“Our problem is: we don’t know exactly what our situation is.”[i]
Captain Phillip Corl, master of the S.S. Marine Electric, radioed this message to the Coast Guard shortly before the doomed shipped capsized 30 miles off the coast of Virginia in 1983.
After weeks of sheltering at home, being disorientated, feeling isolated, and fearing for the future, I’ve been thinking about the story of the Marine Electric and the survival of its first mate, Robert Cusick, one of three crewmembers who lived among the 34 total crew on board during the early morning hours of February 12, 1983 when a gale overcame their vessel. As strange and at times awful as our situation is, and as many lives are being affected around the world, we can learn from stories of survival and heroism like the crew of the Marine Electric demonstrated 37 years ago.
In 1983, Bob Cusick was a merchant mariner with 30 years’ experience at sea and first mate aboard the Marine Electric, a World War II T-2 tanker converted into a bulk carrier by grafting an elongated center section to the hull in 1961, making it 610 feet overall. In February of that year, the tired vessel was scheduled for what was supposed to be an easy run from Virginia to Massachusetts delivering coal for steam plants. While Cusick and other crew member had reservations about the state of their ship, a routine trip up the coast, never more than 30 miles from shore seemed relatively safe and always within Coast Guard helicopter range. The Marine Electric had a multitude of maintenance issues, including epoxied rust holes on the deck and deteriorating hatch covers. Such defects were noted and reported by Cusick and others to the ship’s owners and official inspectors but were ignored, deferred, or otherwise left unaddressed. Despite her overall tired condition, she was deemed seaworthy, good enough for a short run to Massachusetts.
Cusick and the other men set off around 11:00 p.m. on the night of February 10, 1983. While there was bad weather predicted, the crew had seen such weather routinely and the Marine Electric had taken poundings before.
One of the many notable things about Cusick, in addition to his professionalism, was his sense of leadership. As many years as he had been at sea, beginning at the age of 18 during World War II and working his way from ordinary seamen to second in command, he could have been a captain, having earned his master’s license. Cusick chose to remain a first mate, however, for the flexibility and quality of life he had as the number two man in charge. He served as a bridge to all classes of seafarers, from the lowliest seaman, wipers, and up through the ranks of deck officers. He got along with everyone and made sure the crew did its job. He knew his role, he was good at it, and he was not in it for accolades or prestige.
Another notable aspect of the Marine Electric story comes from the captain’s and crew’s unflinching sense of duty. But for that sense of duty and loyalty to their fellow mariners, the story may have turned out differently. Shortly after port and heading north up the east coast, a distress call came in from a 65-foot fishing vessel, Theodora, caught in the 30-foot seas. Theodora was taking on water, its pumps unable to keep up with the waves pouring water over the deck. Despite being in the opposite direction and requiring Marine Electric to divert course, there was never a question about coming to her aid. This required the ship, the length of two football fields, to turn broadside to the waves in a Force 10 gale and head south toward peril. Around 3:00 p.m. on the afternoon of February 11, the Marine Electric turned south.
After responding to the Theodora, which required standing by for hours in pounding seas while the Coast Guard air dropped auxiliary pumps the captain and crew of the Marine Electric then turned back across the waves and returned north.
Within a few hours, the situation turned grave. During the early morning hours, the watch crew on the bridge began to suspect that the bow of the ship was reacting sluggishly, not bobbing back up to the surface as it plowed through the 40-foot seas. Cusick, the longest serving veteran on the ship, was called to the bridge, immediately saw that the situation was severe, that the bow was “settling by the head” as the term goes.
If the ship were sinking, could it be saved? At what point is abandoning the huge ship for the open sea safer than remaining on board? As the situation grew worse, the ship taking on more water over the hatches, preparations to abandon ship had to be made. This meant preparing open lifeboats in crashing waves. It also meant the crew had no immersion suits, not being mandated at the time.
As the crew was gathering to prepare to abandon ship, but before lifeboats were ready, the Marine Electric abruptly rolled over around 3:00 a.m. the morning of February 12, throwing anyone on deck into the 39 degree ocean, with a 29 degree air temperature (estimated to feel like -15 degrees). Cusick was pulled under, to the point where couldn’t see light from the bridge under water. He swam up and away as fast as he could, surfacing within grasp of a stray oar. He stayed with the oar until he spotted a portion of a fractured lifeboat some distance away. Swimming through frigid seawater and riding 20-foot swells, he crawled into the boat, which was full of water, just inches above the waterline. From that point, for hours, Cusick held on to the fractured lifeboat, to help anyone he could, but by then, hypothermia had taken over. Many of the crew who made it into the water found flotation of some form, but one by one, they succumbed, unable to withstand the cold. The Coast Guard and U.S. Navy responded but there was no formalized rescue swimmer program at the time. Despite the heroism displayed by the Navy’s available divers, the conditions were too much. With raging seas, spotting crew members in the dark was nearly impossible. Those that were within reach of a rescue basket could barely grab on. In the end, only three crew members were pulled from the water alive, despite being just 30 miles from shore.
Cusick, through experience and luck, survived by remembering his family, his crewmates, and held out hope for the Coast Guard. He also remembered a folk song about a sunken vessel, the “Mary Ellen Carter” by Stan Rogers. There was the false hope of a Norwegian trawler who responded and drew alongside the swamped lifeboat, only to bear off because of the risk of crushing and killing Cusick if it got too close. He had to hold out for a helicopter rescue, which finally came around 6:30 a.m. Cusick should have been dead after 15 minutes but managed to hang on for over three hours.
Cusick and two other crew survived to recount their stories and testify at hearings investigating the sinking. Eager to get back to his job, Cusick returned to the sea within months, undermining any Jones Act claim he would have made for injuries.
What does a 37-year-old
shipwreck story have to do with today’s events?
While we are not on a sinking ship, we do not know exactly what our
situation is. All we can do is do our
jobs and do them well as best we can. We
have a duty to be safe, to practice social distancing measures, to make those
sacrifices for the good of the whole.
And we must hold out hope that this will be over, and we will be back on
dry land soon.
[i] Until the Sea Shall Set Them Free: Live, Death, and Survival in the Merchant Marine by Robert Frump (Doubleday, 2002) provided the source material for much of this article. Additional details come from the Marine Casualty Report, S.S. Marine Electric O.N. 245675, U.S. Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation Report and Commandant’s Action, Report No. 16732/0001 HQS 83, https://www.dco.uscg.mil/Portals/9/DCO%20Documents/5p/CG-5PC/INV/docs/boards/marineelectric.pdf