Mohawk, Western Union, Vandenberg, Elsbeth III

Travelogue - April 25, 2009
"The sea wasn't cruel, only indifferent.
It was the men and what they brought with them
that created the cruelty."

-Mike Walling
Bloodstained Sea - The U.S. Coast Guard in the Battle of the Atlantic, 1941-1944

Here we are, still docked at the Key West Bight Marina. We've had a good few weeks visiting, dining out, walking, biking, resting, Working, sanding and varnishing, polishing and shining.

Manatees cruise the dinghies One afternoon two huge manatee floated benignly in the dinghy basin. One came right to the surface to exhale explosively and Rick told him "Bless you!" The creatures lingered and lolled and sniffed the air, and one rolled on his back to show us inside his mouth - of course, that happened before I went to get the camera, sorry. So I'll just tell you that he didn't have even bovine teeth, but inside his big flappy elephant lips were an upper and a lower row of smooth rigid bone. All the better for stripping aquatic vegetation, one guesses.

On another clear-water day a sand shark, probably 4' long, cruised the basin moving stealthily from the shade beneath one boat to another.

Manatee mug There is always something going on here. In addition to the unexpected blessings, like the manatees, we are whittling down our list of sights that, after four visits, we have yet to experience. More events materialize each time we think we've seen and done it all. We've experienced a lot in the past weeks, you may have to digest this travelogue in installments.

One hot Saturday morning we walked across the island to the Bahama Village neighborhood where we had a delicious breakfast on the outdoor terrace at Blue Heaven ("You don't have to die to get here"). After a delicious shared meal of omelet and pancake and cuban coffee, we walked past the Hemingway House and waved at his six-toed cats, then we continued past the old Lighthouse - both of which we visited in a 2007 Key West travelogue - then through the Truman Annex to the waterfront home of the Coast Guard Cutter Mohawk.

The Mohawk

The Mohawk The Mohawk is 165' long, 38' wide, with a draft of 12' - see USS Mohawk CGC Memorial Museum for plans if you want to build one in your own backyard. She was constructed in 1934 for service as an icebreaker in the frigid North Sea. With her rounded bottom reinforced with plate steel the technique was to charge up onto the ice sheet and crash through (rather than cut through the ice with a pointed prow). But one assumes that her rounded hull made for a lot of rolling in the rough Atlantic.

When the US entered World War II the Mohawk was assigned to the North Atlantic escort operations and her shining ice-white exterior was replaced with camouflage grey. As a typical example of her service throughout the conflict she rescued 293 survivors of the torpedoed USAT Chatham and 24 from the USS Barberry:

Mohawk and her sisters, all younger than ten years of age, were the backbone of the Atlantic Fleet. It is extremely difficult to find a record of any American convoy that did not have one of the "Tribal-Class" on escort duty. They were small in size, yet totally competent... - J.C. Carney

Sailor with search light Mohawk is the only Coast Guard cutter subchaser among her thirty sister ships to survive the war and she has been designated "Memorial Ship of the Battle of the Atlantic."

At USS Mohawk CGC Memorial Museum among many amazing facts and photos (such as that of the sailor manning the signal light, left, and icy decks, below) you can read a lucid two-part article entitled "USCGC MOHAWK: The Last Of Her Tribe" by J.C. Carney, which describes in detail her construction, service, neglect and eventual restoration. It includes some good passages about the newfangled RADAR, of life aboard and of duties undertaken:

On 8 May 1945, she made a last entry in her log concerning the war, in which she recorded a general quarters drill... Mohawk's war was over.

"Mo" did not immediately depart Greenland... She was sent to air-sea rescue stations, as they were bringing warplanes back filled with departing troops from the European theatre and intentionally flew over southern Greenland. The cutters had been painted yellow so the pilots could easily spot the ships in case they had to ditch... - J.C. Carney

The galley This cutter is the fifth vessel of the same name. The second Mohawk was a Navy steamer operating against pirates and slavers in the 1860s and - in an amazing coincidence - was in fact the very ship which captured the slaver Wildfire in April 1860 (we learned about this event in 2008 From the Southernmost Point to the Western Peaks).

