Chapter Two: The Frankenships
Near the Bow Section of the SS Fort Mercer,
Off Cape Cod Near Chatham
Willard Fahrner and Vince Guilden poked at the clasp knife on the floor of their life raft, as if the knife were a puck and their frozen hands and arms hockey sticks of dead wood. So cold were their fingers that they could not grasp the tool, pick it up and cut a simple single line, an act which would assure their survival.
This then was the cruel end to a maritime tale of horror — a story that might have been penned by Melville, then edited by Poe. The two men in the raft, with their fellow officers and crew, had struggled for hours against a monster of a storm and huge seas. There were nine of them at the start. One-by-one, five disappeared until only four were left.
Two of those four were rescued and now only Fahrner and Guilden, the second and third mates respectively, sat in the numbing cold. Their heads swiveled from the “good line” that led to the US Coast Guard rescue ship. Then they would pivot and look to the “bad line” stretched and strained now, tied to their sinking ship. The one certainty here was that if the good line broke, the bad line would drag them to their deaths.
The men had sailed on the SS Fort Mercer, a leftover World War II T-2 type tanker carrying oil from the Gulf Coast to New England. Near Chatham, off the coast of Cape Cod, the ship split neatly in two during a storm. A second ship called the SS Pendleton – the Fort Mercer’s twin — split in two just a few miles away at about the same time.
For the Pendleton, the US Coast Guard was mounting one of its most spectacular rescues. Nearby, Boatswain Bernie Webber and his fellow coasties would save the crew of the Pendleton and be enshrined in Coast Guard history — and in a 2017 Hollywood version of the rescue, The Finest Hours.
But the officers on the Fort Mercer had not been so fortunate. They were trapped in the bow half of the Fort Mercer and were tossed about by huge waves. All nine huddled at first on the bridge, but they were forced out by crashing waves. One man slipped into the sea. Three more miscued on a Coast Guard message — jumped and were swept away. Another jumped for a rescue boat only to be swept under.
Two more men were rescued by a daring Coast Guardsman steering a small boat in impossible seas. But that boat was battered now and Fahrner and Guilden were stranded. In a desperate last “Hail Mary,” the Coast Guard shot a line over to the Fort Mercer then floated a raft to Fahrner and Guilden. They swam through frozen seas, forty foot waves in fifty mile an hour winds and somehow managed to mount the life raft walls.
And now here they were. Frozen and exhausted. No one saw this end coming. It had seemed simple. Make it to the raft. Cut the line to the Fort Mercer. Get reeled into the rescue ship, the Yakutat.
On the bridge of the Yakutat, Commander Joseph W. Naab, architect of the Fort Mercer bow rescue, was stumped. He could see the bow sinking more and more into the Atlantic. What was his next step?
Wilfred Bleakley, a young ensign on the bridge of the Yakutat just eight months out of the Coast Guard Academy, could not stand the tension and broke rank.
“You have no choice, Captain!” he bleated. “Back down and hope the line breaks on the other side of the raft.”
Naab pretty much had that one figured out. Then again, he had to admit it. The kid was right. Back down, Naab ordered.
The big cutter began moving away. The lines on both sides of the raft tightened, stretching, throwing off water and straining.
Then there was a snap, a crack as if a large caliber rifle had been fired. Naab and the others aboard the Yakutat peered out.
The raft jerked suddenly and jolted toward the cutter. The line to the bow of the Fort Mercer snapped in two, shot toward the bow, and then slacked in the water. They were saved!
Immediately, the Coast Guard hauled the line. In about ten minutes they had pulled the raft alongside the Yakutat. Guilden and Fahrner were stretched out in the boat, exhausted.
At that moment, someone yelled, “There she goes!”
The survivors, still in the raft, looked over at the bow section. The half-ship turned over and sank. Then the survivors swiveled their frozen necks and looked up at the Coast Guard.
Ensign Bleakley would always remember the look on their faces—a look of wonder, gratefulness, exhaustion, and amazement.
Such was the glory of life at sea as a Coast Guardsman. Next day, the papers nationwide were alive with the triumph of two great rescues. Nearly all the men of the Pendleton were saved and the rear part of the Fort Mercer, where the bulk of the crew took refuge, was salvaged with no deaths at all.
The rescue was a high point of Coast Guard history. But what had the deaths of the men won for the cause of maritime reform?
Little as it turned out. The investigations that followed the sinkings of the two ships formed history — though not in a particularly glorious manner.
The two formal Marine Board of Investigation inquiries acknowledged everyone knew long before the Pendleton and Fort Mercer crack-ups that the war-time T-2 type of ships involved here had been structurally unsafe.
