Monday, February 11, 2019

Appreciation for the U.S. Coast Guard

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Multimedia Release

U.S. Coast Guard 5th District Mid-Atlantic
Contact: 5th District Public Affairs
Office: (757) 398-6272
After Hours: (757) 434-7712
5th District online newsroom
The shipwreck that changed the Coast Guard forever
This video outlines the Marine Electric shipwreck and the incident’s lasting impact on the Coast Guard.  
Editors' Note: Click on images to download high resolution version.
Story and artwork by Petty Officer 2nd Class Corinne Zilnicki
When the clock tolled 12 a.m. on Feb. 12, 1983, the 605-foot cargo ship Marine Electric trekked northward 30 miles off Virginia's Eastern Shore, plowing slowly through the gale-force winds and waves stirred up by a winter storm.
An able-bodied seaman relieved the watch and peered forward, noticing for the first time that the ship's bow seemed to be riding unusually low in the water. Dense curls of green ocean rushed over the bow, some of them arching 10 feet over the deck before crashing back down. The crew had been battling 25-foot waves for hours, but until now, the bow had bucked and dipped as normal.
Now it seemed only to dip.
Over the next two hours, the waves intruded with increasing vigor. The entire foredeck was swallowed in 6 feet of water. The main deck was completely awash.
At 2:30 a.m., the ship's master, Phillip Corl, summoned his chief mate, Robert Cusick, to the bridge and shared his fears: the bow was settling, they were taking on too much water, and the crew was in real trouble.
At 2:51 a.m., the captain made the first radio distress call to the Coast Guard.
"I seem to be taking on water forward," Corl said. "We need someone to come out and give us some assistance, if possible."
By the time assistance arrived, the Marine Electric had listed, rolled violently to starboard, and capsized, hurling most of its 34 crew into the 37-degree water. Chaos ensued.
Chief mate Cusick surfaced with a gasp, managed to get his bearings, and spotted a partially-submerged lifeboat nearby. After swimming through towering waves for 30 minutes, he pulled himself into the swamped boat and started thrashing his legs to stay warm.
"All the time I kept looking out and yelling out, 'lifeboat here,' just continually yelling out to keep myself going," the chief mate said. "Then I waited and prayed for daylight to come."
The Coast Guard had long since dispatched an HH-3F Pelican helicopter crew from Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and directed the crews of several cutters to the Marine Electric's position, but the tumultuous weather conditions slowed the rescuers' progress.
Naval Air Station Oceana had to recall available personnel before launching a helicopter crew, including rescue swimmer Petty Officer 2nd Class James McCann.
At 5:20 a.m., the Coast Guard helicopter crew was the first to arrive on scene. They had expected to find the Marine Electric's sailors tucked into lifeboats and rafts, but instead, they found a blinking sea of strobe lights, empty lifeboats, and bodies strewn below.
The Navy aircrew arrived and deployed McCann, who tore through the oil-slicked waves, searching for survivors. He managed to recover five unresponsive sailors before hypothermia incapacitated him.
The Coast Guard crew scoured the southern end of the search area and discovered one man, Paul Dewey, alone in a life raft. They dropped the rescue basket so he could clamber inside, then hoisted him into the helicopter. About 30 yards away, they spotted Eugene Kelly, the ship's third mate, clinging to a life ring, and lowered the basket to retrieve him.
Cusick remained huddled in his lifeboat until the sailors aboard the Berganger, a Norwegian merchant vessel whose crew was helping search the area, sighted him and notified the Coast Guard. The helicopter crew retrieved him in the rescue basket, then took off for Salisbury, Maryland, to bring the three survivors to Peninsula Regional Medical Center.
Meanwhile, more Coast Guard and Navy rescue crews converged on the scene to search for survivors.
Coast Guard Capt. Mont Smith, the operations officer at Air Station Elizabeth City, had piloted a second Pelican helicopter through turbulent headwinds for over an hour in order to reach the site.
He and his crew scanned the debris field below for signs of life. The people they saw were motionless, and it was difficult to determine whether they were simply too hypothermic to move, or deceased. Smith spotted one man and hovered over him, squinting through the whipping snow, trying to decide what to do.
"We all felt helpless," Smith said. "There was no way to know if the man was dead or alive. We had to try something."
