by William R. Carr

The "Stonewall Jackson" a sister ship to the Stonewall Jackson

This article was published in the June/July 1996 issue of Professional Mariner, and AMVER Bulletin No. 1-97

That dreaded cry echoed from the main deck of the LASH vessel Stonewall Jackson last year, (1995). It happened on Halloween day, at 1039 hours. We were on the long homeward leg of voyage 79, enroute from the Far East to New Orleans via the Cape of Good Hope. We'd passed the Cape on October 22nd and were at two degrees, three minutes south, and thirty-four degrees, fifty-one minutes west, some fifty or so miles from the lonely De Fernando do Noronha island group. We had been steaming for twenty solid, uneventful, days, and had another week to go before reaching our destination. At something like 12,500 miles, and almost a month of continuous steaming, the passage might have been some kind of a distance record for LASH ships. For many of us, this long sea passage was a rare and welcome interlude after two months of frequent port calls and long, hectic hours of cargo work. But for some it wasn't so welcome. A few men were beginning to show the strain. They were testy, and anxious to get the passage over and set foot on shore. There was one who was literally driven beyond his ability to cope.

As second mate, I had been off watch since 0800, and was correcting charts in my room when the general alarm sounded. I heard loud voices from the bridge, one deck above, and almost immediately I felt the ship heel to starboard as if we were in an emergency turn. I slipped my shoes on, grabbed my life-jacket and radio, and bounded to the bridge. The quartermaster had the helm hard over to the left. But the air was electrified with tense excitement. Captain Michael Curlis was already on the port wing of the bridge shouting orders. When he saw me he told me to grab a pair of binoculars and get on the wing with him immediately!

"Who's overboard sir?" I inquired as I joined him.

"The QMED." He said, pointing a little aft of the port beam. "See if you can spot a life ring right about there!"

My heart sank to think that we might have lost a man. In spite of three decades of seafaring, this was my first man overboard at sea experience. My hands were trembling and my heart pounding as I brought the binoculars to my eyes, searching in the direction indicated.

For several days, this particular QMED, (Qualified Member of the Engine Department) had been displaying strange behavior. The captain had thought the matter serious enough to suspend him from duty and confine him to his room. And a twenty-four hour watch had been posted in the passageway outside. In spite of the precautions, however, he had burst from his room, literally running over the man on watch, ran out onto the main deck, and aft down the port side. Luckily, Chief Electrician, Eddie Johnson, observed him and took off in pursuit. Before Johnson was able to catch him, however, the QMED vaulted over the rail into the sea. Johnson located a life ring and threw it over the side and sounded the alarm, yelling loud enough to be heard on the bridge about 400 feet forward. Another man saw what had transpired and threw a second life ring over the side.

Saul Becker, was watch officer on the bridge. He heard Johnson's man overboard call from the port side and immediately had the quartermaster put the helm hard over to port, sounded the man overboard signal, noted the time, and got a position off of the GPS. Captain Curlis was on the bridge almost immediately. He quickly assessed the situation and decided to continue to the hard turn to port.

When I first joined him, I assumed that we were doing a Williamson turn. Thus, at first, I was a little confused as to how the man could be off our beam. I soon saw our wake, however, and realized that the captain was making a single turn to port. Within seconds I had spotted one of the life rings in the ship's wake, almost right on the port beam. At that point we had already turned about 150 degrees or so from our original course and were probably a little less than half a mile from the life ring.

The captain was doing exactly the right thing. Had we been doing a Williamson turn, we would still have been moving away from the victim at the rate of almost twenty knots. Then as we turned back to starboard to come about onto a reciprocal course, the victim would have been out of sight aft of the vessel for several minutes. We would have been almost a mile away by the time the we were again coming around toward the victim. As it was, not only was I able to spot the life ring quickly, but was able to keep it constantly in sight as our turn brought it quickly around on the bow.

