I don’t know what it is, but something about the sea fascinates me, and has for most of my life. Maybe it’s because the sea has played various roles in my family history – some big and some small. Maybe it’s because ships captured my imagination as a little boy the way trucks or cars or airplanes do for most young boys. For years as a kid, my favorite “souvenir” I would get from my trips to the Cape or Martha’s Vineyard was one of those little wooden ships, usually a fishing boat of some kind, that you find in local shops. And I have been reading books about New England maritime history for years.
It’s a story from my parents’ childhood, about a terrible night in February, 1952. One of those terrible Nor’Easters that New England is so famous for had blown up into a hell of a storm, and the Coast Guard had its hands full trying to rescue everyone.
Hard to believe but two big tankers – sister ships, of the same model – both broke in half in the same storm within some 30 miles of each other. How anyone managed to survive is a testament to the skill and courage of the crews of the two ships as well as the Coast Guardsmen who went out to save them.
But the story doesn’t end there.
You see, those (in)famous T2 tankers continued to sail, for another 30 odd years, losing more ships along the way, notably the Marine Sulphur Queen, a ship frequently described as being a victim of the Bermuda Triangle, but in reality almost certainly suffered from the same defects as the other ships in her class.
The event that finally got people to pay attention happened during my own childhood. About 31 years later, almost to the day, after that terrible night in 1952, the Marine Electric, another ship from this ill-fated class that had been converted to a coal carrier, was making its way from Norfolk, Virginia to my grandparents’ home town of Somerset, Massachusetts. Specifically, the ship was taking nearly 25,000 tons of coal to the power plant at Brayton Point, a power plant in view of my grandparents’ farm there on Lee’s River Avenue.
It was this particular disaster that precipitated a host of changes in contemporary ships: a revision of maritime safety procedures; the retiring and scrapping of dozens of creaky old ships from the World War II era; and the creation of the Coast Guard’s rescue swimmer program. I don’t remember the shipwreck nearly as much as I remember what it brought about.