Archive for the ‘Contemporary Commentary’ Category

Print and television journalists don’t always get along and as an ink-stained wretch, I continue to despair at the level of national cable political coverage — and increasingly the network news as well.

Lester Holt advanced my theory that a lot of anchors have just tossed in the news towel and do professional wrestling commentary — in between product plugs of their network programming. He nearly levitated the other day conveying the exciting day of mud slinging among the Republican candidates capped off by Chris Christie’s endorsement of Donald Trump.  I expected Holt and a reincarnated Gorgeous George to throw a chair into the ring, tag-team Rubio and body slam Christie.

So when I traveled to cover the US Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation into the sinking of the SS El Faro earlier this month, I was prepared for a similar sort of infotainment.

What I got instead was wall-to-wall intelligent assessments by real journalists.  The reporters tag teamed the hearings and “instant blogged” them as well.  They probed into the arcane world of maritime America, and gave some pretty good accountings of how the American Bureau of Shipping treated inspections.

There were dramatic moments of course.  The last words of the captain.  The testimony of the USCG rescue swimmer, who recovered a body but had to leave it because another call came in reporting a potential survivor.

But the reporters and the reports did not stop there.  Most of the television stations went the full ten days, staffed and stoked.  They streamed the entire procession — and used a two camera shoot to do that.

The coverage, particularly from Scott Johnson at  NewsJax4 and Ken Amaro at First Coast News, was tough, accurate and fair. At some point during the coverage, I would find myself checking in with their posts and broadcasts to see what I might have missed. I don’t miss much, so that’s a compliment.

This gives me great hope.  El Faro is not the only sinking ship in America today and local newspapers too often are foundering. It’s good news that in Jacksonville, the electronic version of the Fourth Estate is alive and well — and actually quite sharp.




Three old war horses from the era of the SS Marine Electric showed up at the formal US Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation  into the sinking of the El Faro.  I was one of them.  Michael Carr, then a Coast Guard salvage diver was another. And the guy who deserves the most honor, Peter Lauridsen, who was the head of the Marine Board that looked into the causes of the wreck — and set new policy that safeguarded our vessels for 30 years.

All three of us had no business reason for showing up. All of us thought we just had to, that we were compelled to represent the men lost on the Marine Electric and the brave men, some of them gone now, who stood up to make sure the system worked well.

Michael Carr was kind in reflecting on my book, “Until the Sea Shall Free Them” and my portrayal of him.  “You got me ABSOLUTELY right,” he said.  “I could not believe it.”

Carr is an experienced sea captain these days and has posted some of the best commentary about the El Faro.  It is highly reasoned, analytical, and brings together many disciplines.  I may have been his favorite read then. He’s mine now

Back then, he was a salvage diver — and a hot-headed Coast Guard lieutenant who as he says, “should have been court martialed.”

As the choppers began to search for the Marine Electric off the shores of Virginia, Carr announced to his commanding officer that he was going along to help get the men into the chopper baskets.  This at a time when there was no rescue swimmer service in the Coast Guard.  And when Carr was not assigned to “SAR.”

You are a salvage diver, his commanding officer said.  You’ll get yourself killed.  Carr responded with an expletive that suggested his commander should do some odd things to himself and that Carr was going out on the chopper.


Peter Lauridsen, Michael Carr

The tempers cooled.  The order to stand down stood. Only after the Marine Electric was the rescue swimmer school founded within the Coast Guard, but Carr should perhaps be considered its first volunteer.

If I nailed Carr’s character, Peter Lauridsen was the guy I shortchanged.  Certainly, the book honored him as the head of the Marine Board that set new standards for ship safety and marine boards in general.  Certainly, he was one of the good guys and hero.

But in writing the book, I never reached Peter for the sort of long de-brief needed to do it right.  I know I put out the call.  I’m not sure he ever got it.

What I did not do was make the second and third and fourth calls — the ones that are part of my regular trade craft.  To this day, I am not sure how this happened.  I talked at length with the other two board members. I missed Peter completely. My fault, not his.

Only years later as I came to know Peter better at talks and presentations did I understand that the book was far poorer for my slip-up.

For one thing, one of the characters in the book suggested that Lauridsen was somehow gunning for admiral.  The quote was right. That is the way the character saw the world. But nothing in Peter’s character tells me that assessment is correct. He is a man of good intentions and honor.   I ought to have made that clearer in my words. I ought to have sought out Peter’s words and insights into the board.

So that is one of the few regrets I have about Until the Sea Shall Free Them.

My apologies, readers. My apologies, Peter.


As the US Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation ponders why the American flag vessel El Faro sank with its crew of 33, Frank Peake, the former president of the company that owned the ship, faces a stark choice:

Surrender himself to the federal penitentiary at Fort Dix, New Jersey, to begin serving five years – the toughest sentence ever handed out for anti-trust price fixing.