Well. On Saturday April 11 we paid a ridiculously miniscule fee and climbed up the gangplank. Chief Botswain Peter greeted us on the quarterdeck.

Our tour took us first to the galley, right, located centrally on the main deck. This room is about the size of Sea Gator's main cabin and it's the place where meals for 148 men and 14 officers were prepared. I have no idea how that feat was accomplished. How did pots and pans even stay on the stove in the rough North Atlantic, never mind anything staying inside them?

Men on an icy deck Next we visited the radio room where the original equipment is still in place and dispatches are still pinned to the walls. Then we descended a steep stairway to the crew's mess deck. Two of the large stainless steel dining tables had floodlights located above them for when they had to fill in as operating tables, god forbid.

Further below yet off-limits to visitors was the crew's quarters. One could peer in and see wire cots suspended from the walls; this level also housed the ammunition stores which probably made for some nervous sleeping. Additional crew slept in hammocks strung from hooks in the ceiling, as many more men than originally planned were assigned to her during the war.

Officers' cabins lined the aft section of the middle deck, and that's where we watched a looping video narrated by one of the former officers and featuring home-movie footage of the ship's crew aboard.

Botswain Peter (left), veteran and volunteer Jeffrey (right) What we found the most striking were the photographs and movie footage of the ferocious seas that the ship took on, day in and day out, and the thick ice which coated all her decks and armament. See an example, above, from the memorial's website. Botswain Peter (with brochure) said "Don't tell me salt water doesn't freeze" and he showed us a heavy wooden mallet that volunteers had recently found below decks. Mohawk's crew used such mallets to free the ship's topsides of ice, lest she become too top-heavy. Peter mentioned that in his days of service the de-icing techniques were much more advanced: "We used baseball bats."

Peter and Jeffrey (ahoy fellers, right) answered every single one of our barrage of questions about the ship (me), her engines (Rick), her service (me) and the North Sea (Rick). We all shared boat and ice stories, and Peter and Jeffrey were extremely patient with our questions and generous with their knowledge. They topped it all by filling us in about the Vandenberg but we would have to wait a week to see her.

We recommend the Mohawk to all Key West visitors.

Western Union

As if that weren't cool enough: a week later we returned to the pier to check with Jeffrey about the Vandenberg's schedule, and that's when we saw that the Western Union, now the Schooner Western Union Maritime Museum, had been hauled the day previous and staged here for repairs. As you may recall, as recently as two years ago she was in danger of going into private hands and possibly leaving Key West, but a group of concerned citizens rescued her and she continued to take passengers on day- and sunset-cruises:

Western Union on the hard Built in Key West in 1939, she is one of the oldest working wooden schooners in the United States. Constructed to tend the Western Union cable lines, today she offers a mix of romance, fun, and excitement that could only be offered by THE premier sailing vessel of the Florida Keys.

In 2008's Key West - the Travelogue we witnessed her return to Key West after some Coast Guard-required safety work, and now she is on the hard until December for some structural and aesthetic repairs.

Workers have built a sturdy chain-link fence around her and lined the area with work tables and storage containers. There is enough room there for a number of trades to work simultaneously. The work will be undertaken by local craftsman plus four shipwrights imported from New England for their experience on old wooden boats.

As Rick and I were gawking around we met Captain Lenn (below left), Western Union's captain of 13 years, who had just blasted over on his motorcycle to keep an eye on the setup. Rick recognized him as the efficient, Red Bull-chugging captain of our sunset cruise in 2002.

Captain Lenn Captain Lenn calls himself "the keeper of the history of the boat". He makes an interesting distinction there, recognizing that his is the face that tourists and amateur historians connect with, and that behind the scenes the boat is restored, maintained and operated by the dedicated Schooner Western Union Preservation Society.

Note: even though she is 130' long Capt. Lenn calls her a "boat" because, he told us, a ship is square-rigged. Good to know.

Western Union's draft is only 8' - necessary for laying cable in the shallows - and she has a very rounded hull as you can easily see in the photos. I thought her keel looked more like Sea Gator's than I would expect of a large sailing vessel and Capt. Lenn conceeded that she does tend to slide around a bit.

