|Ten sharks waited
for nine Coast Guardsmen,
ordered to jump into the churning sea
All Rights Reserved © June 2001 by CCCNews Net
| IN A BLUE WORLD of sea and sky the British freighter Wychwood churned a wake down the
middle of the Atlantic, 13 miles west of the island of Bermuda. Table-smooth water curled white as
her bow sliced southward, circling to avoid Hurricane Connie.
On a settee in the Officers Mess the Chief Steward waited to serve afternoon tea. Droning
engines encouraged him to doze until the settee shook and he bounced around like a doll in a box.
With her engines racing full ahead, the freighter ground to a halt.
"The Wychwood stranded on a coral reef at 3:17 p.m. on Thursday 11 August 1955," reported The Royal Gazette in
Hamilton, Bermuda. "After sliding onto the ledge," it quoted the Chief Steward, "our ship swung around on it. Captain
Thomas called all hands to emergency stations, and ordered the engines 'full astern.' Our propellers spun but the ship would
From an antenna high on her mast a message went out. Wychwood requested a tug to pull her from the reef and a
pilot to guide her into St. George's harbor for repairs.
In that harbor at the far end of Bermuda, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Rockaway gleamed white in the tropical sun. Water
sprayed in her showers as young men washed away the sweat of the workday and prepared to go ashore. Before they left,
however, the speakers blared. Liberty was restricted to the town of St. George, the Officer of the Deck announced, the
rest of the island was off limits. The Navy tugboat Papago, he explained, was racing to an emergency. If more help was
needed, the cutter's horn would blast and all hands were to return on the double.
As the sun neared the horizon the Papago arrived with Pilot Walter H. Darrell. It found the Wychwood sitting solidly on the
underwater reef with water seeping into her after holds.
Hours later, the Wychwood still sat on the reef and the captain concluded, if she wasn't freed soon, she would never
The horn of the Rockaway shattered the peace of the village and Coast Guardsmen came running through the dark
streets. Called back to work after less than four hours of rest, they rushed to their duty stations, still in street clothes. Not
one complaint was heard. When someone is in trouble at sea, they remembered their unofficial slogan: "you have to go out;
you don't have to come back."
Giant diesel engines roared to life and the Rockaway cast off its mooring lines to exit the harbor through the narrow
channel—so narrow a captain once remarked that it "was almost like threading a needle."
The first light of dawn dimmed the stars, as the Rockaway slowed its engines and crept to the stern of the Wychwood. The
arm of a boatswain's mate swung wide and a messenger line flew through the air, uncoiling till it landed on the stern of the
wounded ship. Her crew—exhausted from a night without sleep or food—hauled on the line until a duffel bag reached their
hands. Thumbs of the Englishmen jabbed high into the air to thank the American seamen for what they first needed most:
sandwiches and hot coffee.
Gulping this breakfast. they kept hauling until a 3-inch-thick towing line arrived at the end of the messenger line. It was
rapidly secured and her captain radioed that she was ready to be towed from the reef.
The Rockaway's engines groaned as the towline rose, dripping, from the watery gap between the ships and stretched as
tight as a guitar. All hands were ordered to clear the decks. The Wychwood also groaned and barely moved. The towline
exploded in the middle, whipped back and spanked the ocean on the opposite side of both ships with a force that could
cut a man in half.
|Cutter Rockaway on standby
in St. George's harbor, Bermuda
|Rockaway readies to get underway
|Rushing to the rescue
|Rockaway edges to stranded
|Preparing to tow from coral reef
| The Swirling Water Turned Red
Though no one heard explosive snaps, at four minutes to midnight the Rockaway radioed that both towing hausers
had parted ... "one tore through the chock and the bulkhead ... Papago is coming around to pass messengers to hook up a
tow again ... ask the captain if he can prepare an anchor chain for towing."
Five minutes after midnight Harris relayed the message, "It'll be an hour before the anchor chain will be ready." He
then noted in the log that "Wychwood is dead in the water and rocking like crazy."
At 0134 hours the Rockaway relayed another worry: "Hurricane Diane reported at 26.5 north and 60.5 west, moving our
way with winds up to 100 knots."
An hour later towing lines were in place again and the Wychwood was moving once more.
At dawn, however, the swirling water in the hold turned red. Thousands of bags of Barite (a powdery compound used for
drilling oil wells), were soaking open, turning the water to mud. Soon it could clog the pumps.
Taxi Blown into the Sea
By noon, 45-mile-an-hour winds forced Bermuda's Kindley Air Force Base to close its runways to all traffic, except
Hurricane Hunters. "Windows of nearly every store throughout Bermuda," The Royal Gazette reported, "were covered
and shuttered, expecting the worst."
"Do you men want relief?" the Rockaway radioed after a night of work. "Negative," Harris relayed, "We'll stay with
the ship. We'll walk off or swim off."
Saturday evening The Royal Gazette reported "waves were thundering upon the rocks and beaches, whipping the sea into
a white lather. A taxi," it added, "suddenly disappeared over an embankment leading to the sea, lifted by a sudden gust of
Knowing the Rockaway would be pulled onto the reefs flanking the narrow channel, its captain radioed for the tug
Bermudian—shallow enough to float over the reefs—to come out and take over the guiding position on the stern of the
As the Bermudian came out, however, the heavy seas crashed over her bow and put her lower deck awash. She
radioed that the seas were too rough for her small size and returned to port.
