The Ghost of Needle Cove

By Abney, Stephen | Sea Classics, July 1999 | Go to article overview

The Ghost of Needle Cove


Abney, Stephen, Sea Classics


OCTOBER 7,1936, SAN FRANCISCO BAY'S GOLDEN GATE. HEAVY FOG AND A

STORMY SEA. ABOARD THE 5153-TON FREIGHTER, OHIOAN, OUT OF SAN PEDRO, CALIFORNIA, BOUND FOR SAN FRANCISCO.

"Rocks! Starboard side!" The Quartermaster's eyes spun to the right. The freighter passed within feet of the massive monolith of Seal Rock towering above the deck like some ancient monster from the depths.

"Hard aport!", barked L.M. Read, the OHIOAN's seasoned captain. Read had already saved the ill-fated freighter from sinking three years earlier in New York Harbor when the OHIOAN had collided with another vessel. Once again, the sea would challenge his courage in the face of disaster.

His heart pounding, Symchik tightened his grip and gave the wheel a mighty heave. The OHIOAN miraculously passed between the outer and inner Seal Rocks, the jagged pinnacles that fortress the Golden Gate. Beside Symchik at the wheel were Capt. Read and Pilot John McFarland who had come aboard to guide the ship to port. McFarland was an old salt with years of experience in bringing ships through the Gate. But in the dense fog he had lost his orientation and allowed the OHIOAN to slip too far to the right of the channel. The three men waited breathlessly as the freighter cut through the ominous, blinding fog.

11:19 p.m. Harry Fallon, ship's oiler, was in the engine room making the last round of his watch. San Francisco, a seaman's paradise, was just a few miles away. Fallon was dreaming of the feel of smooth whiskey, the taste of hot corned beef, and the sight of the lovely ladies of the New Follies Burlesque.

11:20 p.m. The spiked rocks of Needle Cove loomed out of the fog; Capt. Read gave the order, "Full astern!"

Kenneth Nicholas, the ship's fireman, on watch in the engine room heard Capt. Read's command come over the pipe. Alert to the danger of the blanketing fog, he jumped to obey the order. Before the big steamer could take hold of reverse, Nicholas staggered from the jolt as the OHIOAN slammed to a halt.

Read's order had come too late. Sparks flew from the hull illuminating the scene with a strange light. The cat-claw rocks of Needle Cove had caught the OHIOAN in their fatal grip.

The terrible, grinding shriek of ripping metal snapped Harry Fallon out of his daydreams and sent a cold shiver up the oiler's spine. He grabbed a rail, as the OHIOAN quivered from the shock of impaling itself on the jagged rocks of Needle Cove. The OHIOAN was lodged on the reef just 25 yards from the fabulous swimming pools of the Sutro Baths. It was as close as Harr Fallon would get that night to the pleasures of San Francisco. Down in the engine room, fear jabbed at Kenneth Nicholas' heart.

The young fireman thought the OHIOAN had collided with another vessel. He had heard how the OHIOAN had been rammed outside New York Harbor by the steamer, LIBERTY, which tore a huge hole in the OHIOAN's side. The OHIOAN had narrowly avoided going down in New York. With the fog and heavy sea, Nicholas knew rescue would be risky, if not impossible. He closed his eyes and prayed. Sea water breached the engine room an( lapped at his boots. Nicholas waited in terror for the cold clench of Davey Jones.

The first mate jammed his head into the engine room, "We've run aground. She ain't sinking. Stand by." Instead of a torrent of ocean water, Nicholas felt relief wash over him. Even the dank air of the engine room seemed sweet after the bitter taste of fear.

11:28 pm Water poured into the engine room and front cargo holds. Third Assistant Engineer Ovington, on watch in the engine room, thought about running up to the safety of the main deck. The rising water had already forced Nicholas and the rest of the watch topside. If the ship capsized or started going under, he would be trapped. The steam from the engines had automatically shut off. Without power or light, Ovington knew panic and confusion would add to the danger.

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