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Coast Guard Series - A Royale Gamble

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.

A Royale Gamble

Captain Lars Engebretsen had his orders and he would follow them. Sifting through the most up to date weather forecasts, his plan was prudent and based on his years of maritime experience. He passed his orders to the crew. The two hundred and thirty-four foot ship would cast off her lines and set out to sea. The ominous nature of their voyage was far from its normal duties of fun and frolic. The mission was to save the ship from the ferocious wind-swept monster that was racing toward the region with wanton weatherly abandon. Staying in the safe confines of the Port of Palm Beach was not an option. Setting out to sea and taking a course northwest would hopefully put the ship out of harm’s way and provide the captain the ability to ride out the storm in calmer seas. The storm, named Hurricane Erin, was forecasted to slam into southern Florida. Heading north would put his ship and crew out of harm’s way. The decision was not determined blindly nor was it not the action of many other seasoned mariners. Captain Lars Engebretsen would not gamble on this voyage. Tossing the dice was not in his mantra. The Club Royale’s lines were cast to the dock and she set out of the Port of Palm Beach. The only gamble, Captain Engebretsen reflected, was the forecast. If Hurricane Erin deviated from the forecasted reports, the Club Royale could find herself amidst the storm’s wicked wrath. It was a gamble which had stakes of life and death as each minute passed and Hurricane Erin continued on her warpath across the seas.

U.S. Coast Guard Falcon jet.

Hurricane Erin had formed off the coast of Africa on July 22, 1995. The catalyst, a simple tropical wave, was joined by two distinct low-level circulation centers. The lethal combination pushed northwest toward the Leeward Islands and on July 30th, officials at the National Hurricane Center requested a nighttime reconnaissance mission to be conducted by the specially trained Hurricane Hunters. The information gathered by the Hurricane Hunters was not good and the weather pattern had become Tropical Storm Erin by the early morning hours of July 31st. Within twelve hours, Tropical Storm Erin’s winds had increased to hurricane strength. Hurricane Erin’s track from west-northwest shifted to northwest and appeared to be losing the ability to gain strength. Forecasters studied the available information. It appeared that the hurricane would strike the Bahamas Island chain and then make landfall over east-central Florida.

On August 2nd, Hurricane Erin made landfall near Vero Beach, Florida as a Category-1 hurricane. Over the course of August 2nd, the hurricane’s track altered to a west-northwest direction. Despite her winds decreasing from a strength of eighty-six miles an hour to fifty-eight miles per hour, the storm remained well-organized. Captain Engebretsen and his then men charged forward to avoid the storm. There would be no escaping her lethal clutches.

At four-thirty in the morning of August 2nd, the Club Royale began listing badly in the huge waves. Approximately ninety-miles off of Cape Canaveral, the situation appeared grim. Captain Engebretsen briefed his crew. They would have to continue to fight on if they were going to survive. The men went about their duties but their thoughts focused on their ability to survive. The ship, originally designed for river cruises, had been only in operation out of the Port of Palm Beach for one month. Captain Engebretsen had taken the position for the ship’s normal captain who had taken a vacation. Captain Engebretsen, a twenty-five year veteran of the seas, was fighting to save his ship and save his men as the hurricane continued to churn the waters of the Atlantic Ocean into a maelstrom of destruction.

At eight o’clock in the morning of August 2nd, only three and a half hours after her listing had increased to a dangerous level, an EPIRB or Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, was activated. The United States Coast Guard received the electronic alert. No other communication had been received. Information in hand, United States Coast Guard aviation personnel readied to alight into the wind-swept heavens to offer assistance. First launched into the hurricane-force winds was a Falcon jet. Taking off from Miami, the aircraft flew to the position indicated by the EPIRB. At ten o’clock in the morning, crewmen spotted debris in the water. Orange life-rafts with men aboard were spotted. The Falcon jet made several passes and transmitted the position and situation to headquarters. Alighting into the sky, two United States Coast Guard helicopters headed to the scene to save the stricken souls from the massive waves.

