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Saving Connie F

In 1979, my wife Carole and I bought a house on Fort Street in Fairhaven Massachusetts. Two years later, Charlie, who I had known since childhood, bought 26 Fort Street three houses south of us. On occasion, I would help Charlie on his salvage tug Jaguar with docking jobs and even one small salvage operation on Red Ledge in Woods Hole. Charlie Mitchell had a hunger to become a tug boat captain after he finished his hitch in the Navy and read Farley Mowat’s excellent book The Grey Seas Under. Charlie cut his teeth in the tugboat business working for Sanchez Towing Company in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and then he bought, restored, and worked his first tug, Fort Phoenix.

After some interesting adventures with that old boat, Charlie’s next “mount” was the tug Jaguar. She was built of steel in 1978 and was gradually fitted out over the years as Charlie’s funds allowed. Jaguar was powered by two 671 GM diesels, her twin-screw power, and Charlie’s uncanny helmsmanship often elicited remarks that Jaguarprobably sported a bow thruster.

In February of 1982 Carole took our baby girl Julie to visit family in Oregon, and I was at home. Charlie and his now-wife Janine invited me to a lamb dinner at their house on a blustery cold Sunday. In stark contrast to the chilly weather conditions, I was warmly welcomed by my hosts and dinner was nearly ready as the VHF radio in the sunroom crackled with conversations between fishboats out on Buzzards Bay and their counterparts safely tied up in the harbor. Charlie’s towing and salvage profession required him to keep his ear to the radio to be sure he didn’t miss any potential opportunities.

THE ‘CASE’

After dinner, over coffee, the wind increased and the night took on an increasingly malevolent quality as we sat in Charlie’s sunroom listening to a developing “case,” as they’re called, of a fishboat named Connie F. She’d been homeward bound to New Bedford from Quick’s Hole when her crew discovered rising water in the fo’c’sle andengine room. She was an older 65-foot eastern rigged trawler and had been pounding into a head sea for many hours during her return from George’s Bank. It appeared that she’d opened some seams below the waterline from the punishment and she was shipping water. Interestingly, the Connie F was the first job Charlie had with old Fort Phoenix having towed her home once—he had a soft spot for her. Times were tough for the old, wooden “eastern rig,” and on this bitter, windswept night in February, the piper would be paid—the Connie F was going down.

The Coast Guard had dispatched a 44-foot motor lifeboat from Woods Hole to provide bilge pumps to Connie Fto try and stem her flooding. The 44 was deployed because the conditions in the middle of Buzzards Bay that night were too extreme for their 41-foot utility boats. As we monitored the “on-scene” events on the VHF, it became apparent that the situation was getting worse. The coms between CG Group Woods Hole and Connie Ftook on a more urgent character, indicating an unraveling of the situation. The flooding was increasing as she settled and the crew couldn’t keep the CG pumps working, because they were continually clogging and shutting down. Charlie commented that the CG pumps had no screens on the pump hose intake, so they clogged with the debris that normally resides in the bilge of an old fishboat like Connie F.

Charlie picked up the microphone of his sunroom VHF and broke into the conversation between the CG andConnie F:

“Break, break, Connie F, Tug Jaguar. Connie F, Tug Jaguar, come back”

Tug Jaguar, Connie F, over.”

“Yeah, Skip (Captain’s name) what’s the situation?”

“Well, Charlie, doesn’t look good. [There’s a] lot [of] water up forward, and in the engine room, pumps are, uh, Coast Guard pumps are   clogged. We’ve got one workin’, but the water’s still makin’ up pretty good, over.”

“Okay Skip, we’re headed down to the boat—should be out there in 45 minutes, can you hold on?”

There was a long pause on the other end of the microphone,

“Yeah Charlie, I think we can hold on ’til then, but I don’t have any money and I’m not sure the insurance will cover ya.”

Charlie then keyed in the mic: “Yeah Skip, but you want to save the boat, don’t you?”

“Yeah Charlie, I want to save the boat.”

“Okay, then, we’ll be out there in 40 [minutes]. No, make that 30 minutes.”

Skip closed with “Thanks Charlie, much appreciated.”

JOINING IN

Charlie looked at me and asked, “Are you in?” I replied immediately “Are you kidding, of course I’m in.” After calling his mate, Dick Searle, Charlie and I bundled up and jumped into his car making the short ride down the street to Fairhaven Shipyard. Dick was already onboard firing up the engines. As he boarded, Charlie yelled to me to stand by for castoff. I stood on the dock shivering slightly from the freezing wind chill and adrenaline. Finally, Charlie lowered his window in the wheelhouse and motioned me to clear the bowline and make ready the stern line. The dock was quite slick with ice as I jumped about clearing lines. With the lines thrown aboard, I moved quickly and boarded Jaguar. Once free of the dock, Charlie quickly shifted Jaguar into reverse and we backed down from the dock, and then out into the night.

