U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program


 

Leadership Equals Seamanship

And Vice Versa

by

C. William Bailey


FORWARD  

The New York Daily News of February 25, 1964 had the following headline: "RESCUE AT SEA! 11 SAVED - THEIR STORY AND FOTOS".  Inside there were several shots of the "AMBASSADOR foundering; A Cutter COOS BAY swimmer in the icy cold water; Group Picture of the 11 survivors, A picture of the COOS BAY; A picture of the officer and crewmen who were principal in the rescue; and a picture of CDR. C.W. Bailey at an arrival press conference. The inside headline read HEROIC COOS BAY BACK WITH 11.

This was a rescue at sea that was reported from the cutter as it progressed.  It caught the imagination of the nation and uplifted the image of the U.S. Coast Guard. 

In this article he talks about the rescue of the eleven Ambassador crewmen and broadens it into an excellent treatise on leadership.  During the rescue, footage was taken on an 8mm movie camera.  He alludes to scenes from this footage in the article. 

THE AMBASSADOR STORY

In these noisy times of protest I'd like to invite your attention to a group of young men whose average age was only twenty three. Their experience level was naturally limited and yet they performed as a wonderful TEAM when the chips were down and men's lives were at stake.

Many of these young men had only recently been drawn from civilian life to serve an organization of our government dedicated to the preservation of life and property at sea. This is the story of the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Coos Bay and a British Merchant Ship in a dire predicament.

To set the stage for our drama, let's flash back to a bitter cold night in February on the river front of Philadelphia. The ship, Ambassador, a combination steam and diesel vessel of about twelve thousand gross tons was finishing loading a cargo of grain in Number 3 hatch amidships. The other holds had been filled and the heavy wooden hatch boards installed in place. Steel locking bars were placed to hold the boards securely and the waterproof tarpaulin hauled over the entire hatch and wedged. They were all ready for sea in accordance with the rules of good seamanship. At the midship hatch (located between the main ship's deckhouse and the engine room deckhouse) the last of her bulk cargo of grain was sliding down the chute as the Captain and the river Pilot looked down from the navigating bridge. The Captain was making his 1st trip as a Captain and was glad that he wasn't down on the deck like the last trip when he was the Chief Mate charged with loading and making the ship secure for sea. The Pilot reminded the Captain that the time was short for making the ebb tide for the trip down the river and because the vessel was deeply loaded she might become stuck in the mud at her berth with a falling tide. Ships cost several thousands of dollars for every hour of operation and owners do not hesitate to make their Captains fully aware of this fact. I am sure that this Captain was on the Mates back to expedite departure.

At any rate, the crew failed to install the steel locking bars over the hatch boards on No. 3 Hatch, perhaps thinking that because it was in the shelter of the deckhouses it really wouldn't be necessary. Also, in their haste they just dumped the gangway on top of the hatch tarpaulin and did not lash it securely. Perhaps they thought that they would have eight hours of sailing time in the sheltered river waters to do what Good Seamanship requires.

However subsequent events proved that no further thought whatsoever was given to No.3 hatch until the eventful day a thousand miles east.

Ambassador was fitted with several large fuel tank vent pipes amidships leading up to the main deck to the outer atmosphere. These pipes are normally secured by bolted on covers when at sea. The purpose of the covers is, of course, to prevent sea water from entering the tank and contaminating the fuel from heavy waves that constantly splash aboard a deeply loaded ship at sea. The ship's carpenter is responsible for securing these vent pipes. He was one of the survivors and testified at the Admiralty Hearing that the bolts were so worn that he could not tighten them.

Ambassador finally got clear of her berth by having several tugs help her worm her way over the sill through the mud and out into the river. She started down the Delaware with the strong ebb tide. Eight hours later the pilot departed, leaving the Captain to set a course across the stormy Western Ocean for the English Channel. He noticed that the ship had a few degrees list to port. This is not unusual in a bulk carrier and he probably assumed that the engineers would automatically compensate by using fuel from the port tanks first as they customarily do. Unfortunately this was not the case -- they didn't.

So the ship started her long voyage with one side noticeably lower than the other. Bulk grain ships are susceptible to cargo shifting and a list is not a matter to be ignored, particularly in the winter with a strong Northwest wind and quartering seas. All of these things; the lack of locking bars on No.3 hatch, the heavy gangway lightly lashed on top of the hatch, the improperly secured vent pipes, and the port list, were all to play a part in the drama to follow. And on top of this there were heavy weather warnings being broadcast all along the coast. The North Atlantic in winter is not a friendly place. This month of February was to prove no exception.

