An excerpt from The Drowning of Helen Lee, one of the many short stories in War Stories for My Grandchildren, a memoir in short stories. The events took place at the end of January, beginning of February 1962 ...
"Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. Coast Guard Station St. Petersburg this is the trawler, Helen Lee. Over."
Static burst from the radio. It was the third time he’d called.
All three of us were in the wheel house, feet and fingers numb with wet and cold. We smelled of sea water and diesel fuel and stagnant fear. It had grown dark again, suddenly, just as Pete and Matt admitted that the storm was getting worse.
"No." Matt said.
Our cigarettes made a thin haze which seemed magnified by the smeared glow of lights. Everything aboard was lit up. It made us seem more significant, I suppose, a foggy beacon which no one saw or heard.
"Any station, this is Helen Lee. Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!"
A raspy voice, fighting crashes of static, responded. "Helen Lee, this is Coast Guard New Orleans. I copy. What is your position? Over."
"I hear you New Orleans," Pete said with relief. "We are approximately 150 miles south-west of St. Petersburg, taking on heavy water, I repeat, heavy water. Over."
"This is New Orleans. Roger. Stand by. Out."
A minute or so later, New Orleans was back. They had an aircraft ready for take-off. The plan was to find us and drop a P-250 pump, so we could clear the bilges.
We looked at each other, wanting to laugh, but none of us had the energy.
"Hell, no, Coast Guard," Pete shouted into the microphone.
"Even if you find us, it’ll be too late. Even if we find your drop, I doubt we can get it aboard in this sea state … and even if we could, we’re out of gasoline!"
"This is New Orleans. Roger. What do you propose?"
"We seem to be in the shipping lanes. I can see the lights of two steamships. Can you give me their frequency?"
"Roger. I’ll give them a heads up. Stand by. Out."
Pete spun the wheel toward the nearest ship. We could only see it in the brief moments when we topped a wave.
Matt switched the small search light on and tried to focus it on the distant ship, but it was too far away and he had to stand on his toes to grasp the circular handle. He and the light beam swung wildly about. I took over, and even though I could stand flat-footed, had no better luck.
But a moment later a new voice, clearer, louder, but unintelligible, blasted from the speaker. "Trawler Helen Lee, this is.…." None of us understood.
Pete grabbed the mike. "This is Helen Lee, calling that steamship over there. Do you hear me?"
Matt raised an eyebrow at me. Even I knew there must be better ways to communicate, especially in emergencies.
"Helen Lee, this is Sinclair (unreadable), do you require assistance?"
"Hell yes! We are sinking! Can you take us aboard?"
There was a long pause, but we all thought the vessel had changed course. She seemed much closer.
"Helen Lee, this is (unreadable)flame. Roger. We will make a lee for you on our (garble) side, I say again, our port side. Can you lie alongside or shall I put boats over? Do you copy?"
"Roger," Pete said, looking at Matt, who immediately opted for the first choice. "We’ll try to come alongside."
"Roger. The Bosun will contact you from the after well deck when you are close enough. Over."
"Okay," my brother told the ship. We could see what she was now, a standard World War II type tanker, lying very low in the water, her superstructure well lighted up since our call, like two small islands.
Our first three approaches were dismal. The trawler’s response was sluggish and the mountainous tossing waves and stiff wind were much reduced by the tanker’s windbreak. Now we dealt with huge swells. Nevertheless, the merchant crew shouted encouragement. There were about ten of them split in three locations, manning lines and standing ready with Jacob’s ladders.
On the fourth try we got close enough for the crew to throw out a monkey-fist but at the last moment our bows dipped and turned away. Matt, leaning way over the boat’s lip, nearly caught it.
On the next pass we came bows on and Pete held her steady while Matt and I dragged a one inch hawser aboard and dropped its thick loop over the stem post.
Both of us raised our arms and shouted. We were safe!
And then a huge swell lifted us high above the tanker’s well-deck. We seemed poised there for a long time. Below I saw crewmen running away, faces turned toward us and eyes horrified.
