Alexandria sinking raises safety issues

The recent sinking of the historic schooner Alexandria continues to cause controversy and has led several mariners involved with the incident to speak out on offshore safety. One survivor of the schooner Alexandria’s fateful last trip is offering lectures about his experience, which included floating in the Gulf Stream for several hours before being rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter.

Afloat for more than five hours in the 72° Gulf Stream after Alexandria sank in December, 62-year-old Harold Phinney was a volunteer crewmember in the passage from Alexandria, Va., to Beaufort, N.C., and has since spoken before several marine organizations in the Washington, D.C., area to describe his ordeal.

“I give a little background on the vessel from when she was in pristine condition to when she sank and I was in the water,” said Phinney.

“Harold was the last one picked up by the Coast Guard,” said Joe Youcha, executive director of the Alexandria Seaport Foundation, which formerly owned the 67-year-old square-topsail schooner. “He wasn’t wearing a survival suit, just one of those suspender-type lifejackets.”

“I talk mostly about how I survived and what I would recommend to others who might be in a similar situation,” said Phinney.

The vessel’s new owner and captain, Yale Iverson, a retired lawyer from Iowa, reportedly purchased the wood-hulled Baltic trader for more than $50,000. The vessel sank 50 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras after a series of problems caused the vessel to flood.

Two crewmembers were incapacitated by seasickness, according to reports, and the vessel’s manual pump was too inefficient and difficult to operate in the heavy sea. As water poured through open seams above the waterline, the vessel’s primary electric bilge pump failed and crewmembers were unable to prime the two auxiliary gasoline pumps.

Boat checks were reportedly performed every half hour, and at 0130 a crewmember discovered that the primary electric pump was inoperative. Upon inspection, the pump was found to be clogged with loose wire that had been discarded into the bilge when the wiring system was replaced by the Seaport Foundation.

As Alexandria began sinking and slumped into a severe list, the command to abandon ship was given and the vessel’s life raft was deployed. Two crewmembers never made it to the life raft, but the remaining five huddled into the raft to await helicopter rescue. All seven crewmembers were rescued safely by a Coast Guard helicopter, but Iverson’s two dogs were swept away.

“The reason that boat sank is quite clear: It was entirely due to poor management,” said Chip Reynolds, who served as captain of Alexandria for several years for the Alexandria Seaport Foundation. “If it hadn’t been for the miraculous stroke of luck that it happened in daylight and that they were in the warm waters of the stream, there would have been dead bodies in this incident.”

According to Reynolds, “None of that crew had the required experience. They were literally picked off the street’Hey, you want to sail to the Bahamas?'”

Iverson added extensive safety gear to the schooner before departing Alexandria, including an inflatable canister-type life raft, an electric three-inch bilge pump, and electronic navigation equipment. Existing gasoline pumps were inoperative, as they were impossible to prime, according to reports.

Alexandria was reportedly in much safer condition when it departed with its new owner than it had ever been under the ownership of the Alexandria Seaport Foundation, which suffered from lack of funding.

Reynolds agreed that Iverson equipped the schooner with sorely needed safety gear but argued that management, not the vessel’s condition, caused the vessel to sink. “Many of the things he did [to the vessel] were the right thing to do,” said Reynolds. “But you can’t get away from the fact that they were woefully shorthanded and woefully inexperienced. There may have been some bad luck involved, but they had a prescription for disaster.”

By Ocean Navigator