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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 4

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 6
This site is not affiliated with the US Coast Guard Academy.

 p105  Chapter Five


An earlier broadcast of the trouble aboard the Morro Castle would have resulted, undoubtedly, in many more lives being saved, since it would have given the Coast Guard and commercial agencies more time in which to coördinate their rescue efforts.

In the Uvira case, the free use of the radio, coupled with the outstanding alertness of the radio operators aboard the Coast Guard cutter Pontchartrain, the rescue vessel, was chiefly responsible for the ultimate rescue of all persons aboard the yacht.

Cape Hatteras, on the North Carolina coast, has long been known as a graveyard of ships. It juts out into the ocean like a huge bow, its dangerous shoals lying in wait for the unwary sailor. During stormy periods, these shoals cause vicious cross seas and hidden curves which exercise such a strong pull toward shore that many a superstitious old‑timer believed the place accursed.

On the morning of February 13, 1933, the cutter Pontchartrain was standing down Thimble Shoals channel, Lynnhaven Roads, Va., on her way out to  p106 sea for regular patrol off Cape Hatteras. Weather reports had come in, advising that a storm of considerable intensity had centered in that vicinity. Hatches were battened down and provisions made for rough weather, for the Coast Guardsmen knew what Cape Hatteras was like in a storm.

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In the radioroom, Shimkus, radioman first class, was on watch. A veteran operator, he knew that stormy weather usually meant work for the off‑shore patrolling vessels. The air was filled with the clamoring of ships at sea, some of them asking for weather reports, others sending in their positions. Shimkus copied down the positions as they were sent, for he did not know how long it would be before one of those very same ships might need assistance.

At eleven o'clock, a ship opened up suddenly with a shrill insistent note. The signals pounded out over the growl of the sparks. It was an NCU!

NCU is the general call for the Coast Guard. While it does not necessarily indicate distress, it does signify that the transmitting station has a message of utmost importance which he wishes to clear to the nearest Coast Guard unit. This call was from a navy destroyer, which, after getting Shimkus' answer, shifted to his working frequency and sent the message:

NRUP de NUSJ HR following message received from yacht Uvira in position lat 30‑12 N. Long  p107 74‑13 W. Quote we are taking water fast main boom carried away one man lost overboard passengers aboard need immediate assistance unquote Uvira's signals extremely hard to copy possibly due to antenna grounding out.

Shimkus receipted for the message and called the bridge. In a few minutes, the Pontchartrain's commanding officer, Commander Farley, had the message and the cutter's speed was increased to full. Chief Radioman Harrison was at the radio direction finder on the bridge, attempting to tune the Uvira's signals in, so that radio bearings might be taken on her.

WSC, a power­ful commercial radio station at Tuckerton, N. J., became aware of the situation almost instantly, and broadcast a silencing signal so that Communications with the Uvira might not be impaired by interference. In the silence that followed, Shimkus heard the Uvira repeating her message, begging desperately for immediate assistance. The signals were difficult to read, being broken up and ragged. The radioman aboard the cutter knew what was happening. The distressed ship's antenna was down, or else grounding out in some way.

Harrison, at the direction finder, also heard the signals, and managed to get bearings before the Uvira's transmitter ceased. These bearings were plotted on the chart and were found to be at a considerable variance from the position given in the message received  p108 by the navy destroyer. The chief radioman immediately checked the bearings, but the same results were obtained. The position given by the navy ship placed the Uvira north of Lynnhaven Roads, while the bearings indicated that she was somewhere near Hatteras.

By this time the cutter was well out in the open sea. Dirty green water broke over her bow, swept along the deck. The Pontchartrain was being driven hard, and the sturdy cutter shuddered every time a big wave came aboard, but she kept plowing on, her speed undiminished. Commander Farley decided to ride out the bearings obtained with the direction finder, rather than rely upon the position given by the destroyer. The odds were in favor of the message having been garbled on account of the difficulty experienced in reading the Uvira's signals.