In sight of success, but unable to enter the harbor, the two ships were advised that Hurricane Diane was "likely to strike
within two hours." The captain of the Wychwood dropped both anchors and ordered his crew into the lifeboats.
As 28 crewmen of the Wychwood rowed to the Rockaway and the first boat passed her bow, the sea chose that
moment to toss it upward into the cutter's starboard anchor. Exploding into splinters, jagged boards and screaming men
flew out into the sea.
Quickly the Rockaway's deck force unfurled a cargo net and the Englishmen scrambled up. Miraculously, no life was
lost, but the money and the papers of the Wychwood were.
On the Wychwood 17 men remained—the captain, the chief officer, the chief steward and 14 Coast Guardsmen—
without a lifeboat. "Rockaway," Harris called into the Handie Talkie, "This is Driftwood. What do you want us to do?"
|Coast Guardsmen line the rail to abandon ship as
sharks wait below
|Shark caught by the
|Sharks follow boat to rescue 9 Coast
Guardsmen bobbing in 20-foot swells
| On board the Rockaway, when all nine were safe, everyone shook their heads in disbelief: the men were there,
barefoot and bleeding ... the sharks were there ... what kept them from attacking? ... constant kicking? ... throbbing
engines? ... ships as big as killer whales? All anyone knew for sure was that it tortured their captain. He wanted no more of
his men in the water. The boat was ordered hoisted and cradled.
"Eight of us are still over here," said a voice on the Handie Talkie. "It's getting dark fast. How do we get off?"
The Master, his Chief Officer and the Chief Steward climbed up to the stern to escape the well deck, now constantly
awash. The Coast Guardsmen—Officers Holmes and Statlander, Chief Wingard, Radarman Frank Carlsson and Nelson, a
Navy man from the Papago—joined them near the small dinghy, the only boat left.
Too small to hold them all, the captain wanted to use it to ferry 2 or 3 at a time to a bigger boat, if one ever came.
Block pulleys creaked as they lowered the dinghy from its cradle with Frank Carlsson inside. Halfway down, a wave
spanked the dinghy and the bowline looped upward and fouled in the block. Hopelessly jammed, the dinghy could not be
raised or lowered further. It had been their last hope. The Wychwood now had no boats or rafts.
Furrows in the face of Captain Smenton disappeared when Kindley Air Force Base radioed an answer to his request.
Its heavy-weather, high-speed, high-powered crash boat, designed for rescuing flyers from crash scenes at sea, was on the
As it split waves and sprayed a huge white "V" racing to the Wychwood, the waiting Coast Guardsmen tied knots at
intervals in a towing line. Dangling the line from the overhang of the stern, they hoped to climb down or swing to the deck
of the crash boat.
Unable to swing far enough Nelson forgot about sharks, dropped and swam to the crash boat where he was fished
out. Officers Holmes and Stadtlander went next, followed by Chief Wingard, who almost walked on water. Carlsson, the
last Coast Guardsman off, however, saw the Captain of the Wychwood take a pill he suspected may be for a heart
condition. When he relayed his concern to the skipper of the crash boat, the Air Force Sergeant decided not to risk a heart
attack. He would take his boat to the captain.
Using all the speed and power at his fingertips, he stabbed the bow of his crash boat under the overhang of the rising
stern of the Wychwood. His bullhorn told the Englishmen to jump directly down to his bow. The Chief Officer and the
Chief Steward jumped, injuring a toe and an ankle.
But Captain Thomas had not jumped. Everyone held his breath. The sergeant had been uncommonly lucky to stick his
boat in the mouth of the monster and get away with it. To do it twice would defy all odds.
The stern of the Wychwood rose and opened a gap again. The engine of the crash boat roared. The bow stabbed in.
"Jump," they yelled, "Jump, Captain, jump." The stern of the Wychwood descended to close the jaw. The crash boat
jerked full astern. In the tradition of the sea, the last to leave a sinking ship, the captain had finally jumped.
As the crash boat escaped and turned for shore, the crew on the Rockaway burst into applause.
Mother Nature, however, had the last word and it was most ironic. As the Rockaway headed for open seas to ride out the
storm, Hurricane Diane turned away from Bermuda, passing 300 miles to the south.
Spared by the storm, the Wychwood was still afloat at 9 o'clock Sunday morning. Shortly after eleven, however, her
stern slowly settled and disappeared into the sea. "For several minutes," The Royal Gazette reported, "her bow buoyant
with trapped air, she remained above the waves. There seemed to be a slight explosion as the air burst the forward hatch,
and then the bow sank."
Hearing the news after waking from his first sleep in 54 hours, Captain Aaron Thomas told The Royal Gazette, "The
American boys and the ship's crew did all in their power to save the ship. I have nothing but praise for their efforts."
To this very day, travelers sailing into St. George's harbor wonder why a cross in the water does not bob up and down like
the buoy nearby. They do not know the men that know the answer ... that it's more than a symbol of uncommon courage ...
that it marks a watery grave ... that the cross itself is the top of the mast of the Wychwood.
When Frank Carlsson returned to the Rockaway on Monday, he told his shipmates that the Commanding Officer of
the base had reprimanded the skipper of the crash boat for scratching its brand new paint. Outraged, the Coast
Guardsmen rushed to rescue the sergeant. He rates a medal not a reprimand, they said. Their captain agreed and carried
their protest to the CO of the base. In a meeting behind closed doors the sergeant became a hero.
|Pulled from circling sharks, nine return
|Hurricane Diane threatens as British freighter
|Pagago tows as Wychwood pumps and
Rockaway guides to correct for jammed