LOST AT SEA

TAGS51 a NOAA research ship, but not named for me!
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On one of my first trips as a chief mate in the late 60's an unusual set of circumstances caused our owner to think we were lost at sea and file a missing ship report with Lloyds of London.

We had just completed a voyage to Viet Nam, and were loading cargo for Northern Europe along the East Coast of the United States. It was late December, the weather was cold and miserable as expected. We were due for our annual inspection, and making matters worse was an epidemic of what was called the "Hong Kong Flu" which had about a third of our crew out of service and in bed. I was the ship's "doctor" and had to take care of them as well.

Every year we had to undergo a rigorous U.S. Coast Guard inspection. Coast Guard personnel would board the ship, and inspect the hull and machinery, especially as related to fire fighting, lifesaving, and safety items, to see that it was present and in good working condition. Those inspections are tough on a newer ship, and really difficult on a ship that is approaching 30 years old. I remember one evening after the inspectors left, of trying to fit the air flotation tanks back into one of the lifeboats. There were about 20 or more oddly shaped tanks that fit under thwarts and in the bow and stern. They had to be removed and tested at each inspection. Getting them back in place was like solving a jig saw puzzle. We were calling at the ports of New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. The Philadelphia inspectors were the toughest.

A young Coast Guard Academy graduate seemed to have an uncanny ability to find our weak points. They checked all life jackets, life rings, fire hoses, and lifeboats as we expected. Our running light panel was a mess, the 30 year old circuits were full of grounds. The lights worked by the grace of God and good luck. Finally he gave us permission to proceed to Baltimore, the next port, if we stationed an extra lookout to watch the 5 running lights and make sure they were operational. In Baltimore things went better. We got some shipyard help to complete the inspection. Finally we got a barely passing grade from the Coast Guard, we got our cargo loaded, and we were ready to go. The pilot came to take us to sea, and we left the dock, but unfortunately when we let go the tugs, the rudder would not properly respond. The wheel command said hard over, 35 degrees right rudder, but the rudder only moved about 5 degrees. Since the boilers had been recently inspected, one of them was still not on line, it had to be lit off and pressure bought up, so we had only half a head of steam, and could only do about 8 knots. The pilot said, "This ship is a floating disaster area" and then "Let go the Starboard Anchor". He left us in an anchorage in Baltimore, waiting for someone willing to take us down Chesapeake Bay to sea. It was now after the Christmas holidays, the first week of January. The weather continued to be stormy on the North Atlantic. We had many new crew members, including a new radio officer. The captain, chief engineer, and I were among the few who had made the previous voyage. Still, the captain and many of the crew were still sick with the flu.

The third mate discovered that the steering problem was because there was no hydraulic oil in the steering engine. The tank looked full, but that was because the gauge glass was dirty, and only looked full. In reality it was empty. We added oil, correcting the steering problem. A few hours later another pilot boarded, and took us down the bay to Cape Henry, where the chief engineer put the second boiler on the line. Off we sailed into the January North Atlantic, with a crippled ship and crippled crew.

We then discovered that our new radio officer did not know how to operate the radio. We could get no weather reports. We could send and receive no messages, either, but we didn't know that until later. The weather on the trip was lousy. We were happy to make more than 100 miles a day. The trip would normally take a week, maybe 10 days, but about two weeks later we sailed into Tor Bay, Brixham, Cornwall, and waited to pick up a North Sea pilot. We waited a long time. Finally the pilot boat came out.

Our pilot, Capt. Morris, informed the captain that "every radio station on the coast has been calling you, we thought you were lost". Our captain was really furious. He went to the radio officer ready to commit murder. The radio officer had been typing up the captain's messages, but apparently only pretended to send them. We thought it was strange not to have any incoming messages for two weeks, but back in those days it wasn't unheard of. The worst part of it was that we had to wait until the end of the trip to fire the radio officer. It was the height of the Vietnam war, and radio officers were really hard to find.

The owner knew that our ship had sailed in less than perfect condition. He was aware that nobody could contact us, and nothing was heard from us after we departed Cape Henry. We had been declared, in Lloyd's terms, "Missing and Presumed Lost". Fortunately our families had not yet been notified when we sailed into Tor Bay none the worse for wear.