could think of all the good things about the crew and ship
and be grateful. But there were also certain things Cusick tried not
to think about. Because these kinds of thoughts worked against all
the good things, all the right things about the Marine Electric.These
thoughts conflicted with the what-a-great-deal-we-got-here version
of the ship.
Cusick knew better than anyone that the ship was falling apart.
The owners were good owners, as these things went. Marine Trans-
port Lines, Inc. was a big, modern corporation that was now in the
middle of some big deal on Wall Street. The company was a joint
owner in a new project, building a new ship, the Energy Independence,
one of the few new ones built in U.S. yards. In that, the company
was among the best of shipping lines.
But every trip, Cusick would sketch on his clipboard one more
crack in the hatch covers. There were more than ninety now. He
had the crew slop Red Hand over the cracks—marine-strength
epoxy patching. They welded “doublers” over them—big sheets of
quarter-inch steel. The company sometimes put the ship in for re-
pairs, but she never came out right. Some mariners called ships like
the Marine Electric“tired iron.” They were like used cars. Even if you
treated them like classics, you never knew what would break next.
Cusick worried enough that when the Marine Electricwas taken
off the coal route a few months before to carry grain to Haifa, Israel,
he had opted out. He knew the shape of the Marine Electricbetter
than anyone. Would he ride her up and down the coast of the North
Atlantic? You bet. The U.S. Coast Guard could always come out and
get them. They were only thirty miles from shore.
But cross the North Atlantic and go through the Mediterranean
all the way to Israel? Cusick had always taken risks. Not this one,
though. He passed. He remembered that just two years earlier,
another old ship, the SS Poet,had gone down in the Atlantic carry-
ing government grain. No one was found. No one survived.
Cusick was not alone in his concern. The Marine Electricsfirst
matt , Clayton Babineau, also passed on the transatlantic voyage. He
took the summer off and worked on the roof of his house while the
Marine Electricdelivered grain to Israel. “When are they going to cut that
tub into razor blades?”friends would ask Babineau. Babineau would
grin back and say, “You can’t cut rust into razor blades
But Babineau was unamused by much of what he saw on the old
ship. He was a methodical, serious man, whose absorption in detail
drove his wife to distraction. Mary Babineau loved him dearly but
hated his endless lists. He even had a packet marked for her if he was
ever lost at sea, detailing what she should do—lists of assets, lists of
lawyers, who to call, bills to be paid, union officers to contact.
“Don’t worry,” he would tell Mary. “It’s never going to happen.
The thought of you as a rich widow is enough to keep me safe.”
Very funny, she would say, and Mary, a devout Catholic, would
pray harder, hope that Clayt would loosen up on the lists, and pray
she never would have to reach for the packet she knew was in that
But Babineau found he could not loosen up on the condition of
the ship. Clayt liked the job, but hated the ship. He liked the job be-
cause the home front had been tumultuous recently. He was needed
there, and the coastal run let him spend a lot of time at home. He
had two teenagers and a daughter in her twenties, now out of the
nest. Teenagers always are a challenge, but it was the older girl’s ac-
tions that bothered him and Mary. She wanted to marry a guy who
was not in any way, shape, or form included on his lists. Mary
The parents weren’t winning this debate, but they weren’t giv-
ing up on it, either. Their older daughter was nearly estranged.
Home time was important until this thing was seen through one
way or the other.
Clayt also liked his position in the company. He’d just gotten
word that he would be the new relief chief mate, filling in when
Cusick took vacations. And that would mean, in a few months, he
would be the relief mate on a brand-new ship—the Energy Indepen-
dence.When she came in service, he would have a scarce position on
one of the safest ships imaginable.
If Babineau could hold on a little longer, keep his nose clean
with the company, and keep the Marine Electricon the water instead
of under it, he’d be set.
So it had been no small thing several weeks back when he had
called the Coast Guard about the Marine Electric. Mary was in Clayt’s
study when he phoned. The ship was in a Rhode Island repair yard
in the winter of 1982 when he dialed up the local Coast Guard
“Listen,” he said, “here’s what’s wrong with the ship. Go on
board and just take a look. You’ll see the cracks in the deck. You
can’t miss them. Check the hatches.”
“Will do,” said the Coast Guard guy.
But theMarine Electricsailed a short time later, and the complaint
made in Rhode Island was not forwarded to other ports where she
put in. Babineau never got any response, never saw any results of his
call, and watched in fact as inspectors of the American Bureau of
Shipping and the Coast Guard stepped over obvious safety viola-
tions. The crew had circled cracks in the deck with chalk, then
spraypainted circles around them. The inspectors were careful both
not to trip over the deficiencies and to ignore them in their inspec-
tion reports. Clayt’s list of what was wrong with the ship grew
longer as the condition of the ship became uglier.
Still, the men took pride in their work and in the Marine Electric.
They kept her painted, and the rust didn’t show from a distance. Cu-
sick kept the deck crew busy on that, though when they scraped the
rust off the hatch covers, sometimes daylight would show through.
Eugene F. Kelly, Jr., had caught that spirit of pride, even though
he was only the relief third mate—a part-timer. He liked the ship
and liked the crew and hoped the Marine Electricwould become a
He had a wife and seven-month-old daughter at home, and this
was, as the third mate often said, a “milquetoast run.” He thought
every once in a while it would be nice to work on the new big
tankers, use his head a little more, run the modern inert gas systems
that kept the supertankers from exploding. Or maybe work on one
of the military sealift ships, oversee refueling in mid-ocean. That
would be a challenge. He was only thirty-one and needed chal-
lenges, he thought. A little more danger could be good for him.
But life on the Marine Electricwas perfect in so many ways. He
was a sportsman, and the winter waterfowl season was open. When
he was landlocked, he could hunt and be with his family.
The old salts could have the transatlantic runs, two weeks each
way, with just the ocean to stare at. Most of the men on the Marine
Electricparked their cars at the power plant in Massachusetts. When
Kelly and the crew came in, they zipped home. “Like we were shore
workers,” an officer once remarked.
Besides, the Energy Independencewould be finished soon. Six
months, Kelly figured, and all of them would have the same cushy
job on a brand-new ship.
There is a saying among the families of seamen, among wives,
Some men go to sea to get away. Some men go to sea to get home.
The Marine Electrichad its share of the former, men who knew
no other life and were most comfortable at sea. Like the men of the
old clipper ships or the fictional whaler Ishmael, they needed the sea
to get away from land and all its social complexities.
But most of the Marine Electriccrewmen were “home ported”—
with a regular departure port close to their homes. They went to sea
so they could get home to land. The sea provided for their land life,
and they were grateful. They didn’t want to worry about the age of
the ship. They thought themselves blessed.
Besides, new ship, old ship, always there was risk. A state-of-the
art West German ship, the Munchen,had gone down in the mid-
Atlantic a few years earlier. A brand-new British ship, the Derbyshire,
sank in the Pacific in 1980. All hands perished, including some
women on the Derby.
It was a global story, a global worry, that stretched back to the
first man who floated atop a log in saltwater. Those who went to sea
faced peril, period. Worrying too much was a waste.
Perhaps it was the knowledge that he captained a rust bucket that
made Corl do what he did. Or perhaps a premonition. Cusick
couldn’t figure it out. Not on the face of it, at least. Was the old man
superstitious? They were both old-timers and seasoned professionals.
So Cusick was surprised at Corl’s decision about his wife, Alice. It
was more and more common these days for officers’ wives to ac-
company their husbands on trips, particularly milk runs like this one.
So the plan had been for Alice Corl to board in Massachusetts, take
the trip to Norfolk, see a bit of Virginia while the ship loaded, and
scoot back up the coast with her husband.
But Corl hemmed and hawed about her coming. Finally, he de-
clared that the quarters weren’t large enough. “Alice,” he said, “skip
this trip. Stay in a hotel in Boston, Alice. I’ll see you on the flip-flop,
on the return trip. Have fim in the city.”
His decision made no sense to Cusick. Or to anyone. The quar-
ters weren’t huge, but they were big enough for a couple. People ate
in shifts anyway. Of course, men in the maritime trades often talked
around things. It was rare that a softness of heart would surface.
Premonitions were not part of the science of navigation and engine
What else could Corl have said? That the trip didn’t feel right?
That the ship was unsafe? The men would have muttered all thirty-
two hours south and thirty-two hours north about that one. About
how the old man felt that the ship was jinxed.
And in that sense, it made perfect sense to Cusick and everyone
else on the crew. They just didn’t want to talk about it.
They didn’t have to talk about it. If the officers felt concern
about the ship, they could go to the bridge and watch the radar.
Etched in green flows on the scope was their salvation. Off there on
the left going up. Down there on the right coming down. The con-
tinental shelf. Land. The Coast Guard was only thirty miles away.
Jobs were scarce. They didn’t get any better than this. Who wanted
to complain? Who wanted to lose this good thing?
The crew had all signed on over the last few days as the ship loaded,
and there were the usual manning mix-ups, misunderstandings, and
Jose O. Quinones had just made chief cook, and there was no
way he would miss his first voyage with that tide. He was making
certain his galley was well-stocked with comfort food. He wanted to
keep the Marine Electricsreputation as a “good feeder.”
Others were more casual about the trip.
Walter Parkhurst was a relief able-bodied seaman, an “AB,” and
had sailed down from Massachusetts. Edward W. Matthews, a Balti-
more man, had been on leave. But there was a misunderstanding,
and now both men showed up on the pier in Norfolk. Men on the
ship took sides. Some, mostly friends of Matthews, told Matthews he
should demand his berth, that it was his by rights. Matthews wanted
Cusick knew his union rules, though, and took Parkhurst aside.
“Parkie, you have a right to sail now,” Cusick told him. “I’ll
back you with the union. The rules are the rules, and you can sail if
you want. You’re cleared to get on the ship. Just give me the word.”
