Shoal marks beginning of end for `African Queen'

WAY BACK WHEN

July 06, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

For Capt. Kia Danielsen, master of the African Queen, a 590-foot-long oil tanker, it was just another routine voyage.

On Dec. 28, 1958, the ship steamed northward from Cartagena, Colombia, with a crew of 46 and a cargo of 21,000 tons of crude oil bound for the Mobil refinery at Paulsboro, N.J., on the Delaware River.

The 13,800-ton tanker enjoyed fine tropical weather for most of its voyage.

Approaching the East Coast, weather conditions were less friendly as the ship struggled against wind-whipped seas and heavy swells, its decks washed by a steady drumbeat of rain.

Staring out from the ship's bridge on Dec. 30, Danielsen was unable to discern any shore lights in the early dawn as he prepared to make a port turn, which would align his ship with the Delaware Bay approaches.

Navigating by dead reckoning, he called for a turn to port. As the African Queen began making its turn and barely shuddering, it suddenly and firmly came to rest on Gull Shoal, a sandbar 30 miles south of the Delaware Bay.

Danielsen ordered engines stopped. Since only the bow rested on the toe of the shoal, he rang full astern on the engines in an effort to pull the ship off the sandbar.

What he didn't realize was that the sheer weight of the cargo had imbedded the ship deep into the sandbar.

And he wasn't prepared for what happened next.

"As Captain Danielsen peered through the forward ports he saw his ship perform an impossible maneuver: the bow turned to starboard while the stern backed on a straight course," wrote author and diver Gary Gentile in his book, Shipwrecks of Delaware and Maryland.

"Even as he watched, thousands of tons of South American crude dumped into the ocean from the ruptured forward compartment. Waves crashing against the bow forced it to fold back on the stern; the two sections were attached by only a few crumpled hull plates. Tractor-trailers are known to jackknife, but not ocean-going tankers."

The bow, pushed by the sea, pounded on the stern section. Finally, the frail steel connection between the two halves separated, and the bow coursed down the starboard side of the stern in a violent and spectacular show of yellow-red sparks. The cacophony from the scrapping and banging metal rose above the roar of the sea and 25-knot winds.

"The midship section, between the wheelhouse and the machinery spaces, was soon breached. Then, as a parting shot, the engine room was punctured. When the bow finally slid past the fantail, the flooding was so bad that the engine room personnel were forced to abandon their stations," wrote Gentile.

The two halves, some 300 yards away from each other, sank in 27 feet of water, which left most of the ill-fated vessel's superstructure above the water. The bow eerily pointed skyward while the remainder of the vessel seemed to have settled on an even keel.

The Coast Guard, responding to the ship's S.O.S., mounted a rescue effort from bases in Cape May, Lewes and Ocean City. Marine, Navy and Coast Guard helicopters flew to the scene from New York, Lakehurst, N.J., and Virginia, and removed the ship's crew, leaving behind the captain and his first mate, who were later ordered by the owners to abandon ship.

Merritt-Chapman & Scott Corp., the internationally known salvage firm, arrived on the scene to stabilize the wreck and try to save its cargo.

A series of storms had battered the wreck making salvage work both dangerous and costly. The owners of the vessel, African Enterprises Ltd. of Norway, formally abandoned the wreck Feb. 12, 1959.

After the wreck was officially abandoned, it became a free-for-all as local watermen and the curious descended on the ship, gathering up whatever could be removed from the rusting and pitching hulk.

Capt. Stan Johnson of the Dreamboat was one of the first.

"I walked up to the deck of that old ship and I felt like Captain Kidd. `Stan,' I kept saying to myself, `she's all yours.' Funny thing, though. It was two hours before I could make up my mind what to pick first," he told The Sun Magazine in a 1959 interview.

The flotilla of waterborne collectors looted everything down to the pin-up pictures in the crew's quarters and a string of Christmas lights.

The work was not without peril. The decks were slippery and covered with oil. Waves continually swept over the main deck.

Sometimes salvors fought, literally, over the same object.

One man was having difficulty pulling out a sofa from a cabin when he realized there was another man exerting equal force from the other end.

"You hang on if you want," said the larger man, "but this sofa is going into my boat, and so will you if you hold tight."

Along came two metal workers from Virginia, Lloyd Deir and Beldon Little. Even though they had no knowledge of marine salvage, their goal was to resurrect the stern section of the vessel, which took six terrifying months of hard work.

They braved storms and injury and finally had the stern section towed to a drydock in Norfolk. The men had invested $55,000 of their own money in the operation, and in the end, the tanker, which cost $6 million to build, went at auction for $134,000.

"The amount recovered barely matched what it cost them to raise the ship and bring it into port. They had nothing to show for all the months of backbreaking work; in fact, they lost money because they had not earned any income during that time. They had taken considerable risk, and had hardly broken even. To the victors do not always go the spoils," wrote Gentile.

Gentile, also a noted diver, reported that the bow section eventually went to the bottom, where it still rests upside down. Despite the hordes of pickers who clamored over the wreck, only one lost his life.

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