At fifteen minutes past noon, the helicopters arrived on the scene. United States Coast Guard rescue swimmer Chuck Brannan readied himself for the rescue. Fifteen to twenty-five foot seas swirled beneath him as his helicopter was maneuvered overhead of the two orange rubber life-rafts. Donned in his swimmer’s gear, he leapt into the wicked waves and swirling rotor-wash from the helicopter. Brannan plunged into the hurricane swept seas. Adjusting his gear he swam through the water to the first raft. He began to give instructions but the men could not understand English. He took stock of the situation and relied on his training. He signaled the crew chief aboard the helicopter to lower the metal rescue basket. One by one the survivors would be taken aboard the helicopter. The men aboard the rafts were nervous and scared. The metal basket splashed into the water. Brannan grabbed it and began using hand-signals to the men aboard the rafts. He grabbed one of the men and took him in the water toward the basket. With the man safely aboard, he signaled to the crew chief to reel him up. As Brannan turned to return to the raft, he saw that the raft had overturned. Brannan gathered the three other men together and, working with his crew chief and flight crew, repeated the hoisting operation three additional times. Heavy(?) four souls, Brannan and his flight crew, confirmed that their sister helicopter had been successful in pulling the other survivors from the water with the hard work of fellow United States Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Clark Everson. The twin United States Coast Guard helicopters, their mission of rescuing the survivors completed, took a course heading for Patrick Air Force Base. A total of seven souls had been successfully pulled from the storm-churned waters.

Radio reports to the United States Coast Guard provided additional details as to the whereabouts of the missing crewmen. One survivor, found floating in a raft, had been pulled to safety by the crew of a freighter. Now, three men were listed as missing. The ship’s third officer, Graham Woods, the ship’s cook Elvin Rosario and Captain Engebretsen. While the eight survivors plucked from the seas by the United States Coast Guard helicopters and the good Samaritans aboard the freighter were transferred to local hospitals for treatment of exposure and fatigue, the men and women of the United States Coast Guard returned to their mission of searching and hopefully recovering the three missing men from the gambling ship.

For the next three days, a bevy of United States Coast Guard assets, both surface and aerial, conducted a search that covered forty-one thousand square miles in a vane search for the missing men. On the second day of the search, the ship’s cook, Elvin Rosario was found in a life-raft one hundred miles northeast of Jacksonville, Florida. Rosario had not survived his terrible ordeal. The only other things found during the four day search were twenty-one of the ship’s thirty life rafts. Captain Engebretsen and Graham Woods were never found. Their final resting place would be the swirling seas of the Atlantic Ocean.

One of the Hurricane Hunters - Lockheed WP - 3D Orion.

While the men and women of the United States Coast Guard conducted their massive search for the missing men of the Club Royale, the storm continued on her path. When it hit the warm and tepid waters of the Gulf of Mexico, it intensified and her track altered once again to the northwest. Pensacola, Florida was in her sights and in the late morning hours of August 3rd, the winds had increased to ninety-eight miles per hour. While residents remained quartered in their homes and shelters, others were braving the storm’s intensity at sea. Hurricane Erin, her wide swath of destruction complete, weakened and was re-classified as a tropical storm by the late hours of August 3rd. Gradually weakening to a tropical depression, the deadly Hurricane Erin headed north and east finally merging with a frontal system over West Virginia on August 6th. Hurricane Erin was no more but her deadly sweep across Florida and nearby states had taken its toll.

Captain Engebretsen had received his orders and, utilizing the best available information coupled with his years of maritime experience, set out to sea to save his ship from possible destruction by the powerful storm churning its way to his position. Despite his efforts and calculated gamble, Hurricane Erin had different plans. Instead of sailing away from her destructive path, he had placed his ship into the target zone. The hurricane, like any weather pattern, had taken its own course. Sadly, for Captain Engebretsen, his gamble cost him and the lives of two of his fellow crewmen. The others taking a gamble during that terrible hurricane were the men and women of the United States Coast Guard. As the United States Coast Guard celebrated their two hundredth and fifth anniversary, the men and women of the United States Coast Guard reflected on their chosen profession. Like the men and women before them that had been charged and responsible for heading into harm’s way to render aid to those in need, the gamble that they took amidst the storm, had ensured the eight crewmen in their water-filled rafts the ability to see another new dawn.

Hurricane Erin, a horrific storm that had converged across the states of Florida, Alabama and Mississippi had killed six people and caused over three hundred and seventy-five million dollars in property damage. Though the storm dissipated and dissolved, the destruction and death would never be forgotten by those left behind to remember those lost. As hurricanes continue to develop and surge toward landfall throughout hurricane season, the men and women of the United States Coast Guard will continue to remain ready to answer the call to those in need. It is that spirit, a dedication to their duty that forever reminds all of their selfless humanitarian spirit as true sentinels and saviors of the seas.


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