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banner -stranding and salvagiing of the fathomer in the typoon of 8/15/1936, port san vicente, pi

Official Report of R.F.A. Studds, H. and G. Engineer, Commanding Officer, U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey Ship FATHOMER

(From the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey


NO. 10, December 1936, pp. 124-131.)

With only a few days left to conclude the season's work on northeast Luzon, the Ship FATHOMER was forced on Sunday August 9, to suspend survey operations and seek shelter in Port San Vicente from an approaching typhoon. This typhoon passed about 50 miles from the ship's position on Tuesday, August 11. The barometric minimum on the ship was 29.9 inches.

An attempt was made on Wednesday, August 12, to return to the working grounds but confused seas and heavy swell compelled the ship to return to Port San Vicente. It was planned to sail again on the following day, but another approaching typhoon made it advisable to stay in the harbor.
ship fathomer

FATHOMER aground after typhoon of August 15, 1936.

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On Friday, August 14, it was apparent, from plotting the track of the approaching typhoon, that its effect would be felt in the vicinity of the ship, and accordingly, preparations were made for the storm.

In the afternoon the ship entered the inner harbor and moored with one of the two large stock anchors. Awnings were furled and all gear securely lashed down. The following morning the track of the typhoon led to the belief that the strongest wind would be encountered from the north quadrant and the second large anchor was put down in such a position that the ship would be moored for a wind from that direction.

A scope of 7 to 1 was given the two anchor cables. The scope was governed by two conditions; first, the small amount of swinging room, and second, the condition of the port cable. This cable had been condemned the previous year and a new one ordered in the fall of 1935 by the Division of Purchase and Supply. The order was placed in the United States and the cable was not delivered in Manila until the first part of August 1936 which was too late for delivery to the ship at Legaspi. Shots of the condemned cable had been shifted so that the best shots led outboard.

Wire cable preventers were put on the two cables and additional anchors were suspended from each rail; a stockless bower anchor on the port side and a large stock kedge on the starboard side. These were secured to the largest rope on board, 6" mooring lines. These anchors were intended for precautionary measures so that if a sudden shifting of wind occurred they could be dropped and thus hold the ship's head until the strain was taken on the larger anchors.

The effect of the approaching typhoon on the weather began with moderate rain squalls about 6 a.m. on August 15. These squalls increased throughout the day in frequency and intensity. The sky was heavily overcast from early morning. Observations were sent every four hours to Manila Observatory until a message was received sending thanks and requesting more frequent reports. From then on weather conditions were reported hourly.

At noon indications were that the ship was in the path of the typhoon and that the storm would be a severe one. All ports were well dogged down, watertight doors closed and every other possible precaution taken. A shelter was erected in the bow of the ship where a watch could be kept on the anchor cables; drift leads were put out on both port and starboard wings of the bridge and the main engine made ready.

By 5:30 p.m. the wind had increased to hurricane force, blowing about 90 miles per hour. The Executive Officer stationed himself in the bow to watch the cables, two men tended each drift lead, a watch was on deck to see that nothing got adrift and a watch stood by in the engine room. The wind continued to blow at about this force for another hour, the barometer dropping steadily. At 6:30 the wind began to increase and the spare port bower anchor was dropped. At 7:00 p.m. the wind began to gain even more rapidly in velocity and the engine was put at half speed ahead; then full speed ahead at 7:05. The barometer began to drop as much as a tenth of an inch per minute. The wind was estimated to be blowing at 120 to 150 miles per hour. The men tending drift leads relieved each other every minute or two as it was impossible to watch the lines properly for a longer period. The Port San Vicente Lighthouse, a kerosene light, had been blown out much earlier but visibility was so low it could not have been seen had it been burning. Rain was practically solid sheets of water. The wind had a sweep of only a couple of hundred meters but even in this short distance seas were about six feet high. The Inner Harbor of Port San Vicente is landlocked but the hills are low and did not affect the force of the wind. The estimate of 120 to 150 miles velocity was substantiated by the Director of the Manila Observatory who, upon seeing the barometric record, said it was very probable the wind blew that strongly. When this typhoon reached Hongkong several days later and probably had decreased slightly in intensity, a velocity was measured of 131 miles per hour.