Presidential skiff It was pretty cool to chat with Capt. Lenn while surveying such an historic ship as the Western Union, and from such an unusual angle. As we wrapped up, thanking him for his time and photo op, he pointed to the nearby fixer-upper skiff that Rick and I had admired and coveted, right. He filled us in:

That humble skiff was in fact President Truman's private launch. Volunteers had found it slowly disintegrating in a storage crate and brought it to light. They hope to raise money to salvage and display this hardy little boat as another part of Key West's maritime history.

That would be something to see some day. We will keep hope alive.

Audubon House

Nope, wildlife artist James Audubon did not own the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens. But in the early 1800s he lived aboard a Navy cruiser in the harbour and used the gardens here and next door while studying and illustrating the new bird species he identified and documented in the lower Keys:

Audubon House porches
Audubon visited the Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas in 1832. Audubon left Key West having sighted and drawn 18 new birds for his "Birds of America" folio. It is believed that many of those drawings were conceived in the Audubon House garden. Audubon's painting of the white-crowned pigeon features the Geiger tree found in the front yard of the house.

The house itself is a beautiful example of climate-appropriate architecture - deep porches, high ceilings, lots of cross-ventilation. The docent told us that it was built by a very wealthy ship's captain during the wrecking heyday, but that four generations later the family had come upon hard times. This proved to be an advantage for us, however, because the heirs did not have ready cash available to do any renovations or upgrades whatsoever. So the house was unchanged from the early days: the outhouse, separate cookhouse, gas lanterns and candles were still in place, along with all the fittings, the beautiful southern pine floors and carved hardwood trims, and most of the window glass.

Butterfly Garden's crane fountain We wandered freely. In the upstairs gallery are 28 first editions of Audubon's prints, and the adjacent shop sells original runs of the hand-painted prints.

Audubon did phenomenal work describing and classifying contemporary undocumented species - a large number of his identifications were accurate and are still used today. That's a pretty impressive feat considering that scientific classifications of many species of plants and animals are continuously being revised.

The gardens are legendary - we found the site to be peaceful and the plantings nicely orchestrated. The oasis is in use almost continuously for weddings and other events. We spent a lot of time in the restorative butterfly garden with its lush plantings - including a Dutchman's Pipe in bloom which I've only ever seen in books - and soothing fountain.

The Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg

Vendenberg under tow behind tug Elsbeth III While all the ship-visiting and garden-gawking were going on - and after ten years and $12 million had been expended in the effort - the enormous troop transport Vandenberg (originally commissioned as the U.S.N.S. General Harry Taylor) was on her way south, under tow from Norfolk VA to Key West. We tracked her progress all week via the tug captain's updates at the Big Shipwrecks website:

April 15, 2009, Capt Billy Notes "All Ok on tug and ship. Weather forecast improving, expect to pick up speed and favorable conditions tomorrow. Will hug coast to avoid Gulf Stream and hope to pick up a nice counter current. Tow behaving well and towing nicely..."

Tug Broward at Vandenberg's stern Whoever this Captain Billy was, he was being modest: the deep sea tug Elsbeth III was towing a listing steel shell nearly two football-fields long through the open ocean, averaging four to seven knots in seas ranging from 4' to 20'. We can presume lots of rollers coming in from the Atlantic and giving the two boats a continuous and ( in my experience) nauseating side-to-side roll.

We tracked her progress on the web and checked in with the Mohawk volunteers every now and then. Vandenberg's arrival would depend on the progress of the tow but she was finally slated to enter the harbor on Wednesday, April 22. As she drew near there were issues:

The Coast Guard insisted (wisely) that no cruise ships be in port while the Vandenberg was being maneuvered into position (their sterns generally jut well into the harbor mouth) and the city of Key West is loath to miss out on the $20,000 tithe it receives from each cruise ship coming to port. So as the tow drew nearer the lower Keys, it became apparent that Wednesday would be the only day on which no cruise ships were scheduled.

