Ernest Mathis had it all going. He had the sunglasses (though it was early evening), he had the half-smoked stogie sticking out of his mouth and he had the barrel chest of a hard-drinking, two-fisted, tough boatswain’s mate chief who had been there, done that, taken names, and kicked ass along the way. He quickly surveyed the now sorrowful-looking 50 recruits of Victor 14 Company, said some nasty things about each and every one of us and our mamas, and declared in a clear and unmistakable voice we had five seconds to get ourselves and our stuff out of his barracks and onto the grinder outside. Men flew over each other carrying duffel bags of new Coast Guard uniforms and boxes of personal items packed up to be mailed home. We tumbled and stumbled, falling all over each other down the stairs and out into the cold March air.
As we surged through the Atlantic waters, I had stationed myself out on the port side bridge wing with Roger, taking in the salt air, marveling at the blue waters churned up by our wake as we steamed ahead at full cruising speed. Suddenly, there was a huge thump, and the entire ship shook! What the hell was that? We looked at each other, and then looked aft.
Ian’s Cradle was a twenty-six foot sloop, and more of a cruiser, built for short ocean trips and more ideally, for leisurely voyages up the Intracoastal Waterway, Florida’s watery highway, not the raging storm that greeted it two days before Christmas. We couldn’t understand why the owner of Ian’s Cradle would take his small sailboat out into such bad weather, especially with the infant Ian on board. He must have had mule-like determination to make a Christmas trip to the Bahamas in spite of the bad weather that would soon send Ian’s Cradle and his family into unimagined danger. Disabled and dismasted, Ian’s Cradle was at the mercy of the sea, being carried north on the fast Gulf Stream currents.
At about 4:00 a.m. on the 19th, the wind began to pick up quickly at the Courageous’ dock, after a night of squally weather. Suddenly, the wind shrieked in intensity, blowing out a window, and rolling the ship. In spite of extra mooring lines put out due to the inclement weather, the tornado took a direct hit, breaking those lines in succession, leaving the Courageous connected to the dock only by its number four mooring line. With that, the ship was in danger of rotating about and striking the USCGC Point Charles, moored close behind.
We both heard a whooshing noise and then saw it at the same time. What we thought was a super-dark sky was actually the nearby hull of a large, empty tanker, blowing past the Courageous, literally just a few yards away. It towered over us, seemingly reaching all the way to the sky. Its height from the waterline to the deck seemed to be higher than the Courageous was long. As we turned to yell in horror to the OOD what we saw, our academy genius noticed it too, and ordered a hard turn to port.