At 7:15 the drift leads showed evidence of dragging. The port lead carried away. A second lead was bent on the line and this, too, carried away. A third lead was bent on and as it was heaved over, a sounding of 8 feet was obtained. At the same time, the ship's stern was felt bumping lightly. The engine was immediately stopped to avoid damaging the propeller and tail shaft. About the time the drift leads indicated dragging, the Executive Officer noticed the anchor cables pulling together. He made his way aft to report dragging but before he reached the bridge, the ship was aground. This was about 7:25 p.m.

Everyone was ordered to don a life belt, the bilges were sounded and a check made on all ports and watertight doors. As the ship was in communication with R.C.A., sending weather observations, an informal message was sent advising them that the ship was aground but it was not known whether assistance was needed.

The wind, blowing with unabated force, caught the ship on the port bow and swung it around. As it struck further forward on the keel, the ship listed heavily to starboard, filling the starboard boats. The boats were ordered cut adrift, which was done with difficulty, and were made fast to stanchions along the starboard rail. The ship then righted to some extent but as the wind was still on the port side, everyone was ordered to seek safety on the weather side, using such shelter as they could find.

From 8:10 to 8:15 p.m. the wind decreased rapidly from maximum velocity to a force of 3 as the vortex of the typhoon approached. The vortical calm, which lasted until 8:35, was not absolute as a wind of force 3 continued to blow and shifted during this period from north-northeast to east. The barometer during this time was at its lowest reading and remained stationary. First and second magnitude stars were apparent overhead, with a thin veil of cirrus clouds obscuring the less bright stars. This opening in the clouds, at 8:25, extended in a circular manner for a radius of 20 degrees from the zenith. At the edge of the clear sky overhead, the cloud formation was very heavy with sheet lightning flashing completely around the opening. This lightning was not particularly brilliant and must have been well above the lower level of the clouds.

During the twenty minute period of relative calm, a careful appraisal of the situation was made. A roster was called and no one found missing. The starboard boats were riding alongside in the lee of the ship although filled with water. Bilges were sounded and found to be dry. A door in the chart room which had been blown open was nailed up. Although not much hope was placed on it, the starboard kedge was dropped so that if the wind shifted to the starboard side of the ship after the vortex passed, and the ship was blown off the reef the kedge might hold the ship's head until the anchors took the strain. Soundings were taken around the ship and the latter found to be afloat except at the after end where the depth was 8 feet.

The seriousness of the situation was fully realized. From the direction of the wind our approximate position was known, but little could be seen beyond the ship. No one entertained the least thought of abandoning the ship.

The window on the port side of the radio room had blown partly open and the rain drove through this window and the house, grounding the main transmitter. The emergency set was put in operation and the following distress message sent to R.C.A. in Manila.

"FATHOMER aground in Port San Vicente center of typhoon now passing safe at present not leaking but do not know what will happen when wind resumes."

Some of the crew had started to remove their life belts but they were quickly advised that the danger was by no means over and were ordered to keep their life belts on and seek shelter on deck.

At 8:35 the wind began to increase in force and in five minutes was blowing at least as strongly as before. The wind began blowing from the east and as the ship's head during the calm was southeast, it struck the ship again on the port side, swinging the bow around until the heading was southwest and the ship was broadside to the reef and gradually listed over until the starboard boatdeck rail was under water. The galley range and rice boiler broke adrift and tore off a ventilator to the forecastle, flooding the latter. The starboard side of the engine room house was under water and the engine and boiler rooms flooded. As the water mounted in the boiler room, fires were hauled and steam allowed to escape, the engine room forces escaping on the port side. The generator stopped about 9:00 p.m., and the ship was in darkness. The radio operator, who had been trying to keep in communication with R.C.A. was forced to leave the set as the radio house was working and in danger of being carried away. He escaped through the port window.

