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. The ship I was attaché to was a 311-foot World War II seaplane tender called 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 and plenty of 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, one of the ship’s engines blew up. The ship had four massive diesel engines, but traveling in such a dangerous waters, all four engines were required to keep up with the sea and the wind. There was a rumor floating around the docks, that somebody put a wrench in it, but that was never proven.
USCGC Mackinac (WAVP-371) ca. 1960.
In any case, I got the December Christmas holidays off, and spent it 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 all in her repainted blazing-white Coast Guard splendor. This was before a red rescue stripe was added on the bow. We didn’t use the decorative red slash in those days; that 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. It 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 knocked off his feet. He went down on the deck; never had the 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 Argentina, Newfoundland for refueling, and because of the weather, we were stuck 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, which came right out of Greenland. Our weather-ship station was a point between Greenland and Baffin Island in the Davis Strait that was to be our base location, a small spot 210 miles wide by 210 miles long, for the next three weeks.
Ship in North Atlantic Storm
In reality, the ship was our home, a small dot in a raging North Atlantic storm. They called this duty ice patrol and weather station; luckily, our radar picked up the USCG Spencer a few miles away from the center of our station. 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 after day.
The Coast Guard ship we relieved that had been sent up there in our place, the Spencer 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 most of their long 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 at the highest point of the ship’s mast. Even that antenna was a little beat up but it worked. One cannot imagine how hard it was to hear someone talking over that 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 sails to 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, and an adventures in Hawaii. 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 figured 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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