"Believe me, my young friend" said the Water Rat in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, "there is nothing, absolutely nothing, half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing," he went on dreaming: "messing—about—in—boats; messing—" "Look ahead, Rat!" cried the Mole suddenly. But it was too late. "The boat," wrote Grahame, "struck the bank full tilt. The dreamer, the joyous oarsman, lay on his back at the bottom of the boat, his heels in the air."
Midnight found another victim of the call of the sea sitting at a table in the bar of a private club in Washington, D.C. He was the captain of a vessel which had better be known as the Blighty S. "Mates," he said to his three companions, "one absolute final round to fend off the chill, and then we are going for a cruise." An hour later they left the club and stepped into the beginning of a January blizzard. By that time they had reckoned that the logical place to cruise to was Miami. It was only a matter of steering their 42-foot cabin cruiser off her moorings and down the wide and cold Potomac without a moon, then turning south at the Smith Point Light, proceeding past Wolf Trap Light into the open water of Chesapeake Bay, cutting in around the Thimble Shoal Light north of Norfolk and entering the Intracoastal Waterway. From there the most lock-kneed jackleg could find Miami if he remembered that port was on the left and that was where the sun should rise.
Assigning the first watch to a tall fellow called Mac, the captain gave orders to follow the lights of a tanker up ahead and crawled into a bunk thinking it was ho for the vasty deep. What woke him was a great rending, splintering crash that threw him onto the deck. "A very treacherous sea," said Mac the helmsman, who lay beneath the wheel with a broken leg. In the snow he had followed a set of lights that were on poles atop somebody's dock.
They got the Blighty S backed out of the wreckage, inspected her for damage and headed south again. The captain, a doctor by profession, chose the lights of another vessel plowing down Chesapeake Bay, gave the wheel to a crew member, told him to steer for them, opened a bottle of Scotch and started to splint Mac's leg. The wind was coming up hard. The wipers were heavy with ice and could clear only tiny fans that piled up with snow. But the crew of the Blighty S sang a few songs, passed the bottle and assured Mac they would put him ashore at Norfolk, though he insisted his bones would heal faster beside the pool at the Palm Bay Club in Miami.
May 29, 1966
In such weather nobody could tell day from night. With a good supply of Scotch nobody cared. Eventually, however, it occurred to the captain that the Blighty S was pitching somewhat more than was healthy. The windshield was like glass that had been soaped for a Christmas decoration. Checking the charts and compass he had not bothered with earlier, the captain began to suspect that the ship they had followed was bound straight into the Atlantic. The captain went out of the cabin into the wind and snow and climbed onto the flying bridge to search for lights. The boat was rolling and bucking in a seascape of black and gray. Waves broke over the bow. Spray showered across the flying bridge and froze on the captain's face. There were no lights.
Figuring to go down and use the radio, the captain grasped the slippery ladder and was on the deck much sooner than he would have preferred. With four cracked ribs, he pulled himself into the cabin and directed a crew member on the proper way to tape him up while he put the radio on 2182 kilocycles—the international distress frequency—and called for help. He had no doubt whatever that help would come, for the United States Coast Guard had already rescued him a dozen times in these same waters. The thing was, would the Coast Guard get to him before the rocks did?
In the Washington radio message center the Coast Guard was monitoring at least eight other frequencies besides 2182. When the captain's voice came over the air a couple of seamen recognized it and looked at each other. "Yes, sir, we hear you, Blighty S," said one. "What is your position?"
"Haven't the slightest idea, boys," the captain said. "But you'd better hurry."
"A light!" said the lawyer who was at the wheel.
"It might be a drive-in movie in Bermuda, for all we know," Mac said.
"It shines and then goes away," said the helmsman.
"It's flashing," the captain said into the microphone. "I think we see a buoy."
"They think they see a buoy," said one coast guardsman to the other. "That narrows it down to several thousand places." Into the mike he said: "Time the flashes, please."
The captain went outside again and clung to the heaving rail. With the sweep second hand of his wristwatch he timed the coming and going of the light. It came out different on four tries and he was afraid the fall had broken his watch, but he went back in and reported the timings over the radio.
"I think we've got you," the coast guardsman said. "Don't go away."
Two hours later a big cutter, 206 feet long and with a crew of 80 to handle her booms and winches and fire-fighting equipment, found the Blighty S circling the light. The water was too rough for a tow or a transfer, so the cutter came in like a mother duck, keeping to windward to block the waves from the Blighty S as much as possible while guiding her into port. Mac was carried off in a stretcher.