Or appeal a second time in an attempt to soften the sentence – and delay the date he must begin serving the sentence.

“He has 45 days to report to Fort Dix,” said a clerk for Judge Daniel R. Dominguez of the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico in San Juan last week. “Or 90 days if he files an appeal.”

“We do plan to appeal in March,” said the office of Peake’s attorney, David Oscar Markus on Friday.

Perhaps understandably, the shipping company’s troubled background is not something Tote Services Inc. and Tote Maritime, Inc., have chosen to disclose at the Coast Guard hearing.  The rate-fixing felonies have not been directly linked to marine safety issues.

Nevertheless, company officials were asked by the Coast Guard at the hearings to brief the panel on the significant history of the company. A whole section of the opening days of hearings was labeled, “Who is Tote Services, Inc., and Tote Maritime, Inc.”  Captain Jason D. Neubauer, the chairman of the marine board, told company executives that that part of the hearing was intended to “get to know all about the company, its culture and history and how you go about making decisions.”

The Tote executives who appeared before the hearing were not at the company during its troubles with price fixing and side stepped the general “historical” questions by stating they could not speak to history before they joined.

“Well, yes, this is information that a Marine Board of Investigation would want to know,” said a retired Coast Guard captain attending the hearings.  “I suppose they were not compelled to tell them about past company felonies, but it wasn’t exactly transparent or candid, was it?”

The price-fixing conspiracy, which the company pleaded guilty to, ran from 2002 through 2008 when the FBI raided Sea Star Lines offices.  However, the fallout of the case continues today with major shippers suing Tote for damages they say they suffered due to the price-fixing.

The controversy also appeared to reach far above Sea Star Lines (now Tote Maritime) to Saltchuk, the privately owned corporation that controls Tote companies.   Leonard Shapiro, a founding partner of Saltchuk, has been deposed about his role in price fixing and in 2013 said through his attorneys that he was being investigated for possible criminal activity.

Peake was convicted in January 2013 and lost his appeal of the sentencing in October 2015 – coincidentally just two weeks after the El Faro disappeared.

The company that owned El Faro at the time, Sea Star Lines, pleaded guilty to felony price fixing charges and paid more than $14 million in fines. The company later changed names to Tote Maritime, Inc., which owned the El Faro at the time it sank.

The rate fixing conspiracy was described by federal prosecutors as one of the worst in the history of shipping, one that cost consumers millions in inflated prices because major shippers met to make sure prices were high and cargoes distributed among the carriers.    For those reasons, the prosecutors sought and won what they described as the toughest sentence in the history of anti-trust convictions.

“The sentence imposed today reflects the serious harm these conspirators inflicted on American consumers, both in the continental United States and in Puerto Rico,” said Bill Baer, Assistant Attorney General in charge of Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division at the time.

The conspiracy was said by witnesses in the trial to reach far up into the Tote organization and involved Leonard Shapiro, a founding principle of both Saltchuk and Sea Star.

Peter Baci, a Sea Star executive who was convicted and served four years in prison, said Peake and Shapiro urged him to meet with competitive lines and agree on rates.

Sea Star was losing $20 million a year at the time in 2002 and asked Baci to reverse that, according to Walter A. Pavlo, Jr., a specialist in white-collar crime who has researched the crime and written for Forbes and other publications about the conspiracy.

Pavlo wrote:

“Crunching some numbers, Peter determined that SSL needed real price increases to generate in excess of $40 million in sales, which would earn it a good profit. …

“…. with this plan, SSL was a turn around success. In 2002, SSL had lost money but in 2003 it had its first profitable year…. with other profitable years to follow.

“The attitude around the office of SSL had changed from concern about the company staying open to plans for company get-togethers and bonuses….Everyone in the ownership group was happy with the performance of the company and how Peter was managing things.”

It is unclear whether Shapiro is still associated with Saltchuk.  He declined to say at a 2013 court hearing. Queries to Saltchuk went unanswered, as did a call to Shapiro’s attorney.  At one point, Shapiro’s attorneys in 2013 maintained he was under criminal investigation and therefore could not answer civil discovery questions from plaintiffs.  The Justice Department declined comment when asked if Shapiro was under criminal investigation.

In Jacksonville, the family members of the victims of the El Faro huddle together in the first pew of the US Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation and strain to hear every word spoken by witnesses, trying to understand the odd and complex world that governs humans once they step off land onto a ship and sail into our last true wilderness — the oceans of the world.

In this case, they strain to have explained to them the unexplainable:

How did a disjointed set of policies and laws send the crew of the El Faro to their deaths in a 40-year-old ship sailed into a Force Four storm.

