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Powerful. late winter storm ravages East Coast mariners

Jan 1, 2003

At least 45 mariners died in the fierce winter storm that swept the entire Eastern Seaboard from Texas to the Canadian Maritimes in mid-March. All but six of the dead were professional mariners who died at sea.

The storm, which was accurately forecast by all accounts, began its sweep of death and destruction in the Gulf of Mexico where a half-dozen sailors were killed and ended up causing the loss of a 550-foot gypsum carrier and its entire crew off the coast of Nova Scotia.

As the storm raged up the East Coast, harbor officials closed numerous ports to normal shipping and ship's crews were kept busy taking precautions against high winds and waves while tied to piers or anchored in roadsteads. Winds reached hurricane force and well beyond in many areas. A wind of 109 knots was reported at Dry Tortugas Light, about 70 miles west of Key West, FL. Winds of 85 knots were recorded in Charleston, SC. Heavy snow and ice were dumped on many areas, making rescue operations all the more difficult and hindering Coast Guard operations. In New York City, for instance, some Coast Guard units had difficulty responding to emergencies when drawbridges became frozen in position and would not open.

Although most ships and working vessels chose to remain in port, some were compelled to stay at sea when harbors were suddenly closed to traffic, and a few chose to proceed to sea despite severe storm warnings.

The casualty toll was dramatically heightened, of course, by the loss of the gypsum bulk carrier Gold Bond Conveyor and its entire 33-person crew on Sunday, March 14. Millions of Americans watched videotape of the ship rolling over and sliding beneath huge, frigid North Atlantic seas on CNN news broadcasts.

Investigators are exploring problems of structural failure and shifting cargo as they try to identify the cause of the sinking, which took place about 65 miles southeast of Cape Sable Island, Nova Scotia. Many mariners are speculating as to why Captain Chan chose to sail that day even though at least three other ship captains elected to remain in Halifax Harbor over the weekend after hearing urgent notices to mariners and severe weather forecasts broadcast by radio. The entire crew was of Chinese or Taiwanese origin, with many being residents of Hong Kong. Most of the crew must have died within minutes of the sinking, since there were reportedly only six survival suits aboard the vessel.

Gold Bond Conveyor left Halifax on the day before the storm in clear, spring-like weather and was carrying 27,000 tons of gypsum ore, bound for Tampa. The Halifax pilot who guided the ship out of harbor, reported that he had discussed the oncoming storm with the ship's captain, who was apparently well aware of the risks.

Less than 24 hours later, the captain discussed his ship's predicament with a Canadian Coast Guard pilot who was circling above the stricken vessel just hours before it sank. The captain indicated that the ship was taking sea water into some of its five cargo holds, and that he was attempting to counteract the increasing list to port by taking additional water into his starboard ballast tanks. There was some confusion as to whether the ship was taking sea water through damaged hatches on deck or through some area of structural failure. The ship's master was unable to send crewmembers onto the deck to check for damage for fear they would be washed overboard.

The ship began to list more heavily to port, and would-be rescuers became concerned that sea water was mixing with gypsum in cargo spaces on the port side, thus dramatically increasing weight of cargo on that side and possibly causing additional shifting of cargo. "When gypsum mixes with water it turns into a solid substance like cement, and that can be very dangerous", said a marine surveyor, commenting on the sinking.

With its list to port steadily increasing, and waves sweeping directly across her decks, Gold Bond Conveyor finally rolled over and sank by the bow shortly after midnight on Sunday.

The ship - formerly known as Colon Brown - had undergone a major overhaul in 1975, after it was grounded and heavily damaged in a storm. At that time, it was cut into two pieces at a shipyard in Japan and lengthened with the addition of a new section. Rescuers speculated that the vessel may have experienced its final demise through structural failure in places where it had been pieced back together.

The Liberian-registered ship was owned by Skaarup Shipping Corp., of Greenwich, CT, and under long-term charter to National Gypsum Co., a U.S. company. The ship carried gypsum on a regular run between Halifax and Tampa.

Frank Parker of Skaarup Shipping, said that the captain had not been pressured in any way to leave port on the day before the storm.Another ill-fated departure

Almost 2,000 miles away, seven sailors from a 200-foot freighter died in the same storm 70 miles southwest of Fort Myers, FL. The Honduran-registered freighter Fantastico had left Port Manatee with a cargo of phosphate fertilizer not long before the storm swept across the Gulf of Mexico. The ship ultimately capsized on Saturday night, throwing its 10 crewmembers into the sea. Three of the crew were saved, but others perished in view of would-be rescuers.