Parkie gave it some thought and a few minutes later found the
“Oh, what the hell, Mate,” he told Cusick. “I’ll get off here.”
Matthews got his berth.
Davy Wright, a steady AB, was coming back to the ship, too, but
was careful to follow the rules. He had been on vacation. The union
had strict rules about time off and time on and rigorously enforced
vacations. Because jobs were scarce, the union spread the jobs out by
demanding mandatory times on the beach. Now Wright had been
on the beach long enough to go back to sea. He stopped by the
union hall to make sure all was in order.
He was out the door with his ticket punched when the union
man ran out after him. “Hey, sorry, Davy. There’s a mistake here.
You’re one day short. You need one day more on land. You’re going
to have to catch the ship up north.”
So Davy joined Parkie on the beach.
And then there was the Gashounder. He was a good guy when
you could catch him sober, but Kelly remembered giving him a ride
one night and how the liquor fumes from the guy filled the cab of
his truck. The Gashounder would go to sleep and snore, slip a little
on the seat, then slide over and slump against Kelly, drooling on
him. It got to the point where Kelly had to shove the guy hard over
to the door. There he drooled against the window, emitting fumes of
vomit and booze.
“Thank Christ!” Kelly said, when he learned that Cusick had
fired the Gashounder. It was something the chief mate had hated to
do. Drinking was a problem on board ships, and not just among the
seamen. Cusick had a good friend, an officer, who was a bad
drinker, so bad that the story of the guy was a legend in the fleet.
In Da Nang, South Vietnam, in the old days, the friend once
took the ship’s small motor launch to a bar across the bay. When the
Viet Cong mortared the area after a few hours, the launch came
hurtling full speed back to the ship. The Marine guard on the ship
watched as a man stood in the bow of the launch, stripped off all his
clothes, and dove into the water.
The launch swerved out to sea, and the naked man swam madly
to the ship. He ran up the ladder yelling that people were shooting at
him, waved his arms wildly, then disappeared down below. The
young Marine ran to the officer on the bridge and said, “We just had
a crazy guy run stark naked onto the ship. We better tell the captain.”
“Good luck,” the officer on watch said laconically. “That wasthe
In the rough culture of the Merchant Marine, stories like that
were numerous and—too often, perhaps—accepted as part of life
But no one accepted the Gashounder. Just a few days earlier, in
Massachusetts, as they were getting ready to leave for Norfolk, he
was drunk again in his cabin, and this time he would not get up. He
told Charlie Johnson, the bosun, that he just wanted to sleep. When
he was told of the problem, Cusick sighed and went down to the
“Come on, fella, time to go to work,” Cusick said.
“I ain’ta gonna,” the Gashounder said.
“You gotta,” Cusick said twice. The man lay still, in a stupor.
Then Cusick said, “Listen, you’re a good man when you’re sober,
but this can’t go on like this. Get your O.T. sheet and your gear and
A few minutes later, the Gashounder was back, a supplicant. He
wasn’t a mean drunk. “Look, Mate, you’ve been fair with me all
along and I’ve been an asshole. I know that. Can I ask you one favor,
though? Can I keep my gear on the ship and pick it up in Brayton?”
“Sure,” Cusick said. And then the Gashounder left for the bars,
and a young seaman named Paul Dewey signed on.
For Cusick’s part, there were no ominous premonitions on this trip.
Just common sense. And precision.
This night, he took additional precautions. There was a very bad
storm bearing down on the East Coast, and the Virginians, not used
to driving in ice and snow, would soon be skidding into one another
left and right. Already it was cold and rainy. Gale warnings were out.
They could expect winds of twenty-five to thirty-five knots.
The Marine Electric and Cusick had seen dozens of storms like
this one. It would be a bad one, but nothing to write home about.
Not “the perfect storm.” It had formed over the Gulf of Mexico and
was headed north. The Marine Electricwould plow through as she
had for nearly forty years. The bow would plunge. The waves
would pump high. There would be a whoosh and bang of water hit-
ting steel and a ka-thump as if someone had whacked a very big
washtub with a board. Sometimes green water would bury the
frontmost part of the ship, actually submerge the bow and much of
the deck beneath a big wave. Then the buoyancy of the bow would
assert itself, and she would clear the wave to meet the next one.
Cusick instructed the crew members to pay special attention to
the huge hatches. The covers were very heavy affairs and normally
needed only a few fasteners—or dogs, as they were called—to secure
the hatches, one dog at each corner, one or two per side. With heavy
weather coming, Cusick ordered them all dogged down to the max-
imum. The hatch covers weighed tons. The water in the waves
could weigh tons more. If water crashed through the hatches? Many
a ship had sunk precisely because that had happened. So in the cold
and the rain, the crew put down every dog they could. Not all of
the fasteners worked. Many of the hatches had holes in them and
gaskets that did not fit well.
Still, it seemed good enough. She had seen worse, the old girl.
She was good enough. In as good a shape as ever she was these past
There were 745 tons of fuel, food, and fresh water on board,
about 24,800 tons of coal, and thirty-four men. The bow drew
thirty-four feet of water on the button. The stern, thirty-four feet,
eight inches. The center, thirty-four feet, four inches. No hogging
or sagging here. Over the course of two full football fields, only an
eight-inch difference, stern to bow. Cusick was a pro.
They had only one small problem as they left. Steve Browning
was not there.
Corl and Kelly thought it odd that Browning was a no-show.
The guy was a responsible assistant engineer and serious about his
work. The storm must have delayed him.
Well, they could make it without him. They had enough engi-
neers. This was just a little coastal run.
And then she was set to go. Shortly before midnight, in the last
hour of February io, a Thursday, the propeller of the ship surged.
Tugs pushed and pulled the old collier away from the dock. The
thick mooring lines were heaved on board and stored. And she was
off, the crew and officers feeling the little thrill that accompanies any
voyage. They were casting off. They were en route.
The tickle of excitement soon settled into cozy routine.
It would be many hours before the ship’s officers heard the radio
crackle news about a fishing boat in trouble.
Theodora was her name, and she would change everything.
OF THE THEODORA
Does anyone know
Where the love of God goes,
When the waves
Turn the minutes
“The Wreck of
2:00a.m. / Friday, Feb. 11 1983/
On board the Marine Electric
Mouth of the Chesapeake Bay
As the ship cut across the Chesapeake Bay toward open sea, Bob
Cusick roamed the deck, more than a little worried. He paid special
attention to securing the bow area. There was no doubt it would be
pounded by waves. He even ordered the anchors secured earlier
than usual in anticipation of the storm to come. Normally, they kept
the anchors ready until they got past the long Chesapeake Bay
Bridge Tunnel that spanned the mouth of the bay. But not this time.
Cusick wanted the work done before they hit open sea. The waves
were already rough.
In fact, the water was rough enough that the harbor pilot was
considering staying on board the big ship. Pilots supervise navigation
in shallow local waters, then hop off onto small pilot boats once the
local hazards are cleared. It would be a tough hop for the pilot on
this night. He would have to climb down a ladder and then, as the
ship and the boat both pitched, jump to the pilot boat.
On this day, he was scheduled to transfer at two in the morning.
Cusick made sure the ladder was secured for the pilot. Ladders, an-
chors, hatches. They could come loose in a big blow. He made sure
they all were dogged, tied down and secured. All the anchor systems
were in place. The anchor windlass was secure. The stopper—a
chisel-like piece of steel—was secure in a link of the big anchor
chain. And the devil’s claw, a device that snagged the chain if it
started to fall, was snugged in nice and tight, held by its own smaller
chain and a turnbuckle-type tightener.
On the bridge, Kelly had been listening to the harbor pilot de-
bate with himself. The seas were high. The pilot pickup boat was
small. Would it be easier to ride the Marine Electricto Massachusetts
in this storm? Or should he risk going down the fragile pilot’s ladder
to the wave-tossed harbor craft?
The pilot boat was alongside the Marine Electric,and now it was
time for a decision. Ride the ship? Take the boat?
“I’m getting off,” the pilot said, and a few moments later, he de-
scended the ladder, sprayed by the waves. He timed his jump cor-
rectly and soon was safe on the deck of the boat below.
Almost instandy, another figure mounted the ladder, and this
one made his way up,hand over hand.
Steve Browning’s head popped above the rail of the Marine Elec-
tric,and he smiled sheepishly as Kelly ribbed him. He had been late
at the dock, but he ran to the pilot boat and hitched a ride out. They
could kid him all they wanted. The weather was bad. The ship was
bad. Losing a good job was worse.
And now they were under way in the open sea, cutting handily
through four-foot waves, which blew with the wind north northeast
on a course of 38 1/2 degrees true from Chesapeake Light to Narra-
gansett Bay up north, a distance of 322 nautical miles.
One officer, two able-bodied seamen, and an ordinary seaman
manned the ship in shifts of four hours each. It is a quiet and warm
routine on the bridge, much like being secure in a comfortable
cabin. They were making eight knots. The head wind caused the
ship to pitch and roll some. And soon, as Cusick thought she would.
the Marine Electricwas shipping water over her main deck and
hatches. Each time this happened, the ship responded well.
During the night, the waves reached ten to fifteen feet, with
Force 8 conditions with winds at thirty to forty knots—about thirty-
five to forty-five miles per hour.
By dawn, the blow was a Force 10 storm from the northeast,
with winds of sixty miles per hour and seas between twenty and
forty feet—nothing to laugh about.
Still, there was no need to panic. The Marine Electrictook it well,
shipping seas and bouncing back with no sign of sluggishness. By af-
ternoon, green seas were boarding the ship’s bow area, hammering
the hatches and pouring across the forward area.
Par for the course. The Marine Electrictook it all with the seren-
ity of a forty-year-old veteran of the sea.
