Nick, the astute TV weatherman, has moved away.
I don’t know any details about why – better pay, more exciting weather to predict, in love – who knows? The only thing for sure is that he bailed out at the beginning of hurricane season, just as tropical storm, Claudette roiled up the Gulf and rolled across our shores.
Personally, I thought Nick was a great weather prognosticator; perhaps a little prone, because of his exceptional scientific knowledge, to get bogged down in the minutia of data analysis, but usually dead-on in his predictions about the big stuff, like hurricanes and tornados.
To be honest, I don’t pay much attention to the local weather until Jim Cantore shows up. His arrival tends to get me spun up and focused. It hasn’t always been that way. When I was at sea all those years, the weather was usually pretty high on my agenda because it was literally a matter of life and death, as it remains today for those who “go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these who see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep” (Psalm 107:23-24).
They say that “forewarned is forearmed,” and many seamen I know are walking library catalogues of accounts of shipwrecks caused by bad weather, negligence, and just human error. I’m no exception. Even though my seafaring days have been reduced to floating around Lake Serene’s Ski Lake on my lowly pontoon boat, I still keep a “weather eye” out for accounts of sea mishaps, both new and old, and mentally file them away – just in case.
In my twenty years on the big water, I sailed in everything from battleships, the queen of the seas, to rust bucket, World War II-era destroyers that could barely make it to the next port of call, and sometimes didn’t. I served as a qualified underway Officer of the Deck when I was a line officer, and I hated to have the watch when we pulled into ports like Boston in the fall or winter: usually socked in with fog early in the morning.
You couldn’t see past the foc’scle; all the little fishing trawlers off Nantucket painted on the bridge radar like gigantic cargo ships headed right at you – constant bearing, decreasing range; fog horns from unidentified ships blowing from all directions; you had to creep along so slowly you barely made enough headway to steer, etc. It was enough to make an honest man out of you.
The sea is a dangerous and capricious mistress. According to the casualty statistics maintained by the Lloyd’s of London Maritime Insurance Register, which documents the career of every ship in the free world, “an average of four ships sink each week.” Unless you are in the trade, you only hear about the more infamous or tragic ones, however: the Titanic, the Lusitania, the Andria Doria, the Normandie, which burned to the waterline alongside its pier in New York City in 1942, or maybe the Sultana disaster in the Mississippi River above Memphis at the end of the Civil War, where some 1,800 Union soldiers returning home were drowned after a boiler explosion.
Having been in the Navy for more than half of my life, I am, perhaps, more aware than most of less well-known tragedies at sea.
For example, a couple years ago, the Italian luxury cruise liner, Costa Concordia, ran aground off the coast of Tuscany in clear weather, killing 11 people and destroying the ship, supposedly because the captain had his girlfriend up on the bridge and was paying more attention to her than to the navigation of the ship. Not long afterwards, in the same area, another ship ran aground because the captain was maneuvering to get close enough to shore to pick up transmissions on his cell phone.
While Nicolas Cage brought this story to the movie screen a few years ago, not that many people are aware of the story of the USS Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser, that carried the atomic bomb, “Little Boy,” which would be dropped on Hiroshima, from San Francisco to the island of Tinian where it was loaded onto the Enola Gay. The ship was then ordered to the Leyte Gulf in the Philippines to prepare for the invasion of Japan. On the way, she was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and sank in 12 minutes. Nine hundred of the 1,196 crewmembers survived, but by the time rescue ships arrived four days later, only 317 remained alive. The rest had drowned or been eaten by sharks. This was the worst disaster, in terms of loss of life, other than Pearl Harbor, in U.S. naval history. I read just this past week where the last Indianapolis survivor had passed away.
I don’t know if the Canadian folksinger, Gordon Lightfoot, ever went to sea, but he sure nailed it with his iconic song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” The Fitzgerald, a Lake Superior bulk iron ore carrier, went down in a storm on November 10, 1975 with the loss of all hands. Carrying a cargo of 26,116 tons of taconite pellets consigned to Detroit, she went down in Whitefish Bay after the captain had reported over the radio that it was the worst storm he had ever seen. The subsequent Coast Guard investigation cited faulty hatch covers, lack of watertight bulkheads, and “damage from an undetermined source.”
Adverse weather conditions, specifically fog, caused the tragic “Halifax Explosion.” On the morning of December 6, 1917, the Mont-Blanc, a French cargo ship fully loaded with 2,925 tons of gunpowder, picric acid, gun cotton, and benzyl collided with the Norwegian vessel, Imo, in the Narrows separating the cities of Halifax and Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Approximately 2,000 people were killed immediately, the majority ashore, and the blast was the largest man-made explosion prior to the development of nuclear weapons.
