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Chapter 5

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Men, Wind and Sea

Riley Brown

published by
Carlyle House, New York 1939

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 7
This site is not affiliated with the US Coast Guard Academy.

 p126  Chapter Six

The Sea is a Killer

The work of the Coast Guard cutters in the Uvira and the Tzenny Chandris cases was an outstanding example of the seaman­ship these men are called upon to exhibit in the open sea, and the thoroughness with which they do their job. It remained for the salvage work upon the grounded ship Childar to bring out the resourcefulness and the tenacity that are traditionally a part of the Coast Guard.

On May 4, 1934, the Norwegian motor ship Childar, with a cargo of lumber, a crew of twenty-nine and one passenger, was bound from Longview, Washington, to South Africa. A heavy southerly gale was blowing and the weather was thick with the haze from an angry sea. There was a worried look on Captain Matthisen's face, as he stood on the bridge with the watch officer and stared across the water.

The weather was bad, but Matthisen wasn't thinking particularly about that. He was an old time sailor, and he had known the sea in all its moods. Besides, the Childar was practically a new vessel, built to stand exactly the treatment she was getting now. There was  p127 something else on his mind, some vague undertow of thought that kept pulling his muscles taut and bringing a dry feeling to the roof of his mouth . . .

The Childar's position at this time was just off the entrance of the Columbia river, a bad spot for any ship in rough weather. Sand spits and shoals lay hidden by the water, forming a deadly trap for the ship blown from its course. With this thought in mind, Matthisen walked over to the chart and checked his position, allowing a comfortable margin to seaward of the shoals. The chart showed him to be in safe waters, but his feeling of uneasiness persisted. The captain started to shrug, then stopped, his eyes wide, his face strangely pale. A hollow roar seemed to reach out from the vastness of the sea.

A moment later, before the men on the bridge could move, the Childar crashed against the rocks, and her wrenched timbers screeched against the strain. She was thrown far over on her side; giant breakers raced across her decks, sweeping boats and deck load clean away. Picking himself up from the deck where the force of the impact had thrown him, Matthisen ran out on the wing of the bridge. The Childar was rolling forward, floating across the shoals into deeper water. She trembled violently as her hull scraped across the rocks.

It was easy to understand now why the Childar had run aground. The wind and sea had driven the vessel toward shore, and this, coupled with the fact  p128 that the ship had been navigated by dead reckoning, in which a mental slip is often disastrous, had put the Childar on the beach. Matthisen stopped thinking about this; there was work to be done, if they were to escape with their lives.

The first mate had rushed out on deck, followed by members of the crew. One lifeboat had been left swinging in its davits, and it was imperative to secure this boat before another sea carried it away. That lifeboat would probably mean the difference between life and death for the Childar's crew, for even now it was apparent that the ship could not hold together very long.

Then, out of the murk and roar of the surf, a giant comber rolled down upon the stricken ship. Matthisen shouted a warning from the bridge. Too late! The breaker thundered aboard, buried the vessel under a green torrent of water. It swept the mate and two seamen overboard. Another man was crushed to death between the boat and the deck. Three other seamen had suffered injuries, two of them seriously. The lifeboat itself was a mass of twisted wreckage on the Childar's littered deck.

By this time the ship had been driven far up on the rocks. One end protruded over into deep water, and the stern was left exposed to the force of the raging seas. It became evident that she was breaking up. It was just a question of time, a very short time at that, before the whole ship would disintegrate and wash  p129 ashore. And the last means of abandoning her had been destroyed with the lifeboat, the launching of which would have been extremely dangerous, if not downright suicidal. Help had to be summoned by radio —

Soon after the Childar's SOS broke the morning air a few minutes after seven, Coast Guard cutter Redwing, moored at her dock in Astoria, Oregon, prepared to go to her assistance. The liberty party was recalled, steam ordered, and the vessel made ready for sea. The Coast Guard surf stations, Point Adams station and Cape Disappointment station, were advised of the disaster and directed to send lifeboats to the scene of action. Then, at eight thirty, the Redwing stood down the Columbia river with all possible speed.

A few minutes later there came another message from the Childar, stating that she had no way to land the crew, as her boats had been washed away, and it was feared that the ship was breaking up. Immediate assistance was necessary, if either the ship or the crew were to be saved.

The Redwing answered this message, but received no reply from the distressed vessel. The cutter then broadcast a message saying that she was proceeding with all possible speed and would arrive around eleven that morning.