I kept my arm extended in the direction of the life ring, as the captain expertly maneuvered the ship, slowing engines and easing the helm, until the life ring was close on the port bow. Soon we spotted the second life ring to the right of the first, and the captain stopped the vessel almost exactly between them. We had come back to our own wake at nearly a right angle, and the time elapsed could not have been more than about four minutes from the time of the initial hard over rudder command. The first ring spotted, as it turned out, was the second ring to be thrown overboard. Since the man had gone over the side before either ring had been thrown, he should be to the right of the first ring to hit the water.

The captain ordered third mate, Gary Tober, to get some men and clear the starboard lifeboat for lowering when we were about half way round in our turn, so we were all ready to lower a boat by the time we stopped. But spotting bright orange life rings is not quite spotting the man -- and it had become apparent that neither ring had our man hanging onto it. Our hearts sank once again as the possibility hit home that he had already gone down to a watery grave. I remained on the port wing of the bridge looking for a bobbing head, as the captain, Mr. Becker, and chief mate, Joseph Pospilsil, searched from the starboard side. Soon the captain yelled, "There he is!"

I crossed over to starboard and sure enough, miraculously, there was our lost QMED only a hundred feet or a little more off the starboard beam, below the bridge wing. His head looking pitifully small and insignificant in that vast body of water, but it appeared he was not in imminent danger of slipping beneath the surface. We were all greatly relieved to see our man alive and afloat. He had not yet found either life ring, so he was treading water, but he was there! Now the problem was getting him back aboard.

The captain sent the chief mate and I down to the main deck to rig the starboard pilot ladder. Gathering some men as we went, we soon had a the ladder over the side. The QMED at that time seemed within easy swimming range of the foot of the ladder, and was swimming toward the ship. It looked as though he would be there in a matter of seconds. Our immediate problem then seemed to be how we would get a weakened 180 pound man 25 feet up the side of the vessel. We sent men for a stretcher and some gantlines. However, at that moment the man in the water spotted one of the life rings nearby and swam to it. When he gained the life ring, rather than resuming his effort to get to the ship, he seemed to lose interest in the ship. Now in possession of the life ring, he made no effort to swim closer.

The captain then ordered the chief mate to the starboard lifeboat to get ready to launch. I remained on the main deck keeping the man and his lifering in constant sight with the binoculars, as the captain kicked the vessel ahead, turning to starboard, to put the lee on the starboard side. The man drifted aft and further from the ship until he was difficult to see from the main deck. Conditions, though far from being severe, were not quite ideal. There was an easterly force four breeze blowing, a slight to moderate sea, and a low north-by-easterly swell.

Soon Mr. Pospisil and crew had the lifeboat lowered just above the water and when the vessel was positioned properly, providing a lee of relatively smooth water, the word was given to launch. Since I was in charge of No. 1 lifeboat during abandon ship drills, I had a slight tinge of guilt at not among the crew. At the same time, however, I was also glad to be spared the particular duty. In any case, it appeared retrieval of the victim was now only moments away.

The engine was started, the boat was lowered into the water, and the releasing gear thrown. And off the rescue boat went, disappearing from time to time behind the choppy seas, as I viewed it from the main deck. The captain directed the boat toward the man from the bridge by radio. Soon the boat was close to the victim and his rescue seemed imminent.

Then something totally unexpected happened. The victim refused to be rescued! When the lifeboat made an approach to him, he swam away. The boat then had to make a wide swing and another approach. But each time it approached, the victim evaded the rescuers' hands and paddled his life ring frantically out of reach of his eager saviors. He had other plans, and other ideas of salvation. He was "going to paradise" he said, and if anybody came in the water after him, he'd "take them to paradise too."

Apparently nobody in the boat was eager to go to paradise, as nobody jumped in to attempt to thwart his planned journey. The chief mate was aware that a man in the QMED's state of mind might well possess near super-human strength, and would not order any crewmen into the water after him. He feared that two might be lost rather than one saved.

I listened to the transmissions between the captain on the bridge and the chief mate in the boat and witnessed the growing frustration of both parties. I went to the bridge to observe the operation from there with the captain. His increasing frustration was apparent. At one point he turned to me and asked if I had any suggestions. "Nothing short of putting a man in the water, sir." I said. But the captain wasn't ready to put a second man at risk.