"Thanks," the captain said to a Coast Guard lieutenant who had come down to the dock for an injury report. "I'm getting ready to stop by the hospital myself to check on Mac and get my ribs X-rayed."
"I hope you'll wait till this blow is over before you go back to Washington," said the lieutenant.
"Washington?" said the captain. "We're going to Miami."
Of the nearly 40,000 Search and Rescue operations conducted by the Coast Guard each year, about 80% involve boats like the Blighty S. When a freighter breaks up in a storm or a liner is reported burning and sinking, the action of the Coast Guard is duly noted in the newspapers. There are photographs of helicopters bringing in doctors and medical supplies, of cutters rigging boatswain's chairs in lashing seas, of para-rescue men leaping into the waves to hitch a line around some wounded, unconscious floater in a Mae West, of burnt and oil-smeared faces drinking coffee in a galley and rehearsing the story for the next cocktail party. But it is the people in the little boats in diverse places from the Florida Keys to the Strait of Juan de Fuca—and in unlikely places like Lake Tahoe—who come to know and appreciate the Coast Guard the most, and it is those people who cause the most trouble.
There is hardly a man of any spirit whatsoever who can resist the call of the sea, particularly when he has easy credit. It starts this way: a man finds himself looking at pictures of boats in newspapers and magazines, and his blood rises. He reads ads telling how many the boat will sleep, how the shower works, how many can sit at the fold-down, plastic-topped card-and-dinner table and how efficiently the toilet works—and then he reads about the two great engines and feels them throbbing beneath his feet. He alone is in command. In yachting cap, perhaps an ascot if he thinks he can get away with it, double-breasted blazer, sneakers, white jeans, he cruises the mysterious waters of the world. From the deck well come the laughter of beautiful women and the tinkle of ice cubes. What romance! What terrible power! By God, if he has a big enough boat, they'll have to raise the drawbridges!
Then one day he is at the boat show. He wanders through in a sort of daze, rubbing his fingers over the hulls, standing at the wheels, peering at the radar, the ship-to-shore telephone, the radio and the fish-o-meter, not having the murkiest idea how they operate but hearing himself shouting, "Land ho!" and watching the native girls swimming out to pelt him with gardenias. He subscribes to a boating magazine and begins to insert a few terms into his conversation, calling his wife "me bucko" as he leans against the bulkhead sipping his daily ration of grog and listening to her tell of damage to the starboard fender at the supermarket. "Aye, the sea is a cruel mistress," he says. And, compelled by a strange but irresistible force that is older than memory, he writes a check for the down payment and he has a boat.
What he has is a 16-foot runabout with a 50-horse outboard motor. But even Bull Halsey had to start someplace. He invites his pals and brings his kids, and with his new trailer he takes his boat to the river and dumps her in. Six of them jump into the boat and take their seats on his four new combination cushion-life-preservers, each of them marked with a U.S. Coast Guard approval number. Only, to approve fully, the Coast Guard insists on one cushion to a passenger. Nevertheless, he yanks on the starter cord, turns the throttle in the handle grip and suddenly there it is—his own wake! He is Nelson, Cook, Ahab. The marina fades behind them. In an hour or so, if indeed they are that lucky, some young coast guardsmen in white caps and blue denim shirts will come up in a patrol boat to pull him and his friends out of the water. They will put a line on the capsized boat, haul it upright and pump it out. They will take the captain and his passengers ashore and tow the boat to the marina. Watching him walk away, they will speculate as to how soon they will meet him again. Coast Guard recruits learn quickly never to underestimate the ignorance of a man in a boat.
"We can tell an SAR [Search and Rescue] case the minute we see one," says Captain E. P. Mathison, commanding officer of the base in Galveston, Texas. "People put out to sea in some of the weirdest craft you can imagine."
"A guy pays $50 down on a boat and trailer and immediately he's an old salt," says Lieut. Commander K. G. Wiman, a civil engineer with 14 years' service. "He doesn't know if the chart is marked in feet or fathoms. He probably doesn't know if there is such a thing as a chart. But off he goes, and we pray we'll be able to find him."
In Galveston, as in anyplace else, the sailor is considered more important than the boat, granted the boat will float at all. A man who knows what he is up to can stay in the Gulf for a long time in a 16-foot outboard. But if he turns to full throttle and tries to skim the waves, he is an SAR case before he has sung his first sea chantey. Take the simple act of standing up. An amazing number of people get hurt by standing up in pleasure craft. The boat hits a wave, and the jolt to the stiff-legged can break a man's ankles.