Thank goodness the weather cooperated and it was as calm as it could be. The tug aimed to arrive at slack tide - one less thing to contend with while maneuvering a 500'+ sliding steel battering ram into place (Vandenberg is 522' long, 76' wide in the beam and dragging 25' draft below waterline - not to mention her superstructure catching the winds above).

Tugs Ocean Atlas and Ocean Wind edge Vandenberg to the seawall, tug Elsbeth III at the bow Rick and I checked our tide charts and so got up early and peddaled our bikes to the Harbor. As soon as we neared Mallory Square we could see an enormous white structure out in the ship channel - the Vandenberg's superstructure was visible for miles (top photo).

Soon we discerned the tow party: Elsbeth III was towing the ship with an enormous (2-1/2" diameter) steel cable connected to the Vandenberg's own anchor chain. By then other professionals were assisting: the tug Broward's tow cable was attached to her stern (second photo, above right). The tugs Ocean Atlas and Ocean Wind kept pace along her port and starboard sides. Dozens of Coast Guard, Police, TowBoatUS, harbor pilot and line handlers' boats loitered nearby and a helicopter circled continuously overhead.

HUGE ship, line handlers waiting We saw the party inch slowly past and beyond the harbor mouth and then Broward at the stern reversed and slowed. Then, with both tugs keeping continuous tension on the tow cables, Broward began to pull the Vandenberg backwards into the harbor while Elsbeth III kept constant tension on the bow cable.

Harbor depths are 31' to 33' deep. Even so, turbulence from the tugs' multiple propellers churned the bottom silt into soup.

Broward slowly dragged Vandenberg stern-first into the harbor. By then Ocean Atlas and Ocean Wind were nose-to her port side fore and aft and they pushed laterally. All cables remained taut and waves from the props continuously churned against the seawall.

In the photo above you can see Mohawk at her mooring in the background behind Vandenberg's stern, Elsbeth III off the bow and the two Ocean tugs at her side.

Inch by inch the Vandenberg slid sideways into her slip (photo left). We didn't hear a sound as she eased up against the enormous Navy fenders along the sea wall.

The harbor crews really scurried into action then, as men in boats ferried the enormous dock lines to teams ashore - see the docking process for huge ships in Key West The Travelogue. The lines were made fast to pairs of huge bollards both aboard (below right) and ashore (below left). All tugs remained in place, engines running and lines taut, throughout the procedure. Soon the shore crew had to double up to tighten the dock lines and it took several men all pulling together to hoist the lines and bring in the slack.

Crewmen secure docking lines aboard It is impossible for photos to illustrate the size of this vessel, literally. She was too huge to fit both tugs and the Vandenberg into one frame. She is a fifty-two story building lying on her side and her windage above the waterline looks to be at least eight stories high. She is overwhelming.

So here she is: safely ashore for the time being. If we didn't tell you before, she will be sunk offshore to create the second-largest man-made reef. I had thought, "Cool. But, why?" and so when we met an oceanography professor from Florida Keys Community College - one of the supporters of the Vandenberg Artificial Reef Project - we asked that very question. He informed us that the ship is a huge money-maker for the community because divers find it so fascinating. And this is critical because it significantly reduces pressure on the reefs which are in big trouble these days. So you gotta love that.

Dock hands secure lines ashore Go to Big for history, updates, photos and more info on the project. Another official we met told us they've been too swamped to really perfect the website but they will keep working on it. It's pretty informative as-is, check it out.

Vandenberg will stay in port as long as possible so she can be celebrated and so volunteers of the same-era Mohawk can "requisition" the ship's fittings and steel and other necessities to further their own restoration efforts. Then, in the engineering feat of a lifetime Vandenberg will be towed out and sunk just before hurricane season. We'll all be able to watch it on National Geographic and the Discovery Channel's Mythbusters.

Underwater cinematographer Conrad Eskilinen told us we could catch a previews of the Discovery Channel's films at his site, Check it out.

