Digest>Archives> May 2002

The Not So Perfect Storm


By Jim Gill


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By Jim Gill (USCG Ret)

The wind in the wires made a hurricane sound

And a wave broke over the railing

And every man knew as the Captain did too

‘twas the witch of November come stealing . . .

From the “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot.

The events recorded here do not portray a “Perfect Storm” type catastrophe nor even such a storm as might be labeled “severe.” In 60 years of seafaring I have survived several 130 knot ordeals in Alaska, the Pacific Typhoon of 1944, the Atlantic hurricane of 1951 and other numerous and ugly encounters, all of which were substantially more powerful and destructive tempests than we are about to recall here. Nevertheless, I have to rate the following account as significant. And more to the point, it illustrates the peculiar and unfortunate circumstances of lightships duty-bound to remain anchored on station no matter how severe the conditions may become. This was a situation that on more than several occasions proved fatal to ship and crew as well.

It started Friday morning, the 30th of November, 1962. The day broke cold and clear with a brisk northwesterly wind and a heavy swell running. Nothing unusual about that for a late fall day out on San Francisco Bay, but there were ominous signs that things might change for the worse. The barometer was already low and still falling and the sky had a strange reddish cast. By noon the wind had picked up to over 40 knots and the ship was pitching badly. Still not unusual all considered, but some routine precautions were in order.

Both of our small-boats were still rigged out so right after the noon meal we cranked in the motor launch and secured it in its cradle. We also veered the anchor chain three shots, lashed down the pawl and cinched up hard on the devil’s claws. The depth of water on the Bar Station is 17 fathoms and our fair weather scope of chain 120 fathoms (a seven to one ratio, considered adequate). By veering three shots we increased the ratio to almost ten to one.

By the time we finished the wind had increased to the point where it was no longer safe to work on deck. That left the pulling boat rigged out in the portside davits but it had survived other strenuous weather in that position and I considered it OK. We all went below and started checking ports and hatches to be sure everything was dogged down tight. There had been no marine broadcasts as to storm or even small craft warnings, which was very misleading, but it was obvious that something out of the ordinary was brewing so we took precautions. I was well into my third year in command of Lightship 612 and we had been through a lot of very bad weather. Thus I knew the ship’s capabilities well and was not unduly concerned that whatever was taking place might be anything to worry about. At this time the motion of the ship was getting too wild for the cook (Horstman) to safely turn out the evening meal so he made some sandwiches. Few were interested in food at that point. About 1800 I went to the bridge intent on calling in for a weather forecast and to have a look around. It was dark by then so there was not much to see but there was a lot of white water around us and seas were starting to break aboard. The anemometer was showing just under 70 knots.

Suddenly the URC-7 transceiver came to life with NMC (CG Radio San Francisco) transmitting an urgent marine broadcast on 2670kc. Weather, at last, but it consisted only of gale warnings (33 to 47 knots) and didn’t make it sound too bad. From our viewpoint that was ridiculous as we were already well past storm warnings (48 to 63 kts) and into hurricane range (64kts and over) I roughed out a “Special Advisory” report for the U.S. Weather Bureau and a “Status Report” for the 12th CG District. It was tough trying to write and hold on at the same time but it was important to let somebody know what was happening out here.

Riding a small ship anchored in a violent storm is something only lightship sailors know. Other vessels have long before sought refuge in a safe harbor or turned to seaward on a course and speed matched to ease the motion. The lightship strives to maintain station and in doing so is exposed to the full fury of the sea. Several unpleasant things may happen. Most commonly there comes a failure in the ground tackle. The anchor breaks out and begins to drag or worse, the chain snaps. If the ship cannot make way against the sea, she may be driven ashore. History tells us that lightships have been ripped apart by ice, torn asunder by mountainous seas and foundered by loss of watertight integrity.

At 2200 NMC was back on the air with another Urgent Marine Broadcast, this time setting NW storm warnings for winds up to 60 knots. They were still way off the mark for we were now reading 75 with no indication of backing off. We already had four main engines on the line and making turns for half ahead to ease strain on the chain. With large amounts of rudder we could keep her fairly close to the wind but it was not without difficulty. With the violent motion of the ship most of the crew except those on watch were in their bunks and holding on. A few of them were too excited or maybe frightened and were up and about. Several came to the wheelhouse. All of us had one thing in common - holding on to something solid to keep from being bodily slammed against a bulkhead or hurled to the deck and severely injured.