The Coast Guard has less of a problem with sailboats. Sailing is not only a joy, it is hard work and very tricky. People with no training ordinarily cannot get a sailboat far enough from the dock to cause a search. But anybody can drive a powerboat. In June, when school is out, Galveston and any other area of the country that has water deep enough to float a hat becomes a continual regatta until autumn. Fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles—the whole bunch—they get into their little boats and go out and sink them. Or they run out of gas. The Coast Guard sighs and hauls them out and carries them to shore. The Coast Guard is used to that. But now the Coast Guard at Galveston has a new problem: the surfers have come.
Galveston is a long, skinny island off the Texas coast, a sandbar with a good high seawall, a former refuge for the pirate Jean Lafitte. In the hurricane season the island lies open to the big winds coming up the Gulf. Five years ago Hurricane Carla almost tore Galveston apart, knocking over palms and stores and houses, hurling boats blocks inland, carving new channels and closing old ones, moving the buildings around like a lady rearranging furniture, flinging sheets of water across the island so that the Gulf connected with the bay to the north. Usually, however, the waters of Galveston are calm. The Gulf rolls in gray and choppy, but there is no big surf like that on the coast of southern California or the west coast of Mexico. No big surf used to mean no surfers. Not anymore. Now, everywhere you look from the balconies of the new Flagship Hotel, which sits on a pier that runs 1,500 feet out into the Gulf, the Galveston water is full of these kids in bikinis, sweat-shirts, wet suits, all of them sitting astride their boards, paddling about, looking out into the Gulf, hoping for the big surf that doesn't come. Now and then they will begin to paddle madly and jump up on their boards and ride a modest wave for a few yards before the momentum dies and they fall off. It is a pitiful sight—all these kids sitting on their boards in a place without surf, waiting until dark, when they finally paddle in to the cars parked along the seawall and go home.
Some, of course, refuse to wait. There is surf out there somewhere, they think, if they can just find it. "Not long ago," says Commander Wiman, "two boys were a couple of miles at sea on their surfboards. One decided to come in. He left his friend drifting into the setting sun. Once he got to shore he walked two miles and then called us. It was dark by now. We set up an immediate SAR operation without much hope. But we had incredible luck. One of our helicopters was running low over the water with its landing lights on and happened to spot this kid—on a green surfboard, at that—drifting five miles from where he was last seen. When we brought him in he didn't realize how fortunate he was to be alive, how easily he could have gone to sleep, fallen off, gotten tired, turned over. Like a lot of the people we pick up, he didn't think he was lost or even know he was in danger. I'm sure he went right back out again. Surfers are that way. When we put up a hurricane warning, the people of Galveston start boarding up their windows and leaving town, and we prepare to move our Coast Guard base to Texas City. We're getting ready for disaster. But the highway from Houston is packed with 50 miles of cars coming to Galveston—kids with their surfboards, not wanting to miss the big waves."
One of the more common incidents at any Coast Guard station is a wife calling up and reporting her husband overdue from a fishing trip. She doesn't know what color boat he was in, much less the model or where he planned to fish or who was with him. But she knows he is late. That puts the Coast Guard into action with patrol boats, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. It has happened that they find the husband drinking in a bar at a marina with a young lady. More often they find him out of gas. Sometimes they do not find him at all. "We make a practice always to call the wife back," says Wiman. "You would be astonished how often the husband has returned, and she tells us he's home now but she hadn't thought of calling and notifying us. We've got boats and planes searching for a guy who is sitting in his kitchen, and she doesn't even call."
The Galveston station got a call a few weeks ago about a 64-year-old man who was long overdue in a rented boat. It had been one of those days the Coast Guard dreads—lovely and sunny in the morning, becoming dark and stormy in the afternoon—and the man was a heart patient who needed nitroglycerin pills regularly. When he was found the next day he had swamped his boat and lost his pills, but he was sitting happily on a beach with the one thing he had saved—a quart of bourbon.
The headquarters of the Galveston station, which is part of the Eighth Coast Guard District, are in a white two-story building on the bay across from an abandoned isolation center that used to house quarantine cases. When not on patrol or on SAR duty or on watch, the coast guardsmen at Galveston are occupied with mundane chores—repairs, chipping and painting, drilling. Two or three times a day at irregular intervals a 40-foot patrol boat makes an inspection tour of the harbor, entering in a log the names, nationalities and eventual destinations of the 30 or more freighters and tankers that are tied up there, many of them loading grain or cotton. One vessel the young coast guardsmen keep an eye on, though not for official reasons, is the yacht Southern Breeze, which became famous last year as a sort of seagoing discoth√®que for Frank Sinatra and companions.