Petty Officer 2nd Class Greg Pesch, the avionics electrical technician aboard the helicopter, volunteered to go down on the hoist cable. After some deliberation, Smith agreed.
Pesch's descent in the rescue basket was a harrowing one.
"The whole world seemed to be churning," Smith said. "I struggled to maintain a smooth hoist, but I know it was erratic."
Once in the water, Pesch grappled with the basket, trying to hold it steady as he guided the unresponsive man inside. It took several attempts, and then he scrambled into the basket himself and ascended back to the helicopter alongside the victim.
The aircrew spotted another potential survivor, and although Pesch attempted to descend again, the hoist cable spooled back on itself on the drum. The crew was forced to abort their mission and departed for nearby Salisbury Airport, where the man they had pulled from the water was pronounced dead on arrival by paramedics.
Dewey, Kelly and Cusick were the only men pulled from the ocean alive that morning. Their 31 shipmates had either succumbed to hypothermia or drowned.
All told, Coast Guard, Navy, and merchant vessel crews recovered 24 bodies from the scene of the capsizing. Seven were never found. It is likely the ship's engineers were trapped belowdecks when the vessel capsized.
"Throughout Coast Guard history, the missions of the service have been written in blood," said Dr. William Thiesen, historian, Coast Guard Atlantic Area. "Such was the case with the loss of the Marine Electric. This tragic event led to stricter marine safety regulations and the establishment of the Coast Guard's premiere rescue swimmer program."
While the incident itself served as the catalyst for the major changes to the Coast Guard and maritime community at large, the rigorous efforts of Coast Guard Capt. Domenic Calicchio brought the necessity for such changes into sharper focus.
Calicchio was one of the three marine safety officers charged with investigating the capsizing and sinking of the Marine Electric. The board of inquiry launched their investigation on July 25, 1984, and examined every aspect of the WWII-era cargo ship, its upkeep, the events leading up to its demise, and the Coast Guard's rescue efforts on that morning.
The investigation revealed that although the Marine Electric had been recently inspected several times by both the American Bureau of Shipping and the Coast Guard, marine inspectors had failed to note several discrepancies or recommend needed repairs. Investigators concluded that the casualty had most likely been caused by inadequate cargo hatches and deck plating, which allowed the crashing waves to flood the vessel's forward spaces.
Calicchio felt the Coast Guard needed to revamp its marine safety procedures and demand more of maritime companies, but more importantly, that the Coast Guard needed to demand more of itself.
His push for reform resulted in several additions to the Coast Guard's marine safety protocol, including guidance on hatch cover inspections, and new requirements for enclosed lifeboats and their launching systems, for ships' owners to provide crews with cold water survival suits, and for flooding alarms to be installed in unmanned spaces on vessels.
The Coast Guard also tightened its inspections of 20-year or older ships, which led to the near-immediate scrapping of 70 similar WWII-era vessels.
"Calicchio embodied the service's core values of honor, respect, and devotion to duty," said Thiesen. "He championed marine safety and pursued the truth even at the risk of his career of a Coast Guard officer."
While the Coast Guard changed many policies to make a safer marine environment after the the sinking of the Marine Electric, the service continues to make improvements on its marine safety program today. By 2025, it is estimated that the demand for waterborne commerce worldwide will more than double. The Coast Guard has published its Maritime Commerce Strategic Outlook in preparation for the increasing demand. 
The Marine Electric shipwreck also served as the genesis of another crucial development: the Coast Guard rescue swimmer program, which was established in 1984. The program's physical fitness standards, training and organizational structure were developed over a five-year implementation period, and in March of 1985, Air Station Elizabeth City became the first unit to receive rescue swimmers.
The first life was saved two months later.
The Marine Electric, a 605-foot cargo ship, as seen underway before its capsizing and sinking on Feb. 12, 1983. The converted WWII-era ship foundered 30 miles off the coast of Virginia and capsized, throwing most of its 34 crew into 37-degree water, where 31 of them drowned or succumbed to hypothermia. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)
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Sunday, February 10, 2019

