Sunday, November 15, 2009


I needed a job after I returned to Seattle from 6 months in the Antarctic.  It was early 1978.  I was staying in the spare bedroom of a Coast Guard buddy and his family.  I bought a yellow VW beetle and started my job hunt.  I went for a number of interviews, but nothing was a match.  Then I spotted an ad for a marine electronics company that was looking for people who could speak Spanish.  That peaked my interest as I spoke decent Spanish and had a experience with electronics from the USCG and from when I made short wave radio kits as a kid.  So I applied and was hired.  I entered a training program to prepare me to be the factory rep for Latin America.  Their main product was a sonar for fishing vessels.  I spent time on the assembly line, in classes, and out in the field with the Washington State rep.  I helped install a sonar on trawler in Seattle and we made visits to fishing vessels in Ilwaco and South Bend.  After a couple months they gave me a couple company credit cards, a tool kit, and I packed my bags and flew to Panama.

I was to troubleshoot both a technical and a business problem.  A Chinese Panamanian fishing captain by the name of Camilo had one of our sonars on his boat.  It wasn't working and I was there to either fix it or get it back from him since he hadn't paid for it yet.  In my baggage I was carrying a spare sonar head.  I was nervous about passing through customs with such an expensive bit of hardware.  I need not have been.  I stepped off the plane into the steamy heat of  Panama.  As I approached the customs inspection station I was spotted by Edwardo, our local dealer.  He called me over and glad handed with the customs inspector who seemed to be an old friend.  Eddie grabbed my bag and whisked me past customs like I was traveling on a diplomatic passport.  The second thing that hit me after the heat was the almost constant cacophony of horns.  The traffic headed into the city was heavy and Panamanian drivers expressed themselves with their horns, blasting and beeping and honking.  Eddie was a very friendly guy, he spoke great English and we hit it off right away.

I had expected to be able to solve the problems and be in and out of the country and on my way to Ecuador in a few days....  Crazy optimistic Gringo.  It took two weeks.  Camilo and his boat were fishing to the north and Eddie and his brother were involved in installing the first CAT scan system in Panama at the main hospital.  I tagged along with them and watched as they tested the system on a pineapple.  It worked.  They they needed a human, so after some cajoling they got me to go in the machine and they scanned my skull.

Then Eddie had to run some errands.  He was nervous.  He had to go see the colonel.  The colonel was the number two guy in Panama, the right hand man of General Omar Torrijos.  And the Colonel was unhappy with some equipment that Eddie and his brother had provided him for his business.  It struck me odd that a colonel would also be a businessman, but this was Central America in the 70's ... Military rank was for power, not for service.  While I sat out in the lobby of the Colonel's office, Eddie got chewed out and finally emerged looking stressed.

The next day was the weekend so I was on my own so I rented a car at the hotel and headed out across the Bridge of the Americas spanning the Panama Canal and headed north up the Pacific Coast. The soil was red and the jungle was a deep green.  The road was a narrow two lane affair, crossing many ravines and winding along through rolling hills.  I passed little towns but saw little of the ocean as the road ran inland parallel to the coast.  The the skies opened up and it started to pour.  Sheets of rain.  The window of my little Datsun started to steam up.  I had to roll down the window a little to increase the ventilation so I could see.  I turned south and started heading back towards the city.  In front of me a Ford Torino hit a big puddle, hydroplaned and spun out of control.  I flew backwards down the highway toward a bridge.  The trunk of the car slammed into the concrete railing of the bridge and it stopped.  A few feet more and it would have gone down into the deep ravine below where the water was raging.  I pulled over and ran up to the car.  There was a hysterical large Panamanian woman in the front passenger seat, the dashboard had come off and was laying in her lap.  The five people in the car were scared but unhurt.  I squeezed them into my little damp car and gave them a ride to the police station in the next town where they got help.

Finally after the weekend Camilo was back at the dock.  He had a smelly old seine boat.  Eddie drove me down there and I went to work on the sonar.  After hours of tracing wires, changing circuit boards and fiddling, it seemed to be working, though without going out it was hard to tell.  So we agreed to head out the next day.  It ended up being a very frustrating business.  The sonar didn't work very well and Camilo didn't pay much attention to it anyway, instead setting his nets on where the Pelicans dove into the water. 

I finally left Panama, not having fixed the sonar and not having convinced Camilo to either return the sonar or pay for it.

My next destination was Guayaquil Ecuador.  Guayaquil was a large dangerous city on the banks of the Rio Guayas, a wide, muddy river filled with floating green water hyacinths. Our local dealer dropped me off on the fishing boat Maria Elena.  A large wooden hulled seiner with a big skiff perched on the stern.  The captain welcomed me aboard and we slipped our moorings and headed down the river.  As we we pulled away from the dock we passed a half naked old man and a small boy sitting astride a log in the river, paddling through the water hyacinths with broken pieces of boards.

The sonar seemed to be working.  As we motored down the river I scanned left and right and ahead and picked up the bottom and objects in the water.  At last this was more encouraging.  We passed a few buoys as we continued down the river.  The current seemed to be running strong.  We were surrounded by jungle.  Occasionally I would see a hut built on bamboo stilts near the edge of the river.  One of the crew told me it was to keep the floods and the snakes out of the houses.

Scanning ahead I picked up a strong target.  I wondered aloud to the captain if it might be a school of fish?  He looked over with interest.  Just then the boat slammed hard aground on the river bottom, throwing all of us forward with a jolt.  The captain ran out the back door of the pilothouse screaming "Lanza la panga!  Lanza la Panga!" (Launch the skiff!).  The crew quickly launched the skiff, but the boat wasn't sinking.  I went below decks in the bow.  Water was seeping in through the hull caulking and the sonar looked like it had been sheared off in the grounding.  The captain backed the boat off the mud bank and we headed back up the river to the dock.

The next day I rented a Chevy Nova and headed out of Guayaquil for the Santa Elena Peninsula.  More houses on stilts.  Grubby, squalid little towns with naked butted children and hogs wandering in the road.  Narrow one lane bridges.  When meeting another car, whoever flashes their lights first has the right of way.  I came around the bend and there, hitchhiking, were two clean cut blond haired blue eyed young men dressed in long dark pants, short sleeved dress shirts and black ties, carrying book bags.  Mormon boys on their mission.  I pulled over picked them up and dropped them off a few miles later at a smelly oil production town.

