THE OLD SEA DOG WOULDN’T DIE
By CDR.F.X.Riley, U.S. Coast Guard
Many Coast Guard Officers who participated in training and pleasure cruises as cadets on the 65 foot schooner CURLEW were familiar with her fine sailing qualities. However, they may have wondered, as I did, as she knifed gracefully through the choppy seas off Montauk, just how much she could lake in the way of a real sea. I’m sure most would not chose to be aboard her in a severe storm, well-knowing the damage over two decades passed from the time this question first went through my mind until 20 November 1962 when I – was in command of the USCG UNIMAK tied up at St. George Bermuda. We had just arrived from Cape May New Jersey with about 60 reserve trainees. Sitting in the cabin I recalled that four days ago, a day before setting sail, I heard a newscast about the terrible ordeal, six seamen were experiencing aboard the yacht Curlew off Bermuda. I speculated “Could this be the CURLEW I remembered from my Academy days; the one I was later ordered to sail from the Academy to the Receiving Center, in Cape May, New Jersey, in 1951, for recruit training? No, I doubt it, she was surveyed as being beyond economical repair about 1959.” The next day the newspaper accounts verified that she was indeed the CURLEW used by the Coast Guard for many years. She had been purchased from the Coast Guard by Mr. Robert Gervasoni of Trenton, N.J., and Mr. Sam Fiorello of Yardley. Pa. They, reportedly, had spent $20,000 to put her in first class condition for passenger charter service in the West Indies. With this in mind and the knowledge that several ship disasters had occurred that week off Bermuda, I immediately sent for a local paper. When the BERMUDA MID-OCEAN NEWS arrived I eagerly reached for it. The large picture on the front page startled me. There, being towed by a local tug was the CURLEW, a shambles and half sunk, the bowsprit and the foremast merely stumps. It was a picture. It was a picture that seemed to confirm my suspicions of a sailing yacht’s ability to “take it.” I said to myself, “I thought that this would happen in a real blow.”
Later that day while having lunch in a restaurant with a classmate, Cdr. Jerry K. Rea, CSCG, Commanding Officer of the Air Detachment at Bermuda, he confirmed the severity of the storm which the CURLEW survived. He and his men flew many difficult hours over the stormy seas looking for the survivors of at least five vessels, two of which were never heard of again, the trawler MIDNIGHT SUN and the WINDFALL, a yacht which had sailed with the CURLEW from Mystic, Conn. on the same day for the West Indies. The other three were the CAPTAIN GEORGE, The Greek freighter, which caught on fire and eventually sank, the EAST STAR which went down in view of the USCGC MENDOTA, and the CURLEW. The officers and men of the Air Detachment and the MENDOTA had been searching for most of the week for these vessels or their survivors. Their perilous missions through the raging storm were made to attempt to save a total of 60 men, 11 from the MIDNIGHT SUN, 5 from the WINDFALL, 25 from the CAPTAIN GEORGE, 13 from the EAST STAR, and 6 from the CURLEW. In addition to the 16 lost on the MIDNIGHT SUN and the WlNDFALL, 18 from the CAPTAIN GEORGE drowned.
After discussing the harrowing experiences these crews endured in the mountainous seas, we were about to leave the restaurant when Cdr. Rea spotted Capt. David Skellon and Jim O’Neil, two members of the crew of the CURLEW. I joined them after being introduced, but Cdr. Rea had to leave. They told me a very interesting and enlightening story concerning the misfortunes of the CURLEW. Later I was to be given the opportunity to board the vessel in Hamilton harbor for a personal inspection of the havoc wrought by the storm. However, before we left the restaurant they related more of the details of their near-fatal cruise.
After sailing out of Mystic they had several days of fine sailing, then the wind picked up as the storm approached. It blew stronger and stronger, reaching near hurricane force. The stout schooner seemed to be able to take the severe beating but it was very difficult for the crew. They were buffeted for endless hours, for three days. The vicious winds and turbulent seas incessantly lashed at them. During this time a leak developed in the stern tube. The pumps were having difficulty keeping ahead of the flooding. Their terrible plight was magnified when boxes of printed matter became soggy debris and clogged the pumps. By this time their physical exhaustion, the severity of the seas, and the fear of foundering led to a decision to seek assistance. ‘” A dread MAYDAY was soon, heard on the international distress frequency. The nearest ship was the USS COMPASS ISLAND, a naval vessel on a special electronics mission.
Despite fearsome conditions the plucky crew did not immediately abandon ship when the COMPASS ISLAND hove to near by. Thus reassured, they still hoped to save this fine schooner. However, when more exhausting hours went by and the storm did not abate they advised the COMPASS ISLAND of their intention to abandon ship.
