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U.S. Coast Guard Series The Unknown Underwater Curse of the Alkaid

July 1, 2016

 

Each month, an interesting aspect of the world’s oldest continuous maritime service
will be highlighted. The men and women of  the United States Coast Guard follow in the
fine tradition of the brave mariners who have served before them. As sentinels and saviors
of the seas, the United States Coast Guard proudly continues its commitment to honor,
respect & devotion to duty to maintain their vigil - Semper Paratus.

 

The "Alkaid" built in 1953

 

Captain Karl Heinz Stange stood on the bridge and took in the sights of the Manhattan skyline. Standing alongside Clyde Valley, the docking pilot, Stange was enamored by the bright lights cast from the metropolis. Taking in the city’s view, he also maintained a careful watch on the range lights for navigation. Valley had assumed command as the harbor pilot and Stange, as a watchful mariner, maintained his vigil. Stange watched as Valley carefully maneuvered the ship to ensure that he maintained deep water under the hull. Stange was elated to reach port and end the Trans-Atlantic voyage. Now, as the hour reached thirty-minutes past two o’clock in the morning, he was
one leg closer to the Metropolitan Petroleum Corporation Terminal at one hundred and
thirty-eighth street and the East River in the borough of the Bronx. The span of the
Williamsburg Bridge loomed overhead as the tanker steamed slowly toward her destination
upriver. Three minutes later, the length of the tanker shuddered violently. Captain Stange and
Valley issued orders to the tanker’s officers and men. Neither man nor any of the tanker’s
lookouts had seen anything in their track line, though something had been struck. The tanker
immediately began listing to starboard. The Alkaid was taking on water and spilling her
contents of heavy fuel oil into the river.

 

The Alkaid, six hundred and three feet in length and with a draft of thirty-feet, was built
in 1953 in the Netherlands. Owned by the Alvion Steamship Corporation of Panama, she
had left Mina Abdullah, in Kuwait, on June 15th, 1960 with twenty-two thousand, five hundred
and fifty-seven tons of fuel oil. The voyage from the Persian Gulf and across the Atlantic Ocean had been uneventful for Captain Stange and his thirty-seven crewmen. All of that ended as the tanker lurched to starboard and her cargo of heavy fuel oil began spilling into the river.

 

Captain Stange and his men immediately reacted to the violent collision by following their emergency protocols. The ballast tanks were flooded and cargo was shifted to unaffected tanks. Despite their efforts, the ship continued to list to the starboard side with an initial twelve degree list quickly increasing to twenty degrees with the starboard railings of the tanker completely awash. An inspection of the ship by her engineers quickly surmised that whatever she had hit had caused catastrophic damage. Sixteen of her twenty-seven cargo holds had been ruptured. The heavy fuel oil spilled wantonly into the East River. While his officers and men raced about the tanker to save the ship, Captain Stange coordinated with two tugboats from Moran Towing Company to provide immediate assistance. Beaching the tanker, Captain Stange surmised, was the only way to save it. By three o’clock in the morning, approximately twenty-seven minutes after the collision, the tugs Eugene F. Moran and Diana L. Moran were on scene. After coordinating with Captain Stange, the two tugs maneuvered and began pushing the sinking tanker toward the shallows. The United States Coast Guard, having been dispatched to the scene, remained diligent in their efforts to minimize the environmental damage and to assist if necessary if the situation worsened. With low tide in effect, the Alkaid was quickly towed into the shallows saving her from sinking in the East River. With each passing moment though, her chances of being pulled back into the depths remained a concern for Captain Stange and the salvagers.

 

By two o’clock in the afternoon on July 16th, high tide began to take its toll on the beached tanker. Three additional tugboats from Merritt-Chapman and Scott arrived on the scene to assist in the next leg of the salvage operation. Captain Stange issued orders to get underway. The plan was to take the stricken tanker down the river to the Bay Ridge Flats in the Upper Bay where barges would be utilized to pump out her tanks and to have air blown into her flooded cargo tanks to keep her stable. Patches to the ruptured hull would also be completed before taking her into dry-dock for permanent repairs to her hull.