I arrived at the port town of La Libertad and found the boat the other boat I was to service.  I worked on the sonar, but it was an older model and I didn't have all the parts I needed.  I made a note of all the parts required to be ordered and headed back to Guayaquil.  That evening as I was packing my bags to leave the following morning for Lima Peru, I tuned in the the BBC World Service on my shortwave radio and discovered that there had been an attempted coup in Peru and battle tanks were rolling through the streets of Lima.  I quickly called the airline and changed my flight to fly directly to Santiago, Chile.

In Santiago I stayed at the Hotel Crillon.  It was an eerie place to be, overlooking the machine gun bullet scarred facade of the Palacio de la Moneda, the presidential palace where President Salvador Allende died during the General Pinochet's coup d'etat of September 11th, 1973.  The Chilean air force had strafed the palace with aircraft and commandos then assaulted the building.

Now 5 years later, Pinochet still ruled with an iron fist and a nightly curfew remained in effect.  I felt the fear at night, hearing the shouts and gunshots echoing though the empty streets of Santiago, the racing military vehicles speeding off to do who knows what to whom.

Chilean society was very polarized.  The supporters of the Military had a swagger about them.  The opponents cowed in fear and sullen silence born of fear and repression.

It was sad for me to see the country like this.  As a child of 10 I had first come here with my parents.  Santiago had been my home for 3 years.  It was home to some of my happiest memories while growing up.  Now it was a dark and menacing place, where the walls had ears and people were afraid to speak their minds.

I fell into a routine.  In the mornings I would catch a cab to the offices of Don Claudio, our dealer for Chile and have coffee with him and his secretary Mirna.  Don Claudio ushered me around to meet potential clients and I would discuss the benefits of our equipment and give them brochures and we would return to the office and have lunch.

Finally I had an installation to supervise in Southern Chile.  I got a rental car, a little Honda Civic and headed south down the Panamericana.  I drove for hours through mountains and across arid rolling hilly country and through valleys with tall poplar wind breaks.  It got dark.  I continued southward.  I noticed my lights getting dim and then flickering and then the car died.  I coasted to the side of the road and got out.  I popped the hood and checked the battery as best I could without a flashlight.  Nearby I could hear a river and off in the distance the light of a dwelling.  Overhead the stars twinkled.  I had no idea where I was, nor how far the next town was.  I heard the crunch of footsteps approaching in the dark on the other side of the road.

Out of the gloom of the darkness I made out the form of a campesino carrying a shovel and a burlap sack.  I called out to him and asked him if he knew where the nearest filling station was.  He asked what was wrong.  I told him my battery had died.  He peered at the motor.  "There is a guy where I live who knows mechanics."  "Where do you live?"  "Just over there." He said, pointing at the light of the dwelling I had noticed.

I walked down the road with him and soon arrived at the workers barracks of a gravel pit.  The workers were very friendly.  They found the man who knew mechanics and fetched a spare battery and some cables and with a group of about six friendly Chilean workers we returned to the car.  Within short order they had helped me restart the car and discovered an electrical plug had come loose, which had caused the battery to discharge.  I thanked them profusely and we parted like old friends and I headed back down the dark road through the Chilean countryside, my faith in the goodness of strangers reinforced.

The next night I stayed in town of Concepcion and in the morning the fleet captain of the fishing company came and picked me up and drove me to Talcahuano where I worked on installing the new sonar on one of their boats.  On the drive back to Concepcion that evening he gave me some advice.  "If you ever hit a pedestrian, be sure to kill him."  I expressed surprise at such a statement.  He said that over the years he had hit 3 pedestrians.  Two had died and he had no trouble from them.  The one that lived, gave him all sorts of trouble with lawyers.  "So that's why I say, if you hit someone, make sure you kill them.  It will be a lot less trouble."  I concealed my shock at his attitude and just nodded silently.

After several months living in hotels in Chile and having little success in selling more sonars and having to deal with constant failures of the equipment that was already installed, I grew increasing dispirited and homesick.  The final blow came when I spoke to the guy who had trained me up in Washington State.  He said that all of the sales reps who started with me had already quit and that the equipment that the company was producing at the time was having a very high failure rate.  He said the problem was that they had not been using static free assembly stations in making the circuit boards and that the chips were very sensitive to static and were failing out in the field after a short period of service.  He was quitting and taking a job with a radar vendor.

That was it for me.  I quit and headed for home.  Within 3 weeks I was greatly relieved to be back aboard a ship, working for NOAA once again.  My adventure in working in electronics scuttled by wayward static electricity.

Monday, November 2, 2009


My first experience with sea ice came in 1973 in the Labrador Sea as a quartermaster aboard the USCG Wind Class Icebreaker Edisto.

The sentinels of the polar regions are solitary icebergs, drifting far out to sea.  We encountered these guardians of the Arctic long before encountering sea ice.

Arriving at the ice edge for the first time was exhilarating and breath taking.  It is a line in the sea where the nature of the sea, the air, and the entire environment changes.  It is a place teeming with life, where air is crisp and biting.  Steaming into the ice, the sea becomes an ever changing landscape, governed by the size and shape and types of the sea ice. Grease ice, pancake ice, first year floes, multi-year ice, pressure ridges, and many other ice formations that defy description.

The Edisto was built in 1946 and was in her last year of service when I sailed aboard her.  She was decommissioned in the fall of 1974.  She had cork insulation to keep the interior of the hull from sweating and though only 269 feet long, she carried a crew of almost 300.

We were berthed in triple level bunks in berthing areas of up to 70 men.  I was in the operations department and had the luxury of a 20 man berthing area.  I was in the top bunk next to the pipes and cables of the overhead.

The Wind Class were shaped like an American football and rolled continuously and vigorously in the seaway and pitched like a hobby-horse in a head sea.  In the ice she was in her element and handled well, turning responsively.  She was twin screw, single rudder, diesel electric, with six Fairbanks Morse main engines located in three separate engine rooms.