The wind had shifted to a southwest gale and was increasing in velocity when the Redwing got under  p130 way. A tremendous sea had worked up, accompanied by squalls of rain. Lieutenant A. W. Davis, in temporary command of the Redwing, knew that extreme caution would be needed in crossing the bar, or the cutter herself might be driven upon the beach. Reaching the bar, it was found that heavy seas were breaking all the way across it — a dangerous condition greatly aggravated by a strong ebb tide, plus the river current which was at freshet height at this time.

Visibility was zero, and this, together with the fact that there was a phenomenal set toward the shoals on the north side of the bar, made the situation a precarious one for the Coast Guard cutter. Only superb seaman­ship would count now, for the shallow water and murky weather made it impossible to distinguish the breakers to shoreward. A wide berth was given the shoals, and the cutter fought her way through the rolling seas. At ten thirty the shoals were cleared, and as the weather lifted momentarily, the Childar was sighted ashore on North Spit, with immense breakers passing entirely over her. The weather shut in almost immediately, and as difficulty encountered by the Redwing in feeling her way around the breakers on North Spit, it was found necessary to approach the Childar's position from seaward.

A few minutes after eleven, the Childar was again sighted. The hapless vessel was a mass of wreckage above decks — masts gone, part of her superstructure carried away, her rails twisted and bent. There was a  p131 jagged hole in her starboard side, which, fortunately, was well above the water line.

From the bridge of the cutter, Lieutenant Davis studied the situation. He knew that it would be a risky job for the cutter to go close inshore and attempt to take the men off. The force of the seas would drive the Coast Guard vessel into the breakers before the rescue could be accomplished. Also, there was a bare possibility of the Childar herself being saved, providing she could be drawn away from the rocks and towed to sea. Once in open water, the removal of her crew would be a less dangerous job.

Accordingly, the Coast Guard officer brought his ship around into position and directed that a line be fired across to the disabled vessel. A steel cable was passed to the Childar; but she had no steam on her winches, and as the cable was too heavy to be handled by man power alone, it was withdrawn in favor of a twelveinch hawser.

By this time the Redwing was dangerously close to the surf and it was necessary to circle to seaward before firing the second line. On the way back, fog shut down again, making the task doubly difficult. Lieutenant Davis eased his vessel in toward shore, with the roar of the breakers beating against the Childar, sounding near at hand. Then, through the fog, the grounded ship loomed up, and the Hall line-throwing gun was fired, the line falling across her  p132 bow. The twelveinch hawser was speedily drawn in and secured by the Childar's crew.

The Redwing immediately took strain on the hawser; and the Childar, pulling clear of the shoals, wallowed out into deep water, with a considerable list to starboard. As she appeared to be in a sinking condition, Lieutenant Davis dispatched a message to her captain, asking for his opinion on the ship's condition. Matthisen replied that the vessel might possibly stand a tow to port, but that several of his injured men should be removed at once for immediate hospitalization.

The lifeboats from the Coast Guard surf stations had by this time reported for duty and they were directed by the Redwing's commander to remove the injured men from the Childar. Incidentally, there had been a casualty aboard the Cape Disappointment lifeboat while she was proceeding from her station to the scene of the distress. Chief Boatswain's Mate Lee Woodworth, in charge of the lifeboat, had been thrown against the entire room by a big breaker which had boarded the Coast Guard boat. He suffered several broken ribs, and was in terrible pain. Yet he kept on his feet with dogged courage — there was work to be done and there could be no rest until his assignment had been completed.

It was decided that the Point Adams boat would remove the injured seamen while the lifeboat from Cape Disappointment station stood by as a matter of  p133 precaution. Now had come a test for the seaman­ship of the Point Adams men, and they knew that the slightest mistake would add their lives to those already claimed by the sea.

The lifeboat headed under the Childar's rail. Foot by foot she crept forward, riding the crest of the waves, then plunging into the trough between them. The men on the deck of the Norwegian vessel watched breathlessly. They were witnessing Coast Guard seaman­ship — a combination of iron nerve and unerring judgment.

Finally, the Coast Guard boat was alongside the Childar. Bracing themselves, two Coast Guardsmen prepared to receive the injured seamen, as they were lowered over the side in improvised stretchers. Knowing that at any moment a sea might wash them overboard, they stayed at the job, those two surfmen, until the injured men were safely aboard and the lifeboat headed away from the Childar.

Lieutenant Davis later wrote in his report that the work of the two lifeboats had been superb; he gave unstinting praise to the Coast Guardsmen who manned them. He said: ". . . the assistance afforded by these stations was invaluable and each displayed outstanding courage and knowledge of handling their boats, and coöperated with this vessel to the fullest extent." Praise like that from a superior officer must be earned in the Coast Guard.