A Tangent

Vandenberg ashore The Vandenberg was awe-inspiring and mind-boggling but, unlike Mohawk, we were haunted by the fact that her very existence is due solely to a world-wide deadly conflict that claimed an enormous toll in lives lost. For that reason we found ourselves sobered in her presence, and conflicted: as we raved about how amazing and cool the ship is and how REALLY cool are the logistics of the project and the engineering of the upcoming scuttling, we would not ignore her history and we found ourselves lowering our voices respectfully as though we were present at a memorial to the lost.

But we had no such reservations about the tug: she went straight to our hearts. Elsbeth III was the highlight of that day for Rick and me.

Key West's newspaper The Citizen is useful in its way. But as far as I know scooped them with our exclusive coverage of the deep sea tug Elsbeth III and interview with Captain Billy. Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha.

Elsbeth III

As we loitered outside the safety barricades watching crews struggle with Vandenberg's weighty dock lines, city V.I.P.s glad-handed voters and ate donuts on the Mohawk. Relieved 'Reef Project' members mopped their brows and laughed in sheer adrenelin overload, project planners granted interviews to and local news, and dockhands took photos of the behemoth with their cell phones.

Elsbeth III at work, stern Meanwhile, forward of the big ship, Elsbeth III sat quietly secured to the seawall, her winch still taut with Vandenberg's anchor chain. Crewmembers in safety-yellow Tshirts and hardhats worked efficiently and then dispersed. Aloft, a young man with crew cut, shoulder-to-elbow tattoos and mirror shades leaned out from the bridge, arms crossed casually on the railing, below.

Rick and I were fascinated by the working tug. She is one of four tugs owned and operated by Smith Maritime - Ocean Towing & Salvage Services. Her owner, Latham Smith, designed and built each tug in the fleet. A spry gentleman I saw flitting around Vandenberg's top decks later proved to be Mr. Smith.

By now the crew-cut and sunglasses man was ashore and talking with a woman holding a dog in her arms. What the heck. So I introduced myself to thank them for their work and to acknowledge what appeared to be a technical and delicate maneuver at the end of a couple of probably long and tiring weeks.

Captain BillyThe man introduced the pretty woman as Mrs. Smith, wife of the tug's designer. And he introduced himself as captain of the Elsbeth III.

Captain Billy? Holy cow! I shook his hand. "We've been following your dispatches all week, what an amazing experience it's been. And you have the coolest boat."

Capt. Billy was modest and articulate, and before I knew it he had invited us aboard for a tour.

Needless to say, Capt. Billy and Rick went directly to the engine room while I enjoyed a brief chat with Mrs. Smith. She and I compared author Farley Mowat's seafaring books in which I had learned to revere tugs, and we had both enjoyed the lesser-known Mowats (Grey Seas Under and Serpent's Coil - both books are excellent edge-of-your-seat depictions of deep sea tugs' Atlantic and Carribean salvages and rescues - and The Boat Who Wouldn't Float which is just purely delight).

Well. Eventually I caught up with Rick and Capt. Billy descending from the pilot house. Billy showed us the quarters where he and his wife live. She has her captain's license as well so they are able to be together, doing work they love.

Elsbeth III, bow Capt. Billy grew into the life: his father and grandfather worked on tugs so he felt it was a natural path to take - he is clearly a dedicated and skilled individual to have attained his position of responsibility. His favorite part of the job: waking up each day on the sea and doing what he loves.

Capt. Billy agreed that, other than in obvious matters of technology and communications, deep sea salvage and maritime law haven't changed much in 200 years. "It's the last form of legal piracy," he nodded. Emphasis on legal.

A tug boat's duties are historic: rescuing crews, towing injured vessels to port, and performing rescue and technical assists to ships in hazardous conditions:

In 1975 major recognition came from the international community when the Epic Colotronis was burning and sinking in Mona Passage. Elsbeth, Capt. Smith commanding, was the only vessel to approach and put men on board; they found the ship was deliberately being scuttled [sunk] with 56,000 tons of crude on board. Elsbeth and crew were able to secure hatches and doors that were open to the sea taking water, and turned the bow to wind, minimizing the spread of fire, danger of explosion and entrance of water. The ship was towed in safely by Smit International Salvage, who arrived two days later.