Secure, the officers and engineers setded into their social ship-
board routines. There was a howling gale outside, but inside, the
ship served up a constant buffet of food and warm drink. Most ships
had reputations as good feeders. Few ships had bad cooks, because
they did not last. The word got out. No one wanted to put up with
a bad cook, because food was central to the rhythms and morale of a
vessel. Quinones’s skill in the kitchen was one reason many of the
men were, if not portly, ample.Food was not just sustenance. In a
routine that infrequendy varied, on a sea that looked the same, of-
ten, one day to the next, food was the one changing item. In a
closed, self-sealed environment, food was recreation.
The rest was routine, and often the routine was boring. Officers
and men served two four-hour shifts a day. Even if they slept eight
hours, they had six hours to knock about the ship. Some watched
videos. Some read. Some studied. Some talked.
Cusick listened to music, and his tastes ranged from Mozart to a
recent discovery, Stan Rogers, a Canadian folk singer. He and his
wife, Bea, had wandered down to a cafe near their home in Scituate,
Massachusetts, one evening and heard an amateur group sing
Rogers’s sea tales and ballads. Cusick liked the singer so much, he
bought a cassette player for his cabin.
There was always time for talk.
Bill Scott, one of the men in the engine room, passed the time
in part by shooting the breeze about motorcycles. He had a big
BMW, a road bike. Others in the crew, Cusick among them, were
partial to Harleys. As the gales howled outside, hours could pass as
they debated the merits of the horizontally opposed cylinders of the
German bike versus the big-bore Harleys.
Cusick spent a lot of time talking to Mike Price, the thirty-five-
year-old engineer who had played cupid with Cadet George Wick-
boldt. Normally, engineers and deck officers kept to their own kind.
But Price and Cusick had grown to be close friends. Price had
shared his dreams with Cusick. At sea, Price was down below in the
bowels of the ship, nursing the engine, tweaking it, keeping it going.
It was a good job, but his wife, Marsha, had cried when he had
left two weeks before, and he missed Heather, his eight-year-old
Like Cusick, Price was married with one daughter. It was a cus-
tom, a routine, for the men to talk about those dreams of Price’s
when the ship was under way. How it was going to be. What Cusick
had done in his youth. What Price was doing in his. The older man
listened to the younger man. Encouraged him. It was almost as if
they were father and son.
“The thing is,” Price would say, “I can make it on land … if
George Dolak listens to me and we both sign on the Marine Electric
for a while, one man on, one man off.”
Price and Dolak envisioned their own foreign-car repair service.
Jags, BMWs, Mercedes, and other high-ticket automobiles. Some
marine engine repair work, too.
One man would go to sea for a few months while the other ran
the shop. Then they would rotate. If they did that for a year, they
could get the business going. Then both men could stay on land. He
knew Dolak could get a berth on the ship, but Price had to talk him
into it. Dolak was the night engineer on the dock at Brayton Point,
tending to the ship’s needs but never sailing her. It wouldn’t be hard
for him to get on the Marine Electricfull time.
Clayt Babineau had lists. Price had plans. In his youth. Prices
family had moved from urban New Jersey to a small town in Massa-
chusetts, and he instantly cracked the code of the small-town ethic.
In high school, he was not the largest man on the football team, but
he was the best defensive lineman Coach James Stehlin had ever
seen. Never, in his entire career, had he seen anyone like Price.
Amiable, good-natured off the field and in the locker room, Price
was fierce, focused, driven, not to be denied on the field.
In 1966, Price had a big plan. Win the state championship. They
were in mid-season when one of the more popular kids on the team,
a good player, was caught drinking.
The team council handled such things. Thumbs up or thumbs
down. On the team or off.
“Cut the guy a break,” one of the players said. “It was one time.
Give him another chance.”
“Hear, hear,” someone else said, and the guy was all but back,
cleared by his peers.
“Yeah, lets give him one more chance,” Price said. “And then
when I start drinking and break training, give me one more chance.
Give the next guy a chance, and the next.
“But that’s not what we said we were going to do,” Price con-
tinued. “We said we were going all the way, no compromises this
year. If that’s what we’re going to do, this guy doesn’t get another
The guy was off the team. Price, as co-captain. Number 62 on
the defensive line, led the school to the Eastern Massachusetts Class
B Championship that year.
Nothing, his coach said, kept Mike Price from his goals.
Still, his plans did not keep him from worrying about the ship.
He told his wife, Marsha, what was wrong with the Marine Electric,
and now she worried too. Price looked at the old tub. He looked at
Heather, his beautiful daughter. He looked hard at his plans. He
looked at Marsha’s tears each time he left. He figured the odds.
Nothing was without risk. No pain, no gain. He stuck to his
plans and kept pitching Dolak. The guy would come around, would
see the vision.
No one turned Price away from a goal, but Marsha Price had
come the closest. In high school, she was the pretty girl from one
high school over. She had heard about Price the football star from
friends, came to see him play, and met him a few days later in the
parking lot of the A&P near the field. Price asked her out, and that
Even the weeks at sea were easy for the couple at first. He
would send flowers, write, and call whenever he was in port. Some-
times, he was away sixty or 120 days at a time, but it worked. When
Marsha and Mike decided to have a child, though, Marsha had a re-
quest. Stay on land while I’m pregnant, and he did. He worked a
land job for nine months, then shipped out the tenth month.
“I’m just not built for a land job,” he said. “My place is with the
ocean—I’m not the type to sit behind a desk.”
When he was home, Heather and Mike were inseparable, and
they shared the same spirit. When Mike would take his daughter to
the highest point in a ski resort or the deepest water in a swimming
pool, Marsha would bite her nails and shout warnings. But Heather?
She loved it. Wanted to be at the highest point, loved swimming to
the deepest water.
But even Price’s sense of adventure had its limits, and he was not
certain the limits included the Marine Electric.He had signed on in
November 1982 and told Marsha it would be great, that he would
see them every two or three days. He had just gotten his first engi-
neer’s license, and one day he hoped to make chief engineer.
His stories about the ship began to weigh on Marsha deeply.
Two weeks before the February trip, they fought over his job.
“Isn’t it enough?” she said after he described a fault in the ship.
“Listen to what you’re saying. Isn’t that enough to get off the ship?”
“It’s going to be dry-docked in February,” he told her. “And if
anything happens to us, the Coast Guard will come out and get us.”
But then the dry-docking was postponed, and the ship contin-
ued sailing. When he was down in Virginia, on the day the ship
sailed, Marsha renewed her argument, played back to him all the bad
things he himself had said about the ship, told him on the phone as
he prepared to board the ship in Virginia that he needed to leave
that old rust bucket.
Price stopped arguing, and there was a smile in his voice, it
“Do you really want me to get off this ship?” he asked.
“Yes,” Marsha said. “Right now.”
Price sighed. Hey, he could modify the dream. Not give it up,
but change it a little.
“Okay,” he said. “One more trip. I’ll take the ship up to Massa-
chusetts, and that will be it.”
“That sounds good to me,” Marsha said.
“We’ll go out to dinner with George Dolak Saturday night, and
that will be the end of the Marine Electric,”Mike said.
Later, right before the ship sailed, he called again, just checking
in. Marsha Price had been watching the weather reports and saw
there was a bad storm brewing.
“Mike, there’s a big storm,” she said. “Get off that ship now.”
Mike laughed it off.
“We’re better off at sea than tied up at the dock,” he said. “We’ll
just ride it out.”
“Have you seen the weather reports?” Marsha said. “Do you
knowhow serious this storm is?”
“There’s no one to replace me,” Price said. “I have to stay. Don’t
worry. I’ll be home tomorrow, and we’ll go to dinner.”
Marsha Price knew when her husband had made up his mind.
She put Heather on the phone, and they talked about what they
would do on the weekend. Her father told her he loved her very
much, and they said good-bye.
Price would talk to Marsha about the ship, but the crew and of-
ficers said little about it to each other, other than the passing joke.
Bob Cusick would talk to Price for hours about dreams and kids and
land jobs, but neither of them talked much about the ship’s condi-
tion. They talked around the subject or ignored it. Such rationaliza-
tion among seamen in the coastal trades was nothing new. It dated
back decades, more than a century. It was tradition.
“The class of shipping which is engaged in the coal trade, as a
general rule, is a very inferior class. . .” said James Hall, an early
maritime British reformer, in 1870. “I have been for many years en-
gaged in loading ships in the coasting trade, and many are the faces
of those captains, whose vessels I have loaded, who have gone to sea
never to return again to port.
“Strange as it may appear, men who are accustomed to trade be-
tween two ports will, for the advantage of being frequently at their
homes, incur the risks of navigating such ships,” Hall said.
Cusick did not know the history of this tendency. He simply
liked the security of working for one firm on regular routes close to
home. He was a company man. Tradition, service, and home were
important to him. Growing up in the Roxbury section of Boston,
Cusick had seen his father do well, serving first as a buder, then
working for years in upscale service positions at the Boston Plaza
Hotel. The man provided nicely for his family, and they lived in a
thirteen-room house. Cusick, in his own way, was following the
Bob Cusick had his masters license, in fact, and could have cap-
tained the ship. It just wasn’t his style. He was a number-two guy,
not a number one. He could have had Corl’s job as relief master, and
some of the union guys had encouraged him to take it. But he
passed. He would have to take the ship on its grain runs across the
Adantic every once in a while as a captain. If he were a number one,
he would have to run those old hatches, that old bow, through the
Moreover, if he were master, he’d be away from the men. If you
were a master, you had to keep your distance. No talks with Price.
No shooting the breeze about Harleys. He wasn’t the kind of chief
mate who gave orders and then retired to the officer’s mess. He was
out on the deck, sometimes handling lines, moving with the men,
working hand in glove with the bosun, Charlie Johnson.
