The Waccamaw sat quietly alongside one of the supply piers at the naval base in Norfolk. There was very little activity on board. Many of the men had gone ashore, and the mood among those who remained aboard was introspective and philosophical. With good reason, too. The Waccamaw had sailed from this same pier the day before, but on seeing the violent state of the weather on the open ocean had turned around and returned to port. Since then, however, news of the most tragic sort was received concerning the fate of another ship that had not turned around when confronted with this storm. This other ship was the 605 foot long coal carrier Marine Electric.
Operated by Marine Transport Lines, the Marine Electric had sailed from Norfolk with a full load of coal and a crew of 34 shortly before midnight on Thursday, February 10, 1983. She dropped off the pilot at the Chesapeake Bay entrance at about 2:00am on Friday, February 11, and once clear of the traffic lanes, set a course to the northeast toward her destination of Somerset, Massachusetts. The weather conditions into which the Marine Electric sailed were poor and rapidly deteriorating.1
The Waccamaw sailed several hours later, between 8:00 and 9:00 in the morning of Friday, February 11. Captain Derric F. Linardich, substituting for Captain Rigobello who was on vacation, commanded the ship for this voyage. Scheduled to remain at sea for a week, the Waccamaw would be conducting underway refueling of several Navy ships in the western Atlantic. Then she would return to Norfolk for tank cleaning and a shipyard overhaul. Fully cognizant of the sea conditions and the weather forecast, the powers that be in Norfolk had authorized Captain Linardich to proceed to sea or not according to his assessment of the sea state upon arrival at the pilot station at the Chesapeake Bay entrance.
The weather in Norfolk and on the Chesapeake Bay that morning involved a low overcast, a strong, cold wind from the northeast, a short, choppy sea, and intermittent precipitation. The Waccamaw sailed into the teeth of this fury as she headed eastward toward the Atlantic. On arrival at the pilot station where the Chesapeake met the open ocean, the weather conditions became more intense. The Atlantic was very rough with high winds and heavy seas. Even allowing for the time of year, the sea conditions were much more violent than usual. Captain Linardich studied the scene before him as the Waccamaw sailed past the Cape Henry Lighthouse toward the head of the traffic lanes where she would drop off the pilot. He had serious reservations about continuing to sea, and he shared his concerns with the pilot and with me, his second mate. We could say what we thought, but the decision to proceed or turn back was the Captain’s and no one else’s. With a very serious expression on his face, Captain Linardich stared into the storm as if transfixed by it. Then he announced his decision. The Waccamaw would make a u-turn around the CBJ (Chesapeake Bay Junction) buoy at the head of the traffic lanes and return to Norfolk. The old ship would sit this one out. The same pilot remained on board and brought the ship on a reverse course through the lower Chesapeake. Two hours later, the Waccamaw came back alongside her pier and was made fast.
Later that afternoon with most of the crew ashore, Captain Linardich lamented to me over dinner about the ship’s inability to “keep her commitments” to the Navy in such weather. The mission missed had not been a critical one, though. Furthermore, the Waccamaw had not been carrying a full load of oil, and a half-full-half-empty hull would guarantee a rough ride at best in that weather. Carrying out an underway refueling with smaller and lighter military vessels in such sea conditions would have been extremely difficult and dangerous—unnecessarily so, in fact, since it was an exercise and not a fuel shortage emergency. So his decision to opt out of the mission and return to port had been a sound one. No one could fault him for choosing safety over unnecessary risk.
With the ship safely moored and the decks quiet, I slept for a while before taking over the watch from midnight to 8:00am on Saturday, February 12. The weather continued to howl over the Atlantic. Secure and warm in port, though, I scarcely gave it a thought until much later in the day when the first news reports came in.
On her voyage north, the Marine Electric plowed into an intensifying weather system. Wave heights and wind speeds increased, but the ship sailed steadily on—just another rough night on the Atlantic. But then something unexpected happened. During the night of Saturday, February 12, when I was safely in port and on watch aboard the Waccamaw, the Marine Electric started taking on water as the waves crashed over her foredeck. Seawater accumulated in her cargo holds, eventually causing the ship to capsize and sink.2 Unable to successfully launch lifeboats, most of the crew ended up in the water.3 Distress calls had been sent out over the radio, but by the time assistance arrived, all but three of the thirty-four crewmen had perished. In forty-five degree water, twenty foot waves, twenty-eight degree air, and forty knot winds, these men had almost no hope of survival.4 That three of them did in fact survive was incredible.
