|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.
|Cutter Rockaway on standby
in St. George's harbor, Bermuda
| 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
|Rockaway readies to get underway
| 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
|Rushing to the rescue
|Rockaway edges to stranded
| They tried again. They lost
|Preparing to tow from coral reef
| At such slow speed, they soon concluded, they would not reach port
until tomorrow afternoon. To keep the Wychwood afloat until then, the
captains agreed, she'd need a crew that was not walking around in its
sleep, more pumps, and a lot of prayers that Hurricane Diane—heading
directly for Bermuda—would not arrive before then.
A salvage crew arrived when a motor launch from the Rockaway
plowed alongside the sinking freighter and 12 Coast Guardsmen climbed
a Jacob's Ladder to the well deck of the Wychwood. Their young eyes
popped at seeing so much water swirling in the cargo hold. Swiftly they
hoisted portable pumps aboard and listened intently to briefings from the
Gasoline pumps sputtered to life and more streams of water shot from
the hold back out to the sea. As one Coast Guard officer supervised and
the other conferred with the captain, two enlisted men followed an escort
to the Wireless Room.
|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 wind."
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
|Coast Guardsmen line the rail to abandon ship as
sharks wait below
| "Be careful," a voice from the radio added, "three sharks are following the boat coming to get
you." [Seaman Bill Madigan later reported this number was low. From high above on the flying
bridge he had counted ten.] But Harris had already passed the Handie Talkie to someone else.
As the senior man in the group, Harris watched the ocean swell up to touch their bare feet, then
fall away into a chasm 2-stories deep. "Wait for my signal," he yelled to the others. On the cutter
their buddies also waited, with their hearts in their throats, painfully watching shipmates preparing
to jump into shark infested water.
"Now," Harris shouted, as the swell rose to meet them, "go, go, go." His voice turned into
bubbles as he plunged into the sea. "Grab a hand," he shouted when his head popped up into air.
The nine men formed a floating ring, so not to drift apart and never be found.
But the swells rose faster than lifejackets could lift them. They needed their hands to constantly
swim upward. The circle broke.
|Shark caught by the
| "I'm bleeding," teenager Walter Nausley called out. Knowing
blood attracts sharks and snaps them into a feeding frenzy, Harris
shouted back, "You're first into the boat."
As that boat from their cutter plowed at them, from a rubber raft
alongside, 19-year-old Frank Lauri dipped his arm into the sea and
grabbed the first of his shipmates. A soaking man rose from the
water and rolled into the raft.
One by one the soggy men were pulled onto the raft and climbed
into the boat till only two were left. As they passed upwind of
Harris, Lauri grabbed his lifejacket and pulled. The wind, however,
blew the boat and raft over Harris. As tall as Lincoln and John
Wayne at six foot four, Harris had bent like a horseshoe. His bare
feet touched the boat from the under side of the raft. He desperately
kicked to swim backwards. As the soggy lifejacket
|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
|Pulled from circling sharks, nine return
| 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.
|Hurricane Diane threatens as British freighter
|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.
| 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 make harbor.
|Pagago tows as Wychwood pumps and
Rockaway guides to correct for jammed
| 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