Midnight came and I was beginning to worry. Seas were breaking over the bow almost continuously and in ever-increasing force. The pulling boat, still rigged out, could easily be carried away. The anchor chain was under terrific strain. If it broke could we make way against the sea. Worry, worry. Wind now 80kts. Increase turns on the shaft to full ahead. Our radar was useless, the entire screen a white mass of sea return. Then the antenna drive belt snapped and that was the end of the radar. I switched it off. At 0200 the URC-7 sounded off again, this time a message from CCGD-12 for us requesting conditions and status. An experienced and alert duty officer in RCC knew the score and was concerned as to our welfare. I tried to sound casual but with one hand gripping the handset and the other holding on for dear life I probably sounded like an idiot. “Ship maintaining station, all services in normal operation. Wind.” I glanced at the anemometer, good grief! “90 knots.” I was too surprised to say any more. 90 knots?

Gusting to 120!

The seas had also increased and I was looking at swells in the order of 50 feet towering over us. Some we rode skyward only to come roaring down the backsides and plunging deep into the next one. The main deck was continuously awash from stem to stern. An occasional monster would crash over the foredeck breakwater, bury the wheelhouse and continue to sweep right on over the full length of the ship. Despite our best efforts using engine and rudder, the ship twice flung herself back hard against the mooring, fetching up with a shudder. This dangerous event is exactly what might cause a failure of ground tackle but there as nothing to do but keep trying to steer into the seas. With the constant thundering of water over the ship, the wheelhouse ports were impossible to see through which made the maneuvering a “by the feel of it” process. Made still more difficult by the primary task of trying to keep your body from being wrenched loose from your handhold.

Russ Helberg, a young seaman aboard 612 vividly recalls some of the action.

“The pilot boat CALIFORNIA (They were abandoning the Pilot Station and running for the shelter of San Francisco Bay) came by. They put their mercury searchlight on us to see how far we were coming out of the water. They said they could see our keel and zinc plates. Then we lost the drive belt on our radar because the masts were snapping so violently every time she took her dive into the trough. We took green water over the stack and that was when we took water into the foghorns and silenced the diaphragms. Since we were anchored she had nowhere to go but straight through a wave. I remember that I could just about walk on the forward bulkhead of the bridge.”

Russ also mentions the terrible collision of the M/V COCOA MARU and MSTS ASTERION on that same night off Point Reyes. The Coast Guard 95-footer attempting to respond sustained damage and had to turn back. CGC COMANCHE managed to arrive on scene but only after a terrible struggle. The ships were eventually saved but there was a considerable loss of lives.

Just after 0400, somebody at the Weather Bureau finally got a handle on what was taking place and the following broadcast gave a clear if not entirely accurate picture. At Mount Tamalpais the wind had been recorded at 120 knots. San Francisco Lightship reporting 90 knots (my 0200 report), Point Reyes 105 knots, and so on down the line. But now that was all ancient history for the wind was already dropping off. At 0700 the sky was beginning to lighten up a bit and I thought I detected a slight moderation in the swells. We had been keeping tabs on the barometer every hour and it now had actually started to rise. An hour later there was a huge drop in the wind, all the way down to 40 knots! At 0930 the sea was easing up considerably and we could now look through the ports and view our surroundings. The pulling boat by some miracle was still intact. Then it started to rain, soon coming down in buckets and visibility was lost again. It occurred to me we should try the fog signal again but it was to no avail. All through this ordeal the main light and the radio beacon had faithfully sent out their signals but the mighty F-2-T diaphones (there were two) had succumbed at about 0300 when a huge sea swept over the ship. The inverted cone-shaped chambers simply filled to the top with seawater and were silenced.

The rest is anticlimactic. The wind continued to abate and the seas gradually subsided. It felt good to let go of our various handholds but we were stiff and sore from hours of hanging on. Numb is probably a good word to apply, and we were starving.

By mid-afternoon the cook (with eager assistance) was putting together a feast and everybody was up and moving around.

The storm seemed to be a “grand finale” to my Coast Guard career. On December 17 we were relieved by Lightship 523 (CHBOSN Barr) and proceeded to the CG Base YBI (Yerba Buena Island) I retired from the USCG on 1 January 1963 having been relieved by BOSN James Sawyer. Although I continued seafaring for another 40 years, the November storm of 1962 has always been keenly remembered.

This story appeared in the May 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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