I spent nearly ten years in the Coast Guard and the US Navy before injuries suffered in the line of duty forced my retirement, this is but one experience in my life that forced me to be a better man and come to grips with the fragile mortality of man and just how precious the gift of life really is. These are the teachings that have prepared me for what is coming. The horizon darkens more every day and the storm approaches. Are we prepared for the coming storm, can we weather it out. I live on 80 acres in south eastern Oregon and have for many years been preparing for what is coming. Heirloom seeds, stocks of dry goods, knowledge in man & animal trapping, combat both bush and open ground plus survival skills, canning, jerky making, smoking meats, fishing and hunting skills. I am nearly 60 years of age and I am trying to get a community of like minded people together for a community that is determined to survive no matter how bad it gets.
Survival at sea: The worst storm I have ever seen!
After six years in the United States Coast Guard and having been stationed at many small boat rescue stations in the 1st Coast Guard District of Northern New England from Jonesport, Maine to Woods Hole, Massachusetts, New Bedford, Massachusetts, Race Point Small Boat Station, Cape Cod, Massachusetts & serving the crews of Cleveland Ledge Light House near Buzzards Bay Massachusetts. I had the distinct honor of serving with some extraordinarily selfless and at times insanely brave individuals while participating in 300 plus rescues at sea. After all the times involved in high risk rescue operations at sea I thought I had a pretty good idea of the worst weather the oceans of the world could offer.
In the summer of 1976 while aboard the United States Coast Guard Cutter Bibb, WHEC 31 I was also exposed to a near Hurricane, (hurricane force winds are 72 plus miles per hour) in the Bermuda Triangle. The seas raged at 35 to 45 feet for 24 hours and it was estimated at 65 feet for 6 to 8 hours. The storm lasted for a day and a half with winds in excess of 114 miles per hour. The Bibb was an old girl with 34 years active sea service to her credits. She was originally built in the early 1930s as a Sub-chaser in preparation for a war that inevitably spanned the entire globe. She suffered some damaged but got the entire crew back to Corpus Christi , Texas for repairs without any loss of life. This was my baptism by fire as for deep water storms at sea; and I had thought it had prepared me for what ever nature could throw my way, my oh my how I was ever so mistaken;
It is midnight and the weather has turned foul. Our ship is anchored in channel on the side nearest to the city of Hong Kong and has been for three days. Dozens of freighters and tankers lie off shore waiting to either take on cargo or off load their cargo before heading off to some distant port unknown to the rest of us. The mighty storm has been building power for weeks in the far reaches of the South Pacific around the Solomon Islands . The warning came from Pacific Fleet Headquarters in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in conjunction with the Naval Offices of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy, Hong Kong, China. The Captain says, “We must weigh anchor and head for the open waters of the South China Sea. There is no way we will be able to maneuver in the tight channel waters of the bay between the mainland of China and the Island home of Hong Kong .”
The Engine Room is firing up the boilers and making steam to get under way. All hands have been recalled from Liberty in an attempt to save the ship. Deck hands are washing the mud off the anchor chain with fire hoses as the anchor is hauled aboard. The radars are checked as well as the radios and the harbor master’s boat ties up to the starboard side. A Harbor Pilot will take the fat girl out of the channel then he will return Command to the Captain. The Officer of the Deck turns and tells the Captain, “All bells answering; Engine Rooms answers ready to get under way, Sir.”
He replies, “Very well, all ahead 1/3.”
From there the Harbor Pilot is in control as he weaves a path between tiny islands and some of the largest vessels to ever sail the open seas of the world while they themselves made their preparations for departure. Military ships come first in the line of succession in departure under duress, and this was certainly a case of duress. Military Ships are always first because they carry so much fuel and a lot explosives; which inherently could make a very bad situation even worse. All the bigger ships left Hong Kong to weather out the storm at sea. While some of the smaller ones decided that they could make for the small islands and seek protection by ducking in behind them and riding out the storm. Unfortunately they were wrong.
