Recollections of Plum Island Seeing The Light

By David Robb Home Back

Search and Rescue

Palmer was working a particularly nasty SAR call (Search and Rescue) over at the watch shack. The wind had picked up steadily all the while I was out cleaning the front walk. As I was slipping off, Boatswains mate Theile woke each of us to help get the boat ready. The report said that a tug with a large barge tow was fighting heavy seas to the north of us in St. Martin's straight and had lost the tow. I asked Theile as we were dressing what we were supposed to do when we found the barge and he replied in a sing-song banter, "Hoss her down and bring'er home."

"OoooooKayyyy," I thought as I pulled on my dungarees. "Let's see," I figured. "There's this barge on the loose…. Hey, Boats! How big is this barge?" I called out as I pulled on a boon-docker boot. "Forty feet wide and 90 feet long they reported," he replied from the next room. "What's the weather on scene?" "Winds are 25 to 35 knots gusting to 40, seas are 12 to 16 feet, 57 degrees and overcast," came the reply. "What's on the barge that is so important. Won't she just fetch up on a shoal or beach and a commercial tug can get her from there?" I asked as I pulled on my other boon-docker. "A crane, 2 bulldozers, about a half a million dollars worth of construction equipment and about fifty barrels of fuel oil," came the answer. "Can't take the chance of her breaking up and spreading all that oil. Nearest commercial tug is in Detroit." "And we're gong to bring her back with an old single screw forty one foot boat on the worst night of the year," I amazed out loud. Theile stuck his blonde head in the door, and growled, "Look, sailor, you volunteered for the Coast Guard. No one drafted you. Someone out there needs help and there's no one else to call. We have to go out. We don't have to come back. Get used to it! Get moving!"

There is a point where you learn a job and then you do the job and then you become the job. At that moment, I crossed over the final threshold and became a professional.

Everyone was in the boathouse from the Chief on down. The cook had made sandwiches and coffee with an entire uncut watermelon included. The boat was perched high on its cradle as the blazing orange sodium vapor lights in the moist air gave the scene a surreal appearance. Theile, Oldenberg, Farr and I were directed aboard by the Chief as the diesel engine came alive with a deafening roar and a gush of blue smoke. A moment later, the Pelican hook that secured the cradle was released and the boat splashed into the icy black water. Theile wheeled the boat about smartly and headed due north from our dock toward a tiny flashing light atop a mid channel buoy as the lights of the station diminished behind us. At the buoy, we came right 90 degrees and hobby-horsed east toward an angry Lake Michigan and ever increasing sized waves. My stomach went queasy immediately as I fought to keep down the acid and curdling ice cream. I specifically remembered standing in the amidships well deck as we rolled along and tried to see ahead. All I saw was black. I looked left and right but all I could see was the reflection of the red and green port and starboard lights reflecting on the water. I looked up and it too, was black. I held my hand in front of my face but I couldn't see it. I couldn't see anything and neither could anyone else.

I asked Theile how we knew where we were going. As he concentrated on the green glow of the compass he said he didn't. Actually, all he had to go by was the compass and the engine rpm's. From previous test rides, they had clocked the boat over a measured mile at various RPMs on smooth water. The compass was compensated (swung) every year for accuracy so theoretically, if we ran at so many RPM for so many minutes on such and such a course, we should end up right where we wanted to be. But just how much the waves were slowing us down we did not know. How much the wind was pushing off course, we did not know. The compass was swinging a crazy twenty degrees either side of our course with the wild motion of the boat so we couldn't be sure of our track. The best we could be doing was something between E x NE x E to E x SE x E and that we all knew was a prescription for disaster.

We had to thread the narrow shoal strewn straight between Plum Island and Washington Island, then make a precision turn north between Washington Island and the ominous Whaleback Shoals that was covered by a mere two feet of breaking surf. Then, we had to get past Rock Island all by blind dead reckoning before we hit open water and our mission. Never was there a more articulate term that night than the words, "Dead Reckoning".

When we made our left turn north to head between Washington Island and the Shoals at the prescribed time, we could have been off by a quarter mile or more and be heading at 8 knots for the rocky cliffs of the island and an end I'd care not to think about to this day. But you can bet we were all thinking about it that night. Theile was 22 years old and had all our lives in his hands.