The men, the officers, all saw him as the ship’s older uncle. Very
experienced. A good guy. Asked that the job be done and done
right, showed you how if you had questions, wouldn’t put up with
nonsense from the Gashounder.
Those who knew him well knew Cusick was both funny and
somehow, at odd moments, sad. Most of the time, he had a tight in
his eyes, a twinkle, as if he had seen God’s Green Pastures and un-
derstood and loved God’s Great Cosmic Joke.
The sad look would come in unguarded moments when he
stared out to sea. All seamen have a variety of that look when they
have been at sea for long periods. Their faces go slack. They focus
on nothing, except perhaps the far line of the horizon. Cusick’s stare
seemed even farther, a 5,000-yard stare, as if he were looking
into the Abyss, had just lost his five best friends. Which in fact was
not far from the truth, if you went back far enough with Bob
Few saw that look, though, and knew instead the man’s slighdy
subversive sense of humor and wit. Often it struck from the blue and
from the most innocent of faces. Once, some friends and Cusick
were listening to a woman who had traveled worldwide and was de-
crying the American prudishness about topless beaches. Toplessness
was common everywhere else, except America. Only in America,
she said, had she ever been given a ticket for baring her breasts.
Cusick looked concerned, perplexed. “Was the ticket for public
nudity,” he asked, deadpan, “or under the legal size limit?”
Sometimes the skewered never knew they were done in. The
Cusicks once had a house guest, a hopeless yuppie who drank the
right wines and drove the right cars. They rolled out the red carpet
for him, and Bea served her famous special waffles, laced with freshly
picked wild blueberries. Accompanying the waffles was the house
brand of syrup, a common botde of Log Cabin.
The yuppie took one bite and exclaimed, “These waffles are
Bea was hurt and showed it, and there might have been sharp
words in another household. Bob Cusick simply looked concerned
and said, “Bea, shame on us, we didn’t give our friend the special
Bea started to say there was no special syrup when Bob surrepti-
tiously shushed her and added aloud, “I think there’s a bottle in the
He boodegged the Log Cabin syrup on his hip so the man could
not see it, then padded down the basement stairs. There, he had an
old, empty maple syrup bottle of a brand equivalent to fine single-
barrel bourbon. He quickly filled it with Log Cabin and went back
up the stairs. Bea had made a fresh batch of waffles, and Cusick cer-
emoniously drizzled the “new” syrup over them.
“Try this,” he said.
“Ahhh, now these are waffles,” the poseur announced.
And it was that sort of quiet humor that percolated up from Bob
Cusick. When they patched holes in the ship with cement, he began
calling the Marine Electricthe Marine Sidewalkbecause there was
more concrete in her than in all the sidewalks in Scituate. People
would see him coming with a mischievous look in his eyes and they
knew a joke was afoot.
It was that sort of good-natured feeling for the men that led to
long talks with Price and a few others. They were a good crew and
had been together a long time. They were like brothers, Cusick
thought, as he talked to Price and Charlie Johnson. Like family.
All of the pleasant shipboard routine, the ropes they all knew by
rote, was broken the next day when they saw the fishing boat.
Cusick had ducked out of the comfortable warmth of the cabins
and was out on deck in the blizzard. About three o’clock in the af-
ternoon on Friday, February 11, he was wrestling with the mooring
lines, working with a seaman to make them more secure, when they
first saw the Theodora,like a ghost ship through the storm.
She did not look like much, and they wondered what she was
doing out in weather like this. At sixty-five feet, the Theodorawas a
tenth the size of the Marine Electric.She could easily sit on the bigger
Some of the rogue waves—monsters formed by combined wave
peaks—were nearly as high as the fishing boat was long. The Marine
Electricpounded through the waves; the Theodorasailed up and down
them. Up the steep pitch of one wave to the crest, then down the
slope toward the trough.
Still, she seemed to be doing well enough. Fishermen were crazy
sometimes, but they knew the risks, too. Or so it seemed. There
were no calls for help. Nothing on the radio. No flares. No distress
flags. So the Marine Electricsailed right past her.
But a little later, the Theodorawas in big trouble. Her crew and
captain soon were frantically calling the Coast Guard. They were
taking on water. The pumps were lagging behind, and they did not
know exactly where they were—a big problem when you were ask-
ing to be rescued. Big ships like the Marine Electrichad radar and
Loran-C’s—instruments that gave fairly precise readouts of latitude
and longitude and location. The Theodora,which had left Cape May,
New Jersey, the previous day, knew only that she was off Chin-
coteague, Virginia, by maybe thirty miles.
The distress signal from the Theodorascrambled a helicopter out
of Elizabeth City, North Carolina, just south of Norfolk. The call
came about 3:20 in the afternoon, and by 4:00 P.M. a chopper, one of
the big H-3S, was scouring the scene. Up above, a C-130 fixed-wing
Coast Guard plane was searching as well.
And they came up with . . . nothing. The boat was so small, the
sea so large, the snow and rain blowing so hard that the Coast Guard
could not find the Theodora.The helicopter swept the seas, burning
precious fuel, to no avail. The fishing boat was a small cork in a vast
It was about this time that the Coast Guard put out a call for
help, asking for a fix on the Theodoraand for assistance in finding and
rescuing the ship. It is a time-honored tradition, as well as a legal re-
sponsibility, to come to the aid of vessels in distress, so the Marine
We passed the fishing boat a while back, the Marine Electricoffi-
cers said, and then gave the latitude and longitude of the rough
Would it be possible, the Coast Guard requested, for the Marine
Electricto turn to and stand by the Theodora? It was no small request.
Reversing course in a Force 10 gale meant that the ship, two football
fields in length, had to turn sideways to the oncoming winds and
waves. On shore, the Coast Guard was often a nuisance, inspecting
ships and holding up loadings and departures. At sea, the Coast
Guard was a revered presence, the rescuer of lost seamen. When
they called, seamen responded. The Marine Electricwould return.
Captain Corl immediately began the dangerous maneuver and
made a neat trick of it. To turn, the big ship needed to come about
in the face of twenty- to forty-foot waves. This exposed the sides
and the rear of the ship to walls of water the size of a three-story
house. The crew and officers remarked later that the old man had
done well. The Marine Electricwas only “in the trough”—turned
sideways to the waves—for perhaps one or two wave cycles.
Now theMarine Electricwas taking the seas on its stern. The ship
rolled more, but there were fewer waves over the deck. Soon, they
could see the Theodoraclearly on radar and then visually, two miles
away. The Marine Electricbridge kept sending out the location, and a
litde before 5:00 P.M., they heard, cutting through the howl of the
gale, the whirl of the helicopter overhead.
Cusick’s Theorem had proved right. The Coast Guard will come
out and get you.He watched as the helicopter hovered like a descend-
ing angel. And what a sight it was! From nowhere, in the blizzard
and rain, this celestial presence appeared. A floodlight on the ’copter
heightened the angel-like quality of the errand of mercy. Motes of
snow and rain gave the beam of light texture and depth. A golden
cone poured down on the Theodora.At that moment, there wasn’t a
man on the big ship who didn’t have a warm spot in his heart for the
Coast Guard. And maybe a lump in his throat. Knowing they were
out there was a comfort. Seeing them at work was a balm. Cusick’s
Theorem had proved correct.
Would they take the men off now? Would the basket drop and
men be pulled up from the angry ocean? No. The captain and crew
were game—they would try to save their boat. Extra pumps were
lowered to the pitching deck of the Theodora.The crew would pump
water out of their boat and see if she could make it.
By 5:30, the chopper was heading back to North Carolina, its
mission over. Using the extra pumps, the Theodorascrew could
guide her to safety. The Coast Guard cutter Highlandwas on its way
from Chincoteague and would be there before midnight.
But just in case, the Coast Guard asked, would the Marine Electric
play big brother until the cutter got there?
The Marine Electricstayed. But the weather was worsening, and
when the Theodoraturned toward Chincoteague, on a course of 270
degrees, the seas began battering the Marine Electric.The fishing boat
rode them like a cork. The big ship confronted them like a dike.
The tops of waves were clipped off by the Marine Electricsstarboard
side, and green seas boarded the ship, sweeping over the deck and
the hatch covers. It was as if the ship lay at the end of a beach di-
rectly in heavy surf. As the snow turned into a bad rain squall, Corl
raised the Coast Guard and told them of his troubles.
Stick it out if you can, the Coast Guard said.
About 6:30 P.M., Corl keyed the mike and raised the Coast
Guard again. “I’m taking an awful beating out here. I’m going to be
in trouble myself pretty soon. I don’t know how I can hold—heave
to on this course. I’m rolling, taking water, green water over—over
my starboard side, all the way across my deck.”
The battered master of the Theodorakeyed his mike then and said
he was okay, he’d make it. The pumps had turned the trick. He was
making headway. The Highlandwould be there by midnight. So, for
his part, the Marine Electriccould leave. The Coast Guard agreed.
“I thank you very much, old dog, and I really appreciate what
you did. . . . Thank you very much, and good luck to you,” Jen-
nings Hayward, the captain of the Theodora,radioed.
No problem, the Marine Electricradioed back, all in a day’s work.
Corl turned the ship neatly again through the trough of the wave
and back into the heavy seas, thinking, Thank God that’s over. The
men were back on their coastal routine.
INTO THE WATER
Our problem is: We don’t know exactly what our situation is.
Captain Corl’s radio transmission
to the Coast Guard
6:25 p.m. / Feb.11, 1983 11, / On board the Marine Electric
North Atlantic sea-lanes
The Marine Electricturned in the cold of the storm and set a course
for the utility dock at Brayton Point, far away in Somerset, Massa-
chusetts, and her crew and officers turned back to their warm
There is a feeling on a bridge at night almost like that in a hunters’
lodge or gendemen’s club. There are no harsh or loud words. Conversation percolates quietly, like an old-fashioned coffee maker. Quiet
jokes are passed among the three or four men on watch. Hot liquids
are sipped. All stare forward toward an invisible point they themselves
are unsure of. The future. What’s out there through the window?