The ships’ steel was flawed at a molecular level and could not be fixed. The vessels would be expected to split in two but steel belts wrapped around them provided a sort of “limp home” mode — if the weather was not too bad and the Coast Guard and American Bureau of Shipping had allowed the Pendleton and Fort Mercer to sail knowing all of these factors.
Clearly, the limp home mode had not worked for the Fort Mercer and the Pendleton. So what would the Marine Board do?
In a sense, the future of maritime safety was — like the Fort Mercer life raft – tethered between two forces and fates.
One line of Marine Board reasoning was tied to the best instincts of safety-minded officers. Another line attached to commercial concerns and kicked the can of maritime safety far down the road.
Here, the line “broke bad.”
The answer, said the boards, was not to scrap the ships. The boards said that if even more steel belts were added to the ships, this would allow the crew and officers enough time to reach safe harbor the next time a T-2 fractured and structurally imploded.They could make it to port “under some circumstances.”
The unsaid part was that the ships would not make it home under other circumstances — such as rough seas and storms, all conditions a normal ship will routinely encounter and survive.
The short, clear message to merchant mariners was this: “These ships are flawed and might break in two. We’re going to try to buy you some time if that happens.”
By the standards of any other form of transportation, the assumption and assignment of risk seemed incredible. What regulatory body would say that a car, plane or train was fundamentally flawed and might fall apart — but patchwork fixes and baling wire might allow the passengers time to escape harm in a crash? Under some circumstances?
None would, of course, because those affected by planes, trains and cars were many — and they voted.
Merchant mariners? They were few in number and had little clout and were nearly invisible to voters.
The “best case” explanation of the policy was that the Coast Guard felt the war era ships soon would be scrapped. This might have seemed reasonable at the time. Who would want to retain ships that were structurally unsafe? Soon, modernization would wipe out the old vessels. Owners needed more efficient, larger ships to compete.
And they would have the resources for this because they were protected by The Jones Act — a “cabotage” provision — that reserved all coastal trade to US officers and crews, on ships built in American yards. This assured that the country would have a strong merchant marine in case of war. And the protected trades made certain that owners could afford to replace the old ships with brand new state-of-the art vessels.
The opposite occurred.
The Jones Act, designed to make the maritime sector strong, backfired. Badly.
Few new ships were being built. Prices at American yards were prohibitively high — three times the cost at a foreign yard. Few economic forces pushed the war era ships to the scrap yard. Protected rates showed a profit no matter how inefficient the vessel. And an old 1850 law strictly limited damages a plaintiff could claim for lost seamen and officers.
And so the war era ships sailed on.
Not only did they stay at sea, as they approached the end of their regular life, often they were converted — “jumbo-ized” or “stretched” — so they could carry even more cargo in configurations and rigging often not suited to their original design.
“Frankenships” is what some called them — vessels that ought to have died but were unnaturally held together with steel stitches and belts, then given an artificial extension of life.
This was no small ripple in the maritime world. These lax standards of Coast Guard safety inspections, joined with the trend to frankenships, would create a great rolling wave of toxic safety culture. This wave, energized by regulators and operators alike, would crash into more than a dozen ships in the decade following the tanker disasters.
The Coast Guard pledge to keep a close eye on T-2s and the other war surplus ships?
By 1962, ten of the old ships had sunk with no major cautions coming from the Coast Guard. In fact, the stern of the SS Fort Mercer, salvaged from the 1952 sinking, sank a second time after her stern half had been welded to a new bow.
Then in 1963, came a tragedy that could not be ignored. A modified T-2 approved by the Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping as seaworthy simply disappeared, as did its 39 officers and crew.
There were no heroic rescues. No sign of the crew or the ship really. Only a few remains were found—a lifejacket with a bit of a crewman’s shirt tied to it. A Coast Guard investigation noted simply:
“Numerous tears on the life jackets indicated attack by predatory fish.”
The Marine Sulphur Queen was the ship’s name and a valiant Marine Board of Investigation here would rally and draw a line, seeking to reclaim the Coast Guard’s regulatory honor. This inquiry in a sense was a showdown of the best safety instincts of the Coast Guard and the worst trends of protecting commercial rationalizations.
Here, the board said decisively that the T-2 structural soundness was in question and that most all new conversions of the old ships should stop. There would be no more frankenships allowed.
The board makes its recommendations but the Commandant must enforce them.
