I didn’t like that ship.
The lines were all wrong, and it was ugly. Especially for a vessel made at that time, back then they really knew how to make a good looking ship.
And this wasn’t one of them.
No, the San Domino reeked of disrepair and blunt sloppy design.
But here she was, crossing the sill of the dry dock and I was tasked to make it seaworthy again. On the bow, I could see the owner full of false self-confidence.
It’s people like these who fuck up the waterfront, I thought before walking away from the dock.
Still sitting in the cool waters of Elliott Bay, USCGC Bristow was idle. With a crew largely out on liberty, enjoying their last week before what was expected to be a difficult patrol, only a handful of people remained onboard standing watch.
Captain Alvarez, however, was too anxious to be away from her new ship.
It had been a long time since the Bristow had been underway, too long. And the Captain knew the detrimental effects that an extended time in port can have on both the crew and ship.
Is it all going to turn back on, she thought.
“What isn’t wrong with my ship?” He asked me, sarcastically.
“When I figure that much out, you’ll be the second person I tell,” I replied.
We were walking on the dock, underneath the San Domino, as a crew was attempting to remove the propeller shaft from the vessel.
“I’d hold my breath until after we finish sandblasting the hull if I were you though,” I added, looking at the heavy pitting and wear on the hull plates.
Mr. Ajo, didn’t seem worried about the prospect of finding damaged steel. “If needs new steel, we’ll add more steel,” he said confidently.
“I’m just glad it all turned back on,” said Captain Alvarez to Lieutenant Slater, the Engineering Officer assigned to the CGC Bristow.
“Yea, I was a little nervous about the port generator. But we got it to parallel this time,” he replied, still distracted with the day’s events.
“Anyway LT, I’ll let you get back to it. I know you’re busy,” said the Captain, by way of a thank you. “Besides, you’ve got a wetting-down to look forward to.”
Typical for Captain Alvarez, she continued her round of the ships working spaces as it powered out of the Puget Sound.
With a speed I seldom see outside of commercial vessels, Mr. Ajo approved the change orders as quick as I could get them in front of him. And with each approval, we proceeded cut more holes in the Swiss Cheese that the hull had become.
Maybe he was afraid that whomever was funding this project would cut him off if he didn’t move real fast. Or maybe he was just looking for that divine intervention.
Shipyards work in mysterious ways, sometimes.
Regardless, we crammed as many welders onto that project as I felt safe to do so.
Sparks were everywhere.
Surrounding the ship was a sea of glass, not a ripple to be seen.
Winter South Patrols are like that.
The Crew of the CGC Bristow had eased into the unflinching routine of being underway with their new Captain. Between the chaotic, yet almost predictable cases, they were lulled into that tranquil southern Pacific stupor.
The ocean was their blue canvas, and the mountainous coast of South America was the palette to which they returned every few weeks to refresh.
And with each trip to shore, the CGC Bristow again returned to cut sharp new lines into the tranquil Pacific.
“Well, there she is, still floating,” he said amusedly as we walked towards the San Domino. It was sitting pierside, having been put back in the water during high-tide last night.
“Yes, it’ll float,” I responded. “After all of the steel we put into that boat, it better float.”
He nodded, in silent agreement.
Walking onboard, I could see his rag-tag crew trying to start the main engines. Per contract, we hadn’t worked on the ships machinery. Although I knew that it desperately needed it.
“We should be underway by Friday,” he boasted.
I nodded, in silent agreement and bemusement.
The turbines spooled up before reveille.
“This isn’t a pod of dolphins is it?” Captain Alvarez asked the Chief in CIC.
“No Captain, I believe this is the real deal,” replied Chief Richards confidentially.
“Well, let’s find out,” she said as she flooded the dark space with bright light from the water tight door she was opening to leave CIC.
The calm water allowed the Bristow to cut like a knife, quickly towards the fast moving craft ahead of them. And in the early morning hours, the whole glass-like ocean was a magenta reflection of the brilliant cloudless sky above.