Where will it come from?
Eugene Kelly was the eight-to-twelve shift third mate, and the
bridge was his. There was nothing particularly tricky about the voyage
now, and he did not expect to see anything bad out front. The
weather was awful, but not the worst he had seen. The ship turned
into the seas and took them well. The trick, really, was just to hold
one’s own. If Kelly made two miles on his shift in this weather, he
would do well.
Outside, waves crashed into the ship, but the bow forced its way
through them like a fullback shaking off tacklers. There would be a
mighty heave, and the top of the wave would come rushing across
the deck and hatches. The whole front of the ship would be buried.
Then, explosively, the bow rose, as if shrugging its shoulders of this
nuisance, rising above the water, ready to take on the next wave.
It was routine. When one first goes to sea on a modern ship, the
wonder is of man’s accomplishments. In quiet water, modern ships
are so huge it is as if they are an island, with the water passing by like
some swift river. Hit the open sea, though, and one is amazed at the
magnificence of the ocean. The ship begins swaying gently, rocking
in gentle rollers. Then, as the sea roughens, the ship shudders and
shakes and pitches, and a vast ship seems a small cork. How, one
wonders, did man ever come to brave such elements, face them, and
Only veterans could stand on the bridge as Kelly did and know
that the seeming turbulence was well under control, that the ship
was built to specifications that allowed it to do exactly this and more.
Strong steel, watertight compartments, the displacement of water,
the force of gravity—all these meant the bow would burst back up
into the cold air.
So it was with a sense of security that the officers not on watch
took their rest. Cusick in his cabin, Corl sleeping behind the bridge
on a settee in the chart room.
And when Kelly’s relief came, he too turned in without a worry.
They had been up for hours. Same old same old, was Kelly’s message
to Richard Roberts, the relief mate. And when Dewey, the new
man, came up to relieve the able seaman on his twelve-to-four
watch, he asked, “Okay?” and the man replied simply, “Nothing out
Over the next two hours, they would slowly lose this sense of
certainty. Roberts and Dewey would stare through the window and,
for the first time, not be sure about the future. It was not what they
saw, really. It was what they felt. Or felt they felt. They thought they
noticed a small shift about 1:00 A.M. on Saturday, February 12. It was
hard to say. It was as if they were driving a car and thought they
might have a flat, but couldn’t really tell. Was the bow sluggish?
They thought so. It did not seem to be rising from the water as it
should. But again, it was hard to tell, because the sea and spray were
everywhere. It was the dead of night and hard to see. It was not so
disturbing that they woke the captain. Dewey left on a break be-
tween 1:00 and 1:50 and was unconcerned enough to be reading a
novel when one of the engineers passed by and asked if the ship was
down by the head—too low in front. Guess so, Dewey said. Some.
But it was no big deal. Nothing to worry much about.
Shordtly before 2A.M., when Dewey went back to the bridge to
take the helm. Captain Corl was awake. Still nothing urgent. The
temperature had reached twenty-eight degrees Fahrenheit, and when
that happened, the officers routinely turned on steam to warm the
anchor, hatch, and mooring winches to keep them from freezing.
The phone to the engine room wasn’t working, so Corl sent a sea-
man to tell the engineers.
But out front it was growing worse. Dewey could see green water
board the ship and wash back as far as the number-two hatch—
covering the front third of the ship. Less and less would the bow
hunch its shoulders and throw back the waves. More and more, it
simply plowed through them. Dewey thought it was getting worse.
By 2:30A.M., Corl was worried. The bow was very sluggish.
Was that normal? Corl had only been on the Marine Electrica short
time. Cusick was the veteran on the ship. Corl crept down to Cusick’s
quarters and gently roused him. “Mate, I believe we are in
trouble,” he said. “I think she’s going—settling by the head.” Then
he shrugged and added sheepishly, “This may be my imagination
with the way the seas are running. I can’t really tell, but I think she’s
settling by the head.”
“Settling by the head” meant that the ship was slowly sinking,
front part first. But was she? Was the tire flat or not? Was the bow
sluggish or not? The more you listened for it, the more it seemed
flat. Then, when you listened again, you weren’t so sure. Was the
ship sinking slowly in the bow? Corl had been watching and listening too long to be sure.
Cusick went first to get Richard Powers, the chief engineer.
The two friends, both Marine Electricveterans, mounted the stairs to
the bridge and looked out to the bow. They knew how she rode
They were horrified. It was apparent they were in trouble. The
bow was not lifting properly. The seas were roaring down the deck.
The old girl never rode the seas like this.
They had to act fast. Otherwise, all might be lost. Immediately,
they let Corl know they were in trouble. Probably big trouble.
Corl did three things. He called the Coast Guard. Then he set
the engineers to pumping and redistributing ballast. He ordered all
crew and officers awakened, and then he told them to prepare the
Now he faced a difficult decision. Captains could not abandon
ship too soon. Always, they would be safer riding out the storm in a
605-foot, 24,000-ton coal carrier than in a twenty-five-foot lifeboat.
Even with her deck awash, the Marine Electricwas a safer haven than
He had only to look at the case of the SS Marine Merchant,a Liberty ship from the war, loaded with sulphur, when she ran into
trouble off New Hampshire in April 1961. The ship split in two, but
the main deck held the two halves together—like a broken index
finger held together only by the skin. Her captain made ready to
abandon ship, but weighed that option against staying on board the
old vessel. There were Force 10 storm conditions in the chilly North
Atlantic—about what the Marine Electricfaced now. He stood pat.
Morning came. The weather lightened. All men made it.
That case and others bore down on Corl. There was no indication that the ship was actually sinking, only that they were having trouble. They could all walk away from this dry. Could wait out the
weather and step daintily onto a rescue cutter from the Coast Guard.
Even get a tow in, ship and cargo undamaged.
And that, too, was a concern. The master had a responsibility to
his men, yes, but weighed always against his responsibility to the
owner and shipper. If he abandoned ship too soon, he could be held
liable and lose his license. If he left the ship to the elements before it
was clear the ship was sinking, he would violate civil law and mod-
ern laws of a masters conduct. Settling at the head was not sinking.
He had an obligation to the owners to preserve the ship unless it was
clear that the ship was sinking.
If he needed a reminder of that, there was the case of the Smith
Voyager; another World War II leftover, which developed a severe
twenty-degree list in the South Atlantic in 1964, on its way to India
with a cargo of grain. Water had breached the hatches and was
spraying into the engine room. The crew took to the lifeboats, and
most of them were rescued. But a formal Marine Board of Investigation found the master in error for letting his men go. The ship eventually sank, and that might not have happened had the captain kept his men on board, the board said. The master was brought up on
charges, and his license and livelihood threatened.
Even more powerful than the threat of formal action were the
traditions and customs of the sea. The old saying about the master
going down with his ship was not an ancient myth. It happened in
contemporary times. Kurt Carlsen, master of the Flying Enterprise,
stayed with his ship in 1952 and was celebrated for his heroism by a
ticker-tape parade in New York City. The tendency, the tradition,
was to fight to save the ship. And these extremes were taken for
granted, whether or not you got the ticker tape.
No one, for example, made a big fuss over what the captain and
crew did in the late 1960s aboard the Badger State—one of the most
heroic and least-known voyages in contemporary history.
The Badger Statecrew refused to leave a leaking, listing ammunition
ship with bombs rolling around in its holds, when told to do so by
their captain. Not just the captain, but the entire crew, was prepared
to go down.
And many of them did.
She was bound for Da Nang during the Vietnam War, an old
Liberty ship built in 1944, about five years past the twenty-year age
limit when most ships are retired or officially called “overage.” In
her holds were more than 5,000 tons of bombs. Steel bands held the
bombs to each other and to their metal pallet frames. So large were
the 2,000-pound bombs that their noses protruded from the pallets
by twenty-nine inches. One hundred pallets of the one-ton finned
cylinders, unfused but still deadly, created a whole layer in the cargo
hold. Wood planking helped hold it in place. Wood sheathing
guarded the hull and the pallets from contact. Any voids or spaces
were jammed with wood to keep the pallets from shifting.
Another scheduled load of munitions did not arrive, and the
captain, Charles T. Wilson, considered the vessel light, not trimmed
optimally. He asked for more cargo, but it was not forthcoming.
Then the loading officials and the master decided the weight of the
bombs alone would hold them in place. With a few minor shifts in
cargo, Wilson was ready to go. As insurance, he asked for spare wood
bracing, or dunnage, in case the cargoes needed further bracing. It
was a prescient request.
On December 14, 1969, the Badger State sailed from Bangor,
Washington. No one foresaw the heavy weather ahead. As they hit high winds and waves, the master reported the ship was uncomfortable, with “stiff” riding characteristics and a “snap roll” in the
Conditions grew worse. By December 16, the ship was encoun-
tering “following” winds and waves—coming from behind it—and
“confused swells,” waves that were not predictable. Captain Wilson
had twenty-foot swells coming from one direction, ten-foot swells
from another. This meant he was constantly calling for hard rudder
turns, attempting to keep the bow into the seas. But where were the
seas coming from?
The ship was now rolling to forty degrees—then to forty-five
degrees. A forty-five-degree tilt is about the angle you place your
head when you are attempting to dislodge water from your ear after
a swim. But the Badger Statecould not afford to dislodge anything—
particularly its cargo.
Without power and steering for a time, the old ship took the seas
roughly and kept snap-rolling to and fro. By the time steering was
restored, there was the worst sort of news: The 500-pound bombs
had shifted and come loose. The wood holding them secure had
splintered and cracked from the pressure brought by the rolling.
