NORTH PACIFIC STORM


Many people ask me what is the worst storm I have been in. Of course typhoons and hurricanes are more dramatic than what meteorologists call a "mid-latitude cyclonic depression", but the latter are far more frequent and can be just as lethal. The winter months bring the deepest and largest area storms, and the largest area of coverage is the North Pacific Ocean.It is not uncommon for a winter storm to have gale force winds extending out over 1,000 miles from the center, covering an area larger than the entire United States. There is no way to avoid such a storm the way a tropical cyclone can be avoided.

In December of 1968 I was chief mate of the American Robin, sailing from Viet Nam to Los Angeles with a load of "retrograde cargo", a military term used for broken down jeeps, tanks, and armaments that were no longer needed "in country". New tanks and trucks can be easily secured for sea because they can be left in gear with the wheels and treads locked, which is important for proper securing. However, when they are broken, you no longer can keep the equipment from moving on its tracks or wheels, and often you have fewer options for making them fast. New military trucks have padeyes, or securing points for cables and wires, often they are broken or missing on "retrograde" equipment. We had a load of "LVT's" or amphibious tanks in #3 Lower 'Tween Deck, along with a D-7 Caterpillar bulldozer and a few assorted trucks, about 20 or so heavy lifts averaging 35 tons apiece. The ship was built in 1943 and had limited securing points in the hold. We would have liked to individually secure each vehicle to the bulkheads of the hold, but had to secure them one to another for many pieces. The combination almost cost us the ship.

As the Christmas holidays approached, it appeared that the U.S. Weather Bureau brought in its second string weathermen. The weather reports seem to become less specific, more generic, and repetitive from one broadcast to another. As Christmas neared, we had the usual reports of gales far to the north, near the gulf of Alaska. We were down near Midway Island on our eastbound passage.

One afternoon the westerlies increased in speed to about 35 knots where only 15 knots were forecast. The seas gradually increased to about 20 ft., causing us to roll in a following sea, we were that afternoon regularly rolling 15 to 20 degrees from the vertical. On an afternoon inspection I noticed several of the LVT's needed their lashings tightened, which I did, but I did not re-secure them entirely, which was another mistake, and I had taken too many chances with Mother Nature and the sea already.

That evening the wind increased to about 50 knots, and the seas increased to about 35 feet, and we were wallowing in the seaway with rolling well over 30 degrees. The entire load in #3 LTD came lose, and started sliding back and forth with each roll. The ship would shudder as the tanks crashed into the sides of the ship. Much more of that and we would have large holes in the side, and probably lose the ship. I hated to call anyone to work with me, knowing that it would be a dangerous job to re-secure the load while rolling heavily.

About 11 P.M. I crawled on top of the tanks which by then had chewed up all of the 12x12 timbers into match sticks. We had shored up in between the tanks hoping that that would make up for less than ideal lashing. The lumber was totally wasted. For awhile I tried to walk between the tanks shoving pieces of wood into the treads, hoping to jam them. I was doing a ballet with sliding tanks in a dark hold with only the help of a cargo light swinging from the manhole, and a flashlight in my shaking hand. The bulldozer was smashed up like an accordion, so I could imagine what the tanks would do to me. While up on top of the tanks, I noticed that the ship had some good strong padeyes under the hatch coaming (the opening you load the cargo through). I decided to use chain and lash to those points, although usually it is best to pull a cargo down to the deck, I thought it was safer and more practical to secure it like a hammock to the overhead. The bosun volunteered to help me in the hold, and the deck crew passed down chain, turnbuckles, and shackles. By sunrise we had the cargo pretty well under control. I left the hold exhausted.

When I reported to the captain on the bridge I was sad to learn that another ship, the Badger State, had sunk with a loss of 26 of her crew about 100 miles behind us, up wind. I think we had seen her lights the previous evening as she passed near us on an ill fated voyage from Bangor, Washington with ammunition for Viet Nam. Their cargo of bombs had broken lose just as had our tanks. The bombs had punctured the hull in #5 hold. When the crew attempted to abandon ship, a bomb came through a hole in #5 and landed in the lifeboat, capsizing the lifeboat and killing most of the occupants. We could have done nothing to help her in those seas, we were hanging on by a thread ourselves. Our morning weather report still told us we should have 15 knot winds and 4 foot seas. We had been sending them our storm reports for the past 12 hours, to no avail. Finally, a few days later, on Dec. 26, the Weather Bureau woke up and told us that we had been in a storm. Nice to know!

We entered Long Beach harbor early in January, 1969, without further incidents. The securing job held up to the worst the North Pacific could deal to us. We had the shipyard in San Pedro replace much of the framing and a couple of strakes of shell plating in the way of #3, which was bowed out about 6 inches on each side from the pounding the tanks gave it. The tanks were discharged not much the worse for ware. The Caterpillar D-7 bulldozer was a grim reminder of the storm.