By this time, the Redwing had the Childar safely  p134 away from the shoals, but the work had just begun. Lieutenant Davis was determined, if it was at all possible, to save her. Realizing that it would be impossible to tow the disabled vessel back into the Columbia river — as an entrance across the bar could never be made while the seas were running as high as they were now — he decided to take her into Puget Sound.

At one thirty that afternoon, the Childar's bitts tore out, due to the weakened condition of her plates, and the tow line was nearly lost. Instantly, the cutter's speed was reduced and the bitts caught in the bow chocks, thus saving the hawser from slipping into the sea. Difficulty was experienced in finding a means of making the hawser fast again, as the forecastlehead had been swept clean. Finally, however, the tow line was made fast to the anchor chains, and the tow was resumed.

The difficulties attending that towing job were almost insurmountable. The Childar had lost her rudder while on the rocks and now she yawed widely behind the Redwing, turning broadside and offering much resistance to the sea. Speed was further reduced, for it was feared that the hawser would part, and if that happened, she would inevitably drive on the rocks again. The weather was steadily growing worse. At eight o'clock that night a message was received from the Childar, requesting that crew be removed, as the ship was giving signs of breaking up.

Lieutenant Davis released a message to Gray's  p135 Harbor surf station, which was near by, directing that a lifeboat be dispatched to remove the rest of the Childar's crew. At eleven that night, the lifeboat arrived and while the Redwing trained her searchlights on the Norwegian vessel, accomplished the extremely hazardous job of taking off eighteen persons without injuring a man. Captain Matthisen, the radioman, and three others of the crew chose to stay aboard and trust to luck and the Coast Guard to pull them and their vessel safely into port.

After putting the eighteen men aboard the Redwing, the lifeboat was ordered to stand by the disabled vessel in order to remove the five men in the event that the ship began to founder. The tow was resumed up the coast, the Childar towing sluggishly, with tendency to sheer to port, making it necessary to watch her very closely on some of the larger swells in order to ease the strain on the hawser. Lieutenant Davis knew that should the line part now, there would be no chance of getting another across due to the depletion of the Childar's crew.

The task of towing her seemed almost hopeless. She appeared ready to break up at any minute. Unceasing vigilance and constant jockeying on the part of the Redwing were necessary to prevent the heavy swells from smashing down upon the Childar and rearing her away into the darkness. But somehow, the Coast Guardsmen nursed her through the night. When dawn broke, they found that the sea had  p136 moderated slightly and that the Childar seemed to be riding a trifle easier.

At eleven o'clock that morning the cutter Chelan arrived and took up convoy with the Redwing and her tow. The weather would not permit the Chelan to relieve her sister cutter on the job, even had there been some way of getting another hawser aboard the Childar. Matthisen now reported that the vessel was filling with water, and doubted if it would be possible to get her safely into port. But Lieutenant Davis stubbornly refused to admit defeat. As the sea had moderated, he felt that the chances of a success­ful tow were greatly enhanced. Moreover, the Straits of Juan de Fuca were not far distant, and once the Redwing was in the comparatively calm waters of the Puget Sound the fight would be over.

So the cutter kept at her tow throughout the day and far into the night. The weather moderated further and around midnight a message was received from the Childar saying: Good for you. Think we'll make it now.

When that message was received, the lifeboat from Gray's Harbor station was released and directed to return to its base. The Chelan closed in on the Childar and kept a sharp lookout through the rest of the night. Then, at eight o'clock the next morning, the Redwing towed the disabled vessel into the Straits of Juan de Fuca.

Here, as the Redwing's commander had known, the  p137 water was comparatively smooth, being protected from the open sea by a stretching finger of land, and there was no further danger of the Childar being swamped by huge seas. The ship was considerably down by the stern, and an inspection showed that number four hold was flooded, number five partially so, with water to the top of the tanks in the engineroom. It seemed incredible that she could have remained afloat an hour, miraculous that she was towed two hundred and five miles in such rough weather.

Off Port Angeles, Washington, that afternoon the Childar and her crew were turned over to the commercial tug Roosevelt. The underwriters of the ship had deemed it necessary that the Childar be towed to the nearest docking and repair faculties, and accordingly, she was towed to Victoria, B. C. The Chelan returned to her regular station, the Redwing proceeding to Port Angeles, where she docked for the night so that her officers and men could get the first sustained rest they had had for four days. Thus another job by the Coast Guard, in which twenty-six persons were actually snatched from death and in which a vessel and cargo worth over $700,000 had been saved, was finished, satisfactorily and competently.