And the Commandant rejected the recommendation. No generalizations could be made about the ships as a class, he said, and the conversions could continue on a case-by-case basis. The Coast Guard would keep a watchful eye. The Coast Guard would make sure these were safe ships — not frankenships. Careful inspections would make the difference.
At about the same time, however, a federal district court judge was concluding that the Coast Guard was a mere rubber stamp. It had hardly inspected the vessels at all in the cases before the judge. And by this time, 15 T-2 casualties were noted.
But the justice’s decision applied only to one civil suit — not the American merchant marine fleet and the fleet sailed on unaffected by reform.
After the Marine Sulphur Queen board was shot down by the Commandant, the case for reform faded and a new era of lax inspection and standards spanned decades.
And so it was that in 1983 a first cousin of the Marine Sulphur Queen, the SS Marine Electric, an expanded T-2 tanker, sailed into a blizzard at an age nearly twice the lifespan of most ships and capsized in a February storm.
The tragedy might have been a replay of the Marine Sulphur Queen in 1963, but for three reasons.
Their names were Robert Cusick, Eugene Kelley and Thomas Dewey. They survived the wreck of the Marine Electric.
What they did then changed everything.
Chapter Three: Pillow Talk
In pillow talk, on cold Spring nights in Maine, Michael Davidson told Teresa, his wife, that this might all turn out well after all.
Or at least it was looking better – far better than three years ago when he parted ways with Crowley Maritime and went from being a sea captain, the master of a huge ocean going vessel, to third mate.
Big new ships were coming down the ways. The “Marlin Class” they called them. Captain Davidson might just get one. He was interviewing.
These new ships were beautiful, powered by natural gas, and equipped with state-of-the-art navigation. The first vessel, Isla Bella, had just been launched in April 2015, and a second vessel, the Perla del Caribe, was scheduled for August.
His new company, Tote Maritime, owned by Seattle-based Saltchuk, seemed visionary at a time when American ship lines and ship builders were moribund and cynical, supported largely by the Jones Act. A full third of the 200 American flag ships were older than a ship’s normal lifetime of twenty years and few new ships were planned.
Contrast that philosophy with Tote and Saltchuk. For them, the Jones Act seemed a shining light and these companies beacons of hope.
Just last year, the privately owned firm was named in the world by the Ethisphere Institute. And this year, the company was delivering on those new Marlin Class containerships, thanks in part to a $300 million plus loan guarantee from the US Maritime Administration.
More than 600 workers at the General Dynamics yard in San Diego crowded around in February 2014 as a “steel cutting” ceremony – no flimsy ribbons in a shipyard please – marked the beginning of the construction.
“These ships, will be the most advanced, environmentally progressive vessels of their kind,” US Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation said, “but they also represent $350 million in U.S. investment, 600 American shipyard jobs, and the bright future of the indispensable domestic maritime industry.”
(To be continued in new posts in September and October.)
Buy me a cup of coffee to keep this series perking.
Caffeine helps. The faster I write, the faster the series gets published. You’ll see the full work published here sooner than later. Anything that doesn’t go to caffeine goes into research, network costs and getting the word out. ——The Author
Author’s Note/Preface: Serializations of books and novels were popular in the 19th Century with Dickens and others publishing chapter-by-chapter before they were finished. The practice is alive and well in modern times. My friend and former colleague Mark Bowden published the heart of “Black Hawk Down” as a series in The Philadelphia Inquirer.
I’m going to take my own humble shot at such an undertaking here, with a book-length non-fiction narrative about the SS El Faro. I’ll endeavor to post at least one chapter per month and with luck finish a book-length account of the tragedy and its aftermath by the end of the calendar year.
A few notes: This is an examination of a tragedy that has been well-researched and investigated — heroically so at times — by the United States Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board. Three very well-done books have been published. All of these efforts produced detailed recommendations and observations and all are publicly available. I commend them to you.
My effort touches on the broad sweep and events of the tragedy and investigation but if you want the detailed story of the final voyage of the ship, you’re better off with the other books. My main goal here is to show how the SS El Faro fit into a larger system and culture — one that I have been covering off and on as a journalist and author for 38 years.
It’s this system, I feel, that will result in another SS El Faro some day unless it is reformed.
Another note on style. My preference in non-fiction is “narrative.” In other words whenever I can, I tell a story and show what is happening, I prefer that to “telling” the reader because I think “showing” is more readily absorbed. Humans learn through stories. Story telling rather than a lecture better illustrates the emotions at play here, as well as the moods, culture and vibe of the ship and the industry.
And with that, enough “telling.” Here’s the first chapter. The second will come soon. With luck, we’ll be done by year’s end.