They may never fully understand it. I don’t and I’ve been at this awhile.

I’ve spent thirty years writing about the sea, from an investigative standpoint. I’ve sat through two major marine boards and heard the sobs of two sets of family members — one from the SS Poet, the other from the SS Marine Electric — as they learn the particular set of tragic facts that sent their loved ones on a doomed voyage that ought never to have been undertaken.  Many of those families are my friends still today.

And it struck me again yesterday how preposterous it is that as a regular course of affairs our general news media is just not much interested in what occurs on the other two-thirds of the world that is not land.

Oh, when something happens on the ocean that then washes up on land — oil, refugees, red tides, bodies — the interest piques for awhile.

The one exception to this rule in my prime was The Philadelphia Inquirer of the era of editor Gene Roberts.  Gene assigned me to cover the maritime beat and gave me the resources to follow the story wherever it took me.

It took me on a five year journey — and when that journey was over, the US Coast Guard cracked down on old rust buckets in its fleet, sent 70 of them to the scrapping yards, required survival suits on merchant vessels and created the now famous US Coast Rescue Swimmers service.

The one exception to this lack of coverage rule in modern times comes from the editors at The New York Times and its remarkable long-term project with the working title The Outlaw Oceans. 

To date, the series has given first hand accounts of modern day slave ships, murder at sea and the modern day conditions that make the life of an international sea farer float somewhere between feudal indenture and outright human bondage.

Ian Urbina is the author of these stories and he has risked life and limb to understand and report the issues.  The Times for its part has invested in a multi-year story on a topic that could consume a lifetime of work.

And it could save many lives in the process and help lay down new laws and policies that more fairly and justly govern the wilderness that is the sea.

It could also comfort the afflicted — the two rows of the relatives of survivors in Jacksonville trying to understand why their loved ones were sent in a 40-year-old ship into a Force Four hurricane.

In all ways, this “second wave” of maritime reporting seems already to have overtaken the first wave started by Roberts and by me.

The secret of course is to keep hammering.  At the Inquirer, I was ready to  give up hope of reforming the system at year two.

Gene Roberts advised us we had just cleared our throat on the matter. Three years later the maritime institutions acknowledge the problem and made the reforms.

Here’s to that tradition, carried on now by The Times in one of the best journalism projects, land-based or ocean-going, I’ve seen in many a day.

And here’s to all major publications and news outlets covering the other two-thirds of the world.










Authors need to break the habit of checking their sales ranking on Amazon.  It’s never fulfilling and you always feel guilty that you’ve succumbed to such commercial interest.

And yet those books do put food on the table.  And when I checked Until the Sea Shall Free Them, I see the old girl still has nailed down the Amazon  #1 Best Seller in Maritime Law slot.

A narrow distinction perhaps, but I’ll take it.  Admiralty attorneys, in my experience, are more fun than actuaries — and actuaries are a gas.  And it’s not bad for a book that was published 14 years ago.

— Bob

Friends had to remind me of the date: 33 years ago Thursday the SS Marine Electric capsized off the coast of Virginia sending 31 men to their deaths.

But in a larger sense, I had never forgotten the Marine Electric, nor am I ever likely to forget the catastrophe and the heroes who helped drive a major reform in ship safety in the United States.

Those memories propel me now to cover another Marine Board of Investigation, this one into the loss of the El Faro and 33 lives in October of 2015.

The disaster was the first major sinking of an American merchant marine vessel since the Marine Electric and I’d like to think my reporting, with Tim Dwyer, helped assure that. The wreck, the Marine Board of Investigation, and the reforms are chronicled in Until the Sea Shall Free Them.

Three men survived the disaster then, including the chief mate, Captain Robert Cusick, who bobbed about in freezing water long after he should have died. Cusick sang verse after verse of The Mary Ellen Carter, a folk song about an old ship that sank and then was salvaged by her crew.  The Stan Rogers version still gives me chills when I hear it.

Bob Cusick and the two other survivors — Gene Kelly and Paul Dewey —   went on to testify that the ship was a rust bucket that ought never have gone to sea.  The Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation, and Captain Domenic Calicchio , wrote a strongly critical report that eventually sent more than 70 old rust buckets to the scrap yard.


Dom Calicchio

The wreck also resulted in the formation of the now famous Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers program and the use of survival suits on North Atlantic runs.

Today, I’m preparing to fly to the Coast Guard marine board hearing in Jacksonville on the El Faro.  Like the Marine Electric, the El Faro was a very old ship.  Like the Marine Electric, the owners of the El Faro say the vessel was in good shape.  Like the owners of the Marine Electric, the owners of the El Faro run a generally good operation and actually are building new ships.

