'Until the Sea' - corruption and redemption

May 26, 2002|By Jim Haner | By Jim Haner,Sun Staff

Until the Sea Shall Free Them, by Robert Frump. Doubleday. 304 pages. 24.95.

It was a frigid February night and the waters off the Virginia Capes were in full froth when the old cargo ship pulled away from the pier in Norfolk with 25,000 tons of coal in its creaking belly.

The ship was the Marine Electric, a converted World War II-era tanker -- and it was falling apart at its rust-rotted seams. Six hours after setting sail in 1983, the vessel capsized in rough seas, broke into three pieces and sank.

Of the original crew of 34 men, only three survived to be plucked from the frigid waters of the mid-Atlantic in a howling early-morning gale.

The story of the Marine Electric tragedy -- and of the small band of crusaders who rose up and turned it into a cause -- lies at the heart of this hair-raising account of men who put to sea in a generation of decrepit ships that were little more than floating coffins.

Written by a former maritime reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, which first broke the story as a muckraking expose and then relentlessly campaigned for reform, the book is a masterfully told tale of corruption, survival and redemption.

It is the saga of one ship and her doomed crew, and how their fate compelled the overhaul of a malignant industry that had turned membership in the U.S. Merchant Marine into one of the most dangerous jobs on earth.

Combining elements of salty derring-do, courtroom drama and modern corporate morality tale, it makes Sebastian Junger's 1997 best seller The Perfect Storm read like child's play.

Until The Sea Shall Free Them, subtitled "Life, Death and Survival in The Merchant Marine," begins with a vivid account of the Marine Electric sinking written in the finest traditions of the seafaring novel.

The crew is an authentic cast of starry-eyed Ishmaels, rum-sotted roustabouts and steady-handed able seaman, led by a stalwart Chief Mate named Bob Cusick.

A pragmatic, quietly confident New Englander, he is the reluctant hero at the center of the story -- a modern Fletcher Christian who mutinies against his corporate masters on behalf of his lost shipmates.

As he makes his round of final pre-sail inspections, looking over the hatch covers on the rusted foredeck of the Marine Electric, the foreboding begins to build. In some places, gobs of cement and epoxy compound have been used to clot holes the size of a man's fist.

Built hastily out of inferior steel, the ship was a relic of World War II, one of the "T-2 tankers" designed for a short life at a time when German U-boats were sinking them by the dozen. No one ever envisioned that these disposable vessels would remain in service once the war ended.

But remain they did, kept at sea for decades by a de facto conspiracy of silence among ship owners, government regulators and duplicitous seamen's unions desperate to retain control of jobs and contracts in an increasingly competitive international industry.

Worse, as the old ships shattered, buckled and sank, blame had been consistently and systematically assigned to their captains and crews -- effectively covering up the fact that the old rust buckets were unseaworthy.

From musty archives and first-hand accounts, Frump mined the appalling details of these serial sinkings -- of the Schenectady and the Southern Isles, the Daniel Morrell and the Poet, to name a few -- that drive the book inexorably forward and lend it much of its drama.

But it is the fate of the Marine Electric, gulping heavy seas through her battered hatch covers, and the gallantry of her surviving crew that mercifully force U.S. Coast Guard regulators to end the madness.

Readers will be thankful for that much, because the book will leave them mad enough to spit.

Jim Haner is a reporter for The Sun. He previously worked for The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Miami Herald. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1974 to 1978, and twice participated in search-and-rescue operations in the North Atlantic.

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