One bomb now pressed against the hull.
The crew responded valiantly, entering the holds, wrestling the
bombs back into place and resecuring them while the ship continued
to roll. The spare dunnage came in handy—all seemed stabilized for
now. The Badger Stateslowed, and a cement patch was placed over a
ten-inch hole in the hull in the shaft area. It seemed the ship had
stumbled but had not fallen.
Yet, the cargo continued to shift. Constantly, the crew was using
wood to brace the bombs. Worse, heavy rolling to thirty-five degrees
continued. Even when the rolling slackened, the bombs had built up
enough kinetic momentum from their caterwauling below to con-
tinue the calamitous shifting. Some of the bombs packed nose to nose
had burst their wood restraints and had overshot one another. When
this happened, the steel strapping came loose. The bands were break-
ing. Now some of the individual bombs were loose. The shoring
material available—the dunnage carried on board—was rapidly disap-
But the weather forecast was for improved conditions, and the
Badger Statewas directed to hold its course.
Then, in number-three hold, where there was no access, the
men heard heavy banging noises, as if an angry intruder were
pounding on the door. The bombs were loose down there. The men
knew they could not reshore those missiles. They could not reach
them. The captain requested diversion to a safe port, and the Mili-
tary Command directed the Badger Stateto Pearl Harbor.
The men continued to reshore the bombs they could reach.
Whenever the ship rolled past twenty degrees, however, the bombs
came loose, cracking and splintering the wood. This went on for a
week, but it looked as if they would make it to Pearl. They were
holding their own.
Then, on Christmas Day, a severe and unpredicted storm hit
hard. Hurricane-force winds struck the Badger State.The seas
seemed to come from all directions. Winds were at forty to fifty
knots. Waves swept over them, thirty to forty feet high. There was
no way to control the rolls or the cargo now. Fixtures that had not
moved in decades—galley refrigerators, engine room equipment—
were sliding about wildly. At one time, the ship rolled fifty degrees
to starboard—close to capsizing. The bombs were loose in all
Told to divert to Midway, the captain could not turn because of
the rolls and the unstable cargo. The crew struggled below and,
incredibly, rescued many of the bombs. The storm slackened. The
Badger Statehad cheated death and destruction again.
On December 26, a second, even worse storm struck. One
mountainous wave rolled the ship fifty degrees to starboard. Like a
besotted top, the ship righted briefly and then rolled fifty-two de-
grees to port. The port lifeboat was destroyed. The metal bands on
the pallets of the 2,000-pound bombs burst like a ribbon on a
Christmas present. The bombs began to roll and slide, striking each
other and the steel hull. Five-inch holes were punched in the ship’s
side by the heavy battering of the bombs. Other bombs toppled
through open hatches to lower cargo holds.
The crew rallied again. All hands were mustered. No one could
go down into the holds. So the men clustered above, frantic, as the
vessel rolled in the storm, throwing into the holds anything they
could find in an attempt to stop the big bombs from rolling.
First, they took the hatch covers partly off. Then they threw all
their mattresses down into the melee of sliding, rolling bombs. Then
they threw rags, mooring lines, anything. And when that did not
work, they took their frozen meats from the kitchen freezer. In des-
peration, they threw steaks, turkeys, pork rolls, mutton, chickens,
and frozen vegetables and desserts into the skittering cargo.
Finally, after they had even thrown in spare life jackets, they
lowered one end of a hatch cover pontoon on top of some of the
Some of the bombs were checked. But others frolicked about as
if in a rave. Sparks flew. Heat formed. The hull was battered. Kinetic
energy gave the bombs a life of their own.
The Greek merchant ship Khian Star 40,miles away, received a
distress message. Navy search and rescue heard it as well.
And now the last hours were playing out. An exhausted crew had
not slept in days because of the emergency and the severe rolling.
Captain Wilson had been on the bridge without rest for four straight
The men could see the Khian Star on the horizon. Hope was in
sight. These were severe conditions, and the heavy waves would
make an evacuation difficult, but it could be done. Captain Wilson
considered launching the lifeboats and letting the men strike out for
the Star.He would man the Badger Statewith a volunteer skeleton
He proposed the idea. He polled the crew to see if they ap-
proved. But the men stood fast. The would not leave the ship. They
would not leave their captain. They all volunteered to stay. The cap-
tain stopped polling.
Then the men heard a muffled explosion. The cargo hold covers
were blown into the air. The cargo booms were bent and twisted by
the force of the blast. Out came the life preservers, aflame. Food and
other debris scattered high in the air and fell back onto the deck. On
the right side of the hull, above the waterline but far below the deck,
a jagged hole twelve by eight feet had appeared. One of the 2,000-
pound bombs had detonated. Miraculously, none of the others had.
Wilson had had enough—he sounded the abandon ship signal.
The engine room was evacuated. Thirty-five crew members boarded
the starboard lifeboat and were lowered away. So high were the
waves that the lifeboat, upon hitting the water, was carried back up
to the deck and banged about.
Despite the heavy seas and winds, the boat was soon launched
successfully. The odds for getting away seemed good.
But the men discovered that the lifeboat’s sea painter—a device
that dragged in the water and held the boat steady against the wind
and waves—had disappeared, probably broken off when the boat
had banged into the deck. The men began operating the hand pro-
pelling gears in an attempt to get steerage in the bad seas. But noth-
ing happened, and they could not hold their own against the swells.
The rudder on the lifeboat could not be shipped or installed, so the
men had no way to direct the vessel.
The boat was thrown back against the ship. It drifted helplessly
toward the open wound in the ship, the large hole where the bomb
had exploded. It moved directly under the gaping hold.
And, as if in slow motion, a 2,000-pound bomb rolled out of the
hold through the hole and fell onto the men and the lifeboat below.
It did not detonate. It did not have to. A ton-heavy bomb strik-
ing a small lifeboat needed no explosives. The boat capsized and
sunk. The men, those not killed by the weight of the bomb, were
spilled into the cold water.
Above them, on the flying bridge, the captain and the four crew
members still on board were trying to launch life rafts. The rafts
were deployed, but the fierce winds quickly swept them away. The
captain told the men to put life rings over their life preservers, and
they prepared to jump into the forty-eight-degree sea. Life in such
temperatures is measured in minutes, not hours.
They looked down at the water and saw their fellow crewmen
scattered about. Burnette, the third mate, threw life rings to them.
Second Mate Ziehm and Seaman Hottendorf went over first, jump-
ing together. Then Burnette jumped. Then Captain Wilson. Only
Fireman-watertender Kaneo remained. He hesitated. The water was
cold and rough. Smoke still poured from the cargo hatch. The men
below him were swimming desperately away from the ship, know-
ing she would blow any moment. Kaneo was caught between two
negatives. He looked at the smoking cargo holds. He looked at the
cold water. Kaneo jumped.
To the rescue came the Khian Star.Her crew had seen the explo-
sion thirty minutes before coming upon the scene. All around the
Badger Statenow there were dead and dying men in the water. Some
were still clinging to the wrecked lifeboat. Others were swimming
away from the ship—expecting an explosion any second.
Still others made for the Khian Star—but were quickly carried
off by the twenty-foot swells and lost.
Then, as if in a horror film, the huge albatrosses that had been
following the ship began to attack the men, diving at them and
pecking them. It was as if the furies of hell themselves were dogging
the men of the Badger State.
From above now, a U.S. Air Force plane swept low and dropped
rafts. They inflated, then flipped end over end, useless save one.
Third Cook Donald Byrd, near the overturned lifeboat, grabbed the
line of a raft. He held fast. Seaman Henderson swam to the raft. He
helped Third Mate Sam Bondy on board, then jumped in himself.
They pulled Seaman Richard C. Murray in. Then Bosun Richard
Hughes and Seaman James McLure and Wiper Forencio Serafino.
Electrician Konstantinos Mpountalis hung alongside, but the men in
the boat were now so weak they could not bring him in. Byrd, who
had held the raft, was nowhere to be seen. Lost.
One of the men, Murray, was so weak and sleepy he could not
hold up his head. Hypothermia was claiming him. Henderson held
him and slapped him roughly, reviving him.
In heavy seas, maneuvering carefully around a damaged muni-
tions ship, the Greeks made a pass at the lifeboat and the rafts with
Jacob’s ladders, net slings, and lines at the ready. So high were the
waves that Henderson s raft almost washed on board by itself. But it
did not. So the Khian Starcrew threw lines. They tied lines around
McLure and Serafmo. And they were saved.
Then Henderson grabbed a Jacob’s ladder from the ship. And he
was saved. The others were so weak they could not hold well to the
ropes. The crew members above were swept by waves, up to their
waists at times in the swells. Several of the Badger Statemen were taken
by the sea in this manner, washed away within inches of rescue, grasp-
ing for the Khian Star crewmen hands. Others were brought up in
any manner possible. Tangled in lines. Feet first. It did not matter.
She picked up six men, but soon the Khian Starsaw only dead
men floating, head down, in the water. A huge albatross swept in to
peck at the dead. Even then, the Greeks did not quit. One Greek
crew member—Ioannis Kantziakis—tied a line around himself and
dove from the deck to rescue an unlucky American, but the man
was already dead. The Khiankept at it, seeking out each individual
seaman but finding mosdy dead bodies. There were exceptions: The
last survivor she picked up was five miles from the wreck.
All told, the Khian rescued fourteen men, including the master
and two men who had jumped into the sea with him. Captain Wil-
son joined the Khian*s Captain Niros on the bridge. The crewmen
were given blankets and hot food.
In the end, twenty-six died.
