The Calypso

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.”

Out of the Blue

Cape Knox New photoMid-air collisions of small private aircraft off the Atlantic Coast were not unusual summertime incidents. Most of them were small spotter planes, hired to locate large schools of Menhaden, then guide fishing boats to the catch. It was a competitive business in the lower Chesapeake Bay and off the coast of Virginia. It was all about fishing and big money.

I had just left the Cape Knox for home on a late summer afternoon. We were the Bravo-2 standby SAR vessel. As soon as I got home, Carol told me she just got off the phone with the District. We had been recalled. Two of the menhaden spotters had collided fifteen miles off the Virginia Capes a week ago with no survivors. The search had been called off three days ago. But, now someone reported flotsam in the vicinity; we were ordered to get underway and investigate.

I made it back to our Little Creek pier in half an hour. I could hear the quiet rumble of the Knox’s four Cummins engines from the end of the pier, and barely see a shimmering heat wave rising from the funnel. They were ready.
As soon as I stepped aboard the OOD reported, “Cap’n. The ‘312 is ready for sea.” I overheard mild grumbling from some of the crew about false alarms. Nothing plunges crew morale more than being forced to drop dinner, interrupting an already restricted family life for a false alarm. We had had our share of them lately. It was bad enough never knowing on any SAR call if you would be back in three hours or three days.
“Very well, let’s get underway. I turned to Chief Miller, my executive officer and said, “Take her out Chief.” A capable ship handler, he cleared the pier, spun the ship expertly to a northerly heading to enter Lynnhaven Inlet Channel that led into Chesapeake Bay. During the slow transit, I looked over the chart and planned the first leg. As we cleared the #2 Lynnhaven Inlet buoy, I ordered, “Come right to 090 degrees, increase speed to 12 knots.”
Had this not been a rescue mission, it could have been a relaxing summer cruise. Normal SAR missions, almost by definition, didn’t start with this kind of weather. The sky was clear blue, and the hot summer sun was made tolerable by the refreshing breeze created by our 12 knot speed. The prow split the long slow swells as we peacefully made our way in the flat calm sea. Everybody except the engine room gang was on deck, making preparations for the mission.
I looked up from the chart and said, “When Cape Henry Light is abeam, Chief, change course to 105 degrees. That will take us to the crash site.”
“Aye, sir. Course 105.”
“Barker, get this SITREP (situation report) out to the District. SITREP-One: Underway Cape Henry. ETA on scene one hour.” When Cape Henry Light came abeam, Chief Miller changed to the new course and I settled in for the smooth ride and started laying out possible search patterns on the chart.

BOOOOMMM!

“Damn, what was that?”
Heads spun toward the sound of the explosion—the sky—and we all knew what it was.
“Cap’n, that jet is in trouble,” the Chief said, as he pointed skyward to two Navy fighter planes heading out to sea. They were probably out of Naval Air Station, (NAS) Oceana. One was losing altitude fast. Suddenly his ejection seat exploded straight up, the powerless plane continued east toward an Atlantic splash down.

His parachute opened like magic. We watched the pilot descend beneath his white chute, framed against the blue sky, his yellow one-man raft, tethered to his ankle, bounced in the air beneath him. He was going to splashdown practically at our feet. Vacationing hundreds who lined the water’s edge at Virginia Beach watched all this unfold.
“Barker, take the helm.” I ordered, “Chief, get the district on the radio and let them know what’s happening. See if we can get Oceana on UHF.” I knew the CG District RCC did not have Ultra High Frequency voice radio, but we did. That could be a good thing. I didn’t need someone 15 miles inland second guessing me now. As the chief managed the radios, I glanced up to see the bailing pilot’s wing man circling. I was sure that he had already reported the incident to his home base.
Meanwhile, the chief struggled to handle two separate conversations, with RCC and Oceana, on two different microphones. He was trying to explain to RCC, that he was not talking about our flotsam search, but a new mission—a man was falling out of the sky! It was just too much. It was turning into an Abbot and Costello routine.
“Chief,” I said, “cut the district off, tell them we’re too busy right now and we’ll explain it all in a few minutes.”
He looked surprised, but breaking into a smile, he said, “CG District Five, this is 95312. You do not understand. We are ceasing all communications this frequency now, explanation will follow. 95312 Out!” He loved it, and so did I.
By now, the pilot had hit the water, deftly gotten into his tiny raft, taken his shoes off, and was swatting at flies as if he were enjoying a relaxing day at the beach. I lined up for the approach. The crew had a ladder over the side, ready to assist. The raft was only 200 yards dead ahead. The wing man made a low fly-by executing an impressive wing roll in salute and headed back to NAS Oceana.
We soon had the Navy rescue helicopter visually and were in direct radio contact. “Coast Guard ‘312, this is Navy Rescue,” the chopper pilot’s voice shook from the helo vibrations. “When you retrieve our man, we recommend you get underway at 5 knots. Clear your after-deck space and I’ll approach from the stern with a sling. Pick-up should be easy.”
“Roger Navy Rescue, I’ll head 270 degrees, 5 knots. ‘312 standing by.”

