The Last Cruise Of The YP-438


At the yard, I met with the repair officer who turned out to be wonderfully efficient and helpful. There was no need to go looking for the man. He was it.

He told me that it would be several weeks before we could get into dry dock, and that we would be going in with a British cruiser. We would probably be there a long time, much longer than we needed, because of the time it would take to repair the cruiser. I called my wife and told her to come down as soon as she could get a train ticket. We got a room at the Bruton Inn annex, a most charming spot. There was no heat, but a man would come in every morning and light the coal in the fireplace. The lower part of Charleston is as fascinating as any city in America, and the officers’ club was one of the better ones.

The yard workmen were as nice as they come. Even after a job was completed, they would drop over to the YP to see how things were going with us, and some of them even lent a hand on their own time if there was need. The engine was overhauled and repaired. Finally the British cruiser arrived, and we followed her into the dry dock.

During our lengthy stay all kinds of things had happened in the world; shoes were rationed in the United States, Gandhi went on a three-week fast, Germany lost the Battle of Stalingrad, the Japanese abandoned Guadalcanal. All this before we even got out of dry dock.

The YP failed her trials in the stream, and it was another five days before we could leave. I received a copy of a mysterious invoice in which a box of airplane parts was being sent—not for transshipment but for us.

A fairly heavy swell was running the day we left Charleston, but otherwise the weather was good. Going down the Cooper River, everything worked nicely until a destroyer passed us heading upstream for the Navy yard. Her wake caused a butterfly nut on the fuel line to break. The engine stopped. Then and there I wanted to turn back. But after the nut was replaced, the YP behaved well enough—we only had one short breakdown during the day—and we put in at Savannah late that night. The next evening we anchored at St. John, and the following afternoon, in the vast wreck area south of Cape Canaveral, we began to have bad engine trouble again. Cylinders Nos. 2 and 5 were not functioning. Zimmerman said he could get them going, but he didn’t know for how long. The nearest base was at Banana River, but that would mean going against a cross-sea, so I decided to head for Port Everglades, the port for Fort Lauderdale.

The engine took a long time to repair, and when we finally did get going, it sounded terrible. By midafternoon, just as we drew abeam of Palm Beach, we had another breakdown. Zimmerman came to the bridge after fifteen minutes.

“I’m sorry, sir, I can’t fix it.”

There was nothing left to do but call the Fort Everglades section base for a tow. Our tug hove into sight just as it was getting dark. It turned out to be a sixty-foot yacht of not more than 70 tons. Since the YP was 120 tons, we would be a long time towing.

The captain yelled through a megaphone: “Do you have a towline? We don’t have one.”

An auspicious start. I called back that we would pass over our anchor cable.

Then he yelled, “This is my first trip on this ship, so bear with us.” The luck of the YP-438 had returned in force. When we passed the cable to his ship, I could see that the crew was as green as the captain. They made us look like a bunch of veterans. But after considerable heaving and backing and filling, we finally got started. I knew nothing about a proper tow, but I had had plenty of time before the arrival of the yacht to read up on it as much as I could. I slowly payed out the cable until we towed easily two wave lengths behind. But the other ship was so light and had so little power that progress was slow: when the tide turned against us and was running full, we actually went backwards.

The tide slackened after midnight, however, and we made some headway; an hour or so before daylight we reached our destination. Port Everglades is an artificial harbor with a submerged breakwater extending out on the north side of the entrance. Just as we were to enter, a tug with a sugar barge stood out against the gate signals. The captain of our tow thought we would collide and, to my horror and consternation, started to circle. We would pass over the submerged breakwater, twelve feet underwater. He would make it easily, but we drew over fourteen feet at the stern. We couldn’t anchor; he was towing us with our anchor cable. We couldn’t cut the cable because then we would surely drift onto the breakwater. Our only chance would be if his turning circle were tight enough. While we signaled frantically at the yacht, I had O’Brien slack off on the cable. At least we wouldn’t hit quite as hard. By the time the captain got the idea and tried to turn more sharply, it was too late. We were solidly on the rocks. We signaled for help, and the yacht tried to pull us off. She couldn’t move us. The tide was about to drop, and if we didn’t get off in about fifteen minutes, we wouldn’t get off at all.