A WHEC-class Coast Guard cutter had just finished a successful REFTRA period in Hawaii. The operations department had won their third straight E for excellence in navigation, which included several anchoring exercises. The deck department also had earned praise for their part in the same exercises.
Now came a brief in-port period before going on an Alaska Fisheries Law-Enforcement Patrol (ALPAT). While in-port, personnel in the Engineering Department planned to replace the brake shoes on the port anchor windlass and adjust the system. They did the work, but didn’t have enough time to test the system.
The first test had to wait until the CO decided to reward the crew’s hard work during the ALPAT with an overnight anchorage. He chose an area alleged to be a prime fishing location. This area promised to test the crew as well as the anchoring system because it had a charted depth of 26 fathoms. Until now, the crew had practiced anchoring only at depths between 5 and 12 fathoms, with the anchor let go at the hawse pipe. The weather was unusually mild for this area — no wind and a balmy 50 degrees. However, the CO decided to use the port anchor with six shots at the water’s edge to allow for any sudden changes. When the navigation team was ready, the conning officer took a slow northerly course on the approach track to the anchorage. He crossed over the anchorage and began backing down, as outlined in the standard training exercise.
A few yards north of the planned anchorage, the conning officer, with concurrence of the CO and assurance of the navigator, gave his command. “Let go the port anchor, with six shots at the water’s edge!” he said. Meanwhile, the cutter kept backing slowly across the anchorage, and the bridge crew broke into a rousing chorus of “Anchor’s Aweigh.” They also sounded the whistles, then passed word to shift colors and break out the fishing gear.
Down on the main deck, at least two people weren’t dashing off yet to grab any fishing gear. A BMC told a DC3 to apply more pressure to the brake. The DC3 first took several calm turns, then several frantic ones — with no effect on the anchor chain.
As the BMC watched the chain whipping down the hawse pipe, he realized the system was out of control. He ordered everyone off the fo’c’s’le. As the last person left the danger zone, the final link of red shot cleared the chain locker. It whipped around in the air, then parted, and flew down the hawse pipe.
Peering down on the scene, the bridge crew couldn’t tell if the deck gang had huddled aft of the gun or moved forward of the jackstay. When the dust settled, the bridge crew got their answer. One anchor and nine shots of chain lay in a north-south direction at the bottom of Beaver Inlet in 26 fathoms of icy Alaskan water. Two days later, cutter personnel recovered the anchor and chain — but that’s another story.
Although the crew had done well in the REFTRA anchoring drills, that training hadn’t prepared them for a deep-water anchoring. This problem, coupled with the excitement of a respite in some unusually nice weather, lulled everyone into a false security.
With new brake shoes and adjustments on the windlass system, it wasn’t a good idea to run an anchoring test in 26 fathoms of water. (Note: The misadjusted brake shoes caused the brake to fail According to one of the authors, the adjustment was off so far that the shoes couldn’t even make contact.)
Capt. Budd was CO of the ship involved in this mishap. LCdr. Webster is the deputy group commander at Coast Guard Group, Portland, Me. BM1 Butz works at Coast Guard Base, Miami Beach, Fla.