Until the Sea Shall Free Them
Sometimes the best stories are the ones that you read in books. And today is no exception to that. I have recently read a great little story that involves some very brave sea captains that I think other boaters might enjoy. So, take some time and check it out for yourself.
Somewhat over nineteen years ago, on February 11, 1983, a forty year old World War II oil tanker which had been converted to a coal carrier dropped her harbor pilot at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay and headed for Somerset, Massachusetts. It was a routine with which the old ship and her thirty four man crew were quite familiar. Take on close to 25,000 tons of coal at the Sewalls Point Coal Piers near Norfolk, run thirty two hours up to the Brayton Point electrical generating plant, dump the cargo and return empty to pick up another load. This February 11 "routine" voyage would be anything but that. In fact, it would be the last for the SS MARINE ELECTRIC and thirty one of the men on board.
The Sunday, May 1, 1983 edition of the "Philadelphia Inquirer" ran a headline on page one consisting of just two words, "Death Ships". The story of the MARINE ELECTRIC was presented as "How the U.S. Sends Rustbuckets to Sea, Sailors to Their Graves". One of the "Inquirer" investigative reporters, Robert Frump, has just completed a startling book on the subject, entitled "Until the Sea Shall Free Them: Life, Death And Survival In The Merchant Marine".
This is a great sea story. The author writes very well, and most importantly, he is accurate. This fellow knows port from starboard, bow from stern, and can tell you how a claw and a turnbuckle secure an anchor and its chain for sea.
What makes this book stand apart from others is that many of those portrayed are, or were, known to me. One of the MARINE ELECTRIC's lost engineering officers was a former neighbor who went to Newburyport (Massachusetts) High School, from which my wife Margaret and I both graduated in 1939. He was Mike Price, the great linebacker for my friend Coach Jim Stehlin's 1966 State Championship football team. In 1983, Mike, when not sailing, lived in nearby Salisbury where he left a wife and daughter. Of course they, Marsha Price and Heather, are featured, and Jim is mentioned. Then there is Bob Cusick, the ship's Chief Officer, one of the three survivors who, with his wife Bea, attends my monthly merchant marine veterans luncheons in Hampton, New Hampshire. Also a key character is United States Coast Guard Captain, and former merchant marine skipper, Domenic Calicchio, who I have been casually acquainted with for may years.
When the MARINE ELECTRIC headed northeast off the Delaware coast that February she ran smack into a building winter Nor'easter. Later, her Master changed course to the West, to escort a distressed fishing boat towards land, and for a while took a terrible beating from the wild seas. Eventually, a Coast Guard helicopter dropped pumps to the fishermen and the MARINE ELECTRIC was allowed to return to its Northeast course.
Throughout the balance of the day and into the early hours of February 12 the old ship struggled. Ultimately her deck officers sensed trouble. Frump vividly relates the rusty, wasted MARINE ELECTRIC's last hours, interspersing the action with tales of the losses of ships of similar age and condition. He accuses the American Bureau of Shipping, the classification society which sets the standards for commercial shipbuilding and repair, of overlooking obvious faults. He has no kinder words for the United States Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office.
Four days after the sinking, and months before the "Inquirer's" crusade had landed on the desks of ship owners, legislators, bureaucrats, and union officials involved in the marine industry, the Coast Guard convened a Marine Board of Investigation at Portsmouth, Virginia. The battle lines were drawn up. At one table sat the legal representatives of the ship's owner, Marine Transport Lines. At another was Bob Cusick and his lawyer from the Masters, Mates, and Pilots union.
The company's stance was there was nothing wrong with the ship. She sank because she went aground while escorting the fishing boat. Later, they claimed Cusick was at fault because he had not properly secured the starboard anchor. Cusick's rebuttal hinged on the condition of the rusted hatches, the ill-fitting gaskets, on holes in the deck patched with coffee can lids and plastic. Any or all of those contributed to the loss of his ship.
You will have to read the book to determine the outcome, though I will tell you, Captain Domenic Calicchio, U.S.C.G., the former merchant mariner, may not wear Admiral's stars, but he is the star of this tale.