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Surviving a dance with Hurricane Ethel

With little warning, the 1960 storm caught the crew of a 100-foot research vessel out on the Gulf of Mexico

With little warning, the 1960 storm caught the crew of a 100-foot research vessel out on the Gulf of Mexico

She was a sneaky old girl, that Ethel. She wasn’t very big on the Saffir-Simpson scale — or so we thought — but she was tough on us little guys.


Hurricane Ethel came out of the dark with murderous intent. We fought our way through her shrieks and blasts, and when her winds reached 98 mph, she ripped away the Oregon’s anemometer.

We knew she could kill by the pleadings we heard on 2182 kHz from a Cajun shrimp boat breaking up off Southwest Pass, which leads into the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico. They were only 20 miles from us, but we were also in danger of being overwhelmed. Two stout men were on the wheel trying to keep our 100-foot research vessel from broaching as we hurtled down the sides of huge following seas. There was no way to turn without rolling over.

Our radar shorted out from the near-liquid atmosphere. We prayed that South Pass, also leading into the Mississippi, lay dead ahead. Most of our Loran reception had failed, but one persistent microsecond line ran near the entrance to the pass. It was our umbilical cord to salvation. Men were tied to both sides of the open bridge to listen for breakers. Two long, stone jetties defined the pass, likely the only rocks in the Mississippi River Delta.

The research vessel Oregon was a 219-gross-ton, steel-hulled West Coast combination fishing vessel. She was built in Astoria, Ore., and had been in government service since the end of World War II. The Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, operated her from the exploratory fishing base in Pascagoula, Miss.

Her beat was the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, but she sometimes cruised as far south as the Amazon River. She carried a crew of 10, and a scientific party of two or three. Her mission was to inventory fish and shellfish stocks using both conventional and experimental fishing gear. The published results of her work were meant to promote the expansion and growth of the U.S. commercial fishing industry.

On Sept. 14, 1960, I was serving as assistant field party chief and acting second mate of the Oregon. We were about 100 nautical miles south of the Mississippi River Delta. Our captain was on leave, so Mate Howard King was in command. Johnny Butler, fisheries methods and equipment specialist, was field party chief. He supervised tests using a Lampara net (a net of Italian origin used to encircle and impound fish in open water) on offshore school fish in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

The Oregon had launched a 25-foot wooden seine boat to set the net. We knocked off for lunch after running dry-run drills in deploying and recovering the net all morning. A troubling 4- to 6-foot swell from the southeast complicated the work. The sun was bright, but there was a peculiar yellow tint in the air. Mackerel clouds streaked the heavens. The weather was changing.

On our own

At noon the New Orleans marine radio station hit us with a lightning bolt: There was a hurricane in the Gulf. Detected by a prototype weather/oceanographic buoy deployed by the Weather Bureau and the Bureau of Standards a few months earlier, Ethel was only 100 miles south of us. The storm was moving north at 18 mph with winds of 75 mph. The Oregon’s best speed was 9 knots, or a little more than 10 mph. Our closest refuge was the mouth of the Mississippi River, and quick calculations told us that the Oregon and Ethel likely would get there around the same time.

We considered running west for the so-called “safe semicircle” — the left side of a counterclockwise-rotating hurricane, where the winds aren’t as strong — but our slow speed, the short notice and the unpredictable path of the storm made Capt. King decide to run for the Mississippi. We headed for South Pass, which had a depth of 30 feet.

All hands worked with a survival-based will to get the big wooden seine boat and net secured on the fantail. It was tricky getting the heavy boat out of the water because of the rising swells. We managed to do the whole evolution in about a half-hour and started our frantic run north. Butler radioed our base in Pascagoula. The operations chief, Francis J. Captiva, a salty ex-Cape Cod, Mass., fisherman, was unconcerned.

“What the hell,” Captiva said. “It’s only a 70-knot breeze and you’re not exactly a small boat.” He observed that the leaves on the trees outside his office were hardly moving. We were on our own.

Chief engineer Sven Svensson, an unflappable Swede with many years at sea, advised mate King that we could run the 600-hp Enterprise diesel in the “red” and maybe get another knot out of it. Sven ordered his crew out of the engine room and took full responsibility for checking the gauges and bilge. The Oregon was rolling heavily in the growing swells from the east. The four deckhands put extra tiedowns on the big seine boat and lowered our boom as much as possible.

As the afternoon dragged on, radio reports and deteriorating sea and weather conditions showed we were losing our race against Ethel. By 6 p.m. we were about 40 nautical miles south of the delta, and Hurricane Ethel was 80 miles south of us with sustained winds of 110 mph. Night came early and brought nearly horizontal rain, our rails rolling under. Uncle Mose, our cook, made sandwiches because it was impossible to keep pots on the galley stove. No one ate much. Once the doors leading to the weather decks were secured, it got close and humid in the mess room. I don’t know about the others, but I was struggling to keep down a few bites. My nausea was probably as much from fear as from seasickness. Mose silently prayed a rosary. I mentally joined him.