These news reports came in piecemeal and were sketchy at first, but in time they became more clear and accurate. Aboard the Waccamaw, the reports of what had happened to the Marine Electric were horrifying, and all the more so because the Waccamaw had followed her into the same storm but had turned around and come back to port! Many of us were simply stunned by this news. What could anyone say? The bottom line of the tragedy spoke for itself and needed no commentary. A merchant ship had sunk with horrendous loss of life. That we had been in the neighborhood, so to speak, only compounded the grief.
In general, merchant seamen do not like to talk about shipwrecks. The loss of the Marine Electric was discussed only minimally aboard the Waccamaw. I did not mention it in letters or telephone calls home. I vaguely remember telling my wife about it in private some time afterwards. Despite this reticence, however, events such as these are never forgotten. The circumstances of the Waccamaw’s departure and immediate return to port because of the storm highlight and even personalize to a degree the loss of the Marine Electric and her crew, even though I did not know any of them. This is the brotherhood of the sea.
In the Marine Board of Investigation that convened to ascertain the cause of this tragedy, it was revealed that the Marine Electric had been allowed to sail in an unseaworthy condition on numerous voyages. The old ship was plagued with leaky hatch covers, cracked deck plates, inoperable watertight doors, and makeshift repairs, among other faults.5 In this sense, then, the ship was an accident waiting to happen. Litigation and regulatory reform resulted from the disaster, and in the end much good was achieved in the updating and improvement of safety standards aboard American merchant ships.6 But at what a price in human life!
Unfortunately, the loss of the Marine Electric was not the only tragedy to befall the Merchant Marine in my time. Three years earlier, on October 24, 1980, the 522 foot long cargo ship Poet, operated by the Hawaiian Eugenia Corp., departed Philadelphia bound for Port Said, Egypt, with a load of corn. After she dropped off her pilot near Cape Henlopen, at the entrance of the Delaware Bay, the Poet was never seen nor heard from again. She simply disappeared without a trace somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean. Her entire crew of 34 perished with her.7 A former school acquaintance of mine, Mark S. Henthorne, was the third assistant engineer aboard the Poet.8 I believe he was 24 years old when he was lost with the ship. Despite an extensive search for survivors and debris along her intended route by the Coast Guard, nothing was ever found.9 At the time of the Poet’s sailing and disappearing, I was berthed in comparative comfort and safety aboard the survey ship Wilkes, which was undergoing repair work in Norfolk.
After the loss of the Poet, it was revealed that she, too, had a very poor maintenance record and that she had also made numerous voyages in an unseaworthy condition. But with no tangible evidence, it could not be established in a Marine Board of Investigation that this was the cause of the Poet’s demise.10 In the case of the Marine Electric, however, the deteriorated physical condition of the ship was demonstrated to be the cause of her loss. Her sinking was a preventable accident, caused by ill-fitting and leaking hatch covers that enabled seawater coming over the bow to drain into the cargo holds.11 The Waccamaw, which by comparison was very well maintained, would not have experienced this problem if she had continued to sea. But such forensic analysis does not change the bottom line facts. In the two shipwrecks of the Poet and the Marine Electric, 65 merchant seamen perished. Their families suffered grievous loses.
The Merchant Marine as an institution suffered grievous loses, too. Despite the seamen’s natural reluctance to discuss such events in casual conversation, these deaths were felt. Everyone knew someone or knew someone else who knew someone who was lost. All these men, whether they were personally known to each other or not, were involved with the sea and formed a part of the brotherhood of the sea. Their loss was therefore a loss to all.
