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

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Prinsendam Fire October , 1980

The SS Prinsendam listing  in the Gulf of Alaska,
October 4, 1980
Just after midnight on Saturday, October 4, 1980, a fire broke out in the engine room of the 427 foot Prinsendam, a Holland America cruise ship with 320 mostly elderly passengers, and 200 Indonesian crewmen and Dutch officers on board. The ship was  in the middle of the Gulf of Alaska, 150 miles south of Yakutat, on a cruise from Vancouver to Singapore. 

The fire went quickly out of control. The crew sealed the engine room and flooded it with CO2, but the fire kept burning. 

A few minutes before 1 a.m., Captain Cornelius Wabeke, a 52 year old mariner with 30 years’ experience, ordered his radio officer, Jack Van der Zee, to send out an URGENT Morse Code radio message. On hearing it, Coast Guard Communications Station Kodiak requested that the Prinsendam send a full SOS message, preceded by an international auto alarm, which would ring an alarm bell in the Radio Officer’s and Captains’ staterooms of any nearby ships, even if they were not on the bridge to hear an URGENT message at that late hour. The Captain however, concerned that an SOS would give legal permission for other ships to salvage the Prinsendam, directed his radio officer to hold off on the alert. Van der Zee made the SOS broadcast anyway, saying later that “If I lose my license, get fined, and go to jail, at least I will be alive and so will the passengers and crew, God willing." 

 At 1 a.m. Wabeke informed the passengers of a “small fire in the engine room,” and ordered them to the promenade deck. They arrived dressed in everything from tuxedos to night dresses. Some were barefoot. 

The Coast Guard meanwhile began coordinating a rescue with H3 helicopters and C-130s from Sitka, Kodiak, and Anchorage, and the cutters Boutwell in Juneau and Woodrush in Sitka, and the Mellon, near Vancouver. The Exxon tanker Williamsburg, 90 miles south of the Prinsendam, hearing the SOS, turned around and headed for the burning ship. 

By 2:00 a.m. the smoke in the promenade lounge had forced the passengers outside. Unable to return to their staterooms because of the fire, underdressed people wrapped themselves in draperies torn from the windows. By 3:30 the fire had burned through the wiring to the ship’s firefighting pumps and the ship had developed a starboard list as water entered the hull through portholes blown out by the fire. Sometime between 5 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. Wabeke gave the order to abandon ship. 

Prinsendam passengers await rescue from a lifeboat 
October 4, 1980
Six lifeboats, four inflatable life rafts and a ship’s tender were lowered. While the officers tried to maintain order, many of the crewmen climbed over the passengers in a panic to get aboard the boats. When they pulled away, several, designed for 60 passengers, had 90 people aboard. Captain Wabeke and a firefighting crew stayed behind, along with several Coast Guardsmen who had helicoptered in, and some of the ship’s entertainers who had not found room in the boats. 

The Williamsburg arrived around 8 a.m. and the helicopters began ferrying people from the lifeboats to a helipad on the tanker. A Coast Guard doctor triaged the passengers as they landed and put those in poor shape onto helicopters headed for Yakutat to refuel. He would later say that he’d seen a woman with a brain tumor, a man with a malaria attack, and others with epileptic seizures and terminal cancer. All of them were cold, wet, and hungry. Winds at dawn were 10 knots and seas were less than 5 feet, but by 5 p.m., the wind had increased to 50 knots and the helicopters could no longer manage the lifts. The cutter Boutwell lowered a small launch, but many of the Prinsendam’s crew trampled the passengers again climbing from the lifeboats to the launch, so the effort was abandoned. The cutter then lowered a 40 foot Jacob’s ladder, but this was more than many of the passengers could manage. Eventually, and they were winched onto the Boutwell’s deck with a sling. 

The Prinsendam, just before sinking, October 11, 1980
Captain Wabeke, the last man on the Prinsendam, was lifted off the deck around 6 p.m. The Williamsburg headed for Valdez with 450 passengers. The Boutwell went to Sitka with the rest. On October 11, a week after the fire began, the ship rolled on its side and sank in 8,000 feet of water.

Holland America told shopkeepers in Sitka and Valdez to run a tab and give the survivors anything they needed. They bought a lot of clothes. The national media descended on Southeast Alaska, and learned the hard way that a rental car cannot be driven from Juneau to Sitka. The passengers wrote letters of gratitude to the Coast Guard for saving their lives. 

A Dutch Court of Inquiry reprimanded Captain Wabeke and some of his officers for mishandling the emergency, effectively ending their careers. Radio Officer Van der Zee was awarded the Order of the Netherlands by Queen Beatrix for doing the right thing. 

As in most disasters there were moments of greatness and of ignominy, but in the end, remarkably, 520 people were rescued from a burning ship 150 miles from land, in October, in Alaska, without loss of life. In number of lives saved at sea, it is the U.S. Coast Guard’s finest rescue effort. 

On February 20, Coast Guard Appreciation Day, we should remember too that some of the Coast Guardsmen who helped save people on the Prinsendam still live in Kodiak. 