They do a lot of things right.

The question of course is whether they did one thing wrong.

I’ll approach that question with an open mind. The El Faro is not the Marine Electric.  And as a journalist I’ll do my best to avoid the biggest trap for humans: Forming beliefs first and then seeking facts to justify them.

Good men and women joined together to find facts in the investigation of the  wreck of the Marine Electric.  I’m trusting that this will happen again in Jacksonville with the El Faro.

The one challenge of course is that three good men survived the wreck of the Marine Electric.  And none survived the wreck of El Faro.

So it is the job of the marine board — and the press — to make certain those drowned voices are heard in some manner.

My resolve is to help the board makes sure that happens.





History v . Hollywood is a cool fact checking site, and for the most part, they’ve got The Finest Hours right. but my research, as presented in Two Tankers Down, shows they made one big mistake. (Two Tankers Down quotes Sybert directly from his testimony at the Coast Guard hearing.)

Here is the History v. Hollywood mistake.

Did Ray Sybert really try to run the Pendleton aground?

No. Unlike what unfolds in The Finest Hours movie, Chief Engineer Ray Sybert actually decided to keep the Pendleton’s stern as far offshore as possible, fearing that the ship might further break up in the relentless surf. If the ship got close, Sybert ordered that the propeller be turned to keep the ship offshore in more moderate seas.

Incorrect on all counts. And the Hollywood site cites only a dive club for its information.

Sybert DID run the the stern aground and did it intentionally.

He never tried to steer it into deep water.  He couldn’t

True, he did NOT have an elaborate plan — as was portrayed in the movie.

Here is Two Tankers Down (documented by hearing transcripts) on what Sybert could and could not do.

Now, Sybert took stock.  He thought they were close to shore.    They had been nearly 25 miles offshore due east of northern Cape Cod,  but their drift was south and west now, which would take them quickly toward the elbow of Cape Cod, toward Chatham.  That fact had been a blessing initially.  Comforting somehow. But now?

He could maneuver the stern section a bit, but he knew they were drifting too rapidly toward shore – the Cape Cod shore where so many thousands of wrecks had washed up.  If he attempted to steer and control too aggressively, the ship would pitch and lurch.  There was little that he could do other than go with the flow and steer to keep the stern section straight.  He could not steam her farther out to sea, just keep her straight as she drifted. Everytime he attempted to steer and maneuver, he could, briefly, but the forward exposed part of the stern dipped down and got drenched.

Key phrase here:  If he attempted to steer and control too aggressively, the ship would pitch and lurch.  There was little that he could do other than go with the flow and steer to keep the stern section straight.  He could not steam her farther out to sea, just keep her straight as she drifted.

As to the stranding, here is how it happened — not via some grand plan conceived after the break-up but an opportunistic choice between two alternatives, put it on a soft sandy shoal or let it drift farther to an unknown shore.

Here is Two Tankers Down, again documented via transcripts and Sybert’s testimony:

Hicks and Sybert were taking drafts now not with the Jacobs Ladder but with a leaded line that gave them more precise readings.  They were okay for now.  But inevitably they were closing at an acute angle with the shore.

Sybert decided it then.  The boat was on the way.  He could hear the boatsman – Bernie it must have been – say he was 45 minutes out, maybe.  It looked as if there was a smooth sand bar not far away.  How were the waves breaking on the bar? He asked Quiley.  Smooth, sir.  Not crashing.  The waves were breaking smooth on the bar.  It was daylight still.  Lord knows what lay ahead in the night. Blind uncertainty and the chance of rocks. They were maneuvering and the ship was lurching even more now, listing 40 degrees to port.

“Stop!” Sybert said.   “We had better go on the beach than capsize.”

And so he put the ship aground then.  Stopped the maneuvering of the engines.  Let the ship drift in on the bar and she touched the sand sweetly with only a bit of rock and sway.

As everyone should know by now if you’ve been reading my fact check of The Finest Hours, I’m a fan of the movie.

Yes, some of the facts are wrong.  But the spirit and the truth of the rescue are accurate and well managed artistically with poetic license.  I stand by that, but in saluting the spirit of the movie, I have to acknowledge that some of the critics have got it right and bending some of the facts hurt some real people.

Art, it has been said, does not apologize.

But sometimes it should.

As a detached author of Two Tankers Down and journalist, I’m in a removed position.  The relatives of the Pendleton crew are not and more than one has complained the movie takes liberties by portraying the Pendleton crew as panicked and nearly mutinous when instead it was calm, steadfast and courageous.

So for the record, the crew of the Pendleton from all that my research shows, reacted calmly to their predicament.  There was no rush to the lifeboats, no name calling. Nor was the chief engineer — the Affleck character — a shrinking violet as the movie suggested.

