In some of the most well-known verses of the Old Testament, the Psalmist tells us that:
They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.
For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof (Ps. 107:24-25).
I have often remarked on the beauty of the sea and attributed it to the genius of a Creator-God who orders and controls not only this small world but the entire universe as well. But it would be remiss to leave unexamined the physical laws of nature that govern the daily conduct of the oceans. This includes the tides and currents, salinity and density, heating and cooling, ice and evaporation. Many outside forces influence the behavior of the sea, including the Sun and Moon, land masses and bottom contours, and perhaps most ironically, the air.
It is a curious capability of gas that it can be used to move much denser, heavier, and stronger liquids and solids. Compressed and controlled by engineers, steam propels railroad locomotives and cargo ships. Combustible fuel vapors mixed with oxygen propel automobiles and airplanes. Such ethereal substances as evaporated water and the air we breathe have more power than they would seem. Properly harnessed, they move our industrialized world.
Left to its own devices, the air moves the natural world, too. The Psalmist was right. Blowing unrestrained across the surface of the sea, it disturbs the water and raises waves. The more the wind blows, the more disturbed the water becomes. From the slight puff that generates a ripple to the hurricane that creates monster waves, the ethereal air is a majestic and awe-inspiring force of nature. Its energy comes from the differences in temperature and pressure between adjacent air masses. These inequalities come ultimately from the uneven heating of the Earth by the Sun. The inherent beauty of the sea notwithstanding, these facts of science sometimes lead to unpleasant consequences for seamen.
When heavy weather strikes a ship at sea, the voyage becomes uncomfortable. Seamen grow accustomed to this and take it in stride; passengers often become terrified. In consultation with his mates, the Master studies weather reports and decides on a course, speed, and routing in order to ensure the safety of the ship and all on board. Most of the time the ship rides out the storm and everything turns out well in the end. In extreme situations, however, it does not always end so well. Ships are destroyed, lives are lost, and families are forever altered. The same sea that has been their source of livelihood then becomes their source of anguish. Often, the survivors memorialize their dead in bronze and stone. Monuments to merchant seamen who perished at sea abound, although typically they stand in out-of-the-way places. One collection of such monuments is the Merchant Marine Memorial in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts.
Located across the street from the western end of the Cape Cod Canal and on the grounds of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, the Merchant Marine Memorial occupies a triangular plot of land and faces the water. Visitors walk on a semicircular flagstone path through the grass and study the inscriptions in the stones and on the bronze tablets. The main buildings of the Academy stand beyond the Memorial. Consequently, there is little pedestrian traffic near the Memorial, and the atmosphere is one of quiet reverence. Looking around from this spot, one sees the placid water of the Cape Cod Canal and its approaches, a peaceful and tranquil setting.
On Tuesday, August 9, 2011, I visited the Merchant Marine Memorial with my son Steven, then 20 years old. He was quiet and contemplative as we studied the inscriptions on the various stone and bronze tablets. He asked a few questions, which I was pleased to answer. Mostly, though, we both studied the monuments and read the inscriptions.
The centerpiece of the Merchant Marine Memorial was a statue of a merchant seaman wearing a pea coat and carrying a duffle bag. The inscription in the stone base of this statue read in part:
This monument is dedicated to the officers and men who
sailed the ships of the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II.
A cluster of neatly arranged and well-tended flowers had been planted in front of the stone directly beneath the inscription. These brightly colored blossoms complemented the gray of the statue and its base very well and symbolized the ongoing regeneration of life.
At a distance to the left of this statue stood a gray wooden frame supporting a ship’s bell. Attached to the frame above the bell was a bronze plaque that read:
This bell is dedicated to the memory of those who were
lost at sea when the SS Pan Oceanic Faith went down in the North Pacific on 9 October 1967.
Below these lines were inscribed the names of six graduates of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy who perished in this tragedy. Two were from the class of 1965, and four from the class of 1967. All of them were very young, in their early twenties, and thus only slightly older than Steven. Their ship, the Panoceanic Faith, was enroute from San Francisco to Japan in a major storm with a load of fertilizer when she suffered an engine room breakdown and started taking sea water in her cargo holds because of leaking hatch covers. Five members of her 41-man crew survived the ship’s loss. Thirty-six men perished.2 This information, especially the ages of the young men listed on the plaque, made a significant impression on Steven.
Next, we came to an inclined stone with a bronze plaque mounted on it. This was the one we had purposely travelled to Buzzards Bay to see. This monument honored the dead of the coal carrier Marine Electric. An especially sobering sight for me, it read in part:
Crossing the BarThis plaque is dedicated to the officers and crew members
of the S/S Marine Electric who lost their lives in the line
of duty on 12 February 1983.
There followed a list of the 31 names of the deceased. Out of a total crew of 34 men, only three had survived.
Twenty-eight years earlier, in the late evening of Thursday, February 10, 1983, the Marine Electric had sailed from Norfolk, Virginia, with a full load of coal on her final voyage. Heading northeast into an intense winter storm on her way to Somerset, Massachusetts, the aged Marine Electric was overcome by the elements. Waves rushed repeatedly over her bow and onto her main deck, and the water drained into her cargo holds through leaking hatch covers. This flooding caused the ship to lose stability and buoyancy, and finally to capsize and sink.3
Eight hours after the Marine Electric’s departure from Norfolk, the Waccamaw sailed into the same storm. Commanded by Captain Derric F. Linardich with myself as second mate, the Waccamaw proceeded only as far as the pilot station. Upon seeing the full fury of the weather on the open Atlantic, Captain Linardich returned the ship to port to wait things out. Thus the Waccamaw remained safe and secure in Norfolk as the Marine Electric sailed to her doom.4
The juxtaposition of these two ships in the same storm at nearly the same time has long disturbed me. One proceeded to sea and was lost with most of her crew; the other returned to port and survived with all of her crew. Some very serious food for thought.