The chief mate and boat crew tried every means of persuasion they could think of. All to no avail. The captain's frustration continued to grow. He ordered me to go down to the forecastle deck and make sure the boat painter was properly rigged and ready to retrieve the boat as soon as the QMED was saved, though the prospects were less poitive than the action would indicate. I did as told and resumed observing and monitoring the radio from two decks below the bridge. From my vantage the boat's activities resembled a cat or dog vainly chasing its tail. For almost half an hour the chief mate and the boat crew cajoled and persuaded, pleaded and begged, but got no results. The boat made pass after pass, but the victim simply would not be rescued. What's more, he didn't seem to be weakening physically. He ranted and raved at and gave no signs of cooperating.

Being a religious person, acutely troubled, and obviously suicidal, the victim ranted about God and heaven, saying such things as, "I'm going to paradise! My God will look after me!" Then, pointing to first one and then another of the boat crew, "Not your God, or your God... or YOUR God, but MY GOD!" And he had personal problems -- woman trouble. Apparently he'd received a "Dear John" letter while the ship was in Singapore. Grasping at whatever he could to break the stalemate, the captain found out what his girlfriend's name was and passed the information to the chief mate. When the mate told the QMED that his girlfriend needed him, mentioning her name, the QMED became more agitated and enraged than ever. "How do you know her name?" he demanded of the mate. "And you had to take the long way home!" (referring to our route via the Cape of Good Hope rather than through Suez).

The question in all of our minds was, how long could this guy hold out? It seemed that he had unlimited stamina. Any moment, when at a "safe" distance from the boat, he might just disappear and be gone to paradise. It was becoming painfully obvious that somebody was definitely going to have to go into the water and grab him, and the sooner the better. But, in absolute frustration, the captain ordered the mate to "work slowly back toward the ship."

The mate then said some of the crew were seasick and needed to be relieved. Captain Curlis told him to bring the boat back to the pilot ladder. I decided to offer my swimming services in order to break the seemingly impossible impasse. The captain was by then seriously beginning to consider the desperate measure of calling for shore assistance. But the Brazilian coast was almost two hundred miles away. If helicopter rescue service was available at all, it would still take too long.

I headed for the bridge to volunteer, half afraid that I might be biting off more than I could chew. In my bravado, I thought I was going to be the only volunteer. But, much to my relief, I need not have worried. I literally had to stand in line! Third assistant engineer, David Cake, was first in line, followed by OS, Armando Medina. And soon there were two others.

When the boat came alongside, half a dozen boat crewmen came back aboard the ship and as many new men, plus several more, descended the pilot ladder with extra heaving lines to use as man-ropes and safety lines. There were five "swimmers": 3AE, Cake; OS, Madena; Wiper, Jerome Butler; QMED, John Penrose, and myself. QMED Andre Smith, a friend and confidant of the victim, also joined us to make a last ditch attempt to get him to cooperate, before putting the swimmers into action.

Not surprisingly, when the boat had left the victim alone and returned to the ship, his idea of the direction to paradise seemed to be in the direction of the ship, so we didn't have far to go to get to him when we cast off. But he still wasn't willing to be picked up. Smith did his best to persuade his fellow QMED to give up his notion of going to paradise, but his friend still refused to be rescued. And far from seeming fatigued or near submission, he actually looked formidable. He grasped the life ring in a peculiar manner that allowed him to raise himself abnormally high out of the water, as he paddled crab-like away from the boat. His back and neck were arched, his head thrown back, giving his body a rigid and imposing appearance. His eyes were wild-looking and alert. He had the appearance of a stag, or some other wild animal, cornered and at bay. It was no wonder nobody in the original crew had been eager to tackle him in the water without some backup. AB, James Adaire, later told me he had kicked off his shoes just in case the mate asked someone to go in, but he said the heavy water-light attached to the life ring, (a potentially a dangerous weapon in the victim's hands) prevented him from volunteering to go it alone.