He took control nearly instantly.  Here is how I described Sybert’s actions in my book, Two Tankers Down, and also how the crew reacted to the idea of running to the lifeboats.

On the stern, Sybert brought power back up.  He discovered he could actually steer the ship.  A bit. He had power. He had a rudder. She would buck and heave, but he could for brief moments control the ship.

The thought had to strike Sybert there and then.  It was strange,  but there it was.  He was master of a ship.  His half-ship.  He had given a command, maneuvered her.  She responded.  He was a master. 

He took command.  But there was one problem with that. And he quickly confessed it.  He gathered all the survivors in the mess and told it to them straight:  Boys, our officers are gone and you able bodied seamen are going to have to pick up the slack.  I know engines.  Don’t know much about navigation, lifeboats, and seamanship in general. 

Quickly, he found that one able bodied seaman, Jacob Hicks, and another, Ray Steele, would take leadership positions.  He came to think of Hicks as a makeshift chief mate, the ranking deck officer.  [i]

Did Sybert want them to check the life boats?  Yes, Sybert said, but he thought the best thing to do was remain on board the stern section of the ship if it seemed seaworthy.  Others were dispatched to close all water tight doors.  Sybert and his engineers checked the salinity of the boilers to see if too much seawater had leaked in.

Hicks and Steele scrambled up on the deck and what they saw and felt there was disheartening.  The gale was now a full blown screeching storm with winds of 50 mph and more.  It would reach more than 70 before the night was through, reports said, sometimes clocked at 80.  You had to lean into a wind like that just to stand steady.

They struggled to reach the lifeboats and once there prepared them for launch.  But below them – sometimes over them – soared 35 to 45 foot waves.  Launching a lifeboat into such mountains of water would be fearsome work.  It would be a miracle just to get a boat out there without the sea splintering it.  Once launched, how long could a small lifeboat remain afloat?

They seemed stuck staying with the stern. 

They looked across the water toward the bow.   The bow and all the deck officers on it were carried swiftly away from the stern by the mountainous waves.  The bow section was still afloat but increasingly it rose at an angle to the plane of the sea, lifting the bow to the sky, plunging the bridge and deckhouse  down toward the bottom.   In fifteen to twenty minutes, the bow disappeared from view, bobbing away into the  rain and snow, invisible to the men on the stern now.

Sybert was certain they would get help soon.  The radioman had almost certainly sent an SOS from the bridge. 

 It took time for it to sink in that this was improbable and that no one on shore was aware any of this was happening.  Slowly, they were understanding the fix they were in. 

 The splitting of the ship was clear enough; the ramifications of the split less so.   Yes, the captain and most deck officers were located toward the front of the ship in a structure that rose from the deck and gave them a clear view ahead. The engineers and engine room were located aft.   So the officers were gone but the clean fracture had wrought even worse chaos.

The bow had the radio but no power.   Sybert’s new half-ship had the power but no radio.  

Sybert did the math. The ship had split in part in about five seconds.  There could not have been time, no time at all, to understand what was happening and send out a signal. 

Now, Sybert took stock.  He thought they were close to shore.    They had been nearly 25 miles offshore due east of northern Cape Cod,  but their drift was south and west now, which would take them quickly toward the elbow of Cape Cod, toward Chatham.  That fact had been a blessing initially.  Comforting somehow. But now?

He could maneuver the stern section a bit, but he knew they were drifting too rapidly toward shore – the Cape Cod shore where so many thousands of wrecks had washed up.  If he attempted to steer and control too aggressively, the ship would pitch and lurch.  There was little that he could do other than go with the flow and steer to keep the stern section straight.  He could not steam her farther out to sea, just keep her straight as she drifted. Everytime he attempted to steer and maneuver, he could, briefly, but the forward exposed part of the stern dipped down and got drenched.

Above him, on deck, Hicks dug out a flare gun from the lifeboat.  He pointed it skyward and the flare arched out over the water into the darkness. 

Perhaps they would be spotted visually from shore.  Perhaps the officers on the bow would respond with a flare back.   He took out another flare cartridge and aimed it skyward.  The cartridge flizzled and popped but did not fire.  From the bow, no reply came at all.  Hicks looked at the date stamped on the flares. “July 1942.”  He threw the dud flare  into the water after it had fizzled. He loaded another.  No luck. No signals.  He took smoke markers from the lifeboat and lit them, then tossed them overboard.  They put out a pathetic smudge of smoke quickly whipped away to nothing in the gale. [ii]

No radio.  No flares. No smoke. No blinker lights for sending code.  No one who could send or understand code, either. 

No one knew they were out there.  No one knew they were in trouble. No one had any way of finding out. 