The crew were a bunch of pirates.  USCG Group Baltimore was using the Edisto as punishment duty.  Any screw-ups or sailors with attitude problems were transferred to the Eddie.  This being the Vietnam era, there was no shortage of young men with bad attitudes in the USCG.  It was a volunteer service, but many chose to volunteer for the USCG rather than be drafted, so they weren't there all that willingly.

The Eddie was so permeated with drugs (marijuana & hash) that one could get high just breathing the fumes rising out of the forward berthing area at night.  The Executive Officer, Commander Kothe, established a night patrol manned by CPOs & first class petty officers that was dubbed the "International Rat Patrol".  Every time we stopped at Craney Island, Virginia to fuel up before deploying, dope sniffing dogs were brought aboard to search for pot.  The poor dogs were disoriented and scared by the steep ladders descending into the bowels of the ship and the noise and smell and all the pepper the crew had sprinkled on the decks to confound the dogs.  It was a low grade war between the youth culture of the 70's and the establishment culture of the career coast guardsmen who comprised the senior personnel aboard.

Even knowing that the Edisto had a reputation as a band of outlaws, I sought a transfer aboard her.  I was pulled by the call of the North.  All those Jack London books I read as a kid had given me a thirst for adventure and I wanted to see the Arctic.  I was bored out of my skull aboard the USCG tug Apalachee.  She hardly ever got underway, mostly sitting dockside in Baltimore.  So I got a mutual transfer with Charlie Riley, who despised the Edisto and had family in Baltimore.

Our first deployment was in the Labrador Sea conducting a study of Icebergs for the International Ice Patrol measuring the mass of icebergs with sonar and photography from our two helicopters.  This involved getting very close to scores of icebergs of all shapes and sizes.

I even earned the privilege to ride in the copilot's seat on one helicopter flight.  The view of the ice fields and bergs and enormity of the horizon and the insignificance of our little red ship below made it an unforgettable experience.

Our next deployment was to the Eastern Arctic on a mission for the Naval Research Lab, gathering acoustic data to assist in the location and tracking of Soviet submarines below the eastern Greenland ice pack.  We stopped in Reykjavík, Iceland where some of the crew got in a drunken brawl with the US Navy at the NATO base club in Keflavík.

From Iceland we headed north, closely followed by a soviet spy ship.  When we noticed they started picking up our garbage, we started being much more selective about what we threw over the side.  Once we entered the ice they could no longer follow us.  A few days later, deep in the ice we were buzzed at mast level by a Soviet Bison Bomber.  It came from dead astern in the blind spot of our air search radar.  After that, we were overflown almost every day by a high level Soviet Bear Bomber.  It was an eerie ever present reminder of the reality of the Cold War.

Deep in the ice, the storms of the seas beyond were only felt as a slow undulation of the ice field, causing the ship to roll gently in the ice.  In the darkness the ice sparkled and glistened below the light show of the aurora borealis.  The aurora was like a psychedelic lace curtain moving in the solar wind, rippling and undulating and changing colors.  I stood out on the bridge wing in the 50 below zero cold, looking up,  awestruck, while the moisture in my nose froze as I inhaled.

The aurora also produced heavy static discharges and while we were in the deep arctic we lost radio reception.  When we finally came out from under it's effects on August 7th, 1974, I headed out on deck and tuned in the BBC on my shortwave radio.  The top news was that President Nixon planned to address the nation the next evening and it was thought that he would announce his resignation as a result of the Watergate scandal.  This was stunning news since we had heard nothing in the last month and a half.  The following evening a group of us bundled up in our parkas huddled around the radio on the starboard side of the ship and listened as Nixon resigned.

We sailed to Scotland and spent 5 days in Leith.  I took leave and stayed with my stepfather's family in Edinburgh and explored that wonderful city.  The ship returned to Baltimore and shortly afterward was decommissioned and I was transferred to the Northwind which was undergoing a refit.  While aboard the Northwind, I met Joe Gnagey who came to visit some of my shipmates.  He gave us a slide show of photographs that he had taken in the Antarctic while sailing as a QM on the Northwind.  His amazing photos showed a continent of white wilderness, the footprint of great explorers such as Shackleton and Scott, and the amazing creatures that made their home there.  It fascinated me and kindled a desire in me to some day see the Antarctic for myself.

I was discharged from the Coast Guard the following summer and moved to the Seattle and went to work for NOAA for about five months and then attended college at the University of Idaho.  After a year at the university I finally decided I really wanted to be back at sea and I re-joined NOAA, eventually finding myself as a quartermaster aboard the NOAA Ship Davidson doing a chart adequacy survey of Yakutat Bay, Alaska.  Every couple weeks we would sail to Juneau to replenish stores and have some R&R.  I went hiking up into the woods above the Mendenhall Glacier.  It was quiet and beautiful and wild.  I ate blueberries along the trail and spent the night in an open shelter listening to the wild night sounds around me.

The following day as I hiked out past a camp ground parking lot, I noticed a pickup truck camper with Idaho plates from the county the University of Idaho was located in.  I knocked on the window and struck up a conversation with the owner.  He was a geologist recently graduated from the university who was working for a minerals company prospecting in Alaska.  He invited me to have a beer with him and his friends at a saloon in town.  As we were shooting the breeze and sharing a pitcher of beer, one of the other geologists told me about a company that hired people to work in the Antarctic.  He said he thought they had a boat that went down there too.  So armed with only the name "Holmes & Narver" written on a bar napkin, I headed off with my head buzzing with excitement.

The following morning before the ship sailed back to Yakutat I was at the pay phone armed with my bar napkin and a pocket full of change.  I called dozens of people at the National Science Foundation, Holmes & Narver and finally they referred me to a small California company called Nekton, Inc.  They ran a small ship called the Hero that ran to the Antarctic under contract for the NSF.  As incredible luck would have it, they needed an AB Seaman for the Hero.  I had them mail me the application care of general delivery at the post office in the village of Yakutat.

Two weeks later I was on my way to Talcahuano, Chile to join the R/V Hero.