A Coast Guard helicopter crewmember said he spotted several people clinging to a lifeboat but was unable to reach them in stormy conditions which he described as winds above 60 knots and 25- to 30-foot seas. He said the survivors appeared not to have the strength to help themselves, despite repeated attempts at rescue by helicopters and a fishing vessel.

Most other deaths from the storm also occurred in the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday. Several sailors died when fishing boats sank in the Gulf.

One of two crewmembers died on the 38-foot fishing vessel June Bug out of Tarpon Springs, FL. The vessel's captain was rescued by the crew of a Coast Guard helicopter. The 42-year-old survivor had been in the ocean about six hours, clinging to debris from his vessel when he was plucked from the sea by rescuers - his fellow crewmember had disappeared hours before. "Another half-hour and I wouldn't have made it. The vessel had left port on Tuesday to catch grouper about 90 miles offshore and had almost made it back to port on Saturday morning when waves smashed in the pilothouse and wrecked the vessel.

Another Florida fisherman was lost from the shrimper Vilco 10 when he was washed overboard as the vessel was being towed in from the ocean after engine breakdown. The vessel was destroyed by waves as it neared shore, according to reports. Three other fishing vessels also sank off the Florida coast: Bone Dry, Mary C., and Twister, one or two crewmembers died in each of those sinkings.

At least six yachtsmen died in the storm as well. Among the dead were a Michigan restaurateur and his family who disappeared in the Straits of Florida, and a man and a woman from a sailboat which capsized in Tampa Bay near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

Chuck Muer, a well-known restaurateur from Detroit, along with his wife and two friends disappeared at sea along with their 15-year-old, 40-foot sailboat, Charley's Crab. They had been en route from the Bahamas to Jupiter, FL. Coast Guard planes searched more than 30,000 square miles trying to locate the vessel and/or its crew. In addition, relatives and friends chartered four planes to assist with the search, according to reports.

Muer and his companions were sailing a red-hulled, fiberglass Freedom 40 ketch-rigged sailboat built in 1977. The vessel reportedly carried two life rafts and an EPIRB device but it may never have been activated, according to reports. A cellular telephone operator in Florida reported receiving a very brief message (14 seconds) from Muer at about 0430 on Saturday morning, the day the storm swept over Florida.

In addition, two adults died when a fiberglass sailboat New Zest overturned on Tampa Bay. The vessel may have ran into part of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and then capsized or sunk, according to reports. Its operators were apparently trying to make their way into Boca Biega Bay under power on the morning of the storm. They radioed the Coast Guard to ask for help before the vessel disappeared, stating that they were unable to control their craft and that they were being swept by wind and wave directly towards the bridge.A day for precautions

The well-forecast late winter stormed precipitated a flurry of precautions by mariners along the entire Eastern Seaboard. Mariners were sobered both by the sound of tense-voiced broadcasters on VHF weather channels and by weather charts broadcast on Saturday that showed a monstrous low starting up from the Gulf Coast states with dramatic contour lines and record low barometric pressures.

In Mobile, AL, a tugboat sank and lost a barge loaded with 10,000 barrels of mineral spirits at the height of the storm which, in that area, occurred on the night of Friday, March 12th.

The 65-foot tug Adrienne L., operated by Gulf Coast South Marine Transportation of Gretna, LA, and skippered by Capt. Gregory Cobb, had left Mobile earlier that day in relatively mild conditions with 20-knot winds. By early evening, however, the tug, pushing its barge ahead was experiencing very stressful conditions in lower Mobile Bay, with six- to eight-foot seas pounding down the bay driven by winds of 50 to 60 knots from the north. As the tug crossed the lower bay, headed east towards the inland waterway to Florida City, first a port side door leading from the deck to the engine room blew in, taking the door frame with it, and then the starboard side push wire parted, giving the tug a list to port which encouraged boarding seas to send vast amounts of water down into the engine room.

When the port side push wire broke, the tug essentially lost all control over its barge, which began to drift away in the howling wind. By that time, however, the tug was flooding quickly. Its captain radioed Sand D, another tug pushing a barge ahead on the waterway. The skipper of Sand D managed to turn his unit around into the wind and return to rescue the sinking tug's crew by coming directly alongside. The Adrienne L., loaded with about 4,000 gallons of diesel, quickly sank by beacon 140, just north of Little Point Clear, and the barge drifted onto a shoal of hard sand not far away. Capt. Cobb and three other crewmembers were rescued unharmed.

