U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program
Three Stories In One
C. William Bailey
Excerpted From His Autobiography, "You Can SO Eat Your Cake and Have It Too - ©2002"
In my tour of duty on Coos Bay, we were on Search and Rescue Standby in Bermuda, when we suddenly got orders to get under way to rendezvous with the Coast Guard Sail Training Cutter Eagle -- which was racing with several other large square-riggers to New York -- as an escort.
We embarked a media cameraman with all his gear. As we approached Eagle, the Admiral on board ordered us to sail up alongside close aboard, to pass some equipment. This we did, cautiously. It was quite a thrill to see a full-rigged nineteenth century-style ship cut through the water under full sail.
I was standing out on the bridge wing handling my ship. The Chief Quartermaster was standing by the engine order telegraph, a qualified first-class seaman was on the wheel, and my yeoman talker was manning his phones to the engine room, as we eased up alongside, only seventy five feet off. You don't take any chances when you handle a large ship in close proximity to another ship. The transfer was going well when the Admiral suddenly called "Sheer off, there." It seemed that he was alarmed at the two large vessels being so close together at full cruising speed. I had no problem with the situation. We had, not long ago, been at Guantanimo Bay Naval Training and were quite accustomed to doing replenishment drills with Navy ships at close quarters. Our cameraman was in Seventh Heaven, shooting movies like mad, and was constantly urging me to come in even closer. However, one never argues with an Admiral, so we eased off to 125 feet abeam.
Later, we noticed that the flying (outer) jib (sail) was tangled around the forestay, and that a cadet had been sent out along the bowsprit to clear it. Our cameraman urged me to go up close aboard the bow so he could shoot the kid gingerly crawling out on the bowsprit. We went to Two-Thirds Ahead on the engines; I always kept some engine power in reserve whenever I maneuvered in tight situations.
The Ambassador rescue happened in February of 1964. The Admiralty Wreck Hearing took place about a year later, and I was requested to be present to testify. HQ granted me leave and I received a first-class ticket for travel aboard the Queen Elizabeth. Dorothy was up in Portland with the children, so Mother Jean came down to the ship to see me off. As we were pulling away from the pier I reached into a pocket and there were her house keys. Hightailing it up towards the bridge I was not allowed to enter but I did get a message passed to the pilot, asking him to return the keys for me.
I had not been a passenger on a ship since childhood when we took a coastal steamer from Savannah to Boston the summer my Father won his prize to study in France. At dinner I was at the ship's Doctor's table. There were ten of us, including a pretty young lady traveling alone. It was a compatible group. Their favorite sport was gossiping about, "I wonder where she is sleeping tonight?" each time the young lady didn't show for meals.
The ship had a daily distance-made-good pool. The second day I won fifty Pounds by betting against the Captain's estimate. We had a strong quartering wind and I just figured that the ship would go further than the Captain's estimate.
A famous concert violinist was aboard who went up on the bridge deck every day to an unoccupied cabin to practice. He was so good that I used to go up and listen. I never did get invited to tour the bridge but I did go through the engine room. Passing through the galley and food storeroom areas, I was appalled at the unsanitary conditions -- almost didn't feel like eating dinner that night.
Arriving at Southampton, and taking the boat train to London, I found myself booked at the stylish Hyde Park Hotel. I was met by a Mr. Cockburn, a solicitor (lawyer) for the government who squared me away regarding the proceedings the next day. The Admiralty Court was convening to learn the facts concerning the loss of the Ambassador, a British steamship of 7,000 gross tons, with a crew of thirty-six. She was actually propelled by a diesel engine, but all her auxiliary equipment was run by steam. The ship was about 10 years old and was loaded with grain for a voyage from Philadelphia to Newcastle-on-Tyne in England. The Captain was making his first trip as Master, having previously been the Chief Mate. The Court found that the cause of the disaster could be the fact that: (1) locking bars had not been placed over the removable hatch boards of No.3 hatch, located abaft the bridge, and that when heavy quartering seas came aboard and tore away the tarpaulin hatch cover, water was able to flood the hold; and (2) the fuel tank vent covers had not been properly maintained and that had allowed water to enter the tanks to contaminate the fuel when the ship listed. This resulted in the engine stopping. The ship then broached in the seas and the flooding got worse.
During the hearing, the Italian liner that had been standing by was I heavily criticized for doing nothing as a life raft of Ambassador's crew had drifted right alongside their ship, and no one had tried to help. Their lawyer came to me, asking if I would be willing to testify that conditions were such that they could not have been expected to help. Of course, I refused. I was not present at the time, and no Coast Guard officer would ever testify that, "There was nothing he could do."
A week later Dorothy was able to fly over to meet me. I was waiting by the Customs at the airport when I saw her walking through the crowd. She was wearing a powder-blue suit she had made herself, and it was, to me, like seeing an angel come down from heaven. We had been married 18 years and had raised three children, and were more in love than ever (and that, dear reader, is the way it lasted until that fateful day in January 1996, when she was taken from my arms and "Promoted to Glory".)
Dorothy and I rented a car and planned to drive north to Newcastle, not far from the Scottish border, doing sightseeing on the way. We had been invited by the owner of the ship to come and spend a weekend with them. Stopping off at Hampden Court, not far from London, we had to get the rental car company to replace our car for lack of adequate brakes. They sent us a larger (and more comfortable) car, and we went to Stonehenge, Salisbury Cathedral, and Shakespeare's birthplace. Looking for an inn to spend the night, we saw a sign "Please Park Prettily", and turned in there for a most fabulous dinner by the fireplace and a comfortable bed. It was just like another Honeymoon.
After concluding our visit in Newcastle, we returned to London so we could fly over to Amsterdam to start a Continental trip through Holland, Belgium and France. We were making up for the fifteen years of raising kids with no real vacation except when traveling between duty stations.
Returning home, it was almost time for the usual change of duty station that governs the life of every Coast Guard family. We got orders to go to duty ashore at the District Office in New Orleans. So, hitching up our trusty (and rusty) sports car (TR-3) behind us, off we went to the deep South.
But before we go on, here's a bit about family life in Falmouth Foreside, a suburb of Portland. I mentioned our beautiful home on Casco Bay. Being almost next to the Yacht Club, naturally Bill and Brian learned to sail, and for most of our time up there we had our own sailboat, the "Darya" ("Dorothy" in Russian). She was a Thistle Class sloop, and was very fast. Many times, although starting in a race a class or two behind the Star boats, we would sail through them to the finish line. When it came time to leave, we sold her regretfully.
When I was in port, I played in The Portland Symphony Orchestra, and in two concert bands, one run by an old Italian tailor, Mr. Romano. He took ten-year-old Brian in as 3rd cornet.
We left our life in Portland and Falmouth Foreside behind and began out trip to our new duty station in New Orleans.