Written by Officer Candidate Pamela Manns
Over a 12 year period, from 1968-1980, the Coast Guard experienced three major mishaps at sea that changed the service forever. It started on the evening of Dec. 7, 1968, when the cutter White Alder, a 133-foot river tender collided with the motor vessel Helena, a 455-foot Taiwanese freighter, on the Mississippi River. Of the 20 crewmembers that were on board only three were rescued.
Ten years later, on the night of Oct. 20, 1978, the Coast Guard Cutter Cuyahoga, an officer candidate training vessel, sank after colliding with the freighter the Santa Cruz II. Eleven men, officer candidates and crewmembers, died. Then, about a 1 1/2 years later, on Jan 28, 1980, the Coast Guard experienced its worst sea-going tragedy during peacetime when the Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn and the Capricorn, a 605-foot oil tanker, collided and sank. Twenty-seven crewmembers survived the crash, but 23 Coast Guardsmen were lost forever.
These three mishaps have had devastating impacts on those who survived, but they also served as the impetus for the Prospective Commanding Officer/Executive Officer Course (PCO/PXO). A key piece of the PCO/PXO and all other command preparatory courses is the Bridge Resource Management Course (BRMC). The BRMC is designed to manage operational risk and prepare officers and senior enlisted members to command a cutter.
In addition to bridge simulator time, leadership communication and policy instruction, these courses teach the lessons of White Alder, Cuyahoga, and Blackthorn.
“We teach, so they don’t forget,” said Capt. Mark Walsh, school chief for the Leadership Development Center’s Command and Operation School, which conducts Bridge Resource Management training for those members going back to sea in various leadership roles. He said reviewing these major mishaps is an important part of the course.
Walsh went on to say that any one of these accidents could happen again, and that the main purpose of the school is to prevent loss of life at sea.
Recently, the former commanding officer of the Blackthorn, Cmdr. Jim Sepel, retired, had the opportunity to address the BRMC, as well as a group of officer candidates with career aspirations of serving underway, during an Eight Bells Ceremony held at the Coast Guard Academy.
He spoke of the collision between the Blackthorn and the Capricorn, how the vessels hit port bow to port bow. He went on to describe the sequence of events that ultimately lead to the ship’s sinking.
“I took the speed off, and the ship just rolled,” said Sepel. “The next thing I know is that I am under the buoy deck. I cannot explain this, but a feeling came over me that told me to relax, ‘you are going to be ok, just dive toward the light’.”
Inexplicably he said he saw a light shinning in the otherwise dark, nighttime water and dove down into the cold depths to escape from under the ship. He surfaced near the boat, popping up next to his executive officer and the conning officer. They were in the water for about an hour before they were rescued by a shrimp boat.
He told the crowd about the following investigation and his experience working with the National Transportation Safety Board. Aside from a few sparse events and interviews, he has not spoken publicly about the Blackthorn for nearly 30 years. He has only recently begun sharing his story, but remains haunted by the trauma of the night.
“You can’t sweep PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder] under the rug,” said Sepel.
However, he is opening up more and speaking out to keep the story alive. He said he still speaks with some of the survivors of the Blackthorn and they still call him “Captain” to this day.
Additionally, he is receiving excellent treatment from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to cope with his PTSD symptoms.
Walsh, who had only read and taught about the Blackthorn through the mishap report, said “It was a lot more powerful to hear about in person.”
While at the Academy, Sepel had the chance to meet with Dr. Peter Eident, a survivor of the Cuyahoga tragedy, following an annual memorial service held each year on the anniversary of the Cuyahoga sinking at the Coast Guard Academy Chapel. In 1978, Eident was an officer candidate on the Cuyahoga and learning to drive the cutter as a conning officer. When he spoke at the memorial, he choked up describing the collision and shipmates he lost.
“The screeching, grinding cacophony was almost deafening. This was the sound of dying steel. This was the sound of a dying ship,” Eident wrote in his book Bearing Drift, about the Cuyahoga.
It sank within two minutes of impact, and the investigation later determined that the cause of the mishap was due to the commanding officer of the Cuyahoga failing to identify the navigation lights on the Santa Cruz II. It is a deadly example of how mishaps at sea can cost people their lives, and why the Command and Operations School are so vital to the continued safe execution of afloat missions.
“We learn from our history,” said Walsh. “The Blackthorn, Cuyahoga and White Alder are the reason we prepare like we do now, it is the whole reason this school started.”