Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Romance of the Sea Wears Thin- The St. Patrick Disaster, December 1981

The St. Patrick being towed into Kodiak, December 2, 1981
For a long time after the St. Patrick was towed into Womens Bay in December 1981, you could drive by on the road to Bells Flats and see it tied to a mooring buoy, right in front of the rodeo grounds. The boat had a starboard list when they found it abandoned and drifting off Afognak Island and that list never went away, and it swung in the wind off the buoy for years, the rigging sagging, the hull rusting, a ghost ship, until it sank at the end of its chain in the mid-1980s.
The St. Patrick had been built in Bath, Maine in 1948. It was 138 feet long, and because it was over 200 net tons, the Coast Guard required the vessel to be operated by licensed officers, including a captain, first mate, and engineer. In the summer of 1981 the owner, a man named Leroy Wharton, of Hampton, Virginia, hired Al Palmer, an experienced fisherman and licensed master, to bring her to Kodiak to fish for scallops. For six months, Palmer and his crew delivered scallops to the Alaska Food Company plant in Gibson Cove. In late November 1981, when. Palmer took a trip off, the mate, Cornelius Green, took command. Green was not licensed to be a ship’s master however, and when the boat left Gibson Cove on its final trip just after Thanksgiving, it sailed illegally, a condition which would eventually have large legal consequences.  
There were 11 men on board, most from the Lower 48, and one woman, Vanessa Sandin, of Kodiak, eighteen years old, who sailed as the cook. Her sole previous marine experience was working the previous summer on her dad’s boat in Bristol Bay.
The St. Patrick headed for Marmot Bay, thirty miles north of Kodiak, and Cornelius Green told the plant manager they’d be back in about eight days.
On Sunday the 29th, the wind came up northeast and by that evening was gusting in excess of 65 knots. The crew secured the deck and the skipper jogged slowly into the weather.
Shortly after midnight a 25 foot wave struck the vessel on the port side, smashing several wheelhouse windows and an engine room door on the port side. The engineer inexplicably informed the crew that the engine room batteries would explode when the sea water in the bilge submerged them. The skipper, in a visibly confused state, and apparently believing the boat to be in imminent danger of capsizing and sinking, ordered the crew to abandon ship.
The wave had toppled a 55 gallon drum on deck being used as a day tank to supply fuel to the engines, and as the crew frantically donned their survival suits, the fuel line from this tank air-locked. With the fuel supply cut off, the main engine and electrical generator shut down and the lights went out.
Without power, the vessel rolled violently in the trough. The wind screamed through the rigging and waves swept the deck. The boat’s life raft, secured behind the wheelhouse, either broke loose from its cradle or was released by a crewman, and while exactly what happened has never been explained, the inflated raft floated just off the stern, untethered, its canopy light glowing yellow in the black storm.
There were twelve people on board but only nine survival suits, so three men went into the 40 degree water wearing only life jackets. The crew swam for the raft’s light, but the wind pushed it away faster than they could swim. It drifted away, empty.
Two crewmembers had gone over the side together but were soon separated in the heavy seas. One of them, Robert Kidd, floated alone in the water for twenty four hours until he managed to get ashore on Marmot Island late Monday night. He was spotted and rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter on Tuesday, a day and a half after he left the St. Patrick.
The other ten people clung or tied themselves together, but within an hour the three men without survival suits lost consciousness to hypothermia and drowned. The remaining seven survived the night and came in sight of land later that day. Two of the men tried to swim to shore but retreated after watching 20 foot breakers smashing against the cliffs of Pillar Cape.  
Several of the crew, including Vanessa Sandin, were wearing leaking survival suits and as their second night in the water came on, they succumbed to the cold. The others faded too, one by one, until only one man, Wally Thomas, was left alive.
Wallace Thomas at Kodiak Hospital, December 2, 1981
“I was with six other people in the water,” Thomas would later tell the Kodiak Daily Mirror. “I was taking turns holding them up. They were my friends and I wanted them to live very badly. That was enough then, when we were still together. That was enough to keep going.”
Some time before dawn on Tuesday, Thomas crawled ashore on Marmot Island, two miles down the beach from Robert Kidd. A Coast Guard helicopter found him.
Starboard side of the St. Patrick wheelhouse,
after being towed to Kodiak
Three bodies were recovered from the Marmot Island surf and several from the sea nearby. Vanessa Sandin’s body was found two weeks later near the entrance to Womens Bay. The abandoned, but still floating, St. Patrick and the empty raft were found adrift by Fred Ball, a commercial air charter pilot flying to Afognak, less than 12 hours after the crew abandoned ship, and while eight of them floated alive in the ocean nearby. The boat was taken under tow that afternoon by another scallop boat, the Nellie Belle.
On clear days, from the Brechan yard on Mill Bay Rd, you can look north and see Marmot Island lying blue like a frozen whale just off the east side of Afognak Island. If the weather had been good that November night, and things had not gone so wrong, you could have seen the lights of the St Patrick out there, flickering silently and unremarkably thirty miles away. But the weather was not good that night, and things did go wrong and the events of that night still reverberate thirty-five years later.  
Robert Kidd and Wally Thomas never went to sea again, and the survivors of the men and the woman who were lost on the St. Patrick carried on, or not, as people do when calamity descends. During the legal proceedings which followed the abandoning of the St. Patrick, a lawyer for one of the plaintiffs, surveying the suffering which had resulted from the event, mentioned that for him, “the romance of the sea wears thin.”
From the road now there’s nothing to see of the wreck lying at the bottom of Womens Bay, but there’s a video of it online- sea anemones along the rails glowing and silent in the green light fifty feet down, the white letters of the name still legible on the stern.


The St. Patrick moored in Kodiak's St. Paul Harbor,
early January 1982




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