The Cape Knox, one of three 95 foot patrol boats that shared Harbor Entrance Patrols (HEP) was on station at the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. We were anchored in Lynnhaven Inlet. The bay was calm with long easy swells.
The operational rules during the Cold War in the late 1950’s required all commercial vessels bound for the U.S. to provide the Coast Guard Captain-of-the-Port (COTP) at least twenty-four hours advance notice of their arrival. The HEP vessel was one member of the Coast Guard team that conducted this mission in Norfolk. The others were a Coast guardsman at Cape Henry Light with long range binoculars, and a man aboard the pilot station where commercial vessels picked up a licensed pilot to navigate the Baltimore or Hampton Roads channels. For the most part, it was not difficult for the team to identify incoming shipping. Most patrols were routine. A notable exception—the day we “arrested” Jacques Cousteau.
Petty Officer Barker, my Quartermaster, was on the bridge making chart corrections, when the FM radio crackled alive.
“Coast Guard HEP, this is Cape Henry. We have one unidentified vessel approaching from the east: dark hull, white superstructure, with exposed deck machinery, approximately 150 feet long. She’s crossing just south of Kiptopeke at Cape Charles turning toward the Baltimore channel.” That meant she was about fifteen miles away and well outside the normal approach to Thimble Shoals Channel—too far to make a visual identification.
“Roger that,” Barker answered. “This is CG 95312 responding from Lynnhaven anchorage.” I heard him call away the anchor detail and I left the paperwork on my cabin desk and headed for the bridge. By the time I got there, the anchor was coming up, and the engines were ready to go.
“What do we have, Barker?” I asked.
“Unidentified, heading for Baltimore Channel, Captain. You can barely see her with binoculars because of the haze.”
If a ship did not take a pilot aboard and the weather prevented direct contact, she was classed as “unidentified.” With no ID we had to assume she was also unexpected.
“As soon as the anchor is up, set an intercept at two thirds speed for now.” Visibility was bad, but we had seen much worse. Chasing an unidentified ship in dense fog is not for the fainthearted. To intercept, you intentionally establish what is aptly known as a collision course.
It was a simple stern chase. She was plotting dead ahead making only seven or eight knots. I increased speed to full, and the Cape Knox responded, pitching slightly into the swells.
As we closed to binocular range, I could see that she indeed had a lot of topside deck equipment, several being small cranes. One of the larger cranes took nearly all the space on the open fantail. I finally made out the name, Calypso. A quick call to Group Norfolk confirmed that she was “unexpected.” I could see nobody on deck, and as I moved the binoculars to the yard arm on the single mast, a blue, white, and red vertical flag filled my binocular lens. Then it hit me, could this be? The Calypso? French Flag?
“OK guys, I think we’ve got something here. This might be Jacques Cousteau, the oceanographer,” I announced. We slowed to match the Calypso speed as we came along side, standing off about twenty yards. I grabbed the bullhorn.
“On the Calypso! This is the United States Coast Guard. You must stop your engines, slowly move out of the channel, and come to a complete stop. This is the United States Coast Guard.”
They responded immediately, and I moved out of the channel with them. As we both came to a dead stop and started drifting, a tall gangly man moved from the wheelhouse to the portside deck, which was at about the same level as our ship’s deck. Now only about twenty feet apart, I could see he was about fifty years old, and had a sharp angular face made leathery from years of outdoor exposure, set off by lightly tinted aviator sunglasses that rested atop his dominant nose. He had a generous amount of swept-back graying hair. I had no doubts now. “Captain Cousteau?” I ventured.
“Yes, Captain, I am Jacques-Yves Cousteau.”
“Sir, the Coast Guard did not receive advance notice of your intentions to enter U.S. waters. Our law requires 24 hours’ notice. I am sorry for the delay, but you may go no further until your agent has filed.”
“Thank you, Captain. My navigator suspected that may be the problem. This was a late decision to divert to Washington, DC, for a meeting with the National Geographic people. We neglected to file. I am sorry. We have already made the necessary contacts and the request should be processed soon.”
“Thank you Captain. You may remain adrift if you think it will not take long, or move a little further east of the channel and anchor. Either way, I must stay with you until you are cleared. Your choice, sir.” I had seen him enough on TV, that I was not surprised how easily he used English.
We stood on our main decks, chatting in a most casual way about some of the Calypso’s equipment and its use for oceanographic research. To my surprise, I discovered that she was built in Seattle, Washington, as a British yard minesweeper, decommissioned after the war in 1947, and refit for Cousteau as a research vessel in 1950.
My crew by now had joined me on the main deck and were taking in the conversation and living in the moment of meeting Cousteau in the middle of Chesapeake Bay. Captain Cousteau explained that the Calypso only made 10 knots, and carried a crew of 25.The cranes on the fantail were for moving diving bells, scientific equipment, as well as a small boat.
We received message traffic in less than an hour that cleared them to proceed to Washington, DC. I said goodbye, and my whole crew waved as he pulled back into the Baltimore Channel on his way to the Potomac River. So, maybe I didn’t “arrest” Jacques Causteau, but I “pulled him over.”
“Let’s head back to Lynnhaven Anchorage, Chief,” I ordered.
At the end of the day, back at anchorage, the setting sun was building a golden backdrop silhouetting the Norfolk and Newport News skyline. The diehard fishermen in the crew claimed their favorite spots on the deck and made a distant cast, hoping for the best, as they buzzed about the Calypso and Jacques Cousteau. Chief Miller and I, both with freshly-filled pipes, leaned against the after rail enjoying the evening and watching the crew. “Well, Captain, I think the troops had a good day today.”
“I think we all did, Chief. It’s not every day you get to ‘arrest’ Jacques Cousteau.”