His name was Cliff Wolcott. I first met him at two o’clock in the morning on the storm-tossed entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. He was in near-freezing water, desperately hanging on to a small keg. His barge had sunk. He couldn’t swim. He thought he was going to die.
The buzzer on the sound-powered phone jarred me awake.
“Captain!” An automatic response. I was now fully alert. The CG 95312 was my first command; I was 24, the only officer assigned to the 95-foot patrol boat in Norfolk VA, a busy port with lots of Search and Rescue action.
“Captain, this is Barker on the bridge. The Cherokee has lost her tow! She’s about five miles northwest. Five men are in the water. I just changed course to head to her.”
My feet had barely hit the deck when I heard the familiar start-up whine of the two Cummins V-12’s that roared to life just like the big rig truck engines that they were.
Sitting on the side of my small bunk, I grabbed my pants. I stumbled as I threw on my shirt; the Bay had really kicked up since I had gone to bed.
As soon as I stepped outside, I knew this was not going to be an easy night. The swells were running about five feet and the deeply overcast sky merged into an inky sea insuring damned near-total darkness. With no visible horizon, it was like walking into a black hole lit only by the occasional blinking buoy bobbing in the deep ocean swells.
“What’s up, Barker?”
“Sir, the Minnie V. is a 57-foot fishing vessel out of New Jersey with five men on board. She was 45 miles northeast of Chesapeake Light Ship yesterday afternoon when she lost power and called for help. The Cherokee took her in tow at 2000 last night.”
I glanced at the chart house clock. It was almost 0200.
“Sound the general alarm, Barker,” I ordered. “All hands to Search and Rescue stations.”
Despite the ungodly hour, the klaxon alarm brought the Cape Knox’s fifteen-man crew, stumbling to find their balance on the pitching deck, to their stations—manned and ready—in three minutes. The deck force had dropped a scramble net over each side, extra men were there to help survivors, the search light was manned, and the engine room crew was at full force.
“It’s going to be hell seeing anyone in this sea, Skipper,” the Chief Boatswain Mate yelled over the howl of the wind. “It’s bad enough seeing anything as small as a bobbing head in daylight with good weather, let alone in crap like this.”
Chief Miller was right. The waves were now over six feet, and the squall was blowing rain in our faces. Trying to see anything in the narrow searchlight beam was like looking for the edge of the road at night in a blinding snowstorm through your car’s high beams. It was going to take an ordained stroke of luck to save any of these guys.
Then the bow lookout bellowed, “Target in the water, two points off the port bow, 50 yards.” He had caught a glimpse of a small object as the narrow searchlight beam swept over it. Our cook, who was manning the searchlight, quickly followed the lookout’s outstretched arm, scanning slowly, as we headed in that direction. Suddenly, the light caught the object as it bobbed in and out of sight.
An excited lookout yelled above the sound of the wind screeching in the ship’s rigging, “Cap’n, there’s a man holding on the back of that keg!”
Damn, what a break! We were already set up on a good approach. I ordered the deck force to get some life rings to him. They struggled just to stand in the wet, slick three-foot space between the rail and the deckhouse. I saw two orange life rings cut through the searchlight beam and sail over the keg. Their trailing lines had landed right across the keg and the man’s arm and shoulders. Two perfect throws! He didn’t move!
As we slipped by, 20 feet away, the deck force desperately pleaded across the dark foreboding water gap for him to grab the lines. “For God sakes man, take the line, take the line!”
The chief ran to the bridge. “Captain, he’s scared to death. He says he can’t swim, and he just knows he’ll drown. I can see it in his eyes, Captain, he’s never going to let go of that keg. We’re going to have to get close enough to help him onto the scramble net.”
That worried me. The worst place you could be with a violently moving ship was right alongside. With our quick roll and pitch it was clearly possible to harm, if not kill, him with the 105 ton ship if we couldn’t quickly get him onto the net.
To be continued…..