The wind was up to 30 knots in the harbor and the temperature dropped into the single digits. As we turned to port and headed for the dike, I entered the deckhouse, closed and dogged the door, and climbed up the ladder to the wheelhouse from the cramped, but efficient galley. Dick had emerged from the engine room and joined Charlie who was in a whirlwind of activity talking almost simultaneously on two VHF radios, while poking buttons on the Loran system and peering into the radar hood. The lights of New Bedford penetrated into the otherwise dark wheelhouse through the large rectangular windows. The visibility of the waterscape was excellent from 10 feet above the harbor. Red and green lights glowed from the various navigation and communication devices peppering the wheelhouse, but to maintain good night vision, that was the only interior lighting. The big diesels rumbled to life below deck as Charlie increased our speed as we headed through the gates of the hurricane dike and then out into the bay. I hadn’t met Dick before, so after a hasty introduction, he and I sat back quietly listening to the radio chatter and awaiting instructions. The two electric heaters on either side of the wheelhouse fought valiantly to warm the place, but on this night it was a feeble effort. Even with the heaters set on high, it was only around 45 degrees in the wheelhouse.

By the time we cleared Butler’s Flat lighthouse, Charlie had sufficient information from his radio conversations to formulate a plan. He instructed Dick and me to ready two 3-inch pumps for transfer over to Connie F once we arrived on scene. He also instructed us to retrieve the pump screens from the lazarette and fit them to the intake hoses on each pump to prevent clogging. We were then told to come back up for final instructions after locating and readying the equipment. We proceeded down to the engine room, where the noise was nearly intolerable, but the temperature was a balmy 75 degrees. We found the pumps, hoses, and screens, ready for transfer and headed back to the wheelhouse.

THE PLAN

We were approaching the casualty south of Brooklyn Rock, about halfway across the bay. The breaking seas were running around 7 feet at that point and Jaguar was rolling 25 degrees. When we came back into the wheelhouse, Charlie was still in conference with the CG and the captain of Connie F. After several minutes, he turned to us and explained the game plan. He would pull Jaguar up on the leeward side of Connie F and hold there while we transferred the pumps, and then he would stand off a bit while we got the pumps running and began pumping the boat out.

THE RESCUE

Although Connie F was sinking, her main engine and generator were still above water, so she still had electricity as she made painfully slow progress toward New Bedford.  Charlie pulled Jaguar up to Connie F and kissed her starboard aft bulwark—a textbook example of proper ship handling under very difficult circumstances. I boarded the fishboat behind the wheelhouse and Dick began handing equipment over to me. Jaguar has around 3 feet of freeboard at her stern, so I was amazed as I stepped down about a foot to get aboard the Connie F—she was definitely sinking.

Other than the crew of four, Connie F now had two CG personnel and two Jaguar personnel onboard fighting against the elements. Dick quickly set up one intake hose in the engine room and placed the pump on the rail. He told me to hold it there so that the output would flow over the side. He and the engineer started the pump, and then Dick moved forward with the second one to begin working on the flooded fo’c’sle. The 5hp engine of the pump roared away as water blasted out over the side at an amazing rate. I held onto the pump with two hands, one of which was situated near the engine spark plug. The pump and frame weighed about 40 lb., but most of the weight was borne by the rail. Over the next hour, the pump worked frantically, and on occasion, when the boat rolled, my hand would touch the spark plug providing me with one hell of a jolt. I was in the middle of the “fog of war” existing in my little world of bilge pump—wet feet, cold air and noise, not knowing if we were winning or losing this little battle against the sea. Occasionally, Jaguar would circle by and I could make out Charlie’s silhouette in the wheelhouse with the radio microphone in his hand. It was comforting to know that salvation was not far away should the situation become desperate. Eventually, I began to notice that the sea was a bit further down the side of the boat from where it had been when I first boarded.

After an hour or so, the engineer emerged from the engine room to tell me to kill the pump, because the water was under control. I complied, placed the pump on deck, and headed forward to the fo’c’sle. There I found Dick and the mate working away in the bilge—they were still pumping water. Dick finally emerged and motioned for me to follow him aft. We entered the old, cluttered wheelhouse to find the captain talking to Charlie on the VHF. He reported that the flooding had been stemmed and they would proceed to Pier 3 under their own power. Charlie confirmed the transmission and said he’d stand by until Connie F reached the dock—the 44 stood by as well. Dick and I lingered in the wheelhouse chatting with the captain who was very appreciative of our efforts. I noticed there was a small forced hot water radiator on the back wall that was feebly pumping out a bit of heat and ambled over toward it. We steamed along slowly at about 4 knots as the wind continued to whistle, but the seas moderated as we came under the lee of the New Bedford shoreline. We transited the gates of the hurricane dike, headed up the harbor, and finally tied up at the Fisherman’s Cooperative dock.

A HAPPY FEELING

It was around midnight as we tied up and there were a dozen people standing dockside—mostly families and friends of the Connie F crew. Once she was secure, an emotional celebration erupted. As the crew climbed up on the dock, they were met with hugs and kisses and an outpouring of affection. It hit me that these guys had been in real trouble and their families were extremely worried about them.  In the frenetic activity of the event, I didn’t think much about the danger we had all been in. The emotional reunion made me realize I had played a small part in a rescue. This gave me a momentary warm feeling—it was nice knowing that I had a positive effect on a stranger’s life.  I didn’t dwell on it or mention it, and I also didn’t feel that I had done anything special, but it certainly was a nice feeling. After that, I could better understand why Coast Guardsmen, policemen, and firemen (I find the generic media term “first responders” to be impersonal) are so passionate about their profession.

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