One experience in my life came to the forefront not long ago as I was reading the recently published book Until the Sea Shall Free Them by Robert Frump—a book about life, death, and survival in the merchant marine, and specifically the sinking of the merchant vessel Marine Electric in February of 1983. I was involved in a small way in that event, and reading that book brought back memories, causing me re-live and re-think the experience even though it occurred some 19 years ago.
My involvement began with a heated exchange between myself and my superior officer at the US Coast Guard Dive Team in Elizabeth City, NC. There I stood, toe-to-toe with my boss, debating whether our dive team should respond to the emergency call for assistance that had been sent from the 600-foot coal ship Marine Electric. At the time, the ship was sinking in a vicious storm off the coast of Virginia (see Winter Storms and Hypothermia).
At the time, I felt we needed to go. There was an emergency, mariners were in distress, and we had skills and talents that could be utilized. The US Coast Guard had no rescue swimmers in 1983, as they do today, so the members of our dive team were the de facto rescue swimmers, if there were to be any.
“We need to go," I told my boss emphatically. And he simply said “No, you are not trained for this type of mission.” He was the boss, so we did not go. In retrospect he was doing the right thing from where he stood. As he saw it, our lack of training for such situations could possibly have gotten us into serious trouble.
|"That's the way it is at sea, no mission is ever fully defined. No incident at sea ever fits seamlessly with your pre-planning."|
From my point of view, we were trained military divers. We had been schooled to think, to use our skills and initiative to meet challenges head-on and succeed. And that's the way it often is at sea. Veteran mariners will tell you that no mission is ever fully defined. No incident at sea ever fits seamlessly with your pre-planning. You have to adapt, and make the most of the resources that are available. At the time, I saw a need—a life-and-death situation where mariners were dying in freezing water—and I felt we should go. If we did not go, I told myself then, we had no business being divers and Coasties. This, I thought at the time, was a black-and-white situation with no shades of gray.
Well, we stayed put and the US Navy went out with their rescue swimmers and the US Coast Guard sent helicopters, but not with us. Of the more than 30 mariners who were thrown into the freezing sea when the Marine Electric sank, only a few survived. It was a horrendous accident and subsequently brought about changes in how the US Coast Guard inspects and mandates safety equipment for commercial vessels, particularly survival gear. Immersion suits for preventing hypothermia are now required for crews on all commercial vessels; it was hypothermia that killed most of the Marine Electric’s crew.
A week after our heated conversation I finally did dive on the Marine Electric, to confirm the ship's location and condition, and to ensure that there were no survivors trapped aboard. Survivors were not a likely scenario because the ship was sitting on the bottom in 130 feet of near-freezing Atlantic water. I am grateful that we did finally dive on the ship as it cleared my conscience then and gives me peace now.
I think I did the right thing at the time, forcing the issue of sending us out there during the height of the storm. Today I feel even more committed to that notion. We should have gone. I say damn the artificial rules and constraints. We had gone in harm's way many times prior. And we had a duty to the sailors in the water, struggling for their lives, to go to their rescue.
This is not to say that I have always done the right thing, nor that sailors in an emergency should rush into action. Emergency situations require quick action, but they also demand solid judgement. There have certainly been times when I did the wrong thing. I guess all sailors have those experiences. And there are times when we do the right thing, stand firm and solid, and suffer the frustration and pain. Doing the right thing is often, at first, more painful than doing the wrong thing.
It's important to remember that on the ocean, there are few second chances if the action you take is wrong. The big blue pond has no prejudice or bias, but it will find weakness and flaws without delay. So it is critical to do the right thing when the call for action arrives. Take the correct action the first time, when you know you should. In a phrase, “rig heavy, reef early, and look out for your shipmates.” Be prepared for emergencies and make plans for worst-case scenarios. And if a call comes for assistance, always respond and provide aid to your fellow sailors; do not hesitate.
And then, even 19 years later, you will feel good when you look back on your actions.
Understanding Rescue Methods by Michael Carr
Offshore Safety Reviewed by SailNet
Betting it All on EPIRBs by Jim Krezenski
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