The demeanor of the crew throughout this entire period was remarkable. At no time was there any sign of panic and although they must have been frightened they continued to perform all duties until no hope was left to do anything but save life.

The majority of the officers and crew were sheltered along the port alleyway between the bulwark and the engine room house, and although this was well above water, seas were washing completely over them. These seas which were much higher than had been experienced before dragging, were due either to the greater sweep of the wind when blowing from the east, or from breakers piling up on the reef south and southeast of the ship's position.

At about 10:00 p.m. the wind began to moderate and at 10:30 it was possible to move about deck, the wind then blowing with a force of 8. Flashlights were brought into use and a roll call was made of all hands. Everyone was found to be aboard with no serious injuries. About five men had minor cuts incurred by being hurled against metal projections. Everyone was bruised and suffering from exhaustion and exposure. Fortunately the sick bay was on the port side, enabling first aid to be administered. Two quarts of brandy, stored in the sick bay, were rationed out to all hands, and undoubtedly resulted in no one developing a severe cold or pneumonia.

Soundings were taken amidships, revealing a depth of 5 feet on the starboard side and 6 feet on the port side. The starboard boats which, with the exception of the dinghy, had ridden the worst of the storm in the lee of the ship, were caught under the overhanging davits. They were cleared and bailed out, and although damaged were still serviceable. The dinghy, apparently, had swamped and crushed as the ship listed over.

The emergency radio transmitter was now grounded and the ship was without means of communication.

Nothing further was done until daylight, except to make the crew as comfortable as possible. At daylight mess supplies and ship and survey records were salvaged. The icebox door was under water so that only dry stores could be obtained. The port whaleboat, dinghy, and skiff were lowered by using skids and a force sent ashore to prepare breakfast and build a camp. Meanwhile the radio operator had obtained a spool of dry wire and began rewiring the emergency transmitter.

A site was selected on shore for a camp and sanitation established. As soon as food supplies and records were safe, instruments, tents, bedding and personal belongings were taken ashore. Great precautions were taken against disease. A latrine was build over salt water and a spring was found about a quarter of a mile from camp with no habitation above it. This spring was blocked off to be used for drinking and cooking water exclusively. Garbage disposal was achieved by digging a pit and burning the garbage in it each day. Injuries were dressed as soon as medical supplies were brought ashore from the ship. Each man was required to take 10 grains of quinine the first day in camp, and 5 grains thereafter until he had taken 35 grains. Despite all of these precautions a moderately severe enteritis developed which affected one fourth the personnel.

Daylight after the storm revealed a desolate sight. Trees that were not blown down were denuded of all foliage, the few nipa houses in the vicinity were in ruins and the 60 foot Launch ISLANDER which had sought shelter in the harbor, was on a reef, completely out of water. About 8:00 a.m. the lighthouse keeper at Cape Engano arrived in camp and reported that his lighthouse and dwelling, both concrete structures that had withstood typhoons for 50 years, were destroyed. He also reported experiencing the vortical calm at the lighthouse which is 4 miles north of the ship's position. Natives from the surrounding country began drifting into camp for treatment of injuries sustained during the storm. One odd injury was caused by a grain of rice driven with such force in the ear of a native that it pierced the ear drum and could not be removed.

At 1:00 p.m. Sunday, August 16, rewiring of the emergency transmitter was completed. Although most of the electrolyte had spilled from the bank of storage batteries, sufficient charge remained to operate the transmitter. As the range and length of operation of the transmitter were limited, a message to the Director of Coast Surveys, Manila, was broadcast as an S.O.S. The call was almost immediately answered by the English S.S. CITY OF FLORENCE, en route from Iloilo to Japan. This vessel then not only relayed this message to Manila but kept in communication with the ship until it was beyond the range of the latter's transmitter, relaying messages to and from Manila.

