Breakers under the bow!” This was the shout which suddenly met the ears of the captain and other officers on the bridge of the U.S.S. Celtic on a dark night in 1905. Simultaneously with this warning, the Celtic, steaming at 12 knots and without even so much as a quiver, glided easily up on the sands of Hicacal Beach in Guantanamo Bay.
Imagine the shock to the nerves of those responsible. How could such a thing as this happen? Here was a navy ship of 6,000 tons with a captain of thirty years’ service, an experienced (?) navigator (the writer, six years out of the Academy), and a chief boatswain of long service as officer of the deck; and yet—on a dark but perfectly clear night the ship was stranded.
Most of the principals in this story have passed to the great beyond. In fact the writer is the only one left who might have been in any way held responsible. The story would not now be told if it were not felt that a lesson might be learned from the telling; due to the passage of years, it has acquired interesting aspects not appreciated at the time.
The Celtic was the supply ship for the Atlantic Fleet. For several months, following a 6-month tour of duty in Guantanamo Bay, I had been her executive officer and navigator. We were carrying out routine duties with the fleet in the Caribbean area when unexpected orders were received to unload at Guantanamo Bay, and then proceed to Oyster Bay, Long Island Sound, where the fleet was being assembled for review by President Theodore Roosevelt.
In spite of the lack of navigational aids I knew Guantanamo Bay like a book, so the prospect of arriving there at night had no dread for me. In fact I prided myself on being an expert pilot for those waters. The courses to be followed were laid off on the chart. We were to approach from the eastward, round the Windward Point light at a safe distance, head north and leave the Fisherman’s Point buoy with its red light on our starboard hand; then take the proper course to the selected anchorage. I took the chart to the captain and he approved the procedure as laid down.
On this particular night there had been a rain squall, and although it was very dark, due to low-lying clouds, the rain had ceased and the atmosphere was clear. However, the shadow of these clouds eliminated the line of demarcation between land and water. There being no marks on which cross bearings could be taken, the distance off the Windward Point light was determined by timing the 26½ degree , the bow, and the beam bearings. We rounded exactly on the prescribed line and as we headed north all of us on the bridge said simultaneously, “There’s the buoy!” Just as expected there was the red light. A little to the right of it was a white light about which we speculated as we steamed on our northerly course. We agreed that it was the stay light of a ship which probably had been caught in the rain squall and anchored near the buoy. So there I stood with watch in hand timing the 26½-degree bearing and the bow bearing on the red light when suddenly came that shout, “Breakers under the bow!” Before anything could be done about it the Celtic was hard and fast aground. Needless to say, the engine was backed full speed and continued backing until the condenser was clogged with sand; but to no avail.
Only those who have had the experience of running their ship aground can appreciate the feeling of despair which comes with such a predicament. Of course, different people are affected in different ways. In this particular case the captain practically ceased to function. He was almost in a state of collapse. What to do and how to do it were left entirely to me and my very able chief engineer and watch officers, all of these latter being chief warrant officers of long experience. We immediately got busy and carried both bower anchors out on their respective quarters, with full scope of chain. The army captain in charge of the installation of gun emplacements was contacted and from him we borrowed lighters which were placed alongside for unloading our cargo. The commandant of the station was notified and it was agreed that the yard tug should make an attempt to haul us off at what little high tide was due soon after daylight.
We discovered in due time that the red light which we tried to round was not the Fisherman’s Point buoy but was the front light of a range which had recently been established on shore, and that the white light was the rear mark of this range. The light on Fisherman’s Point buoy (an oil lantern) had evidently been extinguished by the preceding rainstorm. In checking over our course it developed that from the point where we headed north to enter the bay, the buoy (which we did not see) and the red range light were exactly on the same bearing.
With the mail that came on board early in the morning was a copy of the Notice to Mariners. In it was an announcement of the establishment of these range lights. For a few moments a feeling of relief pervaded. But it did not last long. With my intimate knowledge of Guantanamo Bay it never entered my head that perhaps it would be wise to read the Sailing Directions before entering the harbor. Now, too late, I decided to look at them. To my dismay I found that the proposed establishment of these fights as announced by a previous Notice to Mariners had been pasted in the proper place by the chief quartermaster in accordance with usual practice.
In the same mail came the captain’s commission as a commander. He broke down and wept, stating he had waited thirty years for this commission and now they would take it away from him! Indeed, it was all very sad.
Several attempts by the tug to haul the ship off resulted in failure. So it was decided to see what could be done with the old monitor Amphitrite which was one of the station ships, and on which the commandant of the station, who was also the commanding officer, had his quarters. I knew the Amphitrite well, as for six months of my duty at Guantanamo I had been her executive officer and navigator. I also knew from experience how little horsepower she could boast. On the trip from Pensacola, where I joined her, we ran into a moderately heavy sea and, although doing our utmost, for 36 hours the patent log registered a speed of zero! So I had but little faith that anything could be accomplished by her efforts. And this little faith was completely shattered when the captain, instead of placing the Amphitrite directly astern of the Celtic, took position on the quarter, with the explanation that should the Celtic be pried loose and the Amphitrite be directly astern, she might not be able to get out of the way! As the Celtic had settled in the sand and mud not less than 2 feet for her entire length, it is not to be wondered that the Amphitrite accomplished nothing more than to carry away a few hawsers.
During this time the unloading went on day and night. The captain had ensconced himself in a big chair on the poop. There he sat for the two days, with a carpenter’s level between his feet, intently watching if there was any movement of the bubble, which he said would be an indication that the ship was afloat. His vigil was finally rewarded. On the morning of the third day, after all cargo had been removed and we were beginning to unload the 500 tons of ballast coal in one of the holds, there was a shout from the poop: “The bubble’s moving!” We hove in on the anchor chains and the Celtic slid off the beach just as quietly and smoothly as when she ran aground. An examination showed that there was not even so much as a dent in her bottom.
The commandant ordered a Board of Investigation to determine the extent of the damages and who was responsible therefor. The claim was made that as there were no damages the Board did not have jurisdiction. This sea-lawyer effort went for naught. So I persuaded the captain to send a message to the Department to the effect that the Celtic was ready to sail but was being delayed by the Board of Investigation. This had the desired effect as the reply was to proceed immediately to Oyster Bay.
We heard nothing further from the Department until three months later when the captain received a letter in which it was pointed out that, in his report of the grounding, a statement was made to the effect that the navigator had not informed him of the proposed establishment of these range lights, and requesting to be informed of the reasons therefor. So it was up to me to make an explanation. In looking back I think this must have been a masterpiece, because the Department never took any action, and we all escaped without even a mark on our records. All of which goes to prove that some people are born lucky. However, there were apparently several factors in our favor. One of these was that with the buoy light extinguished, and therefore not being available for navigational purposes, there was no indication of negligence other than the failure to read the Sailing Directions. Another was that the commandant had protested the establishment of this range on the grounds that in the absence of other navigational aids it was apt to lead a ship too far.
In reflecting on the situation that night when all of us who were in any way concerned with the safety of the ship had not the slightest intimation that she was being hazarded, I concluded that if my entire attention had not been devoted to keeping an accurate check on the ship’s position, I would have noticed lights in the houses on Fisherman’s Point and recognized that we had passed the unseen buoy. This surmise was substantiated when the ship’s surgeon observed: “The trouble with all of you on the bridge was that you were hypnotized by a red light.”