The Eighth District covers roughly 1,000 miles of coastline from Apalachicola, Fla. to Brownsville, Texas, and has 200,000 square miles of water to police. Recently its men had to locate a party that had tried to cruise from New Orleans to Bay St. Louis, Miss, by navigating with a road map. A single major search operation—meaning one that uses ships and planes and lasts about 48 hours—costs the taxpayer $250,000, according to Rear Admiral James D. Craik, commander of the Eighth District. One of his more vital searches took place in October of 1962 when an urgent call came from the White House to locate Congressman Hale Boggs, who was 30 miles out into the Gulf on a fishing trip. A Coast Guard helicopter plucked Boggs off his boat and flew him to Port Sulphur, La., from where he was flown to Washington for talks during what has become known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Atlantic side of the Florida coast comes under the jurisdiction of the Seventh District, which operates from the Carolinas to the coast of South America, leaps across Mexico and takes in part of the Pacific Ocean. Its beat includes the Gulf Stream, which, moving at from three to five knots, can grab a disabled boat that started from southern Florida to Nassau or Bimini and carry it as far north as Cape Kennedy. The Seventh District has picked up thousands of Cubans fleeing Castro. Its air station at Opa-Locka, Fla. logs more than 188 flight hours a week. Its sea base at Miami Beach maintains a continual patrol with cutters.
All the cutters in the fleet, however, cannot prevent an accident that a man is determined to have. A fellow from Morehead City, N.C. got it into his mind to voyage to Bermuda in an 18-foot outboard. Despite Coast Guard warnings, he set out to sea. He had engine trouble and was found by a Coast Guard plane that diverted a merchant ship to rescue him. But the man accepted only fuel and food and kept going. Two days later a cutter had to pick him up and return him to the Carolina coast. In three months he tried it again. This time nobody found him. That was in the same category as the yacht H.S.H. from Philadelphia which, disregarding storm warnings, took half a dozen socialites into bad water in the fall of 1955 and disappeared forever in a 90-mile gale.
The Eleventh District, with headquarters in Long Beach, Calif., is responsible for coastal waters down to the border between Guatemala and Mexico as well as navigable waters in Arizona, part of Nevada and Utah. California usually leads the nation in loss of life among boaters. In 1963 its coast guardsmen had to halt a missionary voyage to Haiti in which the captain and saver of souls intended to sail out in a 101-foot homemade ship with 12 passengers and one adequate life preserver. Among other things, the exhaust pipe from the craft's two diesels was not insulated and ran along the wooden overhead of the engine room and there were only two fire extinguishers aboard. A year later nine cutters from the Eleventh District searched 234 hours for a 41-year-old grandmother who had not made it in a balloon race from Santa Catalina Island to the mainland. They found her body eight miles off Dana Point. With a rope she had tied herself to the balloon's two propane tanks and to a stuffed toy poodle that she called her "copilot."
The Pacific Northwest belongs to the Thirteenth District and is an overwhelming problem because of its profusion of small craft in rough, rocky waters whose numerous deceptive inlets and sandbars can mislead unwary boaters. One man who had never operated a boat before told friends out there that he was going to Hawaii. He rode his bicycle to the dock and sailed away. More than 100 coast guardsmen searched for him, but he had vanished like a stone tossed into the ocean.
Farther south is the Twelfth District, around San Francisco, which has at least its share of sea-struck amateurs. A man from Oakland bought a 35-foot cabin cruiser, the Hoti, and within 13 weeks had called the Coast Guard nine times for help in mishaps such as a broken fuel pump, a dead battery, engine failure and running aground. In time, the Coast Guard discussed his case and decided that one more call from him would bring a written warning that his gross lack of knowledge of boating made him a hazard. The letter was never written. The night of that discussion, the Hoti was in the main ship channel near the Golden Gate Bridge in a heavy fog and was run down by a freighter. The man's body was not recovered. The Coast Guard was more fortunate several weeks later when a 30-year-old woman, a former leper who feared her pregnancy would revive the disease, jumped off the Oakland Bay Bridge and came up alive right in front of a patrol boat.