Logbook summary -- and feeling blessed

Now that the boat is in the local area, I am transferring the scratchy log information I make underway to a more organized spreadsheet. The engine passed the 3000-hour mark on the trip home and the onboard mileage log shows it to have covered 19,867 nautical miles since new, measured by the GPS. I have personally run it now some 649 nautical miles in roughly 100 hours, although for more than half of that time either Paul Hamilton or Jim Trolinger was at the helm. This 13-year-old boat has averaged covering around 1,500 nautical miles a year in 230 hours. For both myself and the two previous owners, the average speed seems to work out to about 6.5 knots. The boat cruises at 8 knots, but the slower average is caused by no-wake zones, docking, shallow areas, etc.

The "shakedown cruise" from Herrington Harbor, near Annapolis, Maryland down to Savannah has been a great opportunity to get to know the quirks of the boat and, assisted by my able crew, a number of mysteries have been solved and issues resolved, or at least diagnosed. With some luck, there will be nothing but maintenance and new squawks to deal with after this visit to the boat yard. I plan to have the varnish re-done in the next few weeks. The much-needed paint job for the upper white portion of the boat will have to await another year's budget.

I am having a blast and feel incredibly blessed to be doing this again. Given my age, it seems to make sense to pursue something I love this much while I am still capable. Now that the boat is back from the cold Maryland winter, I am looking forward to enjoying it with my bride, who has graciously embraced this quest along with me. We began boating together before we were married, and some of our fondest memories are the many great boating trips we have enjoyed from the Gulf coast to the Bahamas to Maine. I have no doubt that new memories will be made on this boat as well. As the song said, "Our weary eyes still stray to the horizon, though down this road we've been so many times".

I have added a few more photos to the album. I will report back when we move the boat up the Ogeechee River to Ford, which should be in a few weeks. Thanks for tuning in.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Back in Georgia

Just a quick note that we have safely delivered the boat to Savannah. We arrived right at noon at the Hinckley Boat Yard in Thunderbolt after spending last night at the Skull Creek Marina on Hilton Head. It is good to be home.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

The ocean is way more fun than the Intracoastal Waterway

We arrived safely at the Charleston City Marina yesterday afternoon around 5:30. It was a spectacular day at sea, and very relaxing compared to the constant attention required to drive in the Waterway, with twists and turns, bridges, and shallow spots to look out for. With another day of calm seas promised today, we decided to change our plans and go to sea again. We are headed now to Port Royal Sound at the north end of Hilton Head, so we are bypassing Beaufort altogether, and giving us a short run tomorrow to Savannah. We should get inside the sound and somewhere to anchor or tie up before dark today.

Check out the photo album, as I have added a few this trip. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

First time at sea

It is 10 am Wednesday morning, February 6, 2019, and we are officially at sea for the first time on Division Belle. Seas are very calm with gentle swells of less than two feet. The wind is from the east at six knots. We left Georgetown, SC this morning at 8 am and came down the river to enter the ocean from Winyah Bay. We are headed for Charleston and should reach the ship channel there by around 4 pm.

Our first two days have been outstanding with beautiful weather and only a few shallow spots to navigate in the Intracoastal Waterway. Monday night was spent in North Myrtle Beach at a friendly marina called Barefoot Resort. A guy there runs a "concierge" service and for less than the price of Uber he took Paul Hamilton to Walmart to purchase a mount for our new salon TV. It is now installed with satellite TV working, but only a temporary antenna stuck to the window (purchased for $15 to allow us to watch the Super Bowl Sunday night, such as it was). There was no restaurant open on the property so we dined onboard.

Yesterday, Tuesday, we spent the entire day in t-shirts driving from the flying bridge. We departed Myrtle Beach at 9:45 and arrived at 4 pm in Georgetown, a historic and quaint little town with houses dating to before the American revolution. We had dinner last night at the "River Room", which was excellent. 

The high in Georgetown today is expected to be 74 degrees, and Charleston will be even warmer as we continue to move south. We expect to travel from Charleston to Beaufort, SC tomorrow and on to Savannah Friday.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Back on the boat

We are back on the boat. Paul Hamilton and I drove up from home to Southport, NC yesterday in a rental car. It is interesting that we could drive up in just over five hours, but the trip home on the boat will take more than five days (50 miles per hour or 50 miles per day). The weather was cold and rainy when we arrived, but promises to be great for the week. We had planned to head out this morning with stops in Myrtle Beach, Georgetown, Charleston, and Beaufort, SC, but it now appears we will be here one more day to finish up a few items.
We might have some options along the way to go offshore, depending on the weather. Georgetown to Charleston would be a good day to do so, as would Beaufort to Savannah, but we shall see.

The boat has been something of a movable repair project so far. Many issues have been resolved in Southport and there will no doubt be many more as we arrive close to home. This is, all-in-all, a great boat, but apparently no one did any maintenance for the past several years. We are making progress, and I won't bore you with the details.

We came up bearing the new flag of our home port at The Ford Plantation. We hoisted it today on the bow.

UPDATE @ 10  PM Monday 2.4.19: Many things came together early today, and we did indeed get away from Southport at around 10 am this morning. It was a beautiful day of cruising, with temperatures reaching around 70. We arrived mid-afternoon in Myrtle Beach, SC. 

Please click "Where's the boat?" above to track our progress.