Perhaps the English metaphysical poet and Anglican clergyman John Donne said it best:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were. Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.12
In this broader sense, then, it is not only fellow seamen who are diminished by the loss of life aboard the Poet and the Marine Electric, but all humanity. Happily, however, using a literary analogy, the author sees a bright conclusion to the tragedy of death:
All mankind is of one author and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. God employs several translators; but God’s hand is in every translation.13
It is easy to see the Christian belief in the brotherhood of mankind above and beyond the brotherhood of the sea in these lines. For this reason, Dr. Donne argues, when the bell tolls for the dead at a funeral or a memorial service, it really tolls for those still living who are diminished by the other’s death:
Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.14
Because we are brothers and sisters and because we are involved with mankind, we want to bring all of our fellows to a knowledge of the Lord and his gospel. For he has told us;
I am the way, and the truth, and the life: no one cometh unto the father but by me (John 14:6).
Furthermore, we want to give all of our fellows, both the living and the “translated,” the opportunity to receive the fullness of this knowledge and reach their maximum potential even above and beyond the “better language” that Dr. Donne envisioned. This we do in the temple. The Lord has entrusted to us the opportunity and the obligation to carry out his work in the temple in order to facilitate bringing all his people, both the living and the dead, back to him. With the tragic loss of the Poet and the Marine Electric, there are now 65 “translated” merchant seamen who stand in need of having their temple ordinances done for them. Though they are dead, it is not too late; their spirits live on and wait. Their last voyage remains yet unfinished.
After the sinkings of these two ships, funerals and memorial services were held in various locations. Some of these were religious, some secular. One in particular for the crew of the Marine Electric stands out. This took place at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts. As the name of each deceased crewman was spoken, a ship’s bell tolled once.15 It tolled for the dead, of course, and it tolled for the living as well who were diminished by the deaths of the men for whom they grieved.
I would like to think that this bell also tolled for every temple-attending Latter-day Saint, not as a call to mourning but as a call to action. So many millions of people have lived and died on this Earth who need to have their temple work done for them. Now, two ships have been lost and 65 men have perished at sea. They, too, need to have their temple work done. The tolling of the bell is the summons. It is calling us to the temple so that we may turn tragedy into triumph.
1 Robert Frump, Until the Sea Shall Free Them: Life, Death, and Survival in the Merchant Marine, New York: Doubleday, 2001, pp. 20-22.
2 Frump, op. cit., p. 34-37, 55.
3 Frump, op. cit., p. 48, 54-55, and Associated Press, “3 Crewmen Survive Loss of Coal Vessel; Fate of 8 Uncertain,” The New York Times, Feb. 13, 1983, at http://www.nytimes.com.
4 Frump, op. cit., p. 23, 55, and Associated Press, op. cit.
5 Frump, op. cit., p. 172-173, 177-179, 211-218; Associated Press, “Doomed Ship’s Crewman Tells An Inquiry of Holes in Hatches,” The New York Times, Feb. 17, 1983, and “Crewmen Testify about Surviving Ship’s Sinking, The New York Times, Feb. 20, 1983, both at http://www.nytimes.com.
6 Frump, op. cit., p. 315-318, 326-327, 341.
7 Author unknown, “Remembering the Poet, 26 Years Later,” Seafarers Log, Dec., 2006, at http://www.seafarers.org. This is the newsletter of the Seafarers International Union.
8 Robert J. Pessek, The Poet Vanishes: An American Voyage, n.p., 1st Books Library, 2000, p. xi, and U.S. Coast Guard, “Marine Casualty Report: SS Poet: Disappearance in the Atlantic Ocean after Departure from Cape Henlopen, Delaware on 24 October 1980 with Loss of Life,” at http://www.uscg.mil/hq/cg5/docs/boards/poet.pdf. This is the report of the Marine Board of Investigation.
9 “Remembering the Poet,” loc. cit., and United Press International, “Planes Seek Missing Ship with 33 Americans Aboard,” The New York Times, Nov. 11, 1980, at http://www.nytimes.com.
10 Frump, op. cit., p. 171-172, 197-198, and “Marine Casualty Report,” loc. cit.
11 Frump, op. cit., p. 299-300.
12 John Donne, “Meditation XVII,” in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 1, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1962, p. 795.
15 Frump, op cit., p.206.