Charles Nichols loved the sea. Otherwise, he would never have quit the peaceful business of raising chickens to return to salt water after a number of years of absence.

 p138  Funny thing about the sea. While you are on it, and when it starts kicking up, you curse it with every breath, but when you're away, it's like a separation from a loved one.

Charles Nichols found this so, and, finally, came back to the life he loved — and hated.

On the 7th of February, 1934, Nichols, master of the schooner Purnell T. White, found himself somewhere off the coast of North Carolina, his vessel bereft of sails and one of her pumps disabled — the result of nearly a week of stormy weather. He was flying distress signals, for the Atlantic ocean in February is no place for a sailing vessel to be without sails, and Nichols knew it.

Sighting the White's signals, the S. S. Maiden Creek steamed close and spoke to the schooner. Nichols explained the circumstances and asked that the Coast Guard be notified. The steamer at once sent out a call for the Coast Guard and when the cutter Mendota, which was on patrol off the Virginia coast, answered, the Maiden Creek agreed to stand by the White until the Mendota arrived.

The 125‑foot Coast Guard patrol boat Tiger was nearer to the two vessels and was directed by the Mendota to proceed and stand by for the cutter's arrival. The Tiger reached the scene about noon and found that the White, despite her loss of sails, appeared to be in good condition. The steamer continued  p139 on her course, being informed by the Tiger that she could be of no further assistance.

The patrol boat transmitted radio signals and guided the Mendota to the spot. Later that afternoon, the cutter, under the command of Commander Keaster, immediately took steps to tow the White into safe waters. The weather at this time was favorable and no difficulties were anticipated in towing the schooner into Lynnhaven Roads.

twelve‑inch towing hawser was passed to the White, and then the Mendota got under way. The Tiger acted as convoy until the early morning of the 8th, when she was dispatched by the Mendota to investigate reports of a barge being ashore further down the coast.

Toward evening, difficulties were encountered in the shape of a hard northeasterly, and Commander Keaster found it necessary to reduce speed until only steerage‑way was made by the cutter and her tow. The Mendota attempted to shift course so that the force of the sea would not cause the White's seams to open, and this effort was partially success­ful. However, on the morning of the 9th, a course to seaward had to be taken, in order to avoid being carried upon a lee shore below False Cape, Va.

By this time the wind had gradually shifted to the north and north-northwest and had increased to a fresh gale, accompanied by a snow blizzard and heavy vapor, with resulting low visibility. The seas were  p140 following the wind and had become very rough. The White was beginning to roll and pitch heavily, and Commander Keaster, considering the possibility of her cargo of lumber shifting, ordered an oil slick made for the schooner. (An oil slick is made by releasing fuel oil on the water in order to smooth the seas down with its weight.) The slick in this case appeared to be of little help, for about an hour later, the White hoisted an international signal to the effect that she was waterlogged. The whirling snow and wispy vapor hid the schooner from sight most of the time, but extra lookouts were posted to be on the alert for further distress signals.

During the late afternoon, the lookouts noticed that the White was beginning to roll more irregularly, more to port than to starboard. There were, however, no signals to the effect that the crew wished to abandon her; a red flare had been agreed upon as indication that they wished to be removed. While no such signal was made, Commander Keaster realized that the schooner's crew would have to be taken aboard without further delay.

There were two possible means of achieving this. One was to put a boat over the side from the Mendota — an idea which Keaster almost instantly abandoned. The heavy seas and poor visibility made such an attempt too risky, for it was extremely likely that the boat would be swept away and irretrievably lost in the leeward wrack. The second and only feasible  p141 means of rescue would entail jockeying the Mendota up to the schooner's side to allow the crew to catch lines, by which they could be taken aboard the cutter.

Commander Keaster realized that it would be a most dangerous undertaking. The schooner might easily be sunk if the Mendota was thrown against her by a sea; indeed, the cutter herself would be damaged in such a collision. There was no time for hesitancy, however, and Commander Keaster ordered that preparations be made aboard the Mendota. Boatswain's pipes shrilled. Coast Guardsmen, clad in oilskins and boots, brought out heaving lines, life jackets, rafts and a line-throwing gun. Pilot ladders were lowered over the bow. Ice having begun to form on the decks, sand was sprinkled around to afford surer footing.

A signal was flashed to the White directing her to throw off the hawser; but evidently it was not possible for any of the schooner's crew to get forward to cut the Mendota's line. A hundredpound weight was hung on the hawser near the Mendota's stern, and as the cutter went forward at full speed, the line was cut. Commander Keaster was taking no chances of the hawser fouling the Mendota's screw.

