PELICAN DISASTER, SEPT. 1, 1951
I am one of the last surviving witnesses of the aftermath of the Pelican disaster of 1951, when the party boat Pelican capsized off Montauk Lighthouse with the loss of over 40 people, including her captain Eddie Carroll. My boat the Cricket II was docked directly alongside the Pelican that morning at Fishangrila on Fort Pond Bay.
Everybody's boat was overloaded from commuters off the "Fisherman Special, " a Long Island Railroad train. And the Pelican was the last boat to leave the dock. As my boat was leaving the dock, I looked back and could see the people throwing their fishing tackle down into my cockpit and jumping the five feet from the dock to the cockpit deck. I heard Captain Eddie hollering to the people, "No more! No More!" But they kept coming. One after another, the boats left the dock at around 7:30 to 8:00 a.m. Eddie left within minutes of me.
Because the weather was flat calm without a breeze, everybody thought they were going to have a beautiful day. I had motor trouble and so I did not round the Point. While I fixed my motor, near Number Three buoy, everyone aboard the Cricket II was catching plenty of fish, therefore I stayed there until the weather got bad and then we went home. The other boats decided to fish for porgies and sea bass, southwest off Montauk Point. After everybody reached the fishing grounds and started fishing, the wind started to blow hard out of the north east and the biggest problem was an ebb tide. This put the wind directly against the strong tide, which made for rough seas. When all the boats saw the condition they had, they decided to go home and everybody made it except the Pelican.
Back at the dock, a little girl, crying and screaming, rushed up to me and put her arms around me, "The Pelican turned over at the lighthouse!" she cried. And so I grabbed a couple of guys off the dock, including my mate, and left immediately in search of survivors. When we got there, the way it looked to me, all the other boats had picked up any and all the survivors, but nobody was paying attention to the Pelican, which was aiming for the rocks underneath the lighthouse. The tide would have taken the boat and smashed it on those rocks if we didn't tow her away from them and start home. I met up with Capt. Carl Forsberg Sr. of the Viking V. He had been out there with the other boats, looking for survivors and I asked him to help me tow the Pelican in.
Sometime that afternoon, the wind stopped, and now we only had slow rolling swells to contend with. After the Pelican capsized, she was still floating bow up, Capt. Forsberg and I were in the process of dragging the boat back to port because we wanted to save as many bodies as we could for relatives of the deceased, including the captain's (Capt. Eddie's body was never found). We were stemming the tide, going very, very slow, because it is hard to drag a submerged object against the tide. We finally made it around the point, foot by foot, and got past Number Three buoy.
The tide was starting to slow down, when an 83 foot Coast Guard cutter showed up from Connecticut. He wanted to take over the tow. I refused because I wanted them to attach their own tow line because the Viking V and the Cricket II were holding the Pelican nice and steady against the tide. Instead, they insisted on taking my towline. They threw us a heaving line over, but one of my crew, cold, tired and wet, cut my towline and tied the Coast Guard's heaving line on it and threw it in the water for them to pull up. Instead, the Coast Guard cutter "backed down" (put both propellers in reverse) and got my towline tangled up in both his propellers. When I saw this, I went over to Carl, told him what happened and suggested he go home because he couldn't tow the Pelican by himself. He tried, broke his line and came home.
The Coast Guard vessel radioed in for a tow, and fifteen minutes later, a small Coast Guard boat came out, put a light on the submerged Pelican to warn other boats, and towed the 83-footer home. By this time, the tide had changed and the small Coast Guard vessel went back out, put a line on the Pelican and towed her home. The tide was now pushing the submerged boat almost right in the inlet.
In the newspapers, the Coast Guard got all the glory. Forsberg and I got no recognition at all for doing all this work. The only thing we wanted from the Press was one word: "Thanks," but never got it.
The Coast Guard's Account of the Disaster
After reading the US Coast Guard's online account of the sinking, I wanted to set the record straight. Below is the Coast Guard article from their website http://www.uscg.mil/hq/g-cp/history/STATION/Montauk.html
"This incident was the disastrous floundering of the fishing vessel Pelican on September 1, 1951. The 42 foot Pelican should have been rated for a maximum of 20 passengers but took on 62 fares that fateful day. Badly overloaded, the Pelican set out at mid-morning for a day of Blue fishing off Block Island in the face of northeast winds and heavy swells. By late morning, sea conditions had become much worse. Captain Carroll decided to head in. But his decision had come too late. The Pelican took a fearful pounding all the way back from Block Island. Ten miles east of Montauk Point huge seas flooded and stalled his port engine. The Captain was so busy fighting the waves he never ordered the passengers to don life jackets.
The Pelican doggedly rolled her way westward. The passengers were sick, battered and panicky. When the Pelican entered the Endeavor Shoals, rip current waves began washing over the starboard side. The passengers in terror stampeded to the portside. The boat lost all stability and quickly capsized. Forty-five people including the Captain were drowned. Nineteen people somehow survived and were picked up by nearby fishing boats. The tragedy happened so fast Ditch Plains Station was unable to respond. Coast Guard helicopters searched for weeks afterward for victims. Much stricter regulations on commercial party boat fishing vessels were passed as a result of this disaster."
Here's what they said versus what I know:
"The 42 foot Pelican should have been rated for a maximum of 20 passengers . . ."
At that time, there was no regulations for boats that were 15 gross tons and under.
". . . The Pelican set out at mid-morning for a day of Blue fishing off Block Island."
Wrong. The Pelican was fishing with the rest of the boats around Montauk Point in a fishing area nicknamed "Frisbees." Back then, no Montauk boatmen knew anything about catching blue fish. And she did not set off at mid-morning. All the boats left between 7:30 and 8:00 a.m.
"The Pelican took a fearful pounding all the way back from Block Island."
This is impossible. That day, the wind picked up hard and was out of the north east. Block Island lies east of Montauk, if the Pelican did go to Block Island, she would be heading home in a westerly direction and this would make a nice soft following sea..
"Ten miles east of Montauk Point huge seas flooded and stalled his port engine."
Wrong. The Pelican was not ten miles east off Montauk that day. She was with all the other boats that were fishing a short distance southwest of Montauk Point.
Gulf Coast Mariner's.org Account
Below is a more accurate account of the disaster. It's from http://www.gulfcoastmariners.org/r-documents/r354.htm
“On the morning of September 1, 1951, the 42-foot motorboat PELICAN embarked 62 passengers and two crew members at Montauk, NY, for a fishing trip off Montauk Point. Since the vessel was less than 15 gross tons, it was not required to be inspected by the Coast Guard.After fishing for about an hour, the wind began to kick up and the Captain, a Coast Guard-licensed motorboat operator, headed back for the dock. As the PELICAN rounded Montauk Point, two successive seas hit on her starboard quarter causing her to capsize at 2:10 PM one mile north of Montauk lighthouse and in plain view of persons on shore. Although there were 86 life jackets in two deck lockers, there was no lifesaving equipment that offered out-of-water protection for any of the passengers and crew. Consequently, forty-five (45) persons including the Captain perished within 30 minutes of the accident.”