The young QMED I had noticed at fire and boat drills had been a mild, unassuming young man. But now, for the first time, I realized this was a pretty big, well muscled, fellow in very good physical condition. And he showed no signs of weakening or relenting in his determination to evade "capture." He knew something was up. The boat crew was different, and three men were sitting right on the gunwale as if to spring at him. Other new faces were engaged in strange activities like coiling and straightening out lines. The chief mate maneuvered the boat, the chief engineer stood by to give us our jumping orders.

Soon, our uncooperative quarry had crabbed his way to the ship's side at the stem. He tried to get around the stem into the choppy water on the other side, but the mate maneuvered the boat to head him off. Then we really did have him cornered. When the chief engineer gave the word, all five swimmers went over the side. Mr. Cake was point man, and the real hero of the swim team rescue. First to reach the victim, he quickly got his arm around the QMED's neck from behind. The rest of the swimmers pressed closely in to make escape impossible. In what must have been less than a minute, we had the victim at the boat's side. Several members of the boat crew grabbed hold and pulled as we pushed him up from below. The night-marish ordeal was all but over.

Our man didn't struggle or cause any problem once he was in the boat, and we returned to the boat falls, recovering the boat with only a little difficulty. The choppy water and swell caused the stern tender to miss the first two attempts to engage the after hook, and we almost lost him and the mate twice as they hung tenaciously onto the fall block as the boat fell into the trough between seas. Hooking a lifeboat up in a seaway is always somewhat hazardous, but the third try at hooking up was a charm. We were soon all safely back on board and the ship again underway. The wayward QMED was hand-cuffed before being disembarked from the boat as several of us clustered around him to prevent another attempt to jump overboard.

After disembarking, he was quartered in a passenger room next to the chief mate's office. A 24 hour suicide watch was posted in the room with him. Initially, he was cuffed to the bunk to prevent another escape attempt. After the first day or so, the engineers had fabricated a secure "brig door" out of angle iron and heavy hardware cloth for our "brig." After that, the man was released from his handcuffs, and the watchman posted outside where the patient could be observed.

We had resumed our passage at 1234, having lost less than two hours. But it had seemed like several hours. It certainly wasn't a record breaking man overboard recovery time-wise, but then it wasn't the run of the mill rescue either. The QMED became a model prisoner and gave no more trouble, although he was kept slightly sedated under the radio supervision of shore doctors.

Four days later, approaching the Galleon Strait, we were diverted by the company to Port of Spain, Trinidad, to put our patient ashore. That was on Saturday, November 4th. We then resumed our passage once again, arriving at New Orleans on November 9th, concluding a rather eventful voyage 79.

There are two simple but important lessons to this experience. First is the fact that the quickest and most practical way to get back to a man overboard, under favorable conditions, is a simple round turn rather than a Williamson turn. Because the Williamson turn maneuver is posted on the bridge of all of our ships, many ship's officers believe it is the preferred maneuver on all man overboard occasions. This is not the case. To quote the Merchant Marine Officers' Handbook, by Edward A. Turpin and William A. MacEwen, (my 1965 edition) "Experience has indicated that the (Williamson) turn takes approximately 5 minutes longer than a standard turning circle, and, for that reason, it should not be used if it is possible to keep the victim in sight... however, that is up to the 'seaman's eye' of the conning officer."

The Williamson turn was developed primarily for nighttime and/or rough weather conditions, providing a relatively accurate means of returning to track on a reciprocal course for a search. As in the case above, the round turn permits staying closer to the man overboard, sighting the man or object sooner, and then keeping the man or object in constant sight. The accompanying drawing shows the two maneuvers and the obvious advantage of the round turn when conditions are favorable.

The second lesson is that there are times when a man overboard rescue requires rescuers to get into the water. Lifeboat and man overboard drills on merchant vessels seldom address this contingency. Many otherwise good seamen have a natural and understandable fear of getting into the water in the middle of the ocean, so it cannot be assumed there will always be willing swimmers in every lifeboat crew. It would thus seem important that potential volunteer swimmers for such emergencies be sought and designated at the beginning of each voyage. Perhaps at the first life boat drill of each voyage, healthy, experienced, "swimmers" for emergency rescues should be recruited to serve as part of any rescue boat crew during the voyage. Had we been prepared in this way, much time would have been saved and the rescue effort more certain of success.

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