By James Scheffer, strategic adviser, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Office of Marine Safety
It’s been 40 years since the large bulk carrier SS Marine Electric tragically sank on Feb. 12, 1983, off the Virginia coast. Nearly all aboard — 31 of 34 souls — were lost. But I remember the events of that tragic day as if they happened yesterday.
On that day, I was the 34-year-old captain of the 661-foot, 34,700-dwt lube oil tanker Tropic Sun, the first vessel to respond to Marine Electric’s early morning distress call.
On Feb. 11, a nor’easter formed off Cape Hatteras and the Virginia coast. On land, the storm was responsible for a blizzard that set snowfall records in several Eastern seaboard cities and blanketed Washington, D.C., in up to 30 inches of snow. At sea, it generated 50- to 60-knot winds and 30- to 40-foot seas.
On the evening of Feb. 11, while on the bridge, I heard the Ocean City Coast Guard Station side of a VHF radio telephone call to Marine Electric. The Coast Guard was acknowledging that Marine Electric had pumps going and was telling the crew to keep the Coast Guard informed if they needed help.
Meanwhile, Tropic Sun was rolling, the bow slamming into the swells and seas shipping across the main deck — not unusual conditions for a loaded tanker during a nor’easter. Again and again, water covered the deck; again and again, the deck emerged after each wave. We took that for granted. It was normal in a storm.
I tried — but failed — to get some sleep. Tropic Sun was three hours from Cape Henlopen, Del., and another from our discharge terminal at Marcus Hook, Pa.
At 0315, the radio telegraph auto alarm went off on the bridge. The SOS was from Marine Electric, which was taking on water and readying its lifeboats for abandoning ship. The crew needed help as soon as possible.
Marine Electric was more than 35 miles from us. I changed course and informed the local Coast Guard station that we were responding to the SOS. On our way south to render aid, we saw an unwelcome sight, one that still makes me shake my head: Vessels that must have heard Marine Electric’s SOS sailing in the opposite direction.
When we got within a dozen miles of Marine Electric’s last position, our hearts sank. There was no sign of the bulk carrier on radar. Before daybreak the sea was full of blinking strobe lights, which we recognized as the lights on life jackets.
I maneuvered the ship in heavy seas to a full stop alongside more than 20 possible survivors floating in the water around 0540. At the time, the water temperature was 39 degrees Fahrenheit with an air temp of 34 degrees. They were unresponsive to our calls in the dark/early morning and eerily peaceful, all dressed in winter gear and life jackets. By all appearances, Marine Electric‘s open lifeboats had failed to keep them out of the water and alive.
My own vessel carried the same style of open lifeboat.
The Coast Guard requested that I launch our lifeboats to retrieve the potential survivors, but I refused because of the strong winds and heavy sea conditions. The chief mate and I would not put our crew in harm’s way in the same type of open lifeboats that had so abjectly failed the crew of Marine Electric. At the request of the Coast Guard, I agreed to stay in the area following a search pattern for any missing crewmembers. The Coast Guard thanked us for our efforts, and we resumed our voyage at dusk on Feb. 12.
Later, while discharging cargo at Marcus Hook, some of Tropic Sun’s crewmembers discussed buying their own survival suits, but then thought of another solution, which I gladly forwarded to management: A request for survival suits for all on board. Within two trips (28 days), the vessel was outfitted with survival suits, the first ship to be so outfitted in our eight-ship ocean fleet. These suits, also known as immersion suits, are used without a life jacket when abandoning ship in cold conditions.
On July 18, while the investigation of the sinking was in progress, the NTSB recommended that the Coast Guard require immersion suits be provided for crewmembers, scientific personnel, and industrial workers on vessels that operate in waters below 60 degrees. The NTSB also made a companion recommendation to Marine Transport Lines, which operated Marine Electric, as well as to industry groups to recommend their members also provide the suits. The suits became mandatory the following year.
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the capsizing and sinking of Marine Electric was the flooding of several forward compartments as the result of an undetermined structural failure. The lack of thermal protection (survival suits) in the water was one of the factors contributing to the loss of life in the tragedy.
As a result of Marine Electric’s sinking, the Coast Guard’s inspections improved, and many World War II-era (and older) vessels were scrapped. The Marine Electric tragedy also resulted in the creation of the Coast Guard’s rescue swimmer program.
I sailed for over 24 years with the Sun Marine Department, mostly on coastwise voyages on the East and West coasts, with the occasional foreign voyage. I sailed as a captain for over 16 years without any casualties or pollution events. The night Marine Electric was lost served as a constant reminder to me to respect the power of the sea.
Over the past 26-plus years, I have investigated dozens of accidents and supervised more than 200 accident investigations as chief of investigations and chief of product development in the Office of Marine Safety at the NTSB. And since then, we have seen the emergence of technologies and innovations, such as personal locator beacons, that combined with survival suits could have helped prevent such tragedies.
However, I will never forget the night Marine Electric sank, and neither will the other members of Tropic Sun’s crew. While events in our lives have sent each of us forward on our separate courses, whenever we meet, our conversations converge on that evening 40 years ago.
This anniversary has passed, but the memory of those 31 mariners will not.
Those of us aboard Tropic Sun fared far better that night; however, our similarities to the crew that was lost drove home two points about losses at sea. First, if we are telling the story, we are the fortunate ones. And second, nothing is more important than taking fortune out of the equation by making life at sea safer.