One of the U.S. Coast Guard's alltime champion troublemakers was a 67-foot schooner called the Liki Tiki. In the five months between July and December of 1964, the Coast Guard rescued Liki Tiki eight times. She finally sank off Cape Charles, Va. on December 2. The Third District, which covers New York, had to search for a party of Ivy League students who sailed off to Bermuda, missed the island by 253 miles and were discovered headed toward the west coast of Africa. But it is a fairly small station, Eatons Neck, that is one of the busiest in the New York area. Located on Long Island, 60 miles from Manhattan, the Eatons Neck station sits on the shore of Long Island Sound at the end of a road that runs through wooded estates. The roofs of manor houses show here and there among the trees, and pheasants stand along private driveways as if nobody in that neighborhood had ever heard of a shotgun. On a bluff above the water is the white frame headquarters building with a porch that looks out across the Sound to the low, blue coast of Connecticut. There are 37 men at the Eatons Neck station. The married men live in house trailers parked beside the headquarters. The station is equipped with one 40-foot patrol boat, two 30-footers, one 44-footer, one buoy tender to care for the 300-odd aids to navigation—which takes up about half of the Coast Guard's time—and one 16-footer. On a typical summer weekend Eatons Neck has four boats on continual patrol and gets from 25 to 30 requests for help. Across the Sound some 20 miles is Stratford Point, Conn., where a crew lives in a trailer and keeps a patrol boat ready for instant movement. At Eatons Neck a big computer control board winks and hums like a pinball machine. It is being used experimentally to operate six lighthouses, which in pre-computer days required 22 men. Like those gadgets some people put on their lawns, the computer turns on the lights when the sky gets dark or foggy and notifies the seaman on duty at the control board whenever a bulb is burnt out or anything else is wrong at a lighthouse. The Eatons Neck basin always has a few derelict boats—flotsam of the Sound—waiting to be claimed by owners.
The North Shore Long Island and Connecticut coasts are rocky, with fast-dropping tides and very uneven bottoms, which in places are only two feet below the surface. The Norwalk Islands are especially risky for boaters. "On a summer day," says young, blond Coast Guard Engineman Third Class Clinton Stites, "you can look out from here and see 200 boats in the water. It looks like everybody in Stamford has a boat. Some of the things they do with them you wouldn't believe. One guy called in and said he was tied to a buoy, and after hours of searching we found out he was down on the South Shore and didn't even know it. Another guy we spotted in trouble and went out to him. When we were 100 yards away his boat blew up in a puff of black smoke. It knocked him into the water and he was really putting out the strokes, like an Olympic champion. We picked him up, and you know what he said? 'You got here just in time. I can't swim a lick.' "
Last October a 30-foot cabin cruiser was sinking off Lloyd's Point in the Sound when a Coast Guard boat approached. "We jumped into the cruiser and started bailing like crazy," says Jeff Ross, a small, dark-haired seaman. "I was up to my neck in water and it was getting deeper. And up on top of the cabin was this lady yelling at me: 'Young man, forget that! You run downstairs and fetch my purse and my clothes!' " The Coast Guard itself is not immune to accident. Last summer a group of visiting officers were inspecting fire-fighting equipment on a patrol boat when someone saw a little girl who had cut her foot on a piece of glass. The patrol boat picked her up and was speeding her toward the station for treatment when someone else saw her father rushing about, frantically wondering where his daughter had gone. A coast guardsman went off to pick up the father in the 16-foot outboard, arrived full throttle at the beach, missed the cutoff switch and plowed up 30 feet of sand before he was flung out, quite embarrassed, at the father's feet.
As long as there are men there will be small boats, and as long as there are small boats there will be accidents in them. With the leisure and easy money of today, the number of small boats will keep going up. Already the small-boat business is a $700 million industry. Many of those boats are sold to people who know little of how to operate them and do not seem inclined to learn. The Coast Guard issues citations in cases of collisions or outright hazardous conduct, and those citations must be answered in federal court. The Coast Guard Auxiliary and the Power Squadrons—two organizations of dedicated and expert boats-men—help in the policing by boarding boats to check for safety equipment. But there are simply too many small boats in too many places for effective control.
Some Coast Guard officials think all boats and their operators should be licensed, as drivers of automobiles are. Others think anyone setting out on a boat should be required to file a trip plan, as pilots of small planes do. But most coast guardsmen seem to think both those plans are unworkable and would involve so much paper-shuffling that the Coast Guard would have time for little else than tending the files.
"People argue with you all the time about their own safety," says Engineman Stites. "They'll say they have Coast Guard-approved cushions aboard, but if your son falls overboard do you want him to spend five hours hanging onto a cushion, or would you rather have him in a life jacket? They just don't think of those things. What I would tell anybody who buys a boat is this: look up the Coast Guard in the phone book and call us. There are plenty of courses available in navigation, procedure and safety. It's for the boater's own good to take them. At the very least, they can learn how to show a proper distress signal."
There is nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. The idea is to be able to do it again tomorrow.