As we felt the full fury of Lake Michigan on our starboard side, we knew we cleared the lee of Whaleback Shoals safely. We were now broadside to the sea and taking some serious rolls of over 50 degrees. With the pounding of the bow into the waves, it combined into a dizzy cork screw motion that resulted some serious seasickness.

Seasickness is deadly on a mission like this. You become disoriented, you can't think clearly, you are nearly doubled in abdominal pain, your stomach is in your throat, you can't concentrate and yet you must. Oldenberg and Theile lost their lunch before we turned north while the less experienced Farr and I fought it. The icy breaking waves that were continually washing over us were a bone chilling cold but somewhat refreshing to my deteriorating state. Farr collapsed below in the forward cuddy cabin after the first hour of hard riding. I stayed at the rail and finally tossed my cookies and felt better immediately although very weak.

After three hours of hellish misery, the sun showed it's morning rays far to the east as I got my first sight of the running seas. Nothing in my life had prepared me for what I saw. We were climbing over breaking waves that were at least (I was told) thirty feet high and only fifty feet apart. As we came over the top of them, the wind and spray stung my face like needles. The boat exploded over each crest and flopped down hard on the other side for a dizzying surf nearly out of control. At the bottom, she would bury herself all the way to the superstructure and stop. After a couple of agonizing seconds of chattering and vibration from the screw, she would roll off, shed tons of green water aft and climb the next one. Farr finally struggled out the cabin hatchway and positioned himself next to me as we held on to the ice cold steel rail together for dear life. He looked like hell but then, we all did. We had now been cranking through this maelstrom for over three miserable hours.

We tried to talk. On top of the crests, we screamed to be heard. In the troughs, we could whisper if it weren't for the roar of the diesel. By now, I was deep into the dry heaves which is worse than puking. After the first three hours of throwing up, I was afraid I was going to die. After the next three, I was afraid I wouldn't. This was not to be my last bought with seasickness over the next three years but I would learn how to eat right and handle it better like Thiele and Oldenberg.

We had made it past the islands and the shoals and finally to open water where the waves were not so steep but still just as high. I dug a jack knife into a watermelon to replace some of the dehydration I was having. It went down and came right back up. I was becoming useless. Theile drove on with a fierce look of determination while Oldenberg with nothing to do now, slumped against the bulkhead asleep.

Our quarry was reported to be about twenty miles ahead. We were netting about four knots headway, most of it up and down. Theile estimated we had another five hours of misery to endure. The winds backed to the Northeast as we took the seas more on the bow. This eased the rolling but increased the spray and solid water that came aboard. There were times that I was waist deep in ice water until it ran out of the scuppers.

About an hour later, a Coast Guard twin-engine aircraft from Traverse City, Michigan appeared overhead. The pilot flew a direct course over us on a line to the wayward barge and then circled it to indicate its position. He was a long way away from us. I heard the pilot of the aircraft call on the Coast Guard frequency and asked if we knew where we were. Theile answered, "I will as soon as we surface." God love him. The pilot chuckled and advised that we were 20 miles from the barge and warned, "You know, that thing is a lot bigger than you." Thiele replied, "Not big enough, apparently. I still can't see it." The pilot replied, "You sea horses are crazy" and banked for home a half-hour away and probably a hot lunch.

We plowed on for three more punishing and miserable hours.

When we were within what we thought would be eye sight of the barge, the 180 foot Coast Guard Cutter Mesquite appeared close off our starboard side heading in the same direction at 12 knots. She radioed that they would take charge of the scene and we could return to base thinking they were doing us a favor.

Angry and deflated, we reluctantly worked our course around 180 degrees and headed for home, six miserable, cold, wet hours away.

Of course, we could not have secured the barge if we got to it but after all that work and misery, you'd think we would be allowed to share in the victory. We arrived back at the station at 2:00 PM. It took us an hour to clean up the boat and make it ready in case we got another call. I was too tired to eat and crashed all standing (with my clothes on). The next morning, the Chief dogged the watches so those of us on the SAR the night before could sleep in and then do station duty all day to rest up. Although every muscle in my body ached, it was a still beautiful sunny day.



This entire story is copyright by David Robb, and appears here with his permission.

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This page last modified 08/24/2003