Most shipping traffic in and out of the Port of Mobile was shut down, according to the Mobile Bar Pilots Association, but there were few other incidents of damage and no mariner injuries reported.

In Charleston, SC, an outbound, 578-foot, Liberian-flagged car carrier ran aground in high winds and seas about two miles from the entrance jetties. The ro/ro vessel, Aya II, with a local pilot aboard, was carrying 585,000 gallons of fuel plus a load of cars, vehicles and other cargo bound for Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The grounding took place at about 1230 hours on Saturday, March 13.

The Aya II had left harbor only after an unsuccessful attempt at docking and then anchoring in high winds in the inner harbor, according to local pilots. The ship had originally entered the port on Saturday morning and attempted to dock at Union street pier. But even with assistance from tugboats, the vessel could not be brought alongside the pier. Its captain and the local pilot then elected to steam back out to sea to wait out the storm. A Lykes lines containership had also entered port that morning, and, finding conditions unfavorable, headed back out to sea. Unfortunately, that plan didn't work so well for Aya II. "The car carrier was light and it had tremendous windage," said one of the pilots. "As soon as they got outside of the jetties, the pilot had to keep 20 degrees of rudder on her, but it still wouldn't hold her up. The wind was directly on the beam and it just literally blew the ship out of the channel. That rudder just couldn't provide steerage." The vessel spent the rest of the storm being battered by 15 foot seas while stuck on the bottom just outside the channel. Wind forces reached 70 and 80 knots offshore, according to reports.

It required a fleet of seven tugboats from local towing companies and from the Charleston naval base to free the vessel from the shoals about 24 hours later. Coast Guard officials said the grounding took place at 32anddeg; 42.0' N, 79 47.5' W. The vessel, apparently undamaged in the grounding, was later released by the Coast Guard.

Also in Charleston, Kenneth Bagley, captain of USNS Sealift Arabian Sea recorded barometric pressure as low as 976 millibars, which was lower, he said, than that recorded aboard his ship for both hurricanes Hugo and Andrew. Bagley said that his ship, tied securely in port, was buffeted by high winds of 80 knots.

Another dramatic adventure in Charleston involved the 500-foot Yugoslavian freighter Kapitan Martinovic, which began to drag anchor at the height of the storm and only by desperate efforts of its crew, local pilots and tugboat skippers was kept off the rocks.

In Savannah, GA, winds of 60 knots knocked out three sets of range lights on the Savannah River and brought traffic to a standstill. A 75-foot high steel skeletal tower on Cockspur Island, near the mouth of the river, was toppled by hurricane force winds. This eliminated the Tybee Knoll Cut Range which serves to guide traffic through the submerged jetties at the river entrance, according to Coast Guard officials there. Several vessels were forced to stay off the Georgia coast and endure the weather when local pilots found it too rough for routine passage. Two containerships which entered port following the storm were missing a total 13 containers.

Off the Florida Keys, the captain of a 147-foot freighter loaded with candy and cigarettes said he deliberately grounded his vessel on reefs of Florida's National Marine Sanctuary because he feared the vessel would sink in heavy seas.

The rust-streaked, St. Vincent-registered coastal freighter Miss Beholding was carrying about 20 tons of Snickers, MandMs, and Three Musketeers candy as well as cigarettes. The vessel also had 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel aboard and was en route from Miami to a port in Mexico when it ran into difficulty off the Florida Keys during the storm. Coast Guard officials were unable to explain why the vessel had chosen to head to sea in the midst of severe weather warnings. The vessel's operator, Bluefields Marine Ltd., of Georgetown, Grand Cayman, was initially unresponsive to official queries and requests for assistance after the grounding, according to reports.

It took several days for local salvagers to remove the vessel, was initially seized by the state government and was held until the owners paid for salvage costs and for damage to the coral reefs.

At Key West, the skipper of Zeus, a 110-foot tugboat, came close to disaster in high winds and seas when he lost the tow wire to his 340-foot barge loaded with caustic soda less than a half mile from areas of rocks and coral reefs.