Except for the damage from the rising water, which was decisive, the CURLEW was intact until they attempted to come along side the rescue ship. The crew brought the vessel too close under the stern of the COMPASS ISLAND. As one of many seas passed, the rescue vessel was raised and as it settled, the steel behemoth chopped of the bowsprit. Although they cleared the terrifying stern with out damage, the awesome seas soon slammed the CURLEW into the COMPASS ISALND as the schooner attempted to maneuver alongside. The foremast was shattered and the main mast was splintered. At the same time the men clambered aboard the cargo nets to safety. The survivors were scheduled to return to New York on the COMPASS ISLAND, but an interesting development occurred. The old sea dog would not die, for although abandoned, the CURLEW did not sink. She was reported adrift about 50 miles south of Bermuda. One of the owners, Mr. Gervasoni, who did not make the cruise, flew in from the states when he learned that the CURLEW was still afloat. He made arrangements with the Bermuda Board of Trade for use of the tug, BERMUDIAN, to search for the CURLEW and tow it in. Although the crew, including the other owner, Mr. Fiorello, knew that Mr. Gervasoni was coming to Bermuda, they were not aware that he was aboard the tug. Therefore they once more turned to the Commanding Officer of the COMPASS ISLAND for assistance when they learned that the tug was sailing to endeavor to salvage the CURLEW. This time they asked to be placed back aboard the vessel so recently abandoned. They were high in their praise for the Commanding Officer, not only for saving their lives but for his immediate response to this search plea. He quickly ordered the ship about in order to get the rightful crew aboard the CURLEW first… It became a race between the tug, and the COMPASS ISLAND. Fortunately for the owners, the COMPASS ISLAND won the race by one hour and the crew re-boarded her. The found 3 or 4 ft of water throughout the vessel due to the leak and the damage caused during the rescue. The salt water naturally disabled the engine but if no further flooding resulted the CURLEW could be towed to port. When the tug came on the scene the master was undoubtedly chagrined to find the crew aboard.
Just how much it if anything the tug personnel may have lost on the salvage will depend on the contract arrangements that the owner entered into, the details of which are not known. But it is probable that the crew saved the owners much money by this accomplishment. Ignoring this turn of events the tug master soon had the CURLEW in tow and succeeded in bringing her safely to St. George. They arrived on the 19th of November, the day before the UNIMAK entered this port. After pumping the schooner out, the tug and tow proceeded to Hamilton.
The COMPASS ISLAND continued on its mission to the United States and exchanged signals with the UNIMAK some 150 miles northwest of Bermuda on the 19th. As we passed, I thought of the crew of CURLEW, believing they were still aboard the COMPASS ISLAND and wishing I could hear their version of the trial of the CURLEW. I never imagined I would receive this wish.
After we finished our conversation, we departed for the harbor to take a look at the CURLEW. This was an invitation I was most happy to accept. It was like visiting an old, lost friend. On the way we discussed the fact that these two survivors were in a bit of predicament having little or no funds, and therefore not being sure how they were going to get back to the States. Since they were temporarily out of employment, I told them I would give them passage on the UNIMAK provided red tape could be slashed in regards to matters of immigration. (One was a British subject)
I was very anxious to help them because of their disastrous experience and temporary financial difficulty. It was all resolved after my visit to the American Consul General. I was assured that since they were the survivors of a shipwreck the laws of the United States provided State Department funds for their return to their home port by commercial carrier. However, I did invite the crew to Thanksgiving dinner the next day, but because of other arrangements, they had made and difficulty in transportation from Hamilton to St. George, they were not able to accept.
As we approached the pier, I got my fist glimpse of the CURLEW since I sailed on her ten years ago. As might be expected she was a sorry sight with the stump of the foremast protruding and rigging lying all over the deck. The jagged remains of the bowsprit was compelling evidence of her battle. As I climbed down the pier ladder to the deck, I was saddened to view the results of her battering. The once fine yacht was in a chaotic condition. However, the hull and hatches were all intact and the only real damage was that caused by the flooding and the rescue operation.
I was introduced to Mr. Fiorello, who seemed very happy to talk to a CG Officer, particularly one who had a personal interest in the CURLEW. He was working determinedly to get her back in shape. Although the hull was basically intact, much work had to be done and much expense had to be incurred to get her ready for charter service. Many a lesser man would have been willing to write it all off because of such trouble and discouragement. He mentioned that he believed that they had insurance coverage but it remained a question, due to a technicality, whether or not the insurance company agreed. Their last dollar had been spent on this venture. Despite this bleak and disheartening scene, I heard Mr. Fiorello singing as I left the CURLEW. He returned cheerfully to his hard labor.
I was proud of this American owner and of the old sea dog CURLEW, knowing she would sail once again, a tribute to American skill, determination and spirit of adventure. (Excerpts from Alumni Association Bulletin)