On the morning of the 16th, Ambassador was a thousand miles east of New York lifting her heavy bow sluggishly, rolling deeply as each quartering sea caught up with her and rolled on by. Because of her port list, and the fact that the wind and seas were on the same side, she dipped heavily to port with each roll, and solid green water broke on board regularly. Often the vent pipes were submerged and it was not long before sea water entered the fuel tanks on the low side. This caused two problems. Not only did the weight of the water gradually increase the list to port, but also it contaminated the fuel causing the main diesel engine to stop on several occasions. Each time the engineers frantically cleared the strainers, and ran clean oil from the purifier to the engine to get it started again.

It is very dangerous for a ship to lose her main propulsion plant at sea in heavy weather because without control the ship will broach or swing broadside to the waves and will roll alarmingly. Each Time Ambassador stopped, additional heavy seas swept aboard and up onto the amidships hatch, which, had the vessel been on her normal course and trim, would have been substantially protected by the engine room deckhouse. Eventually the seas tore away the lashings on the gangway, permitting it to shift and tear the tarpaulin covering the hatch boards. Some of these boards came adrift thereby exposing the hold to the seas.

As water entered the hold, the grain cargo began to shift toward the low side. Thus you can see that the eventual demise of Ambassador was just the culmination of a lot of little things, each of which became progressively worse.

Finally in the morning of the 17th the sturdy three cylinder 2500 HP Doxford diesel engine gave up for the last time. By now the engine room had also lost most of the steam operated pumps and auxiliary machinery and the Radio Officer warned the Captain that he had only a few minutes of battery power left should he want to send any messages. On any ship no one but the Captain may authorize sending a radio message, especially an S O S for help. Captains are traditionally reluctant to send out calls for help, always hoping that the situation will change from natural causes or the crew will be able to overcome the problem themselves. However in this case the Captain could readily see that their situation had become hopeless and at 0500 hours he authorized the call for help.

Now, about 400 miles away, coming down across the Grand Banks, was the elderly 311-foot, 20 year old veteran of North Atlantic Weather Station duty, the United States Coast Guard Cutter Coos Bay. She was returning from a 36-day patrol in stormy seas between Labrador and Greenland with a tired crew of 136 officers and young men. Although they didn't know it then, within 24 hours their stamina and seamanship were to be tested to the utmost.

The Coos Bay officers and crew performed admirably and managed to save all but one man during this ordeal.

Now that you know the story of the ill-fated Ambassador, you may wonder how do we weld together a crew that can perform in this fashion?  

When I say WE, I mean of course, ANY U S Coast Guard Cutter, not just the Coos Bay.  I am certain that any of our ships would perform just as we were required to do. All of Our Commanding Officers take their duties and responsibilities very seriously. All of them are intensely interested in the welfare of their crew, because on that depends the success of the mission.

Because the Commanding Officers are individuals, they have their own way of attacking a problem. Problems we have, I assure you, just as does any other organization. Some are major, some are minor, but always they are there requiring solution. Many of our problems are intensified by the relatively unnatural life lead by seafaring men. For example, long absences from family and friends, and close association with both good and bad characters, which because of that closeness tends to permit the bad characters to exert a greater proportional effect.

The ability to handle men is based on two factors; looking after their welfare, and trusting them as responsible human beings. One must not only be sympathetic and understanding but one must also require them to accept responsibility for their own actions. Treat them as men, they will respond with consideration and loyalty. If you treat them as adolescents, all you get for your trouble are disciplinary problems and poor work.

The first step in successfully handling men is to get to know them. Know their limitations, their capabilities and something of their background. A second, and just as important a step, is to have the men know you. The entire basis of good human relationship is the establishment of a common ground of mutual understanding. Keeping the men informed is another point. Personal attention to getting the word explained to every man will pay dividends to building an alert, smooth-running organization. It is not necessary for a leader to conceal his inexperience. One should not be afraid to admit that one doesn't know the answer, but then---one ought to find out..

Here are five general rules which we urge a leader to follow:

(l) Never do yourself a job which has been assigned to a man in your organization so long as he is doing it to your satisfaction. Now if the individual assigned cannot do it, then get someone assigned who can do it and tell the former why he has been replaced.

(2) Clearly explain the duties and responsibilities of each man in your organization and give them a chance to accept the responsibility

(3) Provide your men with an opportunity to learn in order that they may do their jobs more proficiently and have opportunity for advancement.

(4) Train the men to the very tip of their operational capabilities

(5) Provide the men with an opportunity to make suggestions.

Procrastination is the thief of time. Time is always passing and never returns, and it can be wasted through poor instruction and equipment. The moral welfare of the men is closely allied with cleanliness, which has a bearing on both their efficiency and their esprit de corps.

It is important when a man who has gone to great lengths to prepare for an inspection, that he not be slighted. Every man and every piece of equipment must be scrutinized, and words of praise and encouragement are just as important as fault finding. Public praise and private reprimand should be the watchword of a Leader. One should listen carefully to the thoughts that pervade informal groups as they are indications of the discipline, morale, and esprit de corps of his unit These informal groups serve a very healthy function as they build people together in routine cooperative activity. They give people a social place and a feeling of belonging. Morale is a lot of little things. Working conditions, food, quarters, pay, discipline, duty, what he the member of the group is getting out of that group--- all these things that make a man satisfied, build up his morale. Everything that bothers him lowers his morale.