The Hero was a 125 foot wooden hulled motorsailor built in 1968 by the Harvey Gamage shipyard in Maine.  She was sheaved in tropical greenheart wood with steel plates along the waterline.  She was designed along the same sort of lines as Fridtjof Nansen's ship the Fram.  Very heavy oak frames, round hull, no keel.  She was equipped with sails primarily to help reduce the rolling caused by her round hull and to be used in case of loss of propulsion, for sailing.

When I arrived, she was in the drydock in the ASMAR shipyard in Talcahuano in southern Chile.  When I came aboard I was introduced to Captain Pieter Lenie.  Capt Lenie was already a legend and was a very colorful character.  Born in Belgium, he first went to sea at age 14, leaving Belgium when the Nazis overran his country.  Lenie survived WWII when the ship he was sailing on was torpedoed and blown up and he ended in the freezing water.  He had a very dry wit and at times it was hard to tell whether he was joking or serious.  He was once asked by a visitor: "Captain Lenie, who owns Antarctica?" Lenie hesitated only a moment before replying, "I own it. . . . It belongs to me."   That was typical of Lenie.

The ship was undergoing a refit and a large amount of dry rot had been found in her bow.  The shipyard workers were working timbers with adzes, chipping away at the timbers and shaping them to replace the rotted wood.  We noticed that sap was spraying from the timbers as they chipped away.  The wood was uncured and green.  This created problems as the wood never swelled like cured wood does when submerged in sea water and as soon as the ship was put back in the water a steady, permanent leak came in through the bow which Lenie named the "Rio Betzel" in honor of the NSF bureaucrat who had arranged the repairs.

We spent two months in the yard.  It was very hard on us in the crew.  We went girl crazy, chasing women and partying in town.  We had to be off the streets before the curfew each night or Pinochet's troops would arrest you.  So we shacked up for the night in cheap fleabag pensiones for the night with whichever girl we were with and come dragging back to the ship in the morning, much the worse for wear until it was quitting time and then we went back to the discoteca for another round.  Amazingly we all survived 2 months in Talcahuano.  Though not without our share of self inflicted wounds and minor social diseases.

Finally we set sail for Ushuaia, Argentina, our home port.  Rather than sail through the inside passage of Chile, we sailed straight down the coast and around Cape Horn.  North of Cape Horn, late at night, we hit a huge storm and the mizen parted.  The other two ABs, the 1st and 2nd Mates and I headed back to the stern to secure the shredded sail before it got wrapped up in the radar.  A big stainless steel D-ring was flogging back and forth in the howling wind threatening to smash our skulls.  As we were struggling to secure the sail, out of the corner of my eye I saw something white high above us.  I yelled, grabbed a stay and grabbed a hold of my nearest shipmate as a huge wave broke over us drenching us and nearly washing us away.  We managed to stow the sail and retreated back inside the vessel to dry off.

When we reached Cape Horn, Capt. Lenie shut down the engines and we sailed around Cape Horn.

We met the Chilean pilot at the entrance to the Beagle Channel and he took us as far as Puerto Williams where he disembarked and then the Argentine pilot boarded and took us into Ushuaia.

This was contested territory.  The Chileans and the Argentines were disputing three uninhabited islands at the entrance to the Beagle Channel, Picton, Lennox, and Nueva Islands. 

Due to their strategic location south of the Beagle Channel and facing the Atlantic Ocean, the islands were claimed by both Chile and Argentina, causing a serious border conflict. Picton, Lennox and Nueva granted Chile possible claims on part of the Atlantic Ocean, several other islands including the Falkland islands and of a larger part of Antarctica. Also, gold and oil had supposedly been found. The two countries agreed to submit to arbitration by the United Kingdom's Queen Elizabeth II.  The Queen had ruled in favor of Chile a few months before we arrived and the Argentine government refused to accept the ruling and relations between the two countries was very tense.  Both countries had brutal military dictatorships and trouble was brewing.

When we moored to the stone quay in Ushuaia, we were met by Tommy Goodall who maintained the warehouse for the Hero.  Tommy and his wife Natalie own Estancia Harberton some 85 km east of Ushuaia.

Harberton is the oldest estancia (ranch) on Tierra del Fuego. It was founded by Tommy's great grandfather, the Reverend Thomas Bridges and his wife Mary Ann Varder in 1886. Bridges was the adopted child of an Anglican missionary, whose family left for the Falkland Islands when he was just 13 years old. He arrived in the Tierra del Fuego, age 21, where he worked also as a missionary before being granted land by President Roca in recognition for his work with the archipelago’s indigenous peoples. Haberton is so named after the village in Devonshire where his wife was born.

We loaded supplies, groceries, and a load of passengers, the relief crew for the Palmer Station.  The staff at Palmer had wintered over and were anxiously awaiting their reliefs.  We sailed down the Beagle en route to the Drake Passage, the wide open stormy body of water between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula.

Crossing the Drake in the Hero was thoroughly unpleasant.  The ship rolled and wallowed and pitched and corkscrewed, belched diesel fumes from the fuel vents, and in general made me sick as hell.

After two and a half days we made it across and approached the South Shetland Islands. We finally encountered the Antarctic ice edge, and after skirting it for a ways, Capt Lenie pushed in and we continued southward.  We worked our way past King George Island and headed through the Bransfield Strait.  In the distance across the ice pack we could see the rugged ridge of Smith Island.  Continuing southward we entered the narrower Gerlache Strait, surrounded by glacier capped mountain peaks scuplted by snow and violent winds.

The going became more difficult as we often had to back and ram to get through the dense icepack.  My bunk was in the bow and as I lay in my bunk I could listen to the ice sliding by and my bunk shifted and shook as the captain rammed the ship into the ice.

We finally got within three miles of Palmer Station and encountered fast ice.  We were forced to await the arrival of the RRS Bransfield, the ship of the British Antarctic Survey that was bringing supplies for Palmer.

While awaiting the Bransfield we amused ourselves playing soccer on the ice and at one point we cornered an Adelie Penguin between 3 of us.  I got too close and it growled and lunged at me, grabbing my pant leg in it's beak and beating me with it's flippers. The Bransfield finally arrived and started breaking up the ice in the bay, opening a channel to Palmer Station.