One of the more fascinating medieval shipwrecks was the unexplained sinking of the Mary Rose, the flagship of King Henry VIII’s navy, in 1545. In a battle with the French, and while the king was watching in dismay from the shore, she simply tilted onto her starboard side and sank. While she was overloaded with sailors, carrying 700 but with a compliment of only 400, the most plausible explanation is that she fired a broadside with all her guns on the portside, pushing her over to starboard and causing water to gush in through the open gun ports on that side. Some have said that the king’s anger at losing the Mary Rose might have led to some of his wives losing their heads. The ship was salvaged in 1982 and is now a popular tourist attraction in Portsmouth, England. No such luck for the wives.
The king of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus, also lost his flagship, the Wasa, in 1628, after it sailed about 1300 yards on its maiden voyage. Top heavy and poorly designed, no subordinate had the courage to speak truth to power and tell the king that his favorite project was probably going to sink. He should have taken lessons from Peter the Great, of Russia, who actually worked in a shipyard in disguise so he could make sure his ships were constructed properly.
Curiously, a shipwreck in the English Channel in 1120, the sinking of the so-called “White Ship,” which resulted in the drowning of the presumptive heir to the throne of England, William the Atheling, indirectly caused thousands of deaths ashore. Although “only” 300 or so of English nobility were lost in the sinking, this resulted in a period of civil war, pressed by rival claimants for influence and to the throne. Chronicles of the day tell that in addition to those killed in battle, thousands starved to death as a result of the unrest.
Interestingly enough, ships don’t have to be underway to be involved in major disasters. I can think of at least two examples, the Port Chicago and Texas City explosions. On July 17, 1944 at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in Port Chicago, California, within sight of San Francisco and now known as the Concord Naval Weapons Station, bombs, shells, naval mines, missiles, torpedoes, and small arms ammunition destined for the World War II Pacific theater of operations, exploded as they were being loaded onto the liberty ship, E.A. Bryan. 320 sailors were killed outright, and 390 were severely injured.
What turned this into a “cause celebre” is that the majority of the dead and injured were African American sailors who had received little or no training for this dangerous duty. The ramifications of this disaster reached all the way to the highest echelons of the Roosevelt administration and had significant impact upon the ultimate racial integration of the Navy by President Truman on July 26, 1948. When I was a junior officer, I spent three years in USS Long Beach (CGN-9), America’s first nuclear-powered surface warship built from the keel up. At one time, it had a navigation bridge taller than an aircraft carrier. Not only was it nuclear powered, but it was also nuclear armed, with nuclear-tipped ship-to-shore missiles. Homeported in San Diego, whenever we came back from overseas, which wasn’t too often as we averaged over 300 days a year at sea, we would off-load ammunition and missiles at the Navy Ammunition Depot at Seal Beach, California, a suburb of Los Angeles.
Although security was tight, everyone knew when the “nukes” were being off-loaded, and I often watched the civilian stevedores casually swing them by crane from the ship to awaiting railroad flatcars. While they were supposed to be “unarmed,” I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if one of them fell out of the sling and hit the concrete deck. I had a feeling that the San Andreas fault line would be the least of Los Angeles’ worry, and that about 50 miles of the west coast would slide into the sea. As the old Navy saying goes: “Our chances would have been slim to none, and Slim is in Texas.” Obviously, it never happened, but there is another example of a ship loaded with ammunition blowing up while in port.
This incident, the Texas City, Texas, disaster, close to Galveston, took place on April 16, 1947 when the freighter, Grandcamp, loaded with volatile ammonium nitrate, similar to what was used in the Oklahoma City bombing, as well as small arms ammunition and bales of sisal twine, cooked off on its own, killing at least 581 people, including all but one member of the Texas City Fire Department.
This explosion triggered the first ever class-action lawsuit against the United States government, and also claimed the notoriety as the “deadliest nautical industrial accident in U.S. history.”
Back in the 1960s, I spent several months riding around the South China Sea onboard the USS Kilauea (T-AE 26), one of the Navy’s last ships purely devoted to hauling bombs, missiles, and ammunition. It was named after Mount Kilauea, an active volcano in Hawaii which native Hawaiians consider to be the home of “Pele,” the volcano goddess. I always thought this was a rather ironic name for an ammunition ship, and I hoped it wasn’t a case of what we refer to in English literature as “foreshadowing.” We hauled several hundred tons of explosives during the Vietnam war, and I often wondered what would happen were it to “blow.” I suspect that there would have been a new candidate for the deepest hole in the Pacific Ocean, or any ocean, which is currently the Marianas Trench, off Guam, which comes in at 6.8 miles deep. Luckily, I never found out.
Knowing full well that the perils are many and that danger can come faster than a hiccup from many sources besides the weather, many sailors would be wise to keep this old German folksong in the back of his or her mind:
There are no roses on a sailor’s grave, No lilies on an ocean wave, The only tribute is the seagull’s sweeps, And the teardrops that a sweetheart weeps.
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, bennyhornsby.com, or email him: firstname.lastname@example.org.