Ocean City buffs today can watch the water for a variety of things -- storm signals, showy boats, airplanes trailing ads or maidens in bikinis. But on the morning of Dec. 30, 1959, there was a different kind of water show. It was 10 miles out, just out of range of swimmers' sight.
Rough weather had closed in on the shore the day before. The 590-foot cargo ship African Queen, with a busted radar system, was making tracks northbound from the Colombian oil fields. Destination: Paulsboro, N.J. Inside the ship was a mixed cargo, including highly volatile paints and 21,000 tons of crude oil.
In the darkness that lay over the route about 6 p.m., the ship sailed into a huge shoal bank that was fully identified on navigational charts.
Suddenly, the entire prow of the vessel sheared off like the lid on a sardine can and doubled back on a huge stern section, which broke free, floated off powerless and became stuck about 1,000 feet from the front section. Oddly, none of the crew was seriously injured in the impact.
A distress call was received in Brooklyn, N.Y., about two hours after the crash, but the African Queen's operators had no idea where the Liberian-registered ship was and the entire mid-Atlantic coast had to be searched to find it.
In a miracle of skilled air and sea work, the entire crew of the ship was rescued: 45 men by military helicopters, two by Coast Guard boats.
That was, however, only the beginning of the Queen's saga.
Even that long ago, international carriers were far from primitive. A Middle Eastern oil tanker or two actually was fitted with a swimming pool in the stern and a grand piano in the passenger salon. In the Queen's case, that meant tremendous opportunities for loot, once the word got out that the two pieces of the ship had been abandoned.
Both the owners of the ship and the world's largest salvage firm took one look at the situation and decided against trying to refloat the ship. It lay in the water for months, with the bow bobbing back and forth and the huge stern section washed by Atlantic storms. But the ship had plenty of company. At least 40 or 50 watermen and boaters flocked to the wreck in good weather to board it and haul away items.
Among the abandoned items were furniture, radios, tons of paint, copper piping, mahogany doors, brass valves and fittings, valuable rope, hawsers and cables, three lifeboats and even a 17-foot spare propeller worth many thousands of dollars.
All that the looters needed in most cases was a hammer, a wrench and a screwdriver to loosen their take and big enough launches to haul it away. An $8,000 Sperry gyroscope was believed to be one of the top finds, until it was discovered to have lost some of its innards. Then it was valuable only as scrap.
The ship's china went to souvenir hunters the first day it was boarded, and so did its coffee-bean supply and canned goods hoard in the galley.
Twenty-five rotted carcasses of meat were heaved overboard and attracted gulls and other birds who died by the hundreds as their feathers became matted in the ship's oil slick. By mid-February, one salvager estimated that the Queen was "about picked clean by now."
Still, the steel in the 13,800-ton ship was worth at least a million dollars as scrap. But how to get her to a buyer's port? No maritime group seemed interested. There was even talk of an Army demolition team blowing up the large stern section and letting it settle in Davy Jones' locker.
Incredibly, four partners with no major salvage experience -- Paul K. Brady, Lloyd E. Deir, A.E. Sadler and Belden N. Little -- managed to get the ship to Hampton Roads, where it was disappointingly auctioned for a sum that left the men with only a profit of $22,000 for months of work. They had spent $112,000 doing the job.
It took a tug 95 days to get the huge stern section across the Atlantic Ocean. Its first stop was a port in Portugal. According to reports, its final scrapping was in the spring of 1961 at Antwerp, Belgium.
Up and down the tidewater area, the African Queen's salvagers were cheered on by watermen who saw them as courageous guys who met a test that big-time oil and port interests had flunked. The episode was also an early example of the indifference of most big shipping and oil interests to the public's environmental safety and the purity of the seas.