Once this was done we acted as a lighter, moving cargo from the Bransfield to the dock (which was too shallow for the bigger ship), pushing our way through the chunks of pack ice.  It was slow laborious work.  The Bransfield also dropped off British teams and their dog teams who were destined to a remote station further south.  They trekked up to the top of the glacier above the station where a ski equipped Twin Otter landed and loaded them up and flew them south.

The unofficial mascot of Palmer Station was Yaby.  He was a South Polar Skua (named YABY for his band colors Yellow, Aluminum, Blue, Yellow) known to Palmer Station residents since he was first banded in 1975.  He was a notorious scavenger.  On one occasion when the station crew was having a BBQ, Yaby swooped down and stole a steak right off of the grill.  While the crew were remarking about what balls that bird had to steal their steak, he swooped down and took another.

After replenishing Palmer, we headed north towards Ushuaia with the departing station crew aboard.  We beat our way across the Drake and into the Beagle and back to town.

While we were in Ushuaia, I was pressed into service taking the renowned ornithologist Dr. David Parmalee and one of his graduate students out in a Zodiak inflatable boat to go look at birds and gather samples out on the islands in the Beagle Channel.  We examined nesting areas for Skuas, Shags, Terns, and Patagonian Geese and encountered a rock covered with sea lions.  As we turned back towards Ushaia, a sudden chubasco swept down the channel.  I guided the zodiak steadily upwind as the waves built and the spray whipped our faces.  I kept my nervous passengers calm, telling stories and jokes.  I finally made it to the shelter of a small cove on Bridges Island where we spotted an empty shepherds shack.  We took shelter, started a fire in the little stove and heated up some Yerba Mate I found in the cabin.

After an hour the winds came down and I called the Hero on the radio to let them know we were finally on our way back.  They told me cryptically that we had better conceal the shotgun that Dr Parmalee had brought with us.  As we approached the dock I saw why....  A large Argentine military transport ship, the Bahía Buen Suceso had arrived and was unloading military trucks towing howitzers.  The tensions with Chile over the three Islands had gotten worse and now the two countries were on the brink of war.

The trucks headed down the road to Tommy Goodall's place and set up gun emplacements at Harberton, taking aim at the Chilean Navy town of Puerto Williams on the other side of the Beagle Channel.  Over the next day several flights of Argentine jet  fighters landed at the Ushuaia airport.

Things came very close to a shooting war, until the Pope sent an emissary to negotiate between the Gen. Videla and Gen. Pinochet, the respective dictators of Argentina and Chile.

However, the same bellicose militaristic attitude prevailed and eventually resulted in the Falkland Islands War with Britain five years later in 1982.  The Bahía Buen Suceso was strafed by British Harrier fighters in the Falklands and later captured and used for target practice by the Royal Navy and sunk.

I continued on the Hero for my 6 month contract.  We made many more voyages across the Drake and visited many research stations  throughout the South Shetlands and and the Antarctic Peninsula, including King George Island, Deception Island, and Gibbs Island.  On Gibbs Island, Capt Lenie dropped me and Dr. Parmalee off in our Zodiak in the fog and departed, leaving us alone on the remote rocky precipitous island with several million Chinstrap Penguins and hundreds of Southern Fulmars.

We spent New Years Day 1978 anchored on the south side of Elephant Island, near where Ernest Shackleton and his men took refuge after the wreck of the Endurance in 1916.  We were taking shelter from a storm, and there in the lee of the island we were buffeted by 85 knot winds.  Looking out at the inhospitable ice covered island it really gave me empathy for the incredible hardships those men endured before finally being rescued.

My contract complete in early 1978, I disembarked the Hero in Ushuaia and flew to Buenos Aires.  In 1978, Argentina was at the height of the "Dirty War", a period of state-sponsored violence against the Argentine people and left-wing guerrillas that lasted from 1976 to 1983 and was carried out primarily by Gen. Videla's military government.  Around 20,000 people disappeared or were killed and 60,000 were tortured during this dark time in Argentine history.  I felt the chill of the repression on the streets of Buenos Aires.  Troops and heavily armed police in blue battle helmets were everywhere, driving around in Argentine made Ford Falcons.  It was as I imagined 1930's Germany was under the Nazis.  I was relieved when I finally boarded a plane bound for Miami the next day.  After 6 months in South America and the Antarctic, returning to Seattle was quite a culture shock.  It made me appreciate so many things I had taken for granted.  It was good to be home.....

Sunday, October 25, 2009


Anacortes, Washington will always stand out in my memory as the town where I got on my first ship as a licensed officer.  She was the M/V Makaka, a 110 foot salmon tender.  It was August 1981 and the ink was still wet on my 3rd Mate's license and after all the months of studying and taking the exams I was broke and needed to go back to work.  Dennis Heeney came through for me and referred me to Ocean Beauty Seafoods who need a chief mate to replace a man who was quitting before the end of the salmon season.  So I arrived on the docks on the north end of town, on Guemes Channel, with my seabag and my license in hand.

The departing mate met me on the dock.

"Good luck on there.  He can't handle the boat fer shit.  Every time he gets near the dock he does the 'Makaka Mambo'.  He's all over the place."

With those reassuring words about my new captain's capacity as a boat handler I climbed aboard.  The captain was an older gent with a beard.  He asked me if I had any boots or rain gear.  I did not.  He sent me off to Marine Supply & Hardware where I got myself a pair of crotch-high wading boots and a full yellow rain slicker and a pair of orange rubber insulated gloves.  The next morning we set sail up the Inside Passage en route to the Alaskan village of Klawock.

The route was one I'd traveled many times before, but this was the first time I was in charge of the navigation watch and alone on the bridge.  I was sailing solo for the first time.  We sailed up Rosario Straits, past the San Juan Islands and into the wide waters of the Straits of Georgia, past Texada Island, through Sabine Channel.  We passed log tows, log carrying freighters bound for the far east, and large tugs towing tandem wood chip barges en route to the paper mills.  As we approached Campbell River we slowed and waited for slack tide to make the passage through Seymour Narrows.  Currents can reach up to 16 kts in Seymour and it was nothing to be trifled with by a small ship only capable of 9 kts.  We loitered south of Cape Mudge watching the water boil with the current flowing out of Discovery Passage.