In a few minutes, the wisdom of Commander Farley's decision was borne out. The S. S. Atenas, a commercial steamer, called the Pontchartrain and reported that her position was three hours away from the Uvira. Commander Farley checked the relative positions of the Pontchartrain and the Atenas and found that the cutter was on the right course. The master of the Atenas asked if he should proceed to the Uvira's assistance, and Commander Farley, knowing that minutes might mean the difference between life and death for those aboard the yacht, answered affirmatively. He further informed the Atenas that the Pontchartrain would arrive at the Uvira's corrected position  p109 at about five o'clock that afternoon and requested the steamer to stand by until the cutter's arrival.

By this time, the Uvira's signals had died away altogether. The Pontchartrain called her several times, as did the Atenas, but there was no answer. Her silence might mean that the vessel had at last been broken up by the force of the seas. The cutter's commander called for every ounce of steam in the boilers and the Pontchartrain hurtled on, straining like a greyhound at the leash. Commercial vessels kept reporting their positions to the cutter, asking if they should proceed to the assistance of the Uvira. The Pontchartrain informed them that the Atenas and herself were the closest vessels to the yacht and additional assistance was not needed.

At three thirty, Atenas reported that she had sighted the Uvira in position latitude 35‑51 N. longitude 74‑02 W. The yacht was bare of sails, except for a ragged strip up forward, evidently a distress flag. She had been taking a terrific beating from the seas, and immediate assistance was necessary if the yacht and passengers were to be saved. The Atenas reported her own attempt to put a line aboard the Uvira and the defeat of the effort by the gale and treacherous seas. Backing off, the steamer used her transmitter to guide the cutter to the spot.

The Pontchartrain sighted the Atenas and the Uvira at five fifty. It was growing dark, and to add to this difficulty, snow fell thickly. Visibility was  p110 practically zero. Commander Farley ordered the cutter's power­ful searchlights trained on the yacht. She was rolling heavily, with her keel plates often in full view. A man was seen holding to the stump of the mast, apparently trying to determine the cutter's intentions.

Having ascertained that she could be of no further assistance, the Atenas radioed the Pontchartrain for permission to proceed on her voyage. She moved off through the darkness, leaving the Pontchartrain with a task that was getting more difficult by the minute, for the wind had increased to a full gale, and the sea was now a mad, whirling frenzy.

The Uvira appeared waterlogged and was beginning to hesitate more and more on her rolls. It was apparent that she could not hold out much longer, unless her bow was pulled into the wind and the yacht carried out of the trough of the sea.

A weak light started blinking from the Uvira. It told the Coast Guardsmen what they already knew:

We cannot hold out much longer! Unless a line is put aboard us, the yacht will go to pieces!

Preparations were made on the deck of the cutter. It was a cold, dangerous game, with seas breaking across the decks as she lay hove to. The Coast Guardsmen held on to life lines, went about their business with grim sureness. The line-throwing gun was set up, with its line made ready. Commander Farley  p111 manoeuvered the Pontchartrain into a favorable position. An officer stood at the bridge window, waiting for the moment when the two vessels were on somewhat of an even keel. Then his hand went up and the gun spat fitfully into the wind.

The line paid out like a writhing snake. For a moment, it looked as though the attempt had been success­ful, then the weight dropped into the water, a bare ten feet from the Uvira. At the same time, a towering wave struck the yacht and she keeled sickeningly over on her side. The man who had been braced against the mast was buried under an avalanche of water. He disappeared from view, and it seemed then that the sea had claimed another victim; but again the Uvira righted herself and there he was, clinging desperately to the rail and nearly in the sea. Pulling himself aboard, he scrambled back to the mast.