Forward winches Imagine seas heavy enough to pour water into the hatches and doors of a huge tanker. The tanker's bulworks were undoubtedly much higher than the tug's, so try to imagine boarding a looming, heaving, unfamiliar and burning tanker. We can assume that the power is out and water is pouring in so it is dark and slippery AND on fire. And now imagine locating and solving problems, receiving and attaching a tow line deployed by your tiny tossing vessel, and staying with the burning ship for two days. And loving it.

Elsbeth III is outfitted for a range of thirty days towing and sixty days utility work, and their equipment includes a "rescue launch". Rick learned from Capt. Billy that the entire crew are certified divers.

Under maritime law (don't quote me, by which I mean don't try to nab a boat on my say-so) when a ship has been abandoned, or when a distressed ship's owner agrees to specific legal provisions, the assisting vessel which gets a line on her has salvage rights. As the old time Key West wreckers learned, this may mean a great deal of money from the ship's underwriters who would otherwise be at a loss for the entire vessel and its contents. Therefore, Smith Maritime stations her four tugs at various points around the Atlantic and Carribean. When a distress call comes in it's a race to the scene. Just as in the old days.

Tow line to Vandenberg from the stern winch Check Smith Maritime's website for information on all of their ships, it's pretty amazing. For example, you'll be agog when you learn that Elsbeth III's three 12-cylinder diesel engines produce 5000 horsepower and her bow thruster is 100 hp (Sea Gator's entire engine is 135 hp, woo!). She has three separate props which can rotate independently, which explains the slick maneuvering against Key West's seawall. She is a tidy 90' working ship, in the tradition of her forebears.

Elsbeth III's next assignment will take her to Africa. It's all in a day's work for Capt. Billy. He smiles at the thought of crossing the Atlantic again.

Captain Latham Smith arrived aboard with lots of work to do no doubt, so Rick and I shook Capt. Billy's hand and wished him a safe voyage, thanked them both and took ourselves away.

What an incredible experience, to have walked in the living footsteps (to mix several metaphors) of such a noble profession, and to honor living history in the able person of Capt. Billy. This was the highlight of our trip. After the Mohawk. No, before the Mohawk. No, wait...

More Highlights

OK, there were more highlights, but they were of the personal rather than historic nature.

Pat and Kay I was happy to get to know Kay a little better on this trip and it was a privilege. Here we are after lunch. We were barely able to eat because for one thing, I came here straight from the Vandenberg/Elsbeth III adventure and our waiter was crushed he had missed it so I had to show him all of my pictures and tell him all about it. It was cool. For another thing Kay and I had too much to talk about and not enough time, as usual. Thank you, Kay!

On Sea Gator's part, three additional coats of sanding and varnish are showing results and our exterior teak is looking really beautiful. Soon Rick will be able to shave by his reflection in our brightwork. Tim, a salesman at the nearby West Marine store, tried to entice me into varnishing his sailboat's name board in time for Key West's Great Sea Battle of the Conch Republic, but I declined. I wasn't born yesterday.

All Goldie, All the Time

Poor Goldie. She doesn't care for Key West, it's too noisy and boisterous for her taste. This is her pattern: When we arrived she was skeptical and cautious, peeking out at all the ruckus from inside the boat. The second week she became discouraged and slept most of the days away. Now she has had enough - she is restless, irritable and discontent. She needs - and receives - lots of hugging and brushing and snacks, and isn't that all any of us need?

Goldie aloft Rick and I had installed some netting on the side decks (the Feline Containment System or FCS) to discourage her from ambling away although she can push past or leap over them if she wants to go ashore, god forbid, amen. But I realize that she relies on them to protect her from whatever creatures are ashore and might want to come ON the boat. That works, too.

Here she is in a rare moment of high spirits, having attained the lofty boat deck and the satisfaction of giving me a heart attack.

OK, that's it, I promise. We are in Key West until the weather breaks which hopefully will coincide with the end of our reserved time here at the dock on May 1. Then we'll begin the long trek north. And west.

Please, y'all, keep all four tires and four paws and two feet firmly on the ground. Thanks for listening.

Pat, Rick and Goldie

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