Most of the names along this route were given by the explorers on the expedition of Captain George Vancouver in 1792.  It has always seemed to me that Capt Vancouver was a rather depressed chap.  The names he gave some of the places in the NW and BC include: Useless Bay; Point No Point; Deception Pass; Desolation Sound, and the like.  But his legacy of exploration is indelibly etched upon the Inside Passage.

Once the currents subsided we joined the other vessels that had been awaiting the turn of the tide and made our way up Discovery Passage towards Seymour Narrows.  Inevitably we met southbound traffic that had been holed up north of the narrows awaiting slack water.  All the vessels squeezed through the slalom course of the narrows.

Seymour Narrows is like the portal to the North Land.  From this point northward we were enveloped in the green forest darkness of the wilderness.  The towns were smaller and fewer, the currents stronger and waters deep, cold, and dark blue.  We passed Helmcken Island passing to the right through Current Passage, the current now boiling and pushing us along at almost 12 kts.  I always liked the color coded navigation lights that guide one through Current Pass, showing red to indicate danger until the ship reaches the bearing where it is safe to turn and light shows white.

From there we proceeded to Blackney Pass and on to Pine Island and Cape Caution and up the channel past the fishing outpost of Namu and Fog Rocks and into Lama Pass.  There we passed the native village of Bella Bella and Dryad Point Lighthouse.  Then past the Milbanke Sound, where we felt the swells entering from the Pacific Ocean.  Then we entered Princess Royale Channel and passed the ghost town of Butedale and then proceeded up the long narrow misty Grenville Channel.

I had the watch here and it was a pitch black night.  On the radar, the Grenville extended like a narrow crack in the mountains and forest, leading onward ahead for miles.  I turned on the searchlight and shone it on the bank to my right.  The trees were so close it scared me.  I swung around the light to the left bank and those trees weren't that much further away. I decided I was better off with the light off, and continued to steam ahead by the flash of the radar and the occasional twinkle of a lighted navigation mark as we passed them.  It was a long, quiet, lonely watch, sailing through the Grenville.  The next morning we past Prince Rupert and made our way north crossing Dixon Entrance and into Ketchikan.

As the previous mate had warned me the captain struggled to put the boat alongside the wharf in Ketch.  To and fro revving the engines and lots of hollering and finally we were alongside.  We tied up to the NEFCO-Fidalgo Salmon cannery and took on stores, fuel and cash.  We were a cash buyer for the Cannery.  We would head out to the fishing grounds and buy fish directly from the fisherman.

The next morning in a drizzle, under a heavy gray overcast, we headed south to make our way around Cape Chacon and then up Cordova Bay to Tlevak Strait, a narrow rock strewn passage between wild wooded islands.  Low wispy stratus clouds lingered on the hillsides touching the treetops.

The channel narrowed and the current picked up.  We had missed slack water at Tlevak Narrows and the captain decided to run it anyway or we would be late arriving in Klawok.  As we approached the narrows we could see the buoys laid over on their sides with large wakes coming off of them as the water rushed through the narrow passage.  The boat was flying now, we were doing 16 knots!  The channel makes an almost 90 degree turn and the captain put the helm over hard.  The little ship came about smartly and the current caught the stern and we kept on coming and it looked like we were headed right at the bank.  The captain frantically spun the wheel as the ship laid over on her starboard in a 15 degree roll.  Suddenly the rudder caught, the ship[ righted herself and we swung away from the rocky shore and back into the channel.  Then we shot out the west side of the narrows and rapidly slowed as the current dropped off.

We sailed north past salmon seiners and arrived off of Klawock.  We anchored and seiners began tying up to us.  We set up our yard and stay cargo gear and rigged a brailer net and a scale on the hook to load the salmon into our chilled brine tanks.  I took my first shift running the cargo gear.  I'd swing the brailer down to the hold of the seiner and the fisherman would sort and toss the salmon (most of which were pink salmon, or "humpies") into the brailer.  When it was full, I hoisted it over the deck, noted the weight, swung it over the brine tank and dumped the salmon.  After 12 hours of this operation the deckhand relieved me. I was exhausted and went off to bed.  After 3 days we were full and headed back to the cannery in Ketchikan.  There they used a fish pump to unload us.  The humpies were pretty much worse for wear after their time in our tank and going through the fish pump, guts hanging out, flesh falling off, some of them green and discolored.  They all went up the conveyor into the cannery to be canned and cooked.  It was a long time after that experience before I was able to eat canned salmon ... and I still regard it with suspicion.

After a few weeks the salmon season was over and we steamed south to Seattle and in through the Lake Washington Ship Canal locks and tied up in Ballard.

An interactive Google map of the Inside Passage is available at:

Saturday, October 24, 2009

November 15, 1980

Heading north as AB Seaman on the M/V Pribilof.  It was my first time aboard the ship.  She was an older 220 foot coastal freighter in the Western Alaska trade, running from Seattle to Sand Point, Dutch Harbor, and the Pribilof Islands. The ship carried general cargo northbound and frozen seafood southbound.

I was hired by Dennis Heeney the friendly, good-natured hiring manager for the Alaska Marine Shipping Company.  His son Gary was an oiler on the ship and we became friends.  Gary died 8 years later in the sinking of the F/V ARTIC II off the north side of Akutan Island where I had nearly met a possibly similar fate in 1972.  His body was found months later in his survival suit washed up on the coast of Siberia.

But in November 1980 Gary and I were shipmates and headed north out of Seattle with a full load of freight mostly destined to the isolated Pribilof Islands in the middle of the Bering Sea.  The Chief Mate was the charismatic Bob Underhill.  Bob was a natural leader and everyone took to him immediately.  A tow boat captain by background, he was also quite a wild man.  It was rumored that he had been married anywhere from 9 to 14 times, and as the stories went, sometimes before he was divorced from the last one.

The captain was a recently retired USCG captain who had got his Merchant Marine captain's license and was new to the industry.  As a result he was not very comfortable with the inside passage of British Columbia and Alaska, the sometimes tortuous, winding, rocky set of protected channels leading from Puget Sound to Cape Spencer, Alaska. The ship made it's way northward up the Straits of Georgia, through the strong currents of Seymour Narrows.  The captain seemed visibly ill at ease with the narrow rocky waters of the passage.