Commander Farley knew that a second failure could not be risked. It was too rough to launch a life boat. No small boat could survive in that water. The commander knew what he must do, and to do it, he would need all the knowledge gained during his long years at sea. At his orders, the Pontchartrain pulled slowly around to the windward side of the disabled yacht and manoeuvered until she was on a course that would take her squarely across the Uvira's bow. It was risky, dangerous business; the least miscalculation would send the Coast Guard vessel crashing down against the yacht. But there was nothing else to be  p112 done. Lives had to be saved, and the Coast Guardsmen were used to taking outside chances in their rescue work. These chances had a habit of paying high dividends, as records will show.

Commander Farley threw the annunciator handles down to half speed, and the cutter plowed down upon the Uvira. The helmsman was tense, his eyes narrow as he jockeyed the Pontchartrain closer and closer to the bow of the yacht. The Coast Guardsmen on the stern of the cutter were ready.

When the bow of the Uvira appeared amid­ships, the officer in charge snapped an order and the man with the line-throwing gun stood up, gun at his shoulder. Commander Farley judged the distance with a practiced eye and at exactly the right moment, gave his command. The helmsman spun the wheel. Instantly, the cutter went over on her side, heeled into the wind. The stern passed just under the bowsprit of the Uvira, so close that a collision appeared inevitable. Then, the gun echoed hollowly against the roar of the sea and wind, and this time the line went squarely across the yacht. A man darted out, made it fast. The Pontchartrain sheered off, lay to a hundred feet away.

The Coast Guard had done its part, but the fight was not yet finished. An eightinch hawser had to be pulled aboard the yacht and made fast for towing. The freezing weather and the rolling of the Uvira made this a Herculean task, but the crew of the disabled vessel knew that the hawser was their only  p113 hope of salvation. For an hour and a half they worked in the lulls between the seas, worked with ice hanging to their clothes and with hands numb with cold. Finally, the hawser was pulled in and shackled to the starboard anchor chain.

At nine o'clock that night, the Pontchartrain got under way with her tow. In order that the yacht would not be subjected to any unnecessary punishment, Commander Farley ordered a speed of 46 r.p.m. for the night. This was barely enough to give the cutter steerage way, but the commander was counting on holding his own until morning, waiting for a lull in the storm.

All that night, the Pontchartrain held the bow of the yacht into the seas. A searchlight was kept trained on the Uvira and the lookouts were alert for any signal. The vessel appeared to be shipping water continually, but seemed to be holding together as well as could be expected.

The next morning the seas had moderated considerably, and the speed was increased to eighty r.p.m. The Uvira appeared to have come through the night fairly well, excepting that their superstructure was a mass of wreckage. By midafternoon, the cutter's speed had been increased to one hundred r.p.m., and a course for Chesapeake light vessel. Then, at eight twenty on the morning of the 15th, the Uvira was brought into Hampton Roads and anchored.

Ensign Grantham​a of the Pontchartrain went across  p114 to the Uvira to complete the Coast Guard's report. He found that the yacht carried twenty‑two in her crew and three passengers, two of the latter being women. Another passenger, Herbert Kuechenmeister of Chicago, had been washed overboard on the morning of the 13th.

The yacht had been bound from New York to Miami and was two days out when she ran into the storm. She had weathered the blow admirably until her motors failed. The crew had then tried to rig the sails in the raging wind but the canvas was whipped to pieces and the boom carried away. Kuechenmeister was washed overboard at this time while helping the crew. From then on, it had appeared just a question of time until the yacht would go to pieces, unless her frantic calls were heard and help came.

The Pontchartrain towed the Uvira one hundred and seventy miles under the most adverse weather and sea conditions. The seaman­ship exhibited in that dramatic rescue has gone down in the annals of the Coast Guard as the most daring and success­ful of all rescue operations. To the Coast Guardsmen who took part in the episode, it was just another job well done, for which they felt undeserving of unusual praise.

