Riding out Hurricane Donna on the Frying Pan lightship

To the editor: As a native of Wilmington, N.C., I am accustomed to hurricanes. The proximity of the Gulf Stream enhances hurricanes all along the North Carolina coast. I remember, while a small kid during World War II, all the residents being summoned to a brick schoolhouse for protection from these unnamed storms. In October of 1954, Hurricane Hazel came ashore about 50 miles south of Wilmington. Holden Beach, Long Beach, Southport, Carolina Beach and Wrightsville Beach were decimated. Storm surges up to 18 feet prevailed in some areas. As memorable as Hazel was, however, it could not compare with my encounter with Hurricane Donna.

Following high-school graduation, I served a hitch in the Navy. In 1958, I joined the Coast Guard and was assigned to the CG cutter Chilula, a seagoing tug operating out of Morehead City. Aside from search-and-rescue work, Chilula made periodic logistic trips to North Carolina’s two lightships. Diamond Shoals lightship was stationed off Cape Hatteras and Frying Pan lightship was moored off Cape Fear.

Late in 1959, I was transferred to Frying Pan lightship, WAL-537. She was an aging 30-year-old ship built in Charleston, S.C., in 1930. She was 133 feet long, had a beam of 29 feet, a draft of 13 feet 3 inches and a displacement of 630 tons. Every second year, we made our scheduled trip to the shipyard for a refit. Part of our work was to place concrete in the bilges where the hull skin was too thin to weld! The propulsion was diesel-electric with four 6-71 diesel generators powering a motor with a single screw.

We had a crew of about 15 men. Due to alternating crews, there were usually about 10 persons onboard. The officer in charge was a chief warrant boatswain, and the executive officer was a boatswain’s mate chief. These two, as well as the two senior engineering petty officers, rotated on a system called port and starboard: two weeks on and two weeks off. The rest of the men in the crew stayed at sea 28 days and were off 14 days. The logistics trip, of course, subtracted a day or two from our time off and made our days at sea about 30 in a row. It was not bad duty generally. We had a few movies, fishing was excellent, and the quarters were pretty good. We stood six hours on watch and 12 hours off.

While performing data collection in mid-September 1960, we learned that a large hurricane was coming our way. We had good radio communications with the land-based Coast Guard stations, and we maintained a constant watch on our single-sideband radio. The skipper was ashore on his time off, so the interim skipper, Eugene Pond, boatswain’s mate chief, was onboard. Chief Pond was a friendly and funny leader, yet thoroughly competent and serious about the safety of his crew. He was from Davis Shores, at the southern end of the famous Outer Banks (he is now deceased). He, of course, was no newcomer to rough seas.

We started preparations a day or two before Hurricane Donna found us. We tied everything down, starting on deck and moving inside. We let out about all of our chain rode, which terminated in a 10,000-lb mushroom anchor. We dusted off our life jackets and made sure everyone had his next to him. As Donna approached, the seas went from 4- to 5-foot swells to seas we were unable to estimate. Some appeared to equal half of the ship’s length.

The chief tried to keep us in pairs in case one or the other got knocked down or incapacitated. I went up on the bridge with him as we were observing the wind and seas. We noted the anemometer was pegging the needle at a maximum on the dial of 100 miles per hour. Suddenly the needle returned to zero. We both surmised the cable had twisted off. Later, when we could go on deck again, we saw that the anemometer had blown away. During our other observations, our barometer at the edge of the eye was slightly below 28 inches of mercury. I’ve read recently on the Internet that at landfall the pressure was 27.46 inches.

The day of Sept. 12, 1960, seemed like a week. At one point, our clinometer showed a 70° roll, and it seemed to take minutes to right ourselves. We had the better part of 10,000 gallons of diesel fuel in our tanks, which must have helped. Seas were breaking down the galley stack, and our ancient single bilge pump never stopped working. A 1-inch line was rigged up along the centerline of all compartments so we could make our way fore and aft by crawling along the deck and holding the line during heavy rolls.

I was an engineman, so I was below in the engine room most of the time. Chief had ordered all engines ahead full to heave to into the sea. This became problematic, as the 6-71 diesels had centrifugal water pumps, thereby becoming air-bound as our sea chest intake came out of the water during the rolls. As an engine would start blowing steam out of the heat exchanger expansion tank, we were forced to take it offline and run it at idle until the water pump could be purged of air. Luckily, we always had two or three engines online. Luckily, the ship’s generators had impeller-gear water pumps, which were not prone to air lock.

With most of our chain rode laid out and with as many main engines as we could safely run, we still felt a terrific anchor drag at the top of each wave. This in itself was something more to worry about. After all, we were guarding the Frying Pan Shoals! Were we being dragged into them where we probably would be broken up? After two or three terrifying hours, the wind out of the northeast started subsiding. In a matter of minutes, the wind was eerily calm. We all went out on deck, as most of us were smokers back then. The wind was easy enough for us to light a cigarette even though the seas were still fairly high — maybe 10- to 15-foot ground swells. In what seemed to be only 20 minutes or so, the wind started up slowly but this time out of the southwest. Chief Pond said: “Let’s batten down, boys; the eye of the hurricane has just passed us, and now we have to go through this once again.”

The southern half of this northbound monster was upon us. After perhaps two hours, the winds and later the seas started to subside. The Chief called us all together: We were all there, and surprisingly, there were no injuries. The ship, however, was chaotic. Nothing was where it belonged. Our walk-in refrigerator contained one big pile of food on the deck. We re-established radio contact. The chief took a loran fix. I guess the anchor did drag a bit: We were 14 nautical miles south of our station. My dad had driven to the Coast Guard facility at Wrightsville Beach and asked them to call us to see if we were OK. We could only communicate via a marine operator patch through our VHF set.

I found one source on the Web that stated Donna was the fifth worst hurricane of the century. Having been through Donna, it takes little persuasion for me to evacuate when a hurricane is tracking my way.

Frying Pan lightship is still afloat and is now at a pier on the Hudson River in Manhattan. Her berth is near 12th Avenue and West 23rd Street. She is privately owned by a local electrical contractor but the old light vessel can be toured for a small donation. While lightships are now obsolete, we should remember that these vessels served ships at sea for a very long time!

David Melvin is retired and lives in Brunswick, Ga. He holds a captain’s license and is active in the Coast Guard Auxiliary, including as assistant keeper on the St. Simons Island lighthouse.

By Ocean Navigator