Well, there was one way.  One ancient way.                

Aaron Powell, a wiper, rigged up a line to the steam whistle.   Another wiper was too small a man to work the rig himself; it took some heft to pull the line.  So Powell drafted  George “Tiny” Myers, an OS – ordinary seaman.   He weighed more than 300 pounds, not much of it muscle, it had to be said, but Tiny had plenty of spirit and enough weight to heave that whistle lanyard.  [iii]

They were not sure what the true navigational whistle signals were for their situation, but kept blowing and blowing and blowing.  The danger signal was all Powell knew… a series of short blasts.  They would blast out four  short signals and then pause to listen for any reply.

There was none.  They were alone.

The movie screenwriters might have drawn the “lifeboat panic” sequences from the crew of the Fort Mercer, where some of the crew — but only a few –were frisky indeed and came close to mutiny.  Here is what I wrote in Two Tankers Down:

Not everyone on board the Fort Mercer felt as comfortable with the crack arrestors as the captain.  Not everyone, in fact, felt comfortable with the captain. 

(Captain) Patezel had ordered the men to be alert but had not sounded a general alarm.  He did not want to sound any signals or bells that would stampede the crew. Word got out to some; not to others. What followed was a combination of undue concern by some and unwarranted complacency among others.

Julio Molino, a seaman, was one of those who heard nothing from the master about the 8 a.m. crack.  He did not have to be told.  He was standing with a friend and looked out at sea.

“Look in the water, the ship is broke,” Molino said matter of factly.  “There’s oil.”

“I don’t want to look, “ his friend said.  “I’m scared.”

“Let’s go tell the captain,” Molino said.  But his friend was too scared and would not even look at the oil.  He turned away from the sight.

Then Molino saw a plate floating away.

These guys are all too scared of the old man, Molino thought, because the captain is too tough on them.  Well, the hell with it, Molino would tell him.  He marched forward to the bridge and confronted the master of the ship – a rare and unthinkable breach of etiquette on most ships.

“What do you want?” Patezel asked him on the bridge. 

“The ship is broke,” Molino said.  

“That’s none of your fucking business,” Molino heard Paetzel say.  And then the captain physically pushed the seaman off the master’s bridge and toward the stairs.

None of my fucking business? It was completely Molino’s business.

He ran down, got his life preserver, and began yelling out to anyone he could see, “The ship is broke!”  

Jack C. Brewer, the chief mate and second in command after the captain, chased him down and cornered Molino.

“Who are you to tell the crew?” the mate demanded.  

“I’ve been at sea long enough to know when there’s danger,” Molino said. [i]

The bosun intervened at this point.  The bosun is the equivalent of a seargent at sea – the head non-commissioned officer, so to speak, in charge of the deck crew.  He channeled Molino’s fears in a constructive manner. 

“Take the covers off the boats,” he told Molino.  And Molino did just that. He ran to the starboard lifeboat at the stern and cut the cover the boat.  Then he jumped in.  The quartermaster moved to swing the boat out and lower it.  The starboard side was taking the most wind. 

“Calm down, calm down!” the bosun said.  “Move to the port side.”

And Molino did.  There was far less wind on that side of the ship.  He prepared the boat there for launching, but this time did not jump in.  He stood watch for two hours, never leaving the side of the boat, but grew too cold and eventually went below.

This was before the Fort Mercer was really in trouble.  And when the ship finally did break in two, the sort of panic portrayed in the movie did take place on the Fort Mercer.  From Two Tankers Down:

Did the captian give any alarm? Roviaro asked that question, but  no one seemed to know. He put on a lifejacket and yelled back to the chief:

“I think she cracked up.”

He ran onto the deck to hear one of the boys say,   “oh there’s another ship ahead of us.”

“Heck no, “ someone else said.  “That’s the Fort Mercer floating…” [i]

For certain, along the side of the “other ship” was the name Fort Mercer.  But how could that be?  They were on the Fort Mercer.

Then, just as on the Pendleton, there was a rush to realization as to how worlds had changed.  They had split in two.  Cleanly in two.  And then there was a sense of pure panic.  A wave came up on the bow of the Fort Mercer and cleanly sheared away the two lifeboats there.   The men on the stern could see that. Then the bow began drifting directly back to the stern, on a collision path, it seemed. 

Word went down to Bushnell in the engine room and the chief engineer gently backed the engines astern.  The smooth electroglide nature of the T-2 was still there; the half-ship responded and Bushnell maneuvered out of harm’s way. [ii] The act – one half of a ship avoiding collision with its other half – is believed unique  in known maritime history.