I met LTJG Joseph Walter, USN, as he scrambled onto the fantail, wet, but seemingly none the worse for wear. We shook hands. “You OK?” I asked.
“Just a little scratch on the chin, I think from a loose buckle when I ejected.”
“Great! What happened?”
“We had barely taken off and I had an explosion and engine flame out at 3000 ft. I tried several restarts, then ejected at 1800. Great to have you guys waiting for me, though.” He laughed.
The pulsating thump of the helo blades was getting closer, the approach looked good, the dangling rescue line moved over the fantail. The crew made sure the static line touched the deck first then moved to assist our new Navy friend into the rescue horse collar. Raising his arms to get the collar in place, he shouted over the noisy chopper, “Hey Captain, did you go to the Coast Guard Academy?”
“Yea, I did.”
“You don’t happen to know Charlie Millradt, do you?”
I couldn’t believe it! “Yeah, I do! Charlie graduated in ’55, two years ahead of me.”
“How about that! Charlie and I went to high school together in Milwaukee. I went to Annapolis, and he went to the Coast Guard Academy.” As Joe was being lifted off the deck, dangling like a puppet on a string he yelled, “If you talk to Charlie, tell him I said you Coast Guard guys are OK. Thanks, Cap’n.”
Fifteen minutes after his flame out over the Atlantic, LTJG Joseph Walter, USN was back in the NAS Oceana operations center having a cup of coffee. I turned to the Chief and said, “OK, Chief. Now, where were we when the Navy so rudely interrupted?”

Rescue of the Minnie V. Pt. 2

Cape Knox New photoWhen I ended my last blog post on the Minnie V Rescue, the Coast Guard Cutter Cape Knox CG95312 was trying to save a fisherman from the stormy waters of the Chesapeake Bay. Criss Wolcott, who couldn’t swim, was too scared to let go of the keg he clung to and grab the lines we had thrown right over his arms. He was drifting down the port side back into the dark sea. The Chief was right. He was never going to let go of that keg. I needed to make another pass. 

“Keep that light on him, Chief, and everyone pointing at him as we come about. If we lose him now— he’s done for.” The violent pitch as we knifed through the waves flooded the deck with a soaking spray. Continue reading “Rescue of the Minnie V. Pt. 2”

Rescue of the Minnie V. Pt. 1

His name was Criss Wolcott. I first met him at two o’clock in the morning on the storm tossed entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. He was in near freezing water, desperately hanging on to a small keg. His barge had sunk. He couldn’t swim. He thought he was going to die.

Criss Wolcott
Criss Wolcott

His name was Criss Wolcott. I first met him at two o’clock in the morning on the storm tossed entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. He was in near freezing water, desperately hanging on to a small keg. His barge had sunk. He couldn’t swim. He thought he was going to die.

The buzzer on the sound powered phone jarred me awake.

“Captain!” An automatic response. I was now fully alert.

The CG 95312 was my first command; I was twenty-four, the only officer assigned to the 95-foot patrol boat in Norfolk VA, a busy port with lots of Search and Rescue action.

“Captain, this is Barker on the bridge. The Cherokee has lost her tow! She’s about five miles northwest. Five men are in the water. I just changed course to head to her.”

My feet barely hit the deck when I heard the familiar start-up whine of the two Cummins V-12’s that roared to life just like the big rig truck engines that they were. Sitting on the side of my small bunk, I grabbed my pants. I stumbled as I threw on my shirt; the Bay had really kicked up since I had gone to bed. Continue reading “Rescue of the Minnie V. Pt. 1”