The propellers kicked up a murky looking cloud in the dark green water of the estuary.
The San Domino was alive, and ready to depart the shipyard.
I hadn’t known it at the time, but she was now on a collision course with the CGC Bristow. More than three-thousand miles apart, the two ships were both sailing towards each other.
Of course, if you had told me what was going to happen to the San Domino after it chugged slowly across the bay and away from the shipyard, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
It’s a hazard to navigation, I thought.
Now headed north, the CGC Bristow had just made the 180* turn to leave the patrol area. The ship was scheduled to make a portcall for fuel and supplies in Quetzal, on the Pacific coast of Guatemala. But otherwise, had orders to proceed to San Diego.
Relieved to know that they were officially outchop from a busy patrol, Lieutenant Slater looked the other way as the ships engineers added extra liberty turns to the ships propulsion.
Captain Alvarez and the crew of the Bristow were on their way home.
It was smooth sailing, but a storm was over the horizon.
“Losing steering like that could be really dangerous out there,” said Eric, the engineer Mr. Ajo had hired for the journey south on the San Domino.
They were in the lazarette, a small crowded place, currently being used as a secondary dry storage for paper goods, to cover them through the trip to Panama. Before responding to Eric’s warning, Mr. Ajo examined the steering system buried underneath paper towels.
“Sure, but what if we just keep an eye on that head tank,” he started. “It’ll be okay; I know we’ll make it to the next port.”
Eric nodded in disbelief.
“This haze is something else,” said Senior Chief Nguyen as she leaned over the bulwarks on the fantail.
“Yea, it just makes everything look so bleak,” replied Lieutenant Slater.
The fuel trucks were lined up on the pier, and a chain of the Bristow’s most junior sailors were passing food onto the ship, hand over hand.
“Here’s bleak, but take a taxi forty-five miles inland and you’ll be in in a different world,” said the Senior Chief. “Antigua is like something out of a story book, and I’m headed there as soon as they pipe liberty.”
“Not me,” he said.
The stretch of ocean between San Francisco and Santa Barbara is usually choppy.
Everyone knows that, even Mr. Ajo.
But, that year the water along the California coast was downright treacherous. To the point where the ocean could swallow a double-wide in the trough between two waves.
And it was into those heavy seas that the San Domino, under the unflinching optimism of Mr. Ajo, powered out into the Pacific.
I could’ve told him that it was a bad idea, but he wouldn’t have listened.
And as mad as I was, it relieved me when he called from Santa Barbara.
“We’re going to be fine,” cautioned Mr. Ajo, as they sat on the aft deck of the San Domino, tied up in Santa Barbara.
“But if we keep losing fuel suction on the engines, one of these times I might not get them to start back up again,” stated Eric.
Calmly reflecting on the beautiful sunset, Mr. Ajo looked at Eric and said; “So far we’ve stalled out twice on the way down here and both times you restarted the engines. On the way down, you’ll probably have to do that three more times, but it will work, trust me.”
After leaving Quetzal the USCG Bristow turned to starboard and headed north.
After leaving Santa Barbara the San Domino, against all advice, turned to port and headed south.
There’s a lot of water between Quetzal and Santa Barbara, and a lot of opportunity to miss another ship. But, these two vessels were set to cross track lines somewhere south of Ensenada.
Aside from the water, there was also some bad weather between those two ports.
Weather that Mr. Ajo decided to ignore.
With limited experience he decided that the San Domino would be safe if they kept close to shore.
Even though they were on the hook to get turned around until they sailed past Cabo, Captain Alvarez knew that wasn’t going to happen.
“I can’t wait until we get out from under their umbrella,” said the Captain.
“Yea, me too. This has been a busy patrol,” said Chief Richards. “But they never call once you leave Quetzal.”
Captain Alvarez hesitated before responding; “I know, but there’s just this feeling of getting our boat back.” She responded, emphasizing the word our.