On the stern,  the men did not commemorate this historic event.  They were excited, nearly a mob.  They rushed the lifeboats.  They were crowded around the starboard lifeboat, intent on piling in, lowering the boats and getting off the ship anyway they could.   The wind was blowing directly into them, the spray, the snow, the rain, pelting them.

Laurence Whilley,  an ordinary seaman, was there when a man from the mess – he did not know his name — yelled to Whilley above the howling weather:          

“Do you know how to pray?”                    

“Sure, I’m a Christian and member of the church,” Whilley yelled back.  “No one should be ashamed to pray.”

The man and Whilley left the boat and went to the mess.  There they got down on their knees and prayed for their lives, prayed for the men, prayed for the ship, and prayed for their world. 

Above, the bosun looked at the men jostling the lifeboats, looked at the surging seas, looked at the relative calm and steadiness of the stern and told the quartermaster, “Tell the boys to take it easy.”

 Roviaro, the pumpman, ran to the stern above the men and yelled out: “There’s no danger.”

Newman, the quartermaster, chimed in:

“Take it easy; it’s too rough a sea.”

And seaman Robert Mackenzie yelled out a flat-out order. 

 “Don’t’ touch the boat!”

 “Don’t get excited,” the quartermaster yelled again. “Let’s see what we can do.”

All of those men kept cautioning the crew.  Let’s see what we can do with the stern, which seemed steady, all things considered.  There’s too much wind on the starboard side, someone added.   Why are we here?

“Let’s try the port side,” someone else said.

“We’ll do that,” the bosun said.

 And the men moved over to the port side, the more sheltered side, and again this seemed to calm them just as it had Molino earlier.  Soon, thoughts of taking the boats had subsided.  They made sure the port boat was prepared and then went down below.  It was more stable and calming there.   Darkness fell and the stern still seemed steady.   The mess was open for business.  It was warm.  In many ways, it was normal.  Comforting this: the warmth and the coziness of the mess. [iii]

It’s a tricky thing when you try to cram a real world event into a 90 minute movie.  So what I think may be justified certainly may not be to a relative whose father was on the Pendleton and had to be dragged away from the boat’s edge in trying to desperately rescue his friend.

It is notable that the movie does in the end portray the crew as steadfast good guys. That is cold comfort to the children of Pendleton crew members who know their fathers were brave and calm — but portrayed as panicked and fearful.

Here’s a post from one of them:

The Finest Hours is a faithful and truthful telling of the rescue of crewmen on the tanker the SS Pendleton. Truthful does not …

Thank you, Mr. Frump for the review. As the daughter of Fred Brown, a survivor, I was somewhat disappointed in the way in which the ship’s crew was portrayed…not at all the way my dad spoke of it. Dad was quoted in the Portland Press Herald, and he was also quoted in the book The finest hours which described a very different crew. They banded together and prayed like never before. Also, the movie was confusing as to how the Coast Guard discovered the Pendleton. Tiny Myers was my dad’s best friend. When dad returned to us, he had Tiny’s blood on his clothing from trying to pull him in the boat. The rescuers forced him to let go because Tiny was dead. And what about the eight officers that were lost, and the way in which they were lost? I think they deserved some recognition in the movie. All things considered, it was a good movie, especially for those who don’t know the whole story. Thank you for correcting some errors, like the song. It was the great hymn…Rock of Ages!


Was Chris Pine Mis-cast as Bernard C. Webber in The Finest Hours Movie About a Famous US Coast Guard Rescue?

In my Fact Check of The Finest Hours, the Coast Guard movie about Bernie Webber’s famous rescue, only two bloopers really made me laugh out loud.


Bernie Webber

The Movie version of Bernie — Chris Pine — is waiting to meet his girl Miriam for the first time and his buddy says something like, “Come on Bernie.  You’re a good looking guy. You never had no problems like that with the girls.”

And Pine almost bats his eyebrows to confirm how good looking he is.

Later, Miriam says to a girlfriend she wasn’t sure Bernie would go for her, “he begin so handsome.”
Or words to that effect.
And again, I laughed and almost gagged on my popcorn.


Chris Pine

Don’t get me wrong. Bernie was a good enough looking guy.  But not Chris Pine perfume-ad, pose-in-your-whitey tights, male-model handsome.

I thought Pine actually did a good job of capturing his character, just to be clear.  He is not just a pretty face.

But the idea of the real Bernie being a chick magnet cracks me up and would have sent Bernie into a belly laugh, imho.

He was just a no nonsense guy and a kind of a big lug of a fellow.  If he ever wore any clothing with
a logo on it, it was USCG.  Or perhaps Carhartt.

He was taller by Pine by a couple of inches at around 6 foot 2 and he was a lanky 170 pounds at the time of the rescue. (In hypothermic conditions, he could have used a bit more padding, actually.)

