After six-month US Coast Guard electronic school, I was given the choice of duty stations between Boston, San Francisco and New York City. Since I lived there for a time, I chose New York; actually I was posted to the Coast Guard station at St. Georges, Staten Island. My ship was a 311-foot World War II seaplane tender named the USCG Mackinac; in those days, much of our equipment was hand-me-downs or loans from the Navy. Nowadays, the Coast Guard gets top billing in the Homeland Security Department with excellent ships and equipment. The Mackinac was returned to the US Navy in 1968.
Our first sail to the North Atlantic was canceled because somehow, just before we were about to leave in the middle of November, and one of the ship’s engines blew up. The ship had four massive diesel engines, because traveling in such a dangerous waters, all four engines were required to keep up with heavy seas and high winds. There was a rumor floating around the docks, that someone did something to one of the engines but that was never proven.
USCGC Mackinac (WAVP-371) ca. 1960.
In any case, I got the month of December off with the Christmas as a bonus, and spent the time with my family in Massachusetts. To remove and replace the engine much of the ship’s superstructure was cut off and later welded back on. It took most of the month of December to get the repair done. But when I returned to Staten Island Coast Guard base in January 1962, there she was in all her repainted blazing-white Coast Guard splendor. This was before a red rescue stripe was added on the bow for publicity. We didn’t use that decorative red slash in those days; it was some marketing ploy done after I left the service. When I was in the Coast Guard they had less personnel than the New York police force; about twenty-six thousand.
Finally we got to take our trip to the North Atlantic and that January was quiet memorable. We had good sailing until we were off the coast of Newfoundland, where a U.S. Navy ship contacted us to say that they had a sailor on board who had a bad appendicitis and they needed to transfer him to hospital in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Since they were on station out in the Atlantic he was strapped into a breaches buoy, and sent across from their ship to ours. As the captain’s talker who relayed messages to the deck crew, I watched the drama unfold across the water. There was quite a lot of confusion on the Navy ship, and one of the sailors got hit in the head with a large block and tackle, which knocked off his feet. He went down on the deck; I mnever had a chance to find out if he was okay.
After we did the ship-to-ship transfer and delivered the sailor to Halifax, the weather got ugly. We stopped off at Placetia Harbour in Argentina, Newfoundland for refueling. And because of the weather, we were moored there for three days. The weather was so bad, even in harbor, that we snapped four-inch manila hemp mooring lines, they were replace with six-inch nylon lines. Eventually, the weather settled enough so we could head off into the teeth of the storm.
Ship in North Atlantic Storm
Our weather-ship station was a point between Greenland and Baffin Island in the Davis Strait. That was for the next three weeks to be our ocean station Bravo, a small spot 210 miles wide by 210 miles long. Since the storm raged out Greenland on a northeat track, we sailed and kept heading into the seaway until reahing our 210 mile limit. Then we came about and ran with wind for a few days. Luck was with us again; as aproached the westerly limit of our station, the storm quit.
The ship was our home, a small dot in a raging North Atlantic storm. I was part of a crew of forty-five seamen on a 311-foot ship in 10 to 60-foot seas with winds gusting to 50 miles an hour day after day. They called this duty ice patrol and a weather station; during that cruise we called it hell at 6000 fathoms. With luck our radar picked up the USCG Spencer, saling in similar conditions to above photo, just add snow and ice to get a better pictre of their plight. Luckily they were only a few miles away from the center of our ocean station.
The Spencer we relieved that had been sent up there in their place. The cutter out of Boston, was at 327-foot block of snow and ice by the time we got in sight of her. The smoke from her stack was an indication that they were running their engines full bore to keep up with the sea.
They lost four of their sixty-foot-long vertical mid-band whips and VHF antennas due to the heavy ice buildup, and the only way they could relieve themselves of their station and transfer duty to us was through a UHF radio transmitter that had antennas shaped like two beer cans mounted on the highest point of both ships' masts. Even that antenna was a little beat up but it worked. One cannot imagine how hard it was to hear someone talking over a UHF radio in those conditions. As they limped back home, we wondered what was in store for us. And, as an afterthought, save for the grace of God and possibly a monkey wrench, that would have been our ship and its December North Atlantic duty.
We took a pounding for about three more days until a storm blew itself out. As part of the electronics crew, we had plenty of work to keep that old Navy hand-me-down equipment operational. During that storm I was the only one sailor who was willing to go up the mast to repair a radio antenna. I safety belted my body harness at every available point, and when I got to the top it was like a different world up there. All I felt was the sway, a couple of hundred feet from side to side, rather than the bouncing that one feels on deck. Antenna repaired, I carefully worked my way down to the deck. Then, for the rest of the trip the weather was clear and cold with a flat sea. We tracked a few icebergs, launched weather balloons and communicated with airplanes overhead. We also helped our weather scientists make depth soundings.
Approaching New York Harbor, and seeing those two towers of the yet to be built Verrazano Narrows Bridge was a sight to remember; finally, we were home. The next trip to the North Atlantic in June of that year was a milk run, with flat seas all the way up and back. A few icebergs sighted. And, at that latitude with water temperatures at 35° F. in air temperature in the 40° F. range, any kind of warming would’ve been appreciated.
I rounded off that year on the Mackinac with two tours in Bermuda and on another sail we played war games and search and rescue with the Navy off the coast of Cuba. Then it was back to school again for another year. I had a choice betwean Jan Myen, Norway, and Rodos, Greece or adventures in Hawaii. Hawaii was my chouice. I finished off my four-year tour at the Coast Guard engineering station in Wildwood, New Jersey. When my commanding officer asked me in 1964, if I wanted to reenlist for another tour; I politely replied, "No sir, not with all the news coming over our secure communications system about Vietnam. I did my bit for God and country. Now, I was going to take the education the Coast Guard gave me, and make some real money in the electronics industry."
R. L. Lyons
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