One of the fundamental rules of Leadership is to never lose sight of the fact that there is no unimportant job. Discipline means a prompt, willing responsiveness to command. Discipline and morale are inseparable. The best discipline is self-discipline. The individual doing what he knows is right because he wants to. True discipline, accordingly, is the result of volition and is gained through building willingness, enthusiasm and cooperation, never through fear of punishment. This discipline is voluntary and is based on knowledge, reason, sense of duty, and loyalty. The American qualities of initiative and resourcefulness function best when obedience is inspired by understanding of the objective, and loyalty to a cause, a leader, or a team.

I feel that these are just as applicable to a business, at home or at school, as they are in our naval organization.

When the Captain speaks about this being an All Hands Operation. Let's take a quick look at what an All Hands Effort means on the part of a ship's crew.

Down in the Engine Room, the men do not have the excitement and stimulation of seeing what is actually being accomplished. These men, operating the engine in accordance with the Captain's orders, must answer, literally dozens of maneuvering bells in sometimes rapid succession, and in a prompt, decisive and accurate manner. Any mistake or delay jeopardizes not only the success of the life saving operation, but also the very safety of one's own ship. In the Ambassador case there were many times during the seven approaches to the wreck necessary to get the entire remaining crew off, when the ships were only fifty feet apart. Consider the consequences of a mistake by the engine room in answering a maneuvering order. Had these men not performed so magnificently over the long three hour maneuvering period it would have been impossible to place a ship the size of the Coos Bay in such close proximity to a drifting wreck to successfully remove the stranded crew under the existing conditions.

Up on the bridge of Coos Bay the various Officers and junior ODs, together with the Quartermasters, helmsmen and lookouts who spent uncomplaining long arduous hours, not only during the rescue effort itself but also during the long search for possible additional survivors.

Down in the Combat Information Center, the thoroughness of the Executive Officer and his team of radar men, resulted in two life rafts being located within the predicted search area. These men controlled the search operation of over a dozen other ships and aircraft for several days.

During the three long hours of actual rescue operations, nine volunteer swimmers fearlessly disregarding their own safety in recovering exhausted and dying men from the water, as our ship rolled up to 45 degrees. One moment these swimmers were immersed in churning water, and eight seconds later they were hanging 20 feet in the air from a life net on the side of the ship. The officer and all of the men were awarded medals by the Commandant. But no less important were our medical and supply departments. The Doctor and his Corpsman were directly responsible for resuscitating two of the survivors and saving their lives. All of the men of the Supply Department had their part to play; the Yeomen and Storekeeper telephone talkers who had to catch shouted orders fragmented by the strong gale, and pass them correctly down the line, and the Cooks and Stewards looking after the comfort of the survivors -- this too was a busy group.

There are so many members of a ship's team. The seamen and the Bosun's Mates who carefully but quickly hauled the survivors aboard, the Chief Gunners Mate who successfully fired shot line after shot line to the wreck, the Radiomen who not only handled a tremendous volume of messages generated by our task as On Scene Commander, but also they set a first in the history of radio teletype at sea by transmitting a complete narrative story of the rescue "blow by blow" as it transpired. As a result it enabled the Coast Guard to get a lot of favorable media coverage just at a time when it was needed, i.e. in the midst of Congressional budget hearings. The Economy Ax had already cut out the 10 million dollars for building the new high endurance Cutter which was to have been the first new major ship built in the 15 years since WW II. As a result of this publicity the cut was restored and today there are eleven of that class and, of course, many other fine ships.

Important evidence of the spirit of our team was the willingness, self- sacrifice and personal feeling that was apparent on the part of all of our crew for the welfare and personal comfort of the survivors.

At the Memorial Service for the Ambassador men lost before we arrived, every member of the crew of Coos Bay that could be spared from watch attended, something that never happened on Sundays.

We in the Service feel that such an operation is but the culmination of many hours of routine training as prescribed for just such an eventuality. Nevertheless, when the chips were down our crew did put out and they got the job done. As proud of them as I was, I could only say no better words of praise than to emphasize that accolade to which all aspire but not all are privileged to achieve, WELL DONE !

The romantic poet said that "The Sea Is A Harsh Mistress" We know it to be true and it is for that reason that men whose business it is to sail in ships develop a bond of brotherhood that transcends all barriers. It is far stronger than crashing waves or howling winds. To rescue a fellow seaman from peril gives purpose to our lives and a feeling of accomplishment, far greater than any material gain.


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Last Modified 1/26/2012