Soon after the Uvira rescue, a news story appeared in an Eastern newspaper stating that the Coast Guard had presented a bill to the owners of the Uvira for "towing charges." To say that this was untrue would  p115 be contributing some measure of respect to a bald misstatement that deserves no tissue of respectability. A storm of protest came from the Coast Guard. While they wanted no credit for their work, they did resent any such slur as that which had been cast upon them. Ensign Grantham, the only Coast Guard officer to visit the Uvira, presented an affidavit to Headquarters denying that any such charge "for towing" had been made while he was aboard. It was never established just where the reporter got the idea that the Coast Guard charges for its work. The service that the Coast Guard affords distressed mariners is free; it is a service unparalleled in any other country in the world.

The sea had been cheated in the Uvira case. Twenty-five persons had been snatched from its clutches, but five years later, almost in the same spot, the sea was to score heavily, sending the Greek steamer, Tzenny Chandris, with eight of her crew, to the bottom. The Tzenny Chandris had recently been bought in the United States by a Greek syndicate, and this would have been her first trip across the Atlantic.

On the morning of November 13th, 1937, the Tzenny Chandris was a day out from Morehead City, N. C., bound to Rotterdam, Holland, with a cargo of scrap iron. She had been bucking an easterly gale almost from the moment she had left Morehead City, and the ship was creaking in every joint with the  p116 strain of the seas. There was water in the hold, and more pouring in between the plates of the tortured ship. The pumps had been going for hours, but the water was gaining steadily.

The Tzenny Chandris was becoming loggy and fast losing steerage way. The master knew what that portended. Once the forward speed of the vessel was lost, she would be at the mercy of the pounding seas, which were now roaring down upon her from a height of nearly forty feet.

The Tzenny Chandris' master gave orders to the radioroom that a distress call be sent out. There was nothing left to do. The storm showed no signs of abating and the steamer could not long survive such a beating. Already, the engineroom floor plates were covered with six inches of water. Once the water reached the fires under the boilers it would be all over.

In the radioroom, the harassed operator had been trying, unsuccessfully, to contact another ship or shore station. He was not an experienced operator, and this, coupled with the fact that he knew but little English, contributed to the urgency of the situation. The radio equipment was old, the transmitter being of a low power, spark type. The receiver was practically useless, since no signals from a great distance could be received with it.

The operator knew that the odds were against him. The knowledge that the lives of nearly thirty men  p117 depended upon him brought a sob of hopelessness to his lips. Desperately, he turned to the transmitter. He saw that the power was low, but he had to get out. God, he had to get out. . . .

The Coast Guard cutter Sebago, on patrol at sea, had heard a weak spark signal several times during the night, broadcasting some sort of a message, but the signals had been too weak to copy. And the radioman on board the cutter was worried. With a keen intuition born of years of experience, he felt that something was wrong. He swung the dial of the receiver back and forth, searching the air for the guttural moan of the spark signals.

Then, during a momentary lull, the signals came again. This time they were a bit stronger, and were fairly readable. It was a message addressed to all ships and read:

CQ CQ de Tzenny Chandris CQ All ships please Tzenny Chandris standby we are in very trouble position please answer.

The message was, obviously, in broken English, but the radioman knew that it had come from a vessel in distress. He snapped on his transmitter and answered the Tzenny Chandris in a slow, even swing, asking for a position and more details. There was no reply.

Poyners Hill Naval Direction Finder station, on the North Carolina coast, near Hatteras, had also heard the message. An attempt was made at that time  p118 to secure a bearing on the distressed ship, but without success. However, a few minutes later, at 4 A.M., the Greek ship sent out an SOS, the first she had transmitted, and closed off abruptly, without having sent her position. The direction finder station managed to get a bearing on this transmission, but due to weak signals, the bearing was considered doubtful. It was forwarded, however, to Naval Radio Headquarters in Norfolk for further transmission to Coast Guard units at sea.

The Tzenny Chandris continued to fill the air with SOS from four o'clock until four thirty‑one, after which she was not heard again. Never once did she give her position, and thus invaluable time was lost. Her transmissions were brief, doubtlessly due to power failure, and this fact greatly hindered direction finder work. Her usage of the complete name, Tzenny Chandris, instead of a regularly assigned call, added considerably to the confusion already existing.