Upon receipt of knowledge of the FATHOMER's distress and with the cooperation of the U.S. Army and the Bureau of Public Works, the Director of Coast Surveys made all arrangements for relief in an astonishingly brief time. By Tuesday noon, August 18, the Lighthouse Tender CANLAON left Manila with complete equipment and personnel and a three weeks' supply of provisions. Stopping at Aparri, en route, the CANLAON took the derrick dredge APARRI in tow. The two vessels reached Port San Vicente at 2:00 p.m. August 20.

Salvage operations were begun immediately. A foreman from the Government Marine Railway and Repair Shops, with salvage experience, was in charge of the skilled personnel. The Master of the CANLAON, also an experienced salvager, gave valuable assistance. Labor was furnished by the crew of the FATHOMER and in general the salvagers were permitted to proceed in their own way. It was insisted, though, that the ship be sealed and pumped out before an attempt was made to right it as it was feared it would capsize in the greater depth to port if the water inside was allowed to shift suddenly.

All work was supervised by the FATHOMER'S officers and suggestions were readily accepted and complied with. The ship was first sealed by the use of lumber, cement, burlap sacks and cotton. A wrecking hose was led from the CANLAON, which had anchored nearby, mooring fore and aft, but the distance was too great for its pumps to be effective. A portable pump was placed alongside on the derrick dredge, and this was successful in removing the water.

A pile driver was rigged on the derrick barge and a cluster of piles driven on the reef south of the ship's position. This piling was backed by three anchors imbedded in the reef.

Wire rope brides were placed completely around the forward and after parts of the FATHOMER and attached to tackles composed of triple iron blocks. These tackles were made fast to the cluster of piles and the hauling parts led to the CANLAON. A ten inch hawser, secured to a bridle around the launch davits on the port side, led directly to the CANLAON's stern.

After the ship was emptied and all purchases rigged an attempt was made at high tide to right the FATHOMER and haul it off the reef. The derrick dredge hove upwards on the starboard side and the CANLAON's engines were put full speed ahead. The ship was righted about 10 or 15 degrees but the water was too shoal on the port side to permit it to move off.

As this tide was especially high, it was realized that dredging would have to be done before the ship could be salvaged. Divers were sent down and the shoalest spots dynamited. The loose coral thus dislodged was removed by the dredge.

This dynamiting and dredging was completed on the afternoon of Friday, August 28. As the least water was at the stern of the FATHOMER, the dredgers secured their hoisting gear at this point, and at the next high tide, which occurred just after midnight, began working the stern by rapid pulls and releases. The CANLAON at the same time went ahead on the engines, putting a strain on all tackles. At 2:15 a.m., August 29, the ship righted and slid into deep water.

Steam was piped to the FATHOMER'S anchor windlass and anchors hove home. The starboard kedge, which was dropped after the ship grounded was taken aboard. The mooring line which had been secured to the port stockless bower anchor was hove in, and found to have parted. This was expected as the line could not have withstood the strain of dragging. The port anchor cable was then hove in and the connecting link to the swivel on the anchor found to have opened at the weld.

This was a surprising discovery. The wind had blown with such terrific force, it had been assumed that steam and ground tackle were simply inadequate to prevent dragging. The open link and loss of the large stock anchor now definitely established the cause of dragging and consequent stranding. As mentioned previously in this report, the ship withstood a wind of hurricane force from 5:30 to 7:15 p.m., the time the vessel began to drag anchors, and withstood a wind of maximum velocity from 7:00 to 7:15. Another surprise was the fact that the poorly conditioned port chain held, while the swivel link, recently installed, failed. With this knowledge the actual occurrence was assumed to be as follows. When the link opened and the port anchor was lost, the ship, which was putting an equal strain on both cables, swung to the starboard cable. This sudden increase and change of direction of strain caused the starboard anchor to start. Once started, it was bound to pull through the holding ground. The port stockless anchor was useless, as the strain of dragging was too great for the line attached to this anchor. The total time of dragging was recorded as ten minutes, but this could well have been less, as the activities incidental to the dragging made it difficult to record exact time.