In the winter months it is general practice for smaller vessels to follow the inside passage as far north as possible to avoid the huge storms that come roaring across the Gulf of Alaska. Depending on the latitude the storms are tracking across the the Gulf, one can choose to enter the Gulf at any of a number of openings along the inside passage.  In general the worse the weather, the farther north most captains would go, until they reached Cape Spencer, where they would either make the dash across the Gulf when the weather allowed, or else they anchored and waited for a weather window to open before committing themselves to the crossing.

Our captain didn't like the inside passage and when we got to Dixon Entrance, half way up the passage he decided to head out across the Gulf. We steamed out of Dixon Entrance as darkness fell and headed directly into the teeth of the worst storm I have ever experienced in my life.  The winds and seas built as the evening went on and when I came on watch at midnight we were in 30 foot seas with sustained 65 knot winds shrieking through the rigging.  The winds continues to build.  The air was full of wind-blown spume, and the white crests of the waves were glowing in the darkness, rising above the horizon. The winds rose to 85 knots, now sounding like a hellish roar and the ship was being tossed about like a toy.  The waves were huge towering masses of frothing sea over 40 feet high.  I was on the helm and it was all I could do to keep the ship headed into the seas.  We no longer making headway and were being driven backward by the tremendous force of the storm.

We suddenly took a heavy roll to starboard , were slammed hard by a huge wave and thrown hard over port, taking a 50 degree roll.  The captain and the chief mate both cried out at once...  part of the deck cargo had shifted.  Some large bundles pipe had slid to port and were in danger of falling over the side.

They decided they needed to secure the cargo.  The chief mate roused the rest of the deck crew and the captain ordered me to bring the ship about in order to give the crew a lee out on the deck.  He had to wait for a pause in the rhythm of the waves to have us come about without laying the ship on her beam-ends. Then I gave her hard left rudder and he gave full power on the starboard engine and we rolled heavily and came about headed down seas.

Now we were in real danger as we were headed with the seas and the seas were huge and moving much faster than we were and threatened to overpower the rudder and the engines and cause us to broach and capsize.  The mate and deckhands were scrambling across the deck cargo, slinging chains and binders and doing their best to re-secure the pipes.  The captain was at the throttles and I was at the wheel.  I would call out when I lost steerage and he would twist the ship with engines, full ahead on the port, backing the starboard until I regained control.  Every now and again a particularly huge wave would pick up our stern and we could feel the ship careening like a 220 foot long out of control surfboard, rushing down the wave, until it overtook us and then we fell back over the crest of the wave, back into the deep trough below, until the next oncoming monster flung itself upon out stern sweeping me out of control off to the left or the right.  So we struggled to keep control of the ship while the men scrambled precariously on wet slippery containers and pipes, lashing the cargo.

Finally the cargo was re-lashed and we were able to come back around and head into the seas.  The seas were unbelievably huge and the air was filled with spray and foam.   The wind was gusting over 100 knots and never went below 85.  Abruptly, we noticed the night sky clearing and we could see stars in the sky and the wind became variable, dropping down to 25 knots and veering about.  It was a very strange and eerie thing.  We realized the eye of the storm was passing directly over us.  We didn't have long.  After about 20 minutes, the opposite wall of the eye arrived and slammed into us with full force ... sustained winds of 90 knots, gusting over 120knots.  Our anemometer only reached 120 and it was pegged for minutes at a time.

On 2182 kHz we heard other vessels in trouble.  Far to the north of us, near Yakutat Bay,  the Tug Taurus with two barges astern, was being swept toward a lee shore and had to cut it's barges loose in order to save their lives.  One barge capsized and both were washed up onto the shores of Yakutat Bay.

Gradually the weather subsided and we continued on our way, having survived and been given the gift of experiencing the true awe of natures force.  The storm we survived was exactly 8 years to the day after the grounding, distress, and rescue of the Jarvis.

This was to be the last voyage of the Pribilof as a freighter.  The company went bankrupt and the vessel was later sold and became a fish processor.

A week later, while offloading freight to landing craft late at night, off of St. Paul Island, I watched as Bob Underhill lost his balance, reached out and grabbed a cargo strap.  It came loose in his hand and in slow motion, he toppled to his left and fell 35 feet, down into an open hold.  He fell on his side in between a pallet of Rainier Beer and a forklift.

Bob was medevaced first to the island in a landing craft, and the next day to Anchorage by plane.  He sustained 8 broken ribs, a smashed pelvis and a fractured skull.  He didn't remember anything from noon the day of the accident, until 10 days later.  Bob slowed down a lot after that, and never really returned to sailing.  Last I heard he and his wife had moved to the Florida Keys and we lost touch....

An interactive Google map of the Inside Passage is available at:

Friday, October 23, 2009

Boot Sailor in the school of hard knocks

Boot camp was a rude surprise for a sheltered 18 year old. I thought it was going to be tough, but I really had no idea. They cut off all my hair, confiscated all my possessions, gave me an ill fitting uniform and yelled at us all the time. They awoke us at 4:30 in the morning to assemble and run until the weaker amongst us fell to the side vomiting.

The psychological stress was too much for some. There were even a few suicides and many attempts at escape by unhappy recruits. Spring and summer of 1971 in Cape May, New Jersey was a real challenge. I was held back because I couldn't pass the swimming test and the perfect push up test. Eventually I hardened up enough to make it and graduated.

My first ship was the USCGC Jarvis. A 378 ft High Endurance Cutter. When they assembled us in Hawaii, the ship wasn't yet complete. We all joined the Jarvis Pre-Commissioning Detail on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. We were surrounded by history. Ford island is ringed with the wrecks of ships sunk in the Japanese attack that set off WWII for the USA.

The USCG being the poor cousin of the USN, they gave us a set of condemned Navy barracks near the mouth of Pearl Harbor as our quarters. We cleaned them up and painted them and when we left, they looked so good the Navy took them off the condemned list.