Timidly Helen Lee dipped her nose as if to kiss the massive black ship.
It was not so much a crash as a ragged expulsion of air, a breathless thing which separated ribs from staves and planks. We felt the shudder travel the entire length of the vessel, and the mast dipped forward, loosened in its root, flailing the outriggers like spastic mechanical arms. The guy-wires began whipping about like steel scythes screaming and whistling in the air.
Matt and I crouched against the pilot house, cringing as the wires whipped away the spotlight and pieces of the cabin roof and flung the little life raft away into the darkness. There was a crashing below decks, unidentifiable in the confusion.
And then she settled in, shaken but somehow a passing resemblance of her previous primness, although even I knew that she was mortally wounded, every seam of her sprung and leaking.
Slowly, she backed away from the tanker. In the wheel house I could hear my brother swearing and then he shouted, "Look out!" and a sound like a small cannon exploded over the bows. I looked up just in time to see the parted hawser snaking, like a bull whip with its splayed fiber ending, right at us.
I cringed again against the deck and heard a terrible keening pitched higher than the storm. The deadly rope end slammed into the pilot house. Glass shattered everywhere and the rope fell spent across the ruined deck.
Somehow, Pete was not injured. None of us were, but there was no time to marvel at any of it. Helen Lee was out of control, sliding alongside the oiler, her dangling starboard outrigger scraping, gouging into the tanker’s rusted sides. She rose on another swell and the outrigger, like a twisted steel finger, tore off several feet of railing on the poop deck, punched all the way through the underside of the deck above and the sound of steel rending steel might have frozen the blood of any who were not already immobilized by cold and fear.
Sailors ran above us, pointing, yelling unintelligible warnings. We began to notice another sound, this one deep and throbbing, and Helen Lee drifted helplessly toward it.
Matt ran past me carrying a long hooked pole. "Help me," he ordered, and I followed him along the inboard side, just in time to see a great ghost come thrashing up out of the sea, followed by another, then another.
It was the tanker’s massive screw, only part of it visible, but that part rose tall as our crippled mast, spraying glowing micro-beings in an eerie cloud.
We slid past this threshing monster in slow motion only to face another threat. Matt, with his long pole, was trying to fend us off of the gigantic rudder. I helped him force the butt end against the galley sides while he tried to engage the great black thing, but there were only flat surfaces, oily and slick with brine.
Then we were caught in the oiler’s wake and suddenly the Gulf was smooth as a pond and we were being swept rapidly astern. I looked up and for the first time saw the name of the ship, our would-be rescuers—S.S. Sinclair Superflame.
But we’d drifted out of the lee and a strong, cold blast of wind slammed into us.
"Matt," my brother yelled. "Get in here! She won’t respond to anything!"
In a flash, the mate threw the pole overboard and ran to the wheelhouse. A moment later I heard the engine roar and we began making a little headway against the wind and wake.
Slowly, Matt got the trawler out of the wake, back into the great swells and we began to inch our way forward. But I could tell that Helen Lee was very sluggish.
My brother came out of the wheelhouse and grabbed me by the life vest.
"We’ve got just one more chance, understand? You go from the stern," he pointed at the white fuel tank. "We’ll go up forward. Got it?"
"Yeh," I said.
We looked at each other for another instant, or so I would like to remember, then he said, "Do it now," and went back into the pilothouse.
I started aft, the deck slippery with fuel oil and sea water. I fell, but caught myself on the drums, which were still securely lashed to the gunwales, and used them to work my way to the square white tank. I climbed up onto it and crouched there, afraid to stand up.
We grew nearer the after well-deck. Three merchant mariners saw me and ran up to the poop, carrying a short Jacob’s ladder. They hung it over the side, "Come on," they yelled, "You can make it!"
I watched that ladder, three wooden slats which meant my future, and tried not to think about what would happen if I missed them. I’d be lost in the cold, wind-tossed sea, crushed between the trawler and oiler, swept aft into the turbulence of the monster propeller, carried for miles in that roiling wake, like drowned flotsam.