After the starboard anchor was taken aboard, the FATHOMER was towed to deeper water and at daybreak camp was struck and all property taken aboard. The CANLAON, with the FATHOMER in tow, left at 12:50 a.m. August 30 for Manila, arriving 3:00 p.m. September 1.

Examination revealed that the principal damage resulting from the stranding was in the engine and boiler rooms, caused by the equipment being immersed in salt water. Some additional damage resulted from dynamiting.

Shortly after the vessel's arrival in Manila, a report of the meteorological data of the typhoon was forwarded to the Director of the Manila Observatory and the ship's barometers compared to the observatory's mercury barometer. The needles of both ship's barometers had been well off the scale at the time of the center of the typhoon but their positions were marked on the dials and upon comparison gave the barometric minimum on the ship as 685 mm. or 26.96 inches.

From an inspection of the Weather Bureau's Publication "Catalogue of Typhoons, 1348* to 1934 " published in 1935, only two typhoons are listed with barometric minima below this. These minima are 683.17 mm. aboard the S.S. LONG in 1913 and 683.5 at Fuga island in 1922. The barometers recording these pressures were apparently never compared and as the FATHOMER'S barometers read, by extending the scale, 680.0 mm. or 26.77 inches (uncorrected) at the time of the vortical calm, it is very probable that the FATHOMER's reading is the lowest pressure ever recorded at sea level in the Philippine islands.

In concluding this report, I wish to commend highly the entire ship's personnel for their seamanship, courage and fortitude. The following are to be particularly commended:

Lieutenant K. G. Crosby, Executive Officer, for the thoroughness with which he supervised the securing of all gear and his general activity and assistance throughout the whole period of the storm and the subsequent salvage operations. Undoubtedly the fact that very little gear went adrift during the storm was responsible to a great extent for the few injuries sustained.

Lieutenant (j.g.) C.A. Schanck, for his presence of mind and efforts in saving the life of the ship's surgeon, Dr. James W. Wetzel. When the ship first listed heavily to starboard, Dr. Wetzel was emerging from the wardroom. He lost his footing and fell to the starboard rail. This rail was under water and Dr. Wetzel managed to catch hold of an overhead beam. With the exception of his hands he was completely submerged. Lieutenant Schanck, following closely behind Dr. Wetzel, saw his plight, and made several efforts to reach him. Failing this, he called to Lieutenant Crosby who tore several curtains from staterooms and, bending them together, the two officers were able to haul the surgeon to safety.

Chief Engineer G. W. Hutchinson, for his attention to duty. Throughout the storm he was in the engine and boiler rooms directing his men until the mounting water made it imperative to leave. He then hauled fires and allowed the steam to escape, thus preventing any explosions. He saw all of his men to safety and was the last to leave from below.

Boatswain Roman Rodriguez, for his assistance to Lieutenant Crosby. Throughout the storm and salvage operations, he did not spare himself. During the storm he was everywhere that anything could possibly be done and in the subsequent salvage work would take no relief, working at times twenty hours without stopping.

Wireless Operator Ricardo I. Ventura, for his competency and attention to duty. Despite the fact that the ship was listed badly, he kept in communication with Manila until both main and emergency transmitters were grounded. He continued to stand by until the house began working and then escaped through the port window. The day after the storm, he rapidly rewired the emergency transmitter, putting it in operation by l:00 p.m. After the batteries lost their charge he built a 36 meter set in camp which enabled the party to maintain contact with the Director of Coast Surveys.

Appended to this report is a copy of a section of Chart 4276 showing the ship's position before and after the storm, and an aerial photograph taken by the United States Air Corps. This aerial photograph and others were taken on Tuesday, August 18, when an amphibian plane flew over the site in order to obtain a more definite impression of the situation than could be imparted by radio.

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