So, yes, Chris Pine probably is too pretty to play Bernie Webber.  But he pulled it off anyway, in my opinion.



Lars and the Real Boat

Let me be clear: I was loaded for bear when I walked into “The Finest Hours.”

The movie is not based on my book, Two Tankers Down, but I put in months of research and writing about the rescue of the crew of the SS Pendleton (and in my book, also the SS Fort Mercer.)

So with that investment, I was certain Hollywood was going to screw over another honest hero and turn him into some stereotyped cartoon character. The trailers and previews of the movie — cheesy bits and clips — only set my jaw in resolve to clobber the lotus eaters.

But slowly, as the film rolled, I was won over.

Director Craig Gillespie, who also did one of my favorite indie films, Lars and the Real Girl, pulled off a minor miracle here: giving what could have been a mindless action movie depth, emotion and importance. 

No, the meeting with Miriam was not exact. Bernie was no looker for one thing so the lines about how handsome he was surely would have made Mr. Webber shake with laughter.

And they left out this huge “meet cute” scene in the book where Miriam was a telephone operator who anonymously called Bernie and talked with him for hours when he was on overnight duty.

But they did what film directors and screen writers are supposed to do when they do things right: They captured the essence of it. The “bear” coat joke was in there. And so was the mood of the relationship.

When the scene changed to action at sea, I was astounded at how they captured the motion of the boat, the waves and the wind. You only get that sense if you’ve been to sea in winds and waves near that velocity. So how they imagined it or recreated remains a mystery to me. I just know that they did because I’ve been in seas that have made a supertanker roll at 30 degree angles.

You can quarrel with some of the plot choices. I won’t.

Miriam never visited Bernie at the Coast Guard station the night of the rescue. They were not engaged then. She was home in bed and Bernie did not even want to bother her. But of course she knew he would be “out there” on a night like that.

As a non-fiction author, this is something I could never do in my book, but then there are and should be different rules for film. No, you can’t have aliens intervene and show Bernie the way. (That only happens in Fargo.) And you can’t have him tow the ship to safety while swimming with a rope in his teeth.

But to my mind the romance is not some cheesy bit thrown into the movie stew to make this a date movie and sell popcorn. The romance serves a real purpose in defining the plot and the tensions and conflicts.

And that tension is this: the macho code of “you have to go out, you don’t have to come back” versus a more humane understanding of life and death situations.

In the world of non-fiction writing, I was able to do that by illustrating some of the crueler historical results of “you have to go out” philosophy where men needlessly were sent to their deaths — or in some cases shamed themselves into impossible rescue missions. Yes, it’s a code of valor and honor. But the cruel side of it is undeniable and needed to be stated.

You can’t do what I did in a movie. But Miriam can express that very human concern. And particularly in the confrontation with the Chief, she does this. To me that is a huge scene with the Chief reluctantly but resolutely confirming the order and Miriam persisting — until she could no longer persist.

So as a stickler for fact in non-fiction writing and narrative literature — no compound characters! no collapsing of time! — and as one of the toughest purveyors of fact in this rescue, I think they get more than a pass here.

I think they get applause for defining the issue. The Coast Guard spent more than 50 years wrestling with the philosophy before adapting a more common sense version of risk assessment. The Finest Hours nails it in about 10 minutes of narrative. They get props for that.

So much to my surprise, I walked out of the theater feeling the story had been told well and truly.

Other critics have not felt that way. I think many of them walked in expecting a Disney movie and a lot of the subtext to the movie went over their heads.

I’m not suggesting they are mouth breathers or slow learners.

Not all of them.

I am suggesting they know little of the real world of oceans and maritime rescues.

And also that they’ve spent way too much time expecting Iron Man to ironically save Wolverine from the Silver Surfer.

They seem to have lost their palate for a story that is — though not always factual — ever so truthful.

We seem to have forgotten that people act as Bernie Webber acted. (And as many people still do today, overshadowed by overpaid auto-tuned divas, overpaid athletes and cartoon comic book heroes with the same first world adolescent problems.)

One critic actually called the film “too old fashioned” because of its values.

And in a few weeks, I’ll wonder again how “Mad Max Part Five” is actually a contender for the Oscars and why those same critics consider it such a cinematic wonder.

In the meantime, let me urge you to see The Finest Hours.

Forget about the cheesy previews. Forget about the half-hearted reviews.

Just sit down and experience how a common man found true heroism within.

Because this is not a story from an earlier, simpler time. It is a story from a time when we recognized these values as true and worthwhile. The actions and the values are still around us.

We just don’t recognize them.

And in part, that is because they just don’t get that much attention from critics who have had their brains blasted out by irony and SurroundSound cartoon movies.

—–Bob Frump