Selected Poetry: 1974-
A United States Coast Guard Search and Rescue helicopter, the Pequod, had been dispatched from its command post at the air station on Cape Cod. This latest mission was the Pequod’s third since an unexpectedly severe late summer storm had decimated the New England coast. The heavy weather had been raging unabated for 36 hours.
The Pequod’s mission was being coordinated from the Coast Guard Central Command Post at Southwest Harbor on Mount Desert Island in Maine. The aircraft was responding to a weakening signal from an EPIRB, an emergency position indicating radio beacon. The blips had been picked up by an aircraft flying over the Gulf of Maine. The EPIRB signal position was 44° , 0.2’ North and 67° , 51.2’ West, bearing 134° from Baker Island Light, which placed the distress location about 20 miles offshore.
Aboard the Pequod were five experienced Coast Guard personnel. The pilot, Lieutenant David "Zeke" Campbell, had flown rescue missions for a mobile hospital unit in Saudi Arabia. The co-pilot was Lieutenant Junior Grade Mike Benson. The crew aft included three petty officers. Dick Foster was the flight mechanic. His primary responsibility was operation of the Pequod’s hoist. The radio operator was Diane Keeler. Petty Officer Keeler would maintain the flight log during the mission and would report the Pequod’s constantly monitored position to the Southwest Harbor command station. The third person aft was Jack Cushing, the rescue swimmer. Cushing was prepared to haul the Pequod’s array of emergency equipment into the sea, if the situation warranted his entry into the water.
The Pequod was flying into a stiff 35 knot nor’wester, with gusts still climbing into the high 40’s. Visibility was less than half a mile. Mike Benson estimated the seas running below the chopper at 12-16 feet, so the pick-up—if there was to be one—was not going to be easy.
There had been no Mayday broadcasts from the vicinity of the unidentified distress signal. This meant that whoever was out there had either experienced a major power failure with loss of radio capability, or that the crew had abandoned ship and was adrift in a survival raft.
Campbell, Benson, and the rest of the crew had been in similar situations before. None of the Pequod’s crew wanted to think about a more sobering possibility. There might not be anyone left alive to rescue. Occasionally, the crew of the Pequod encountered nothing at the end of a chase like this but a ghost ship, emitting an EPIRP signal, but bereft of crew. Considering the risk the Pequod’s personnel were incurring by flying in such conditions, the possibility of this last contingency was disconcerting indeed.
"Command, this is the Pequod, over," Diane Keeler said into her microphone.
"Roger, Pequod, read you loud and clear, over."
"We must be less than ten minutes from target position," Petty Officer Keeler affirmed, "but we have zero, repeat zero, visual or consistent radar contact, over."
"Roger. Command standing by, out."
Mike Benson, the Pequod’s co-pilot, peered into the murk. He could see little, other than an endless expanse of massive swells, breaking seas, spindrift, and spray. Benson had always been impressed by the desolate loneliness of the North Atlantic in a storm. The seascape below the chopper was almost surrealistic. The energy and strange undulating motion of the ocean was arresting, but forbidding. He had to convince himself at times like these that the sea was not haunted. He felt certain that he could make out strange shapes in the troughs of the endless waves, as if the North Atlantic were bringing up its dead. Mike Benson kept such conjectures strictly to himself.
"I have something on radar at 020° ," Zeke Campbell exclaimed, breaking Benson’s reverie. "Look sharp, Mike."
Benson could not make visual contact immediately, but then he saw an object in the waves ahead.
"Hey, Zeke, looks like we have a yacht!"
An RV, a recreational vessel, was the last thing the crew of the Pequod had expected. But the stricken vessel was a yacht, all right. Mike Benson estimated her length at 45 feet.
"Command, this is the Pequod," Benson said into his helmet microphone. "We have a sailor out here. She’s adrift under bare poles, over."
The vessel was laboring badly in the substantial seas. She was taking green water on deck, but she appeared to be standing to it, with only a slight list to starboard.
"Can you make out a name, Pequod, over?" the command post requested.
Benson found it hard to fix his binoculars with the buffeting the Pequod was experiencing.
"Looks like the Anna something," Benson responded. "I can’t copy the entire name, over."
"Any signs of life, over?"
"Not so far," Zeke Campbell said soberly.
"Wait a minute," Mike Benson said. "I think I see somebody at the companionway hatch. Looks like a kid to me. What do you think, Zeke?"
"Command, we’re going in for a better look," Lieutenant Campell announced.
"The Pequod maneuvered into position closer to the disabled vessel. The crew of the chopper could see that she was cutter rigged, a canoe stern double ender. She looked well equipped, which was more than could be said for some RVs the Pequod’s crew had encountered in similar circumstances.
"Yeah, the individual aboard is a kid all right," Lieutenant Campbell relayed to the command post. "Looks like a girl to me, maybe ten or twelve years old, over."
Captain Arthur Strickland, the Search and Rescue Mission Commander for the flight patched into the chopper.
"Pequod, this is Strickland. Any thoughts, people?"
Diane Keeler had been trying to raise the vessel on all possible radio frequencies, but with no success."
"We have a problem here, Captain," she spoke into her mike. "Their radios are either nonfunctional or the kid aboard doesn’t know how to use them."