“For me, that’s the second best part of the patrol,” said Chief, as someone opened the door to CIC.
Of course, I wasn’t there, but I can imagine the circumstances.
Mr. Ajo coming up on deck while Eric looked out towards Coronado as they Passed Dan Diego.
“It’s been a hundred miles, maybe we should pull in and top off fuel here?” asked Eric.
“Nonsense, Eric,” replied Mr. Ajo. “We’ve got plenty of fuel to make it to Ensenada.”
Eric paused before continuing. “Under normal circumstances, sure. But with theses seas and knowing that we’ve been losing suction for the port engine's fuel, it could be a good idea.”
“But, Ensenada is just down the coast, we’ll be fine.”
Before the CGC Bristow had passed Cabo the sea had started to change.
The inviting glassy waters of the south had eroded away into the jagged badlands they were pushing through now. Somewhere ahead, an infinite field of whitecaps and heavy winds waited for the speeding ship.
The Captain Alvarez knew this, and wanted to take as much advantage of the calm waters as possible.
There’s a lot of ocean between Mexico and Washington, and her crew was anxious to get back home.
So, her order was to make best possible speed.
Even if it tossed the ship a little.
South of San Diego, the sea got bigger.
No longer crushing down on small choppy water, the San Domino was now fighting to climb over each successive wave.
The sky was a bleak, with the overbearing clarity only seen after a winter storm, when Eric climbed triumphantly out of the engine room and onto the aft deck.
“I got it!” he exclaimed, as he collapsed into one of the heavy wooden chairs.
“Outstanding, I never doubted you for a moment,” replied Mr. Ajo, confidently.
“It’s not a perfect fix, but hopefully the fuel pumps won't loose suction again,” said Eric.
Somewhere south of Ensenada, at least I’m told, the CGC Bristow passed the San Domino.
Mr. Ajo and his overwhelmed crew had missed their port and were being tossed violently in the ten-foot seas. Not realizing the mistake, Mr. Ajo was convinced that they would reach the next port very soon.
Before dark even.
The next port was more than a hundred miles south, they never made it.
Seeing the struggling vessel, Captain Alvarez offered assistance.
At the time the San Domino would’ve been little more than a bobbing white hull amongst the waves. Just barely visible to homesick watchstanders.
“See, what’d I tell you,” started Mr. Ajo. “If we need them, they’ll be there.” He said, as Eric listened to the incoming radio calls from the CGC Bristow.
“This is some pretty heavy weather, maybe we take them up on the offer,” replied Eric.
“And what, abandon ship now, hardly,” said Mr. Ajo, before pausing to look at the Coast Guard Cutter approaching from the south. “Besides, we’re almost to Ensenada.”
“Okay, hope you’re right.” Said Eric.
After that Mr. Ajo picked up the handset for their radio and waved off the offer of assistance from the CGC Bristow.
With the Coast Guard Cutter quickly sailing north, the San Domino was left alone in the heavy seas.
They had passed Ensenada a few hours ago, and missed that port completely.
The next port was more than a hundred miles south, and they didn’t have the fuel to reach the safe harbor. Even in calm seas.
Eric felt that their situation was hopeless, it was a gut feeling.
Looking out past the countless whitecaps, Mr. Ajo thought they were going see Ensenada on the horizon any time.
It happened quickly, the San Domino, rocked by a large wave, lost fuel pressure in both engines.
With the fuel pumps air-bound, Eric was helpless to start either main engine. They were lucky enough that the generators stayed running.
“I don’t know,” said Eric, concerned. “When we took that last wave, it caused the tank to fall below low suction and get the fuel pumps air bound.”
“How long will it take to get them going again?” Asked Mr. Ajo, confidently.
Shaking his head, Eric replied; “It’s not a matter of when, at this point, it’s a matter of if.”
With no propulsions, the San Domino was at the mercy of the ocean.
Tossed and turned, the fuel tank kept falling below the low suction level. Eric struggled to prime the fuel pumps, and get the engines started.