Finally in November 1971 we all loaded onto C-141 transports and flew to New Orleans to crew up the ship.

We set sail down the Mississippi River and out to sea, headed to Baltimore for more yard modifications. On the way I got my first chance as a Seaman Apprentice to steer the ship. The Jarvis had a stick type tiller and no wheel and jet engines and diesels for propulsion. It was exhilarating to steer the ship and I excelled at it. The Chief Quartermaster noticed and I was offered a position as "Quartermaster Striker". I would be mentored, trained, and prepared to become a Quartermaster.

Quartermasters were the skilled helmsman, navigators, and keepers of the log aboard Coast Guard Cutters. We were always at the heart of the action. We worked in the nerve center of the ship; the bridge. It was intoxicating and at times intimidating. For me it was the best place to be.

After Baltimore we sailed through the Panama Canal and into the port of San Diego and on to Honolulu.

We were deployed on Ocean Station November, sitting in the middle of the Pacific Ocean between the US West Coast and Hawaii, scanning the skies with our air-search radar, giving positions to overflying commercial aircraft and gathering weather data. We were also there in case any aircraft had an emergency and in case any unfriendly aircraft tried to enter our airspace.

It had 16 years since the last time an aircraft had to ditch at Ocean Station November, the aircraft had superior navigation systems compared to what we had, and Russians weren't coming this way. So it was solitary and obsolete mission that was eventually replaced by an ocean weather buoy.

Finally in November 1972 we embarked upon an exciting mission... Alaska Patrol, or as we called it "ALPAT". We made a grand tour of Alaska, pulling into Ketchikan, Juneau, Anchorage, and Cold Bay. Then on the dark early morning of November 15, 1972 while at anchor in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, we were hit by williwaw winds, drug anchor and struck the bottom off of Rocky Point and started taking on water. I was just getting out of my bunk to relieve the watch ( I had the 0400 to 0800) when I felt the ship shudder and heard the horrible sounds of rocks against steel, grinding down the length of the ship.

The ship limped over to the shelter of a nearby bay and the engineers put a concrete patch on the hole in the engine room. Hoses and pumps were rigged running out the stairwell from the engine room and down the passageway and out over the side.

The District ordered us to break off the patrol and head to Hawaii for repairs. Late that night we headed through Akutan Pass headed south, headed for Hawaii. Events interceded. We ended up in 30 foot seas with 60 knot winds. The vessel was pounding trying to make headway. The patch broke loose and water came pouring into the engine room. Within short order we lost fuel pressure to all the engines as the electric fuel oil pumps shorted out in the deluge of water down in the bilges. Then we were adrift, beam to the seas, only 10 miles from the rocks of Battery Point on the south side of Akutan Island. The winds and seas were rapidly sweeping us northward towards the rocks and disaster.

"MAYDAY, MAYDAY, this is the US Coast Guard Cutter Jarvis!" crackled the radio with the voice of our radio operators calling for help. I had a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach hearing these words. We were in real trouble.

The nearest ship was a Soviet trawler. He refused to come without permission from Moscow. The next nearest ship was a large Japanese factory trawler. They were headed for us at full speed, but were hours away.

The deck crew rigged a makeshift sea anchor using a canvas winch cover to slow the ship's drift towards the rocks. All the life rafts were lowered from their racks down to the deck ready for easy launching.

The ship's Sikorsky HH-52 helicopter was to be used to start evacuating the crew to the island. A list was drawn up, the youngest were to go first. The entire helicopter crew loaded up into the helo and the helideck crew prepped it for take off. The ship was rolling heavily and after the straps were let go the helo started to slide off the helideck and barely managed to get airborne as it skimmed the waves and disappeared into the raging darkness of the Aleutian night. After searching the shore of Akutan Island with the helo's search light the pilot found a spot to set down. Then all of the helo crew except the pilot and co-pilot scrambled out of the chopper and it took off, headed back to the ship.

As the helo made it's way across the water to the ship it encountered a hail storm. Hail in a single turbine engine is not a good thing. The captain called them over the radio and ordered them to abort. They returned to the island. In the pitch darkness of the night, all of the rock strewn beaches of the Aleutians look the same. The pilots couldn't find where they had dropped off their crew. They circled back and forth for a while until finally the crew on the beach managed to start a signal fire. They set down and spent a cold night on the beach in their bird.

Meantime, the water continued to rise in the engine room and our P-250 pumps couldn't keep up and we were running low on gasoline for the pumps.

USCG Air Station Kodiak had scrambled a C-130 aircraft with a load of pumps and gasoline to airdrop us. They came in over us at mast level and dropped pumps to us. The pumps were in round canisters suspended from small parachutes. They splashed in the water close aboard. The deck crew desperately tried to hook them, throwing their grappling hooks again and again. The high winds caught the parachutes and the pumps took off like little water skiers into the night. Finally the C-130 crew was down to a 55 gallon drum of gasoline and they decided to drop it free fall on to our helideck. I joined the recovery crew in the hanger as the big plane buzzed us yet again. The barrel came flying across the deck in a shower of sparks and landed in the port side helideck net. The drum was leaking, but intact.

Even with the extra gasoline didn't help our pumps keep up. The engine room flooded until the water was level with the water on the outside of the hull. The tops of the diesels were visible poking out of 14 feet of disgusting looking water mixed with oil and broken bits of asbestos.

We continued to drift closer to Battery Point. Finally when we were only 3 miles from the rocks, the Japanese trawler arrived on scene, passed a messenger line with a line throwing gun, and took us in to tow. They slowly towed us to Beaver Inlet on the East side of Unalaska Island. There, in daylight, in more sheltered waters, we anchored. Within hours all manner of USCG assets converged upon our location. The USCGC Ironwood came alongside and helicopters from Air Station Kodiak came in doing vertical replenishment, bringing in pumps and hoses and supplies. A canvas patch was pulled over the hole in the engine room and eventually a team of underwater divers arrived to put a hard patch on the gash.

I learned a lot from this experience. I learned how to handle fear, crisis, and disaster, and I also learned that even on the worst day at sea, I felt more alive than I ever did in any other kind of job. As perverse as it may be, this intense experience actually solidified my tendency to be a sailor.