This storm is big, really big; about 300,000 square miles and the winds are incredible. Worst of all it is on a collision course with the harbor of Hong Kong which is home to the floating city of 100,000 + just a few miles up river. A human being would stand no chance if exposed to the unbelievable ferocity of these winds. They would be swept off the deck immediately even if they were tied down. In fact these winds are so powerful that they are actually capable of breaking stanchions and davits from the welds that attach them to the decks. Slowly the big girl known as the Wicked Witch of the West gets under way. The clanking of the anchor chain echoes through the hull and we all know what lies ahead. Danger, the worst danger a ship of this type can face. Liquid cargos are highly unstable in high seas. Liquids contained within a vessel tend to move with the seas and gain in momentum within the hull and that poses a threat to the integrity of the hull and the crew.
Time passes slowly as we head into open waters and begin to head north. It is a long way to Pearl Harbor from Hong Kong and we have to remain in front of this storm all the way or it is pretty much a foregone conclusion as to where we will make or next landfall. The running joke aboard ships is that, “Land is never more than 12 miles away, but that is 12 miles straight down.” As impossible as it may seem the storm is still building in its intensity as it approaches the Philippines . It makes landfall and thousands are drowned and entire villages swept away on the low-lying portions of the Island Nation.
We are now faced with being over taken by the storm; … my tired burning eyes strain and my sweating hands ache. I fiercely grip the wheel to keep my balance and stare into the raging blackness of the storm. Winds in excess of 165 nautical miles per hour rip at the ship. The screams and howls of the wind as it passes through the rigging’s chill the blood. Big and lethargic, she lies hard over and hangs for a split second. I look behind me at the inclinometer, 40 degrees starboard list. I draw a sharp breath and hold it. My eyes flare wide open. Even the Old-man knows we are at her limits. At 42 degrees she will go over, capsized.
The seas relentlessly slamming against the superstructure stun the 42,000 ton Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment ship the U. S. S. Wichita. For a split second, what seems like forever to her crew. She stops dead in the water, each 65 foot wall of seawater, weighing in at some million tons of wind-swept Pacific Ocean crashes against the bridge. Solid water rolls off the bridge wings cascading down the side of the ship along the Weather Deck and returns to the black and white angry monster known as a typhoon. Courage is the key to surviving in a typhoon, if one man panics the ship could be lost at sea with all hands.
As each wave slams against the ship and she shudders and creaks, men sit in tense silence. Their faces knotted with deep concern, chills run up the spine. Thoughts of home and prayers to their loving God. Even the old timers look blankly at the over head and wonder is she going to break up? Is this the last time I will think of my Wife, my children, or my parents. Will they find my body and send it home? Then all hands brace for another fall into the trough of these merciless seas. 689 feet of ship, 13 million gallons of diesel and jet fuel, 800 tons of food and explosives, and of course the 381 souls contained within the hull fall helplessly and slam against the flat bottom of the trough between the waves.
The crashing thunder of the waves is near deafening, the ship twists and groans; she sidles her way up from beneath the wave only to be savagely assaulted by the next wave in an endless sea of waves. Day after day we creep along, battered and exhausted the crew tries desperately to keep their spirits up. And sometimes, we actually broke free for a few hours and a hot meal was served. Then we are overtaken by this super storm that now covers nearly a half a million square miles of empty ocean, and every man aboard makes his peace with God.
“Lord God almighty, if I get out of this alive I swear I will be a better man, I will be a better Father to my children. Please God don’t let my life end this way.”
This is my way of telling you the story of the intensity in life of an every day sailor, that storm lasted for 25 days. My ship left Hong Kong and sailed for the Aleutian Islands of Alaska some 8,000 miles away to make good our escape. 12,000 people and more than a dozen ships were not as fortunate as the crew of the Wichita and I were. Without a doubt that was the longest and most intense month of my life.