The shipping business by its very nature involves risk. One of the prime sources of risk is the weather. While the science of meteorology is a fascinating subject, the practical concern is what the weather will do to one’s ship. Wind blowing unrestrained over thousands of square miles of ocean yields an easily predictable result: big waves. Taken on the beam, large waves cause heavy rolling, which is uncomfortable for the crew and often dangerous for the ship and cargo. Taken head on, these same waves cause heavy pitching, also uncomfortable but usually not so dangerous. In extreme circumstances, a ship can pound. If a ship is going too fast into a heavy sea, the entire bow can ride up the crest of a wave, hang in the air as the wave passes along the hull, and the crash down into the trough when the crest of the wave passes astern. Pounding is a very violent action that can severely damage or even destroy a ship. It is often easily avoided just by slowing down.
Less extreme and fairly common in rough weather is taking water on the main deck. As the bow of the ship rides each wave, it naturally rises with the crest and falls as it enters the trough. As the bow comes down into each successive wave, spray is often generated when the steel hull and the rising wall of water meet. Both the forward motion of the ship and the wind cause the spray to fly over the bow, and then it lands on the deck and superstructure. If the sea is rough enough, solid water can also come over the bow and land on deck. When the bow rides up the crest of the next wave, this water drains off the deck and overboard. Ships are designed for this condition, and it’s usually not problematic.
If the hatch covers leak, though, such weather becomes seriously problematic. Built and installed to keep sea water out of the cargo holds, hatch covers protect the ship and the cargo from damage brought on by flooding. If the hatch covers become excessively worn and no longer watertight, then water coming over the bow and on deck will enter and eventually flood the forward cargo holds. Left unchecked, this condition will inevitably reduce the ship’s buoyancy and submerge the hull lower in the water. Furthermore, water flooding a cargo hold will gravitate to one side of the ship and shift the vessel’s center of gravity. Additional water entering the hold will add to this off-center weight and ultimately ruin the vessel’s stability. In the end, the ship will capsize and sink. This is what happened to the Marine Electric on February 12, 1983.
By comparison, the Waccamaw, as a tanker, had a different main deck configuration. Instead of hatch covers she had tank tops, which were watertight, oil tight, and vapor tight. But she also had a half-load of oil and some very heavy deck equipment for conducting the underway replenishment of military vessels. These factors would most certainly raise her center of gravity and thereby reduce her stability, but not fatally. Still, had she proceeded, it would have been an extremely rough ride.
I explained these points in brief and simple terms to Steven as we stood in front of the monument. Some of them he had heard previously. We both understood that such a forensic analysis, while professionally objective and logically sound, is nonetheless not wholly satisfactory.
The tragedy of the Panoceanic Faith and the cataclysm of the Second World War, both memorialized in Buzzards Bay, occurred long before I went to sea. This gives them a certain distance from me, both historically and physically. The case of the Marine Electric, however, was neither historically nor all that physically distant. While the objective facts of the matter explain what happened and why, a more subjective and perhaps philosophical contemplation yields introspection.
Something could have been different. Had the Captain decided otherwise, the Waccamaw would have continued to sea. One can speculate as to what likely would have taken place next. For example, would the underway replenishment exercises really have been carried out in such violent weather? I sincerely hope not. Would the Waccamaw have received and responded to the Marine Electric’s distress calls? Would the Waccamaw have been placed in serious danger herself? In short, what would have happened had the Waccamaw proceeded to sea that day? We’ll never know the answers to these hypothetical questions, but I still wonder.
The basic facts remain, though. Because of one man’s decision, the Waccamaw returned to port. Thus, she and her crew were never endangered despite being exposed to same violent storm as and only eight hours behind the Marine Electric. I was safe while 31 other seamen were dying. In this sense my life was spared. I believe this gives me an increased moral obligation to live it wisely and well.
Steven and I spent some very contemplative moments at the Merchant Marine Memorial. I don’t know how long we were there; the time seemed to stand still. It was a quiet and peaceful day, one given to reverence, respect, and quiet prayer for those lost at sea. It was also an occasion for personal introspection. I have sailed through many storms aboard many ships, and I always returned home safely afterwards. And despite carrying many military cargoes, I have never gone to war. For these blessings my family and I are very grateful. For those less fortunate we “mourn with those that mourn,” (Mosiah 18:9) and pray that in the end
They that have been scattered shall be gathered.
And all they who have mourned shall be comforted
Until the day when we are all no longer scattered but gathered together in our eternal home with our Heavenly Father, we commend our lost brethren of the sea to his good care and pray that they may rest in peace.
1 This is an error set in bronze. The correct name of the ship is Panoceanic Faith.
2 Summary of events from www.maritimequest.com. News of the ship's loss, rescue efforts, and retrieval of bodies was also reported in the major newspapers of the era. I consulted several issues of The New York Times of October, 1967.
3 The full story of the Marine Electric tragedy is told in Robert Frump's excellent book Until the Sea Shall Free Them: Life, Death, and Survival in the American Merchant Marine, New York: Doubleday, 2001. Also, I discussed the Marine Electric previously in my essay "The Dead."
4 I discussed Captain Linardich and this event previously in my essays "The Dead" and "The Memory of a Man." I note this point in the interest of avoiding unnecessary repetition in the text.