The longest hour

By 8 p.m. we were in dire straits, about 20 miles south of the delta. That’s when our anemometer blew away. You could drink the atmosphere of driving rain and the blown-away tops of waves. Our radar failed, and the Loran produced only one station’s intermittent lines of position. Fortunately, one LOP ran from our guessed position to the vicinity of South Pass. King had the helmsman steer to keep the appropriate LOP reading on the dial. It was a peculiar type of navigation, but all we had except for dead reckoning.

Around 9 p.m. we contacted Coast Guard Station Pilot Town with a request to stand by for a possible mayday. Steering was very difficult, requiring two men on the wheel. The seas were building astern to well over 20 feet. The Coast Guard operator was sympathetic but harassed. Their utility boat wouldn’t be able to reach us.

Just then, a plea came over the distress frequency from a shrimp boat off Southwest Pass: They were aground and breaking up. Pilot Town told the shrimper to hang on. A helicopter was taking off from the air station in New Orleans and would try to reach them. Back then, helicopters weren’t what they are today. The bravery of that air crew made me ashamed of my fear.

The next hour was one of the longest I have ever lived. We were nearing a lee shore ahead of a raging storm and very unsure of our position. At this juncture, there was nothing we could do but forge ahead, surfing down the sides of the monstrous waves. The Oregon was getting more and more difficult to steer, with the rudder sometimes in dead water because of the seas moving with us over the deeper river flow. King sent two volunteer deckhands on a perilous journey aft to the seine boat with a fire axe. They were to chop holes in the sides of the big boat to let the accumulated water escape, and hopefully lower our center of gravity.

The captain asked me to check the condition of the big metal pin that held our huge boom to the mast. Awful screeches were coming from aft over the roar of the storm. If the boom carried away it would probably take us down. There was no way to get to the mast from the inside of the ship; I had to creep along the outside of the pilothouse. I chose the port side because it seemed to be the lee side. About halfway back, near the life raft, the Oregon started rolling to port at an alarming angle. I backed against the pilothouse and jammed my arms between the bulkhead and the grab rail, and stiffened my legs against the pipe rail. She kept going over, to at least 45 degrees. I looked into the raging water. As I said what might be my final prayers, I thought of my bride of only three months.

The Oregon stayed on her side for what seemed an eternity. I eventually reached the mast and found that even though the straining boom was the source of the high-pitched screeching, it seemed to be holding. I finally got back to the bridge and reported my finding. King managed a little humor. He accused me of sulking in the officers’ head.


By now the bridge and the chart room were crowded. The captain ordered all hands as close as possible to the two life rafts. We were a solemn bunch in our life jackets, swaying to the violent rolls of the little ship. The crew seemed fatally reconciled to the boat’s being blown into the delta’s sandbars or marshes. We hoped our steel hull would hold together so we could escape the fate of the now-silent wooden shrimp boat. Radio traffic between the Coast Guard helicopter and Pilot Town reported that the chopper found debris but no sign of life.

We were lost in our individual thoughts. It was hard to speak over the wind’s shriek. The starboard bridge lookout suddenly yelled, “Whoa!” All heads swiveled right. Out of the muck came a huge high-sided steamship making black smoke and smashing through the great waves. She was rung up and passed us by less than 100 yards. “Seatrain” was painted in bold letters along her side.

King shouted to me to get a bearing on that ship’s course. “She has to be headed for South Pass,” he said. I shoved my way to the compass platform and got a rough estimate of the Seatrain Louisiana’s heading. She was one of the 8,000-gross-ton freight car carriers of the day. The big ship quickly became just a blur, but her wake was visible in the confused sea. We followed her fading trail. Both outside lookouts screamed, “Breakers!” The Oregon hit the center of narrow South Pass about 10 p.m., crabbing almost sideways. We were delivered.

Although we didn’t know it at the time, Hurricane Ethel reached Category 5 as it passed the delta that night. It weakened considerably before going ashore. We got two anchors down about a half-mile into the pass and ran our engine full ahead to keep position. In the wee hours of the morning, a big ship that was anchored directly north of us began sending a mighty stream of sparks into the air like a July Fourth display. Apparently the riding pawl or wildcat friction brake of one of her anchors had let go. Somehow she kept her station, and we were spared yet again.

When a wet dawn broke over the Mississippi River marsh, the crew was exhausted but jubilant. Our flag halyard had carried away, and the Fish and Wildlife Service flag was lying on deck. I retrieved the shredded “Goose and Salmon” flag under which we served and saved it for posterity.

I have been through a lot of hurricanes in Florida since my dance with Ethel 45 years ago. All have been ashore and none have come close to producing the terror of going through one on a small ship. I cringe every time I hear a television weather forecaster say a storm will not be a threat to people on the coast. What about the poor devils at sea? We say grace at our family meals, and we always add our special intention: “For all the ships at sea. Amen.”