It was a Sisyphean task; the small yacht was being tossed to erratically to keep fuel flowing to the engines.
The light coming from the skylight in the engine room was starting to fade when Eric took a break to climb up on deck.
“How far are we from Ensenada?” Asked Eric, as he approached Mr. Ajo.
“Not far, we’re almost there.”
It didn’t take long for the powerful ocean waves to turn the San Domino about. Without any propulsion, the small yacht was completely at the mercy of the current.
Now with the bow facing west, the helpless ship was pushed with with the rhythm of the water.
And while Eric desperately tried to get the engines to regain fuel suction, the rest of the small crew watched as the large waves started to splash over the heavily loaded yacht. The collection of toys and supplies benevolently destined for a community in need was pushing the stern deeper into the waves.
“You’re on channel sixteen, right?” asked Eric, as he stood by Mr. Ajo at the radio in the pilot house of the San Domino.
“Yea, yea,” responded Mr. Ajo, quickly. “The same channel they called us on earlier, I always leave it to sixteen.”
“That’s good, hopefully they aren’t too far away and can still hear us.”
The small yacht continued to flail violently in the turbulent water.
“Maybe you should try again,” said Eric.
“Yea, yea,” said Mr. Ajo, quickly. He was nervous now, the sheen of confidence wiped away. “This is Motor vessel San Domino, requesting emergency assistance!”
“This is. . CHHHHHHH. . . Domino, requesting emergency. . .CHHHHHH,” squelched the tinny radio speakers.
In an unscripted exchange with the bridge the radio watchstander called up to the bridge; “We gotta turn around.”
“Say again,” replied the OOD sharply.
“That yacht we saw a few hours ago,” the watch stander paused. “They’re. They need us to turn around,” she finished.
“Roger that,” replied Ensign McDonald as she ordered the help to quickly bring the cutter about 180 degrees.
OS2 Snell put the phone back on the receiver, and picked up the radio handset to reply to Mr. Ajo.
The sea state was poor when Ensign McDonald finished the call with the radio watchstander.
But, she didn’t wait for permission from the Captain or for the right moment to come about. She knew the details could be sorted out later.
On her order, the CGC Bristow rolled hard to starboard as it violently changed course in the sea of whitecaps. The bridge watchstanders knew what was coming and braced accordingly.
But the rest of the crew, unaware of the distress call, was unprepared.
People were tossed, chairs thrown about and anything not properly secured was quickly left in disarray.
“Oh shit!” exclaimed Mr. Ajo as he watched, stunned, as the stern dipped below a large wave and didn’t return to the surface immediately.
Eric, down in the engine room, desperately trying to get something to start, didn’t notice the sudden calm as the ship started to slip under the water’s surface.
The rest of the small crew were all too busy trying to collect whatever they planned to bring with them on the life raft to notice the sudden stillness of the vessel.
Only Mr. Ajo, was up on deck to notice.
“Oh my God, not yet!” He cried.
By the time the CGC Bristow reached the last known location of the San Domino, all of the details had been sorted out.
Captain Alvarez was up on the bridge, and the rest of the crew were putting the cutter back together after the choppy sprint.
The sea was too heavy to launch the helo, the search would need to be completed from the surface. It was past sunset, and visibility was poor.
In the small debris field, they found a cell phone on the otherwise empty raft. On it an unfinished text to me was desperately asking for advice.
Pumps racing, joints flailing.
All the mechanics appear to be moving
In the right direction.
But, alas no momentum is gained.
The struggle subsides momentarily,
A pause to regroup for a
Now struggling again, pumps racing, joints flailing
All pushing to the limits of their capacity.
All the mechanics of it seem to be moving
In the right direction.
But, alas no momentum is gained
As if held by some unseen law of physical pull.
And so it goes on in this way
For some time
Struggle and pause.
Until it doesn’t anymore.
Sometimes the sea just wins.