The tug captain had been entering Key West's shipping channel from the south, towing his barge while looking for a safe place to wait out the coming storm. When he realized, however, that there might not be an opportunity to shorten his tow wire closer into the harbor in those conditions, the tug captain began a turn to port, apparently intending to head back out to sea to shorten his tow. However, the nylon shock line in his towing wire parted during the turn when the tow line fouled on the No. 2 approach buoy. During this time, Key West pilots had held up a large cruise ship, Sea Breeze, loaded with passengers, which was heading out to sea since the outer anchorage in Key West was judged unsafe during the storm. In the end, the tug managed to recapture its barge on the hip, the cruise ship managed its escape out to sea, and the Coast Guard was able to reset the transplanted buoy immediately after the storm. The tug master ended up getting special permission to land his deep-draft barge on the outside of the Navy mole while the tug itself tucked safely at the Navy's Pier 8.Unexpected sea time

In New York City all traffic ground to a halt on Saturday afternoon and, as at many other locations, the captain of the port ultimately closed the harbor.

As weather conditions deteriorated, Coast Guard officials first ordered that tugs stand alongside all anchored barges. That order was followed by another requiring pilots be aboard all anchored vessels, and that all lightering and bunkering work was to be suspended. At 1330 hours the Coast Guard ordered a halt to most traffic flow in the harbor except essential services and emergency work.

Richard Cox, 60, was the last Sandy Hook pilot to board a ship in New York before the harbor was officially closed. Cox was waiting aboard the pilots' 182-foot pilot boat New York outside Ambrose Channel for the 950-foot containership Raleigh Bay to arrive.

"By the time he showed up at noon we had conditions of rising wind and about 20-foot seas," said Cox. "They had one of those mechanical boarding ladders - I hate those things to begin with - so getting on board was not an easy task, but by the time I made it up onto the bridge it was blowing about 40 knots and snowing like hell, so we couldn't see much of anything. We were heading in towards the channel, but at the last minute I got word from the tugs and docking pilot in Newark Bay that they would not be able to handle us, and we immediately elected to head back offshore. In just another minute or two we would have been committed to entering the harbor. At almost that exact same time we heard that the port officials had closed the harbor.

"I ordered hard right rudder and gave her the juice and the ship swung slowly up into the wind and seas and off we went in the opposite direction. We passed Ambrose and decided to follow the Hudson Canyon out for the rest of the afternoon and night and then to head back in the morning. It got pretty bad that afternoon. We had seas of at least 30 feet and hurricane-force winds. We just kept those seas on our port bow and headed southeast with just enough power to maintain steerage. I was surprised for a big ship how much motion there was. We were rocking and rolling quite a bit. I got tossed out of my bunk once and finally had to stuff a couple of lifejackets under the mattress to stay in bed.

"There wasn't much food eaten that night, although the ship's routine continued as normal as far as I could tell. The only real inconvenience was that the ship's TV antenna got blown away, so for entertainment we watched movies. I tell you, I never watched so many movies in one day in my entire life!"

Cox, who has been a New York pilot for 41 years, said the last time he found himself unexpectedly going to sea on a ship was in the 1970s when he became a reluctant passenger on the Cunard liner Queen Elizabeth 2 en route to San Juan. But when the ship experienced power failure he actually ended up being offloaded in Bermuda.

In Providence, RI, captain of the Mobil fleet tugboat Tamaha said he spent part of Saturday night pushing against the side of Mobil's new double-hulled barge Iroquois just to hold it in to the dock. "It blew like hell, I can tell you that," he said. "We doubled up all our lines and ballasted the barge down as low as we could but we still had to hold her in for a couple of hours to counteract the effect of that wind blowing us off the dock. And next door to us was the Rhea Bouchard tug with its barge. They had to push in for the entire night because they didn't have the kind of capstans that we have for tightening up lines."

In Portland, ME, two tugs from Portland Towboats spent most of Saturday night pulling the U.S. Navy destroyer John Paul Jones away from its pier at Bath Iron Works. The two tugs had their sterns to the wind and waves in a somewhat exposed position.

The tugs' bows were rising and falling dramatically with choppy seas in the harbor, and to minimize interplay between tugs and destroyer, the crews rigged up two backing lines and a head line in such a way that the bow of each tug was about 30 feet away from the side of the ship. In addition, to reduce chafe, they ran their headline down from the ship directly to the forward H-bitt, bypassing the rounded bow staple which would normally be used. In previous storms, headlines had chafed through at the staple because of wave action.

"We took a lot of water over our stern that night, but it was mostly just spray and snow and wind," said one of the tug's crew. Mariners in Portland also had to dig out from under an 18-inch snowfall that night.


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