And that was how masters and crews could fight to save their
ships. That was the high-water mark of bravery. And if not every
master and crew could be expected to go to those lengths, they were
expected not to embarrass the standard. They demanded that of
Compared to the Badger State,the Marine Electricwas in positively
excellent shape. On the Marine Electric, Coral really had no choice but
to risk staying on the ship. He could not launch boats into those
waves, only to have the ship survive. He would be the laughingstock
of the Merchant Marine and lose his license. He might be able to
stand that, but he also might lose men in the process—send them
needlessly into mounting seas.
It was a lot easier to chopper men off a floating, foundering ship
than to put men into lifeboats in twenty-foot waves. So, lets see
where it leads, he told his fellow officers. Let’s cut the risks, but stay
on the ship and ride this out—at least until the helicopters come.
The men could leave then. And if it was clearly hopeless, the officers
So he attempted to eliminate the risks as best he could. Corl, the
casino dealer, on the bridge, figuring the odds. Take a card? Stand
pat? Fold? House odds were a statistical gift if you dealt for the
house. But now Corl was a player. The sea was the house, and the
cards it dealt rolled into the ship with great crashes of spray and
green water over the hatches.
Shortly before three o’clock in the morning, Corl took a half-
step. At 2:51, he keyed the mike on the VHF-FM radio, channel 16,
and raised the Coast Guard. It was the first official acknowledgment
that the ship just might not make it.
“I’m approximately thirty miles from Delaware Bay entrance, and I’m
going down by the head. I seem to be taking water forward.
“I am a coal carrier. Five-hatch coal carrier. I am loaded with twenty-
three thousand tons of coal.
“I am positively in bad shape. We need someone to come out and give us
some assistance if possible.
“Our problem is: We don’t know exactly what our situation is. ”
Three minutes later, the captain gave the word to Bob Cusick.
Tell the officers to assemble at the bridge. With life jackets. Have the
crew go to the lifeboats and stand by. You handle the lifeboats.
To the Coast Guard: “I am steering zero thirty. My position is as
follows:37 degrees 51.8 minutes north; west 74 degrees 45.5 minutes west.”
And three minutes later:
“I’m altering my course to due north to try to head for Delaware Bay
“Are you in any danger of sinking at this time?”the Coast Guard ra-
dio dispatcher asked.
“It’s hard to say,”Corl replied. “My bow seems to be going down. We
seem to be awash forward. We can’t get … up there. We don’t have any
lights to shine up to see what’s going on. I’m not listing. I seem to be going
down by the head fast. ”
Could they send a helicopter with a searchlight and shine it on
the bow? That would help.
One should be there in about twenty minutes, the Coast Guard
said. This would mean the helicopter would arrive at about 3:20 in
Kelly was shaken awake gently at three o’clock by a seaman. The
captain wanted to see all the officers on the bridge now, with their
life jackets. Not a drill.
Kelly calmly washed his face with soap and warm water. He
brushed his teeth. Then he crept up to the darkened bridge and
stared out toward the front of the Marine Electric.
Kelly could see nothing at first as his eyes adjusted, “night blind”
as if he had just walked into a darkened movie theater. He stayed to
the rear of the bridge, away from the window, while he gained his
night vision. He could hear a burble of concern from the tight knot
of officers on the bridge. As Kelly stepped to the large window
looking forward, the picture came into terrible focus. Ahead of him,
waves broke over the bow of the Marine Electricsome 400 feet for-
ward. Some washed the full length of the ship to break against the
deckhouse. Green water swirled over the front hatches, burying
them under tons of weight.
Kelly could see six to seven feet of water washing on the deck.
The ship was five to eight degrees down by the head. He had felt
that list when his feet hit the deck in his cabin; felt that the ship was
out of plumb and tilted head down.
Paul Dewey, who had replaced the Gashounder, was on the
bridge, too. He could see Powers, the chief engineer, out on the
starboard wing—the outside area just to the right of the bridge—
directing the man on watch to shine a powerful tankermans light
forward. They were all peering through the mist, the rain, the spray
of the waves, trying to give the horror a face and a form. The
tankerman’s light was a powerful battery-operated torch that pierced
through the foam and blow. “The number-one hatch is cracked,”
Powers said. It was open. Busted. That could mean tons of water
were reaching the holds, weighing the ship down and out of trim.
From the engine room area, Price’s voice crackled over the
hand-held radio. He, Wickboldt, Scott, and the others were far be-
low, frantically manning the pumps and making sure the power plant
held up. The turbines hummed there, with the same comforting bass
drone that filled all ship engine rooms. That, at least, was reassuring.
All they needed was for the mighty engines to fail. Pumps, steering,
headway—all would be lost. They would fall into the trough of the
huge waves, and God help them then.
“I’m getting good pressure on the pumps,” Price said. On the
starboard side. Which meant there was water flooding the holds
there, and the pumps were disgorging it.
“Do you want to gravitate from the starboard tanks to the port tanks?”
Price called out over the radio. Did the captain want to shift the wa-
ter to even the vessel’s trim from an increasingly heavy right side to a
lighter left side?
“Keep pumping!” Corl replied.
“I’m getting a lot of water out of number-one port,”Scott replied over
Frantically, they pumped and prayed. Neither seemed to help.
Slowly, the ship developed an ominous list to starboard. At 3:50
A.M., the list was five degrees. This meant the ship rolled to fourteen
degrees with the waves. By 4:03, there was an eight-degree list.
There was no choice now. They had to counterbalance the list
“Flood the port tanks,” Corl ordered the engine room. Price
and Scott and Browning and Wickboldt, far down below, fought
their battle, flipping switches, pulling levers as the powerful turbine
engines hummed steadily and faithfully.
Cusick was on the bridge and saw the list. He left immediately
to join the crew on the boat deck. The ship was listing so far over
they could not man the port lifeboat. It was dangling high above the
sea with no clear line to the water. The port lifeboat was useless, he
thought. On the starboard side, the ship was rolling so that the
lifeboat, dangling free, was only five feet above the water at times.
Still, few of them believed they would actually go into the wa-
ter. The lifeboat covers had been folded carefully and stored nearby,
ready to be placed back on the boat. They all had seen the angel of
mercy, the helicopter, descend with a holy shaft of light on the
Theodora.Now they were looking for the same angel. Many of them
were watching the heavens. They were casual, almost, and their dis-
cussions were conversational in tone, not panicked.
Near the lifeboats, Cusick paced among his crew, comforting
them, keeping them upbeat. The blizzard whipped around them,
and spray from the rolling monster waves pelted their faces like bb’s.
Babineau drew close and muttered in a low voice, “Mate, are we
going to make it okay do you think?”
“Absolutely,” Cusick said. “The Coast Guard is going to come
out and get us.”
But the doubt was there somewhere inside Cusick, too, so he
went to his right-hand man, the bosun Charlie Johnson. Upbeat,
looking for confirmation, Cusick asked Johnson, conversationally,
almost as if wondering whether a slight rain might clear up soon:
“What do you think, Charlie? Are we going to make it?”
Johnson turned to him. Normally, he was can-do, no-problem,
cheerful. Now his face was long, not fearful but knowing, and ever
so sad. He paused for a long moment and then said with certainty:
“No, Mate. We’re not going to make it. Were not going to
make it at all.”
Johnson’s mournful face hung in his line of sight. Then Cusick
was all business. He turned to the lifeboats.
Kelly was moving between the bridges and the boats. Norman
Sevigny, an older seaman at fifty-three with close-cropped gray hair,
climbed into the lifeboat on the starboard side to insert a plug in the
drain hole. The plug was loose in the bottom, to allow rainwater and
spray to drain out, and was inserted only when the boat was to be
used. Norman scrambled back with the plug in his hand.
“Sir, she’s too rusty. I can’t get the plug in,” Sevigny said.
Kelly did not pause. “Use channel locks,” Kelly said. “Use your
“I don’t have any,” Sevigny said.
“Then go below and get some now,” Kelly said.
Norman did not hesitate. He disappeared deep into the listing
ship. These old guys, Kelly thought. Pros. Real seamen.
Would he have the courage to run down below on this ship
right now? Kelly did not know. This ship? This sea? This moment?
No way, he thought to himself. No way he would go. Kelly thought
Sevigny s scramble the bravest deed he had ever seen.
Long minutes later, Norman Sevigny emerged triumphant with
the pliers held high in one hand, the plug in the other. He scrambled
back into the boat.
“All set,” he said a minute later. “Plug’s in.”
Still, the little act of heroism did not make Kelly more opti-
mistic. On deck, Kelly approached Babineau and gave him his can-
did but quiet assessment of the situation.
“Clayt,” Kelly muttered under his breath so the crew didn’t hear.
“This old fucking tub isn’t going to make it.”
“Nah, you’re wrong,” Babineau said. “She’s going to come
through. We’re going to be okay.”
A short time later, as the men waited at the boat station, it was
not a reasoned action that Kelly took, nothing he had thought out.
Nothing that was in any textbook. But he returned to the upper
deck and tossed the life rings, one by one, out into the darkness. He
had seen the lifeboat, just five feet off the water. He had seen the
bow settling. Seen the list. Perhaps someone could use those life
rings if they abandoned ship. Who knew? God, give us every
chance. Let us take every chance.
Some of the rings bounced off overhead protrusions and fell
back on board the ship. But others sailed clear. Like big Frisbees,
they arced and soared gracefully into the night wind. Kelly watched
them until they were lost in the froth and spray.
On the bridge, Albion Lane, nicknamed Sparks, rushed to the
bridge. Two ships were in the area, he told the officers. He had
raised two ships via Morse code.
There was an air of expectancy.
One was an hour away, the other a little more, Lane said.
There was a spontaneous sigh of disbelief and despair. They all
knew now they would not last that long.
Then the ship took another list. This time to ten degrees. It was
almost a lurch.
