The Last Cruise Of The YP-438


As if to signal our departure the skies opened up and rain came down like Niagara Falls, blotting out the lights on the shore in an instant. As we moved out from the lee of the land, the full force of the gale hit the YP with a series of violent shudders that made both me and my motor mac pray very hard that the engine would hold, at least until we cleared the land. There would be little chance for anyone to survive in the mountainous surf that would be breaking off Race Point.

My plan was to head out to sea during the early part of the night and then run toward the mainland with the sea on our quarter. By taking the worst of it early, perhaps the YP could survive even if the engine failed and we had to drift.

By now the waves were breaking over the bow with such force that the rest of the crew could not come on deck to relieve the watch. In the wheelhouse there was the signalman, the boatswain, the shakedown officer, and myself. We worked the wheel in ten-minute shifts; it took enormous physical effort to hold the ship to her course, and no one had the strength to keep the helm for longer than ten minutes. My cabin, which was also the chart room, was a mess: books, drawers, equipment, were all sloshing around the deck. Fortunately the navigating problem was simple.

In the blackness, the only sound besides the wind and the waves was the incessant talk on the voice radio. The whole sea around Cape Cod seemed to be filled with small boats in trouble—one had lost a rudder, another was sinking, a third had engine failure, a fourth was about to pile up on the beach near Barnstable. Their cries for help were as terrifying as the storm around us. I became violently seasick.

As the hours wore on, I acquired a little more confidence in the engine, but I didn’t dare admit it to myself, lest the very thought bring bad luck. I figured a DR (dead reckoning) position and decided to make the turn to the reverse course around 11:00 P.M. If my assumed speed of three knots against the storm was correct, I could not possibly run aground if the engine quit. But I had no idea if we actually were making three knots good over the bottom. We had an hour to go before the turn, during which period I threw up four times more. The storm had reached hurricane force, and we couldn’t tell what was ocean and what was sky. The sheets of rain mixed with the spume from the waves till the whole world seemed to be nothing more than a solid curtain of water.

At eleven I decided to wait another half-hour just in case my DR was wrong. In the meantime I threw up a couple of times more. I had no idea how the YP would ride in a following sea, but for most ships a following sea is very dangerous. At eleven-thirty we commenced the turn. After a few dreadful rolls that filled me with genuine terror, we came about and headed in a westerly direction with the sea on the port quarter. Then, God bless her, the YP rode beautifully. She tore through the water; the pounding and shaking was gone, and since we were riding with the wind, the force of the storm seemed less. She was going so fast that I felt more like a witch on a broomstick than a sailor. The rain let up slightly, and for the first time we could tell what was ocean and what was sky, and we could see the great waves rushing ahead of the ship to clear a path.

At one-thirty the sky almost cleared for a moment, and we saw, very faintly, an aircraft beacon. Then the weather closed in again.

The beacon was probably from around Salem or Beverley on the North Shore of Boston and was disturbing since there was no way to estimate how far off shore we were. I didn’t think we were close, but I didn’t want to take the chance. I ordered a turn back into the storm, and again the terrible pounding made me sick immediately. In fact, I had been seasick every ten or fifteen minutes and had stopped counting after the fourteenth time. But the light did finally come and showed us a distant shore to the south. No landmarks were visible, and it was not until noon that I got an accurate fix that placed us about two hours away from the harbor entrance.

In the meantime the engine room reported that the engine would not be able to start again if it stopped. (It’s not like an automobile: if you want to back down, you have to stop a ship’s engine and then start it in reverse.) Hansen came up to explain. The change in him was startling. He was not merely haggard from his long stretch in the engine room; he looked like a child who had just been hit by a stranger in the street.

I sent one message to the section base requesting docking assistance and another to the Harbor Entrance Control Post asking them to let us through as promptly as possible.