Of course I did think about it, and as we closed I decided that it did not matter.
My legs began to cramp.
The wounded trawler nosed abreast the well-deck and lay as close as she could.
My brother dropped another hawser, this time a two-incher, over the stempost and the merchant crew shortened the line.
It was now or never.
The stern seemed farther out than the bows. Was that a trick of perspective or the physics of ship design. I could not tell. No amount of mathematics could have helped me calculate the changing distances, the forces at play, the amount of energy it would take to leap twenty feet out, fifteen, no twelve, no eighteen feet high, in a line which would intersect one of the three thin steps of the ladder.
But there is another kind of intelligence, the kind frogs and birds and insects are born with, an instinct they never question. Some have called it innate, others divine.
I stood up, legs stiff and wobbly.
"Come on," the mariners near me called out. "You can make it!"
They came closer, then receded. The stern rose up again, on a large swell. I flexed my knees and rose up on that thrust, springing out over the sea with my limbs outstretched.
Some people enjoy flying. They even dream about it. But I do not, so much so that I’ve never been able to recall the slightest memory of that upward plunge. It is merely a blank. One moment I was on slippery, pitching fuel tank, the next, magically, I was not.
I remember next that I held that uppermost rung of the ladder with a grip of frozen iron and that even as the merchant sailors dragged me over the railing to safety I still had that grip and dragged the ladder over with me.
Someone threw a blanket over me and I slumped shivering against the tanker’s steel superstructure. I could see down onto the spot-lighted deck of Helen Lee.
She looked sorry, like some kind of drowning animal.
My brother came out of the wheel house, tightening his life jacket. He approached the midships rescue team and shouted at them.
Suddenly I realized that he was leaving the boat. Wasn’t the captain supposed to be the last man off? Wasn’t that one of the immutable laws of the sea? I didn’t know what I thought about that, or him. All of the old fears and cares slipped away. There was nothing I could do, perhaps nothing I could ever have done. I was only a by-stander, an observer compelled to passively watch.
He stepped up on the gunwale and jumped. But it was all wrong. Neither sea nor boat would help him. She shied away and dipped her bows just as he leapt and instead of rising up, as I had, he fell toward the black froth, and I knew that he would be crushed between the trawler he pretended to master and the steamer which was his salvation.
But I was wrong. At the last possible second his left arm shot out and he snagged the lowest rung of the ladder by its rope. Then he dangled there as the water rushed up around him and merchant sailors hauled on the lines to raise him. Slowly, the seamen won.
Then Matt came on deck and I had to suppress a laugh. He wore only a pairof deck shoes, his life-vest and a thin pair of patterned boxer-shorts. In his right hand he carried the nickel plated .357 revolver, his most valuable possession.
Twice he tried to tuck it into the waistband of his underwear. Both times its weight sent it thudding to the deck. The second time he left it there, ran to the side and jumped, not spread eagle, like Pete and I, but more like a monkey, all four limbs extended, reaching, grasping.
It was a mighty leap. He didn’t even need the Jacob’s ladder, but caught the well deck’s raised lip with both hands, his feet a mere foot or two below. And then he was aboard, too.
We were all safe. Sinclair Superflame seemed vast and stable as an island.
"Is that everybody?" asked the Bosun.
"Yeh," I heard my brother gasp. "Thanks. Thanks."
"Good," and then he spoke by phone to his captain.
"She’s a derelict, then." Another crewman grinned. "We can claim salvage rights."
"Sure," Pete said. "You’re welcome to her."
And then the lights went out on Helen Lee and she began to sink by the bows.
"Go ahead," Pete goaded the mariner. "That’s only water up to her generator."
The man smiled and shook his head. To one of his shipmates, a man with an axe, he said, "Cut her loose."
And he did.
Untethered, the trawler drifted slowly away from the oiler’s side, still more or less on an even keel.