"She’s life-jacketed and harnessed," Zeke Campbell added. "She looks fairly stable to me, Art, so I don’t think she’ll panic and go into the water, but there appears to be no way of finding out who else is aboard without sending Jack into the water. I’m hesitant to set a basket down for the kid without knowing whether she can handle the static electricity, over."
Without proper grounding on the surface vessel, the cables from the Pequod’s evacuation baskets could seriously shock the occupants of the disabled ship. The instinct to grab the basket or cable without first allowing contact with the deck of the sailboat could prove fatal to the young girl aboard.
"Any chance of setting your aircraft down out there?" Captain Strickland asked.
Although the Pequod was an amphibious aircraft and had the capability of landing on the surface of the ocean, Zeke Campbell thought better of that option, given the sea state at the pickup site.
"We must be running some 16 footers out here, Art." "I’m not sure a set down would be a good idea. You are going to have to dispatch a surface vessel to haul the RV into port anyway, over."
"Roger, Pequod," Captain Strickland acknowledged. "Stand by while I get some things going from this end. What’s your fuel status, Zeke?"
"Figuring in the trip home with the wind at our tail, we can sit out here approximately three hours, over." Zeke Campbell replied.
"Roger that, Pequod. Stand by."
The helicopter was hovering a few hundred feet from the disabled vessel. The girl aboard had stopped waving frantically and seemed to be monitoring events from the companionway in a state of relative calm. She had returned a thumb’s up sign from Jack Cushing. Co-pilot Benson had been able to get a copy on the vessel’s name. She was the Anna Livia. The command station ran a computer check on her and relayed out to the Pequod that the vessel was of American registry. The Anna Livia was a U.S. Coast Guard documented vessel owned by one Thomas O’Connor, whose listed address was one of the mail forwarding services that cruising yachtsmen occasionally use.
"Zeke, it’s a go on Cushing’s drop," Arthur Strickland said authoritatively. "We have the cutter Grand Manan en route out of Southwest Harbor. She’s a 44-foot steel hull making 15 knots over the ground in the seas she’s encountering. Her estimated time of arrival at your position is about an hour and forty minutes. We’ll put a fire under her tail and see if she can better that, over."
"Roger, we copy," said Mike Benson.
The crew aft now went into action. Considering the conditions, the drop was effected smoothly. Petty Officer Cushing was lowered to the surface of the sea. After a few anxiety-provoking near misses in the swells, he had been able to board the Anna Livia.
Communicating with the Pequod via handheld VHF radio, the swimmer reported in.
"Pequod, this is Cushing. Do you copy, over?"
"Roger, Jack," Diane Keeler responded. "Read you loud and clear. What have you got down there?"
"From the looks of the mess, they must have taken a lightning strike. The batteries are blown and the electronics aboard are cooked. We have a med-evacuation situation. There’s an old man aboard who is pretty banged up. He’s dehydrated and has a chest injury of some kind. I’m going to start an I.V. Over."
"Roger, copy that," Mike Benson said. "We’ll patch a call through Southwest Harbor to Eastern Maine Medical Center to alert them to expect some business. What’s your estimate of the guy’s condition?"
"Definitely critical," Cushing said. "I doubt he’s going to make it."
"Roger that. What about the kid, over?"
"She tells me she’s the old guy’s granddaughter," Petty Officer Cushing replied. "She’s a little upset, Mike, but she’s O.K. otherwise. There isn’t anybody else aboard, over."
"Did they have any man over boards?" Mike Benson asked.
"No, according to the kid, there was nobody else aboard. The kid and her grandfather were the entire crew."
"So what the hell were they doing out here?" Zeke Campbell asked, his voice betraying irritation.
"According to the kid," Jack Cushing responded, "they were sailing down from Nova Scotia so she could get back to school."
Impressively, the Grand Manan arrived in just under ninety minutes. Her crew supported the medical evacuation of the injured man. The rescue mission directed to the Anna Livia proceeded quickly from that point. Complying with what she said had been her grandfather’s explicit instructions, the young girl—who said her name was Rachel—opted to stay with the ship.
Because of confusion and delirium, much of what was happening made little sense to Thomas O’Connor. He was aware of the presence of strangers aboard his boat. He realized he was being moved. The roar of what could only be helicopter rotor blades convinced him, during lucid intervals, that he had been strapped into an evacuation basket.
As he was lifted off the deck of the Anna Livia, Tom O’Connor felt that he was probably dying. In another brief moment of mental clarity, he was afforded a heart-rending view of his ship, as she lay floundering and wind swept in the swells below him. Helpless himself, he was being drawn away from her.
O’Connor recalled other views of Annie from even greater heights, when he and his wife, Anna, had stood together on bluffs or crags peering down with pride and admiration at their beloved ship lying at anchor below them. He was wrenched by the realization that he had now lost both of them, his wife and his ship.
Tom O’Connor would not be standing proudly in the cockpit when Rachel brought the Anna Livia into port. There would be no graceful entry under full sail this time. They had been at sea together for 22 years, he and his boat. For the first time in her life, the Anna Livia would limp into some unknown harbor ignominiously under tow.
Tom O’Connor sensed that he was moving extremely rapidly over the surface of the sea. His heartbeat seemed synchronized with the throbbing drone of the helicopter’s rotor blades. His consciousness ebbed and his awareness of his present circumstances faded slowly. Before his eyes, the events of his past began to take the stage like scenes in a play of dreams.