The captain called down to the engine room, to Price and
Wickboldt and the others.
“Secure the engine!” he said. “Stop the engine! Evacuate the
engine room. Get out of there! Now!”
He turned to Dewey. “Leave the helm,” he said. “There is no
sense steering her. She isn’t answering the helm.” The seaman
cranked the wheel hard to port and went toward the outside ladder
leading from the bridge to the boat deck.
“No!” Kelly yelled. “Don’t try the outside ladder. It’s no good
that way.” Kelly had seen the dangerous list and the tilt of the deck.
“Use the inside stairs.” It was safer. Dewey might fall off the outside
ladder, it was so tilted.
At 4:14A.M., Corl keyed the mike to the Coast Guard again.
“We are abandoning ship. We are abandoning ship right now. ”
“Sparks” Lane had returned to the radio room, tapping out the
ship’s position in Morse code on the 500 khz emergency frequency.
Now it was time to go. In the small world of radio and telegraph op-
erators, succinctly phrased last messages can be an art form. The tele-
graph operator of a doomed Japanese fishing vessel once tapped out
in dots and dashes this final good-bye: “Danger like dagger now.”
Lane seemed less poetic in the final moments of the Marine Elec-
tric. Those who have heard the tapes, say he tapped out simply, “30
30 AR.” But poetry is in the ear of the beholder, and the profession-
als listening on the 500 frequency interpreted the nuance of the
sparse series of numbers and letters, the dots and dashes and were
haunted by them. What they heard was something like: “This is the
last broadcast from this station. Forever. Out.”
The operators on the 500 khz frequency were dead silent. As
was the tradition, they maintained quiet for 60 seconds to honor a
But Lane was not lost yet, and he had no time to be honored.
He ran from the radio room and headed for the lifeboat station.
Captain Corl reached for a life jacket, the last man to put one
on. He had been talking to the Coast Guard. “What color are your
lifeboats?” the radio crackled. “State the color of your lifeboats.”
Kelly had a silly, angry thought.
You shitheads! You’re the Coast Guard. You MAKE us paint them or-
ange. What a question!
But he reacted fluidly, professionally.
Corl’s arm was hung up in the life jacket, so Kelly reached
around him for the mike. “Orange. International orange!”Kelly yelled
back to the Coast Guard.
Kelly pulled the ships whistle repeatedly. Blast after blast. Corl
went through the door to the outside deck of the bridge—the same
passage Kelly had warned Dewey not to take. Little choices. Little
choices had big consequences now.
Now Kelly would make his own desperate run down the inside
passage. Earlier, he had changed into heavier clothing. Leg warmers,
a hooded jacket, a heavy knit cap. Then he had carefully packed a
knapsack. His two cameras. A knife. His electric calculator. Binocu-
lars. A small transistor radio. They all went into the bag. He had
placed his billfold deep in a pocket. Put his glasses into his shirt
pocket and then buttoned it. Then he had grabbed his car keys,
as if he were leaving for the weekend, shoved them deep in his
But he had left that knapsack on his bunk. Now he would try to
get it. As he rushed down the inside passageway, the list seemed to
increase. He came to his cabin. He rushed past it. No way he was
going to take the extra five seconds to pick it up. He needed desper-
ately to get to the boats, to get outside.
Kelly carried a walkie-talkie, and over it now Michael Prices
“Do the officers want the engine room pumps tied down?” Price
Kelly could not believe it. He and Wickboldt and the others
were still below.
“Mike/” Kelly yelled into his radio. “Get the hell out of there! We
are going down!”
Then Kelly jumped from the stairs, the walkie-talkie coming
loose from his hand and tumbling before him. The radio crashed and
splintered. Kelly landed hard. Lying prone on the steel floor of the
ship, he thought: I’ve got to get up and get out of here.
Below Kelly, at the lifeboats, Cusick still had hope. Now, as he at-
tempted to keep up morale, he stomped as he paced in the cold. He
noticed, even in this wind, that his coat kept him warm.
Well, Bea was right about the coat, he thought. He looked at it
now, all smeared with coal dust, just as he had told her it would be.
Oh, he had given her hell over that coat.
Hardly ever would Bob Cusick argue with his wife, Bea. He’d met
her at a friend’s home after the war and asked her out. They went to
a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta and then to a restaurant, Steubens,
which had an orchestra that played waltzes. Cusick knew the Ger-
man words to “Vienna, the City of My Dreams,” and he sang them
to Bea as they waltzed. “Vien, Vien nur du allein…”Bea said that’s
nice, but sing it in English now. He looked at her there on the dance
floor as they swayed through the waltz and sang instead what was on
his mind: “Bea, Bea it’s only you…”
There was a second date shortly thereafter. They went to a nice
restaurant, and Bob walked her home. He would write in his journal
that the evening had been enchanting. He said good night to her at
the gate to the house and then watched her walk away from him on
a path framed by snow-laden branches. He thought about how it
would be many long hours until he saw her again.
He called out to her, and she stopped. A light snow was begin-
ning to fall. He walked up to her and could see a light shining in her
eyes. He unbuttoned her bulky fur coat so he could draw her close
to him and enclose her in his arms.
“Before you turn in for the night,” Bob Cusick said then, “I
want you to know that I love you and that we should be together for
the rest of our lives. I’ll always try to make you happy and keep a
smile on your face.”
That was how they fell in love. Staying in love took work, but
their relationship was a smooth and easy one for the most part. The
two recent exceptions had come over little things, both of them over
what Bob wore. The first was hardly even a spat. Bea was a knitter
and wanted to make Bob a sea cap from raw wool. “Leave the lano-
lin in the wool,” Bob said. “I read it helps insulate and sheds water.”
“Oh, it will look crude that way, and you can’t add color,” Bea
said, upset. “I can’t wash the wool if I keep the lanolin in, and
there’re all these twigs and dirt in the raw wool. I want you to look
“Leave the lanolin in,” Bob said. “Please.”
She did. He won. Whatever detritus clung to the raw wool, he
picked loose. He had the cap on now, tucked down around his ears,
and the lanolin shed water and wind, just as he had thought it
But the coat was another matter. One day, shortly after this past
Christmas, Bea passed by one of those boutiquey outdoor-equip-
ment stores in Plymouth. There she saw a rugged, beautiful blue
coat. The tag said it was made of Thinsulate, one of those new fibers
that insulated against the cold even when wet. She paid $85 for it
and gave it to Bob.
He was stunned! $85! He shopped at Sears and wore basics. He
could pay $35 and get a perfectly good, warm coat that he wouldn’t
have to worry about.
“You don’t buy an $85 coat for a dirty old coal boat,” he scolded her.
But Bea got mad right back. “Don’t you give me hell for this!”
she said. “I’m not taking it back, and you’re going to wear it. You’re
cheap! You’re never cheap with us, only with yourself. We’re keep-
ing it. You’re wearing it. You’re going to look nice. I don’t want to
hear anything more about it.”
Bob Cusick followed the first three orders. He kept the coat. He
wore it. He looked nice in it.
But he would not let the argument rest. Gradually, coal dust
splotched the pretty blue color. “See what a dirty old coal boat does
to a nice coat,” he would tell Bea. He couldn’t help himself. He
could not let this little thing go.
Cusick was wearing the silly thing now. He had to admit that it was
nice and warm as the blizzard began to blow. Tight around the waist
and the wrists, with a hood he could bring up and secure tightly,
too. At the lifeboat, he thought. You were right, Bea. You were right
about the coat.
He looked up. In the sea-lanes off the American coast, he fig-
ured, the Coast Guard would just come out and get them if they had
these sorts of problems. Cusick’s Theorem. The practical applica-
tions of. Please let it be true. It would be true.
His mind raced like this as he ran the crew through the well-
practiced lifeboat drill. Take the covers off the boats. (But we’ll just
have to put them back on once the Coast Guard gets here, so fold
them neatly, boys.) Swing the boats out on their davits. (But we
won’t have to use them once the Coast Guard gets here.)
The lifeboat drill that was not a drill went smoothly. The lifeboat
lines were paying out, paying out. Dewey, down by the boat now,
was reaching out, reaching out for a line.
Above them, Kelly recovered from his fall, stood up, and rushed
outside on a mid-level deck. He could look down and see the boat
swinging out. Above him, he could see Captain Corl literally climb-
ing over the rail of the bridge, preparing to get free of the ship. He
was still struggling with the life jacket. Did not seem to have it quite
fastened. Seemed to be fumbling with it and with the rail as well. Far
below him, he hoped, Price and the others in the engine room were
slamming steel doors and pounding up steel ladders and stairs. Their
footsteps would form a tympani of ascending rhythms on the steel.
The regular rhythms of a ship. The regular sounds. But now at a
frantic, panicked beat. Double time. Triple time. Price, the defensive
lineman. They said he was fast. All of you down there, Kelly
thought. Run. Run fast.
No time. No time. There was no time. The ship jerked, and
Dewey, reaching out for the line, already off balance, tumbled into
the ocean. The first to go.
Cusick could hear the groan and screech and crash of heavy
equipment sliding and falling far below in the engine room. Then
there came a sucking sound, like that of water draining in a tub—
only a billion times louder. The Marine Electriccapsized to starboard.
All of them were in the soup now. As the men by the lifeboat
went into the water, the tall deckhouse rolled over on top of them.
On top of Dewey and Cusick and the other men. The waves were
twenty feet high. The water temperature was thirty-nine degrees.
The air was twenty-nine degrees, but with a shrieking gale that
dropped the windchill to fifteen degrees below zero. Men had little
chance in such conditions. Some could die in as little as fifteen
Officers and seamen, cooks and engineers. All alike. No rank
now. All paddling about in severely cold water. The ship they had
sailed on was rolling over on them as they swam. They were being
pushed down into the depths of the cold North Atlantic.