Tuckerton Radio, the commercial station that had done such sterling work in controlling communications during the Uvira case, came on the air and began inquiring of ships if they had been in communication with the Tzenny Chandris any time prior to the distress. Finally, the S. S. Seatrain told Tuckerton that she had worked the Tzenny Chandris at ten o'clock the day before, and that the Greek ship's position at that time had been near Hatteras, bound north. This information was intercepted by the Sebago and the  p119 cutter headed full speed for the estimated position of the Tzenny Chandris.

The Sebago arrived off Hatteras at nine o'clock that morning. She at once began to circle, gradually widening her sweep to take in as much space as possible in the search for the Tzenny Chandris or possible survivors. It was a rough job, for the seas were kicking up strongly from the force of the easterly gale. At seven minutes after nine, the Sebago heard an oil tanker, the S. S. Swiftsure, talking with a sister ship, the S. S. Lucas. The Swiftsure told the Lucas that she had picked up a lifeboat with six men at a position approximately forty miles northeast of Diamond Shoals Lightship.

This information was received also by the Coast Guard radio station at Cape May and rushed to the Commander of the Division at Norfolk. The air station was directed by the Commander to hold planes in readiness in case the weather moderated enough to permit them to be used in a search for the survivors of the Tzenny Chandris, which by this time was known to have gone down.

The Swiftsure called NCU, the general call for the Coast Guard, and the Sebago answered. For some reason or other, the tanker did not hear the cutter's answer, but broadcast the message for all ships:

All ships vicinity Diamond Shoals one lifeboat afloat with men approximately thirty to forty  p120 miles northeast of Diamond Shoals do not know what name of boat they speak Greek only the boat picked up had six men and they said another boat was afloat with fourteen men in it.

This message was followed by a second:

Tzenny Chandris of Chios Greece sailed from Morehead City Thursday November 11 and sank about four a m November 13 stop we picked up six men in lifeboat thirty miles northeast Diamond Shoals Lightvessel stop survivors claim eight men in water with life belts stop we will search for same in vicinity Signed Allen, Master.

By this time, the Cutter Mendota was on her way out to sea from her base at Norfolk to assist in the rescue operations, followed closely by the patrol boat Dione and the cutter Bibb. The Naval air authorities at Norfolk called the divisional headquarters and offered the services of seven large patrol planes. This offer was accepted by the Coast Guard, but due to highly unfavorable flying conditions it was not considered advisable at that time to order the planes into the air.

During that afternoon and night, the cutters Mendota, Bibb, Sebago, and the patrol boat Dione plowed the waters around Diamond Shoals searching for survivors. It seemed a hopeless task, but the Coast Guardsmen held to their work grimly. The weather had moderated somewhat, but the seas were as high  p121 as ever, and it did not seem possible that men could live in them. Their search was fruitless, but at six o'clock the next morning, a message was received from the Commander of the division, stating that the seven naval planes had departed from Norfolk and that the Coast Guard patrol plane, V‑126, pilot Lieutenant R. L. Burke, was on its way from the air base at Cape May, N. J., to join in the rescue work.

The naval plane 14‑P‑8 advised the cutter Mendota at ten o'clock that she had sighted bodies floating in the water approximately seven miles from the Mendota's position. The plane circled and dived in order to guide the cutter to the spot. Arriving there, the Mendota's boats picked up the bodies of three men in life jackets, floating upright in the water. It was obvious that one of the men had died from injuries received in the wreckage; the other two had apparently died from exposure. The carcasses of pigs and other animals dotted the water around the wreckage. Foreign freighters are accustomed to taking with them live stock for provisions, since most of the ships are not equipped with refrigeration.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard patrol plane had arrived and reported for duty to the Sebago, which was senior ship. The plane was assigned an area to scout, taking over the work that the naval planes had been doing. The fuel of the naval craft was beginning to run low, and they requested permission to return to the Naval Operating Base at Norfolk.

 p122  Scouting southward, over an area of perhaps twenty miles square, the V‑126 at once began to sight survivors, clinging to rafts and bits of wreckage. A group or four or five were holding to an overturned lifeboat, probably the one that the Swiftsure had mentioned. Lieutenant Burke flew low over them, dropping smoke bombs to mark the spot for the cutters.