Note- The exact count of passengers and crew varies depending on which source is used. The numbers cited here are from an August 4, 2007, Coast Guard Report, “Top Ten Coast Guard Rescues.”

Sources for this blog post:

A Morning To Remember The Prinsendam fire kindles concern about safety at sea. 
Time Magazine, 10/20/1980

Coast Guard Announces 1,109,310 Lives Saved Since 1790. USCG Press Release 8/4/2007 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Tragedy of the John and Olaf

Early on the morning of Wednesday, January 16, 1974, John Blaalid, 45, the skipper of the 86 foot shrimp trawler John and Olaf, radioed the Coast Guard to inform them that he and his crew were experiencing heavy icing in Portage Bay, on the Alaska Peninsula, across Shelikof Strait from Kodiak Island. Blaalid reported that winds in excess of a hundred miles an hour and temperatures in the single digits had caused heavy icing on the boat, but believed they could ride out the storm until daylight. At some point after that call the crew managed to anchor the vessel in Jute Bay, a shallow dent in the coastline on the north side of Portage Bay.

Along with Blaalid, originally from Norway, were crewmen Arthur Gilbert, age 47, from Kodiak, Arthur’s son, David, 22, and Ivar Gjerde, a Norwegian national, age unknown. Captain Blaalid called the Coast Guard again sometime between 7:30 and 9:30 that morning, to let them know he and his crew were abandoning ship. While no one knows for sure why they chose to abandon the vessel and get in the raft, conjecture has endured for years on Kodiak’s waterfront that Blaalid and his crew believed the John and Olaf was in imminent danger of capsizing from the weight of the ice on the superstructure and rigging. That was the last radio call from the John and Olaf.
The Coast Guard immediately began an air and sea search to rescue the fishermen in the raft. High winds prevented flights from Air Station Kodiak however, so a C-130 launched from Elmendorf Air Base in Anchorage. Over the Shelikof that evening the pilot encountered extreme turbulence, low visibility and sea spray at 700 feet. They did not see the John and Olaf or its life raft.
The Coast Guard cutter Citrus and the F/V Elizabeth F also tried to reach Portage Bay, but winds in the Shelikof of 80 to 90 knots- 92 to 103 miles an hour- forced the Elizabeth F to abandon the effort. The crabber Virginia Santos and the research vessel Nautilus also joined the search, but the Nautilus remained stuck by 60 knot winds in Katmai Bay, forty miles north of Portage Bay. The Citrus was delayed in getting to Portage Bay after it detoured to escort the F/V Chief into Jap Bay, on Kodiak’s east side, after that vessel’s radar malfunctioned.

On Thursday the 17th a C-130 spotted the John and Olaf about 500 yards from shore in Jute Bay, “still in the water but touching ground.” A photo taken from the plane, of the boat encased almost unrecognizably in ice, ran in newspapers around the world.
The tug Duncan Foss arrived at Jute Bay the next day, and searchers found coffee still in cups on the galley table of the John and Olaf, but no crew. According to longtime Kodiak resident Dick Waddell, who was a crewman on the Foss that winter, and who knew John Blaalid well, “everything was normal, nothing was tipped over like sometimes you get in a storm.”
The crew of the John and Olaf had removed their life raft from its cradle atop the wheelhouse and presumably deployed it alongside the John and Olaf before climbing in. Whether they untied the raft from the vessel deliberately, in the belief that the boat might capsize from the weight of the ice and take them down with it, or if it was torn away from the boat by the wind, or if something else happened, remains a mystery.
What is known is that the hundred mile an hour, 10 degree wind blew the raft out of Jute Bay and into the southern end of Shelikof Strait. On Friday, two days after the crew had abandoned the John and Olaf, the empty life raft was spotted and recovered by the Citrus on Tugidak Island, off the southern end of Kodiak Island, 75 miles southeast of Jute Bay.It is conceivable that the raft was overturned by the wind on the exposed crest of a wave, or tumbled upside down by a breaking sea as it crossed the Shelikof.
In both of those scenarios, the men could have been tossed out into the water, or clambered deliberately out from under the overturned raft. Presumably in survival suits, and thus being low in the water, the sea current may have carried them south, past Tugidak Island, while the life raft, being more exposed to the wind, was carried directly to the island. In any case, the men were never found.
John Blaalid and his partner in the boat, Olaf Wellstein, were Norwegians who had fished for Dick Waddell on his boat the Pacific Pearl before deciding to buy a shrimper of their own. They bought the Ruth McKenzie and renamed it the John and Olaf. Blaalid had recently moved his family from Norway to Kodiak.
Art Gilbert had lived in Kodiak for about nine years and had signed onto the John and Olaf the August before, with his son Tony. David Gilbert, a law student at the University of Oklahoma, had prevailed on his brother Tony to give up his place on the boat for a few weeks after Christmas so he could make money for college.
The John and Olaf remained where it was anchored in Jute Bay for many years, a cautionary hulk which gradually deteriorated before eventually breaking up and disappearing.