Confessions of a Drunken Coastie, Part 19
Editor’s Note: From 1988 until 1991, Crash Barry — then known as “Egg” — served as a sailor in the U.S. Coast Guard aboard a 210-foot-long ship that patrolled from the Gulf of Maine to the Gulf of Mexico. This is the nineteenth of his true stories about fighting the War on Drugs and the War on Haitian Refugees.
“GONNA HAVE TO CROSS THEIR BOW AND GO AROUND TO THE OTHER SIDE!” Boatswain Mate Second Class Black hollered over the roar and chortle of the motor-surf-boat’s diesel engine. The four-to-six-foot waves and 25-knot gusts made it tough to approach the sinking tugboat Jenny-Jenco. “ONCE WE GET IN THE LEE, IT SHOULD BE EASIER TO GET THE PUMP ABOARD!” He pointed at Staples. “I’M GONNA GET AS CLOSE AS POSSIBLE AND YOU YELL AS LOUD AS YOU CAN! TELL BRADLEY WE’RE GOING AROUND TO THE OTHER SIDE!”
Our shipmate Bradley — a Damage Controlman First Class — was already aboard the Jenny-Jenco, having been lowered there an hour before by the Coast Guard helicopter stationed aboard the Tumultuous. The drama at sea had begun 90 minutes earlier, when the tugboat, towing a huge barge loaded with shipping containers, radioed for help. For some reason she was taking on ocean faster than her bilge pumps could handle. Her skipper feared he and his four-man crew were in jeopardy, especially since their position was six-and-a-half miles off the Cuban coast, an area Castro’s government claimed as their territorial waters. The Tumultuous had been patrolling 20 miles to the north, on the lookout for drug smugglers and Haitian boat people, so Headquarters diverted us to the rescue.
After the helicopter took off with Bradley and a pump, the Tumultuous steamed full-speed toward the action. Once on-scene, the motor surf boat was quickly launched, loaded with six Coasties, a P-250 dewatering pump and many hoses. Due to her heavy tow and the water belowdecks, the Jenny-Jenco was barely plodding forward, straining at the thick cable connected to the barge floating roughly 2,000 feet astern. Getting our big pump aboard ASAP was the only chance to save her. As the surf boat plowed through the churning Caribbean, splashing and soaking us with lukewarm seawater, I momentarily loved my job.
“HEY, BRADLEY,” Staples hollered as we rode the chop, 10 feet abeam of the sinking vessel. “WE’RE GOING AROUND TO THE OTHER SIDE!”
Bradley cupped his ear with his free hand and shrugged. Ordinarily we would’ve communicated via radio, but Bradley’s walkie-talkie, gripped tight in his left hand, was apparently water-damaged and inoperable. So yelling was all we had.
“THE OTHER SIDE,” Staples bellowed and pointed. “WE’RE GOIN’ TO THE OTHER SIDE!”
Again, Bradley looked confused. So did the five guys standing next to him amidships. The situation was worsening. The fantail was awash and the decks were next. If we didn’t get the big pump going soon, the Jenny-Jenco was sure to go under.
“WE’RE GOING AROUND TO THE OTHER SIDE!” Staples hollered again.
Bradley nodded and gave a thumbs-up, but as the Boatswain Mate maneuvered away from the foundering vessel, Staples and I watched in amazement as Bradley climbed up onto the gunwale and gestured to the tug’s crew. Then, reaching toward the sky with his left hand still clutching the useless radio, Bradley jumped overboard. A moment later, one of the tug’s crew followed suit. Then another. And another.
“MAN OVERBOARD!” I screamed.
“MAN OVERBOARD!” Staples screamed.
The Boatswain Mate looked over his shoulder. “WHAT THE HELL?” He shook his head. “OH MY FRIGGIN’ WORD!” He grabbed his radio. “Cutter Tumultuous, Cutter Tumultuous, are you seeing what’s going on here, over?”
The BM2 brought the surf boat about as quickly as he could. The radio crackled with excited confusion.
“Tumultuous, I don’t know what’s going on, but we now have four men in the water. Over,” the BM2 said. Just then, the last two crewmembers on the tug jumped into the drink. “SHIT! Tumultuous, now there’s six men in the water. Over.”
Luckily, all the men were wearing life jackets, so at least nobody was drowning. We retrieved them one by one, which wasn’t easy, because everyone was fat, soaked and wearing boots. Within 10 minutes, all six were aboard the surf boat, motoring back to the Tumultuous.
Just in time, too, because soon after the last fella was plucked from the sea, the Jenny-Jenco began her descent into the deep. Despite being attached to the barge, she sank fast. As she descended deeper, the barge started to spin in a wide circle. Around and around it went, until the tug was 2,000 feet below the surface, suspended like a giant anchor over the bottom of the sea, which was still about 4,000 feet away.
“What the frig?” Staples drawled, pointing at Bradley as our boat chugged along. “What in tarnation were you thinking? Why the hell did you jump overboard?”
Bradley shook his head. “You told us to jump over the side, didn’t you?”
“No!” Staples said. “I said, ‘We’re going around to the other side.’”
“Oh.” Bradley grimaced. “I misunderstood you.”
The next day, we transferred the tugboat crew to a smaller cutter that brought them ashore in Miami. Also sent ashore was a videotape of the fiasco shot by one of the Tumultuous’ electronics technicians from the ship’s bridge-wing. Unbeknownst to our surf-boat crew, a trio of Cuban gunboats had been circling us during the operation.
Three days later, CNN ran the footage of the “dramatic at-sea rescue by the U.S. Coast Guard” shot by our shipboard cameraman. It received widespread attention, especially from our crew’s family and friends in Maine and New Hampshire.
The broadcast, of course, neglected to mention why the six men jumped overboard.