 

The Alkaid moved slowly down the river with her tugboat escort but problems quickly arose when at five o’clock in the afternoon, the tanker once again ran aground. The tanker would not budge from her underwater perch. The tugboats and their crews maintained their vigil to await the next high tide to try and free her. With the swinging tide, the Alkaid was finally pulled free and by the early morning hours of the following day, she was towed to an anchorage off of Pier 14 in Staten Island. At her anchorage, the Merritt-Chapman and Scott salvage vessel, Curb, came alongside with her crew working throughout the day and night ensuring that the air pumps were operating efficiently to keep the Alkaid on an even keel. Also alongside, a bevy of barges were in place with pumps removing the oil from the ruptured tanks to lighten her load prior to being transferred
to dry-dock.

 

While the United States Coast Guard monitored the situation and the oil slick, which at its zenith had spread to both sides of the East River, they were also the lead investigator into this maritime accident and environmental disaster. On July 18th, the United States Coast Guard commenced its inquiry at the Customs House with Lieutenant Commander Frank E. McLean presiding. Captain Clyde Valley, the docking pilot at the helm at the time of the collision, testified that he was maneuvering the vessel upriver between the Williamsburg Bridge and Forty-Fourth Street when he “felt the ship list at the bow and something roll underneath.” A few seconds later, he continued, the ship listed to nearly twelve-degrees and then quickly to nearly twenty-degrees. The Board of Inquiry also learned from Captain James Cummings, the captain of the Eugene Moran which was alongside the Alkaid, that the tanker struck a “submerged object while it was on course in line. Cummings, on the bridge of the tug said that “I heard it. It sounded like a scraping sound.”

 

During the second day of testimony, Captain Stange of the Alkaid testified that the ship was drawing more than thirty-feet of water at the time of the collision. Second Officer Harold Etwein of the Alkaid corroborated his skipper’s testimony and reiterated that the ship was in line for the safe transit upriver. There was “no doubt,” concluded Captain Stange that the Alkaid was in the right position during the last leg of his tanker’s voyage. The United States Coast Guard inquiry was perplexed and awaited further information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. One question
loomed heavily over the incident – what had the Alkaid struck?

 

Marine underwriters offered the consensus that the Alkaid had struck the remains of a barge scow that had sunk and had never been located in the vicinity a few months prior to the incident. The consensus offered by the maritime experts was only conjecture. The reports from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deepened the mystery when their sounding reports indicated nothing in the vicinity that would have caused the damage that savagely breached sixteen of the ship’s twenty-seven cargo tanks. Without “smoking gun” evidence just what the submerged object was remained unknown.

 

In addition to the possibility of a sunken barge scow, other theorists, especially those of the paranormal offered only one other possible, though unworldly, explanation. Was it possible
that the tanker’s hull struck an unidentified underwater object of an unknown out-of-this-world creation? The proximity to the United Nation’s building – where the tanker was beached to try and save her might, as some theorists have offered, have been a location that piqued interest in those creatures or beings from outer space operating their underwater UFO. With no definitive evidence the theory remains only a far-fetched possible explanation for those who believe in such possibilities.

 

No submerged item or wreck was ever found to explain the damage to the tanker and therefore, the episode of the Alkaid and her collision remains just one of the many mysteries of the maritime environs. The United States Coast Guard, after their thorough review of testimony, information and evidence, could only surmise that something unknown caused the damage. The Alkaid, after repairs, returned to sea to ferry her cargoes to various maritime ports with the unknown curse of July 16th, 1960 remaining unsolved and in her wake.

 

The United States Coast Guard, in addition to responding to emergencies including vessels involved in collisions with submerged objects, environmental disasters, and other maritime contingencies, continues in a pivotal role as investigator into the causes of maritime accidents. Though the mysteries of the deep sometimes remain unclear, it is the responsibility of the United States Coast Guard to always search for clues that offer insight into the causes of accidents and disasters so that future mariners can learn and hopefully avoid potentially catastrophic incidents and the loss of life. In the case of the Alkaid, the tanker was saved, the scope of the environmental disaster limited, and none of the ship’s complement was lost. The mysterious cause of the accident, despite the diligent efforts of all involved from the initial collision to the conclusion of the inquiry will most likely remain another of the watery world’s unknowns. For the United States Coast Guard, the incident of July 16, 1960 serves as a reminder of the vast breadth of responsibility of the service’s personnel who, from start to finish, remain integral components
in the maritime environs as sentinels and saviors of the seas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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