The cutter then circled to approach the stern of the schooner, but the White had been lost to sight in a blanket of snow and darkness. Searchlights probed for her, and when she was finally sighted again, men were seen huddled together under the shelter of the deckhouse.  p142 Seas were breaking over her, and ice had formed on the rails. She had taken a pronounced list to port, caused, doubtlessly, by shifting cargo. The end was near.

The Mendota managed to approach within thirty feet of the schooner's port quarter, and after several attempts a heaving line was thrown to her. The men on the White's deck grabbed the line and drew it in eagerly. The line was followed by a threeinch cable to which a life raft had been made fast.

Having lashed himself to the raft, Leon C. Spence, a seaman from the White, was drawn across to the cutter by willing hands. Suffering from exposure and badly frozen hands, he was taken below and given first aid by the chief pharmacist's mate.

The raft was sent back to the White and this time John Olsen, another seaman, and a colored cook known as Jim, went aboard the raft and prepared themselves for the hazardous trip through the slashing seas. They were drawn up as closely as possible to the ladders on the Mendota's bow and lines were let down to them. These the men tried to fasten about themselves, but it soon became apparent from their actions that they had been greatly weakened by exposure. Their efforts were clumsy, feeble, being hampered by frozen hands.

A Coast Guardsman started down the ladder to help the two men, a dangerous thing to do with the vessel pitching and bouncing in water. But he was  p143 too late. Panicstricken, they made another desperate effort to reach the ladders. In so doing, they lost their footing on the ice covered raft and were washed overboard, never to be seen again.

By this time, the Mendota's bow was slightly ahead of the White. The cutter persisted in sailing down upon her. Then, suddenly, the inch line between the two vessels parted, and the cutter drifted to leeward so fast it became necessary to maneuver into position again.

Commander Keaster backed the Mendota into the wind and sea so that sight of the schooner might not be lost at this critical time. Then final disaster struck the White. She began to keel over very rapidly and a few moments later, lay on her beam ends with the four masts and rigging in the water on the port side. The four men remaining in the schooner managed to scramble for the icy rail, clinging to it as she keeled over. Two were aft near the stern, the other two forward, about forty feet away.

Commander Keaster realized that the four men were in an extremely perilous position, in imminent danger of being swept away. He decided now that the situation warranted the use of any method, no matter how risky, to effect a rescue. Driving the Mendota forward, he pushed her stem into the port quarter and allowed the stem to ride over the keel. Lines were thrown to the four men, and having lashed themselves  p144 together, the pair on the forward rail were pulled aboard the Mendota. After futile attempts to keep his hold one of the two men left on the wreck, was washed overboard and vanished. The remaining man was Charles Nichols, who had left a chicken farm to return to sea.

Several attempts to get lines to him failed, some falling almost within reach, but Nichols apparently did not wish to risk the loss of his precarious hold on the schooner's rail. Finally, a line fell directly across him, and he fastened it about his body. Waving to the men on the cutter's deck, he jumped into the water.

The sea claimed Charles Nichols. The line that would have saved him fouled the schooner's keel. A huge breaker crashed down on the unfortunate man driving him under the submerged rail. The line went taut, then as suddenly slackened and drifted clear. Nichols was gone.

It was now imperative to save the Mendota from possible damage. She had worked herself almost on top of the White and the hull was bumping hard against the schooner's keel. By using full left rudder and going ahead on the engines, it was possible to push the hull around somewhat to windward. Thus the Mendota managed to pull clear. Sweeping the searchlights around in all directions, the cutter tried unsuccessfully to find the missing men. Indeed, after clearing the hull of the White, the schooner, despite sharp  p145 lookouts and the searchlights, was almost instantly lost to view. Commander Keaster was reluctant to leave as long as there was a possible chance of finding the men, but after an hour's cruising, he headed the cutter toward Norfolk. The three rescued men needed hospitalization, having suffered frozen limbs from exposure.

Commander Keaster's official report of the Headquarters stated ". . . in considering this case, particular attention must be given to the circumstances existing during the rescue operations. Action by the Mendota's crew and the survivors was handicapped by the severe cold, the heavy seas and blinding snow and vapor. Of the seven men of the White's crew, six of these men were given lines to come aboard, and the fact that only three of them were saved, was a grave disappointment to all who did their utmost to bring them aboard."

The rescue of the three men from the White was a brilliant feat. Another Coast Guard victory, partial though it was, wrested bravely from the sea.

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