Then Lieutenant Burke became aware of a terrible menace facing the men in the water. Dark, sinister shapes hovered around the carcasses of the animals from Tzenny Chandris and Burke knew at once what those shapes were. Man‑eating sharks!

The sharks were beginning to leave the carcasses of the animals and were forming a deadly ring about the weakened men. Some of the survivors had sticks with which they beat weakly against the water to frighten the man‑eaters away, but the sharks would dive very rapidly and disappear only to show up a few seconds later, closer than ever to the men. It was only a question of minutes before they would launch themselves in attack.

Lieutenant Burke advised the Mendota of the situation and requested that all speed be made to the scene, or the plane would attempt to land in the rough sea and pick up the men. This, Lieutenant Burke did not wish to do except as a last resort, for he knew well enough that the plane would never rise from that water, as rough as it was.

Burke managed to hold the sharks at bay by zooming  p123 and diving the plane over and at them. The Mendota steamed up and lowered her boats, while crack sharpshooters lined the rail with .30‑.30 rifles. Fourteen men were picked up, all in an exhausted state. They had been in the water nearly thirty hours, their boat having capsized just after leaving the Tzenny Chandris. Two bodies were found in the vicinity of the wreckage and one old man died soon after being brought aboard the Mendota.

The survivors were taken below and given hot coffee and medicinal whiskey. One man was given treatment for a bad wound on the heel where a shark had bitten him. This man spoke a little English and he told of the tragedy in shaking, broken tones.

Soon after leaving Morehead City, the vessel had started taking water in the hold. The captain had thought that they would be able to make port, but a heavy blow had caught them while going around Hatteras. The storm had grown worse and so had the condition of the Tzenny Chandris. Finally, the captain had called them out on deck, and told them that the end of the voyage had come and that all attempts to get help had failed. They were going to abandon ship.

One boat had been put over the side without mishap. The second boat got away, but a big sea capsized it, dumping the men into the angry water. That same sea had come aboard the Tzenny Chandris, carrying away ventilators, flooding the engineroom,  p124 and shifting the cargo. The ship by this time had a fifteen degree list, and was listing further. The captain ordered his men to jump into the sea in an effort to save themselves and watched them as they went one by one over the rail.

The rest of the horrible experience was hazy for this survivor. His story at this point became rambling, incoherent. He did tell of seeing one of his shipmates being pulled from the raft by a shark, and he himself had been attacked at the same time. This was just before the planes came down through the mists to locate him and his shipmates and end his nightmarish adventure.

The Mendota found two more men and another body. In all, the cutter picked up three bodies and saved sixteen men, one of whom died aboard ship. The survivors had been driven nearly fifty miles from the position where the ship was supposed to have gone down; they were in the water for thirty hours. The Sebago had been a relatively short distance from the position of the Tzenny Chandris, and but for the failure of the freighter's radioman to broadcast his position, might have been able to rescue the entire crew. The bearings obtained during the time the Tzenny Chandris was on the air were generally inaccurate. This was due, however, to the weak signals and broad minimum afforded by the ship's obsolete transmitter.

Eight lives were lost in this disaster. It is, indeed,  p125 a miracle of modern times that any of the Tzenny Chandris crew were rescued. You can charge that miracle up to another miracle — aviation! Had it not been for the naval planes and the Coast Guard V‑126, it is very probable that not one of the sixteen men saved by the Mendota would have been found alive.

Thayer's Note:

a Our author doesn't tell us, but I will: this Ensign Grantham is the same man as Robert L. Grantham the hero of Chapter 8; see my note there for details of his career.

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