The following was written by my father, John Albert Dearden, CDR-USCG (retired)
The scariest aspect of this duty wasn't heavy weather, though. It was crossing the Grand Banks to get to the northern stations during iceberg season, when the fog is impenetrable. Either fog or iceberg alone is risk enough but the combination presents a peril that tops the list of dangers men encounter when then encroach on the domain reserved for the Titanic. The seeming exaggeration of "fog so thick you couldn't see the bow" became reality and even the most blase mentality grew obsessed with the mysterious, eerie quality of the atmosphere. Standing bow lookout on my first patrol and staring into the fog ridden night brought on the feeling my head was packed in a box of wet cotton. Glancing back to the bridge for a glimpse of something to assure me that I wasn't alone in the world gave little comfort because the running lights weren't even visible. Just dim glows that added to the surrealistic atmosphere. Until you became used to it the occasional blast of the fog horn shattered whatever nerves you had left. Perfect conditions to work on the vivid imaginations of young men. First timers saw olden vessels with full sail flying, other fantastic fog generated shapes and the hands of long drowned seamen trying to get a grasp on deck. Everything but icebergs. Once in a while, on a day watch, the fog would lift momentarily to reveal the biggest iceberg in the world, fifty yards away and bathed in a shaft of sunlight that created the most brilliant white possible. They were majestic, breathtakingly beautiful and absolutely terrifying. The though in everyone's mind was, "How many of these have we come even closer to and not even known they were there?"
The navigator's bible, Bowditch, contains the following untruth, "A large iceberg is almost always detected by radar in time to be avoided." Icebergs often return only serendipitous radar "blips", easily missed by the most consciencious observer, because their irregular surfaces act as millions of tiny mirrors that reflect the radar beam in every direction except back to where it came from. THis was etched in my mind in an unforgettable manner about a year after I had been commissioned Ensign and was deck watch officer on a weathership out of Boston. We had been relieved from Station Alfa in the morning and in early afternoon we came across an iceberg about the size of a city block. This in an area too far north and east for an iceberg to be ever; and in December, much too late for one year's ice and far too early for the next. All hands were quickly on deck for a look-see and 150 pairs of eyes attested to its existence. Those with expericence noted it ranked right up there in size. It doesn't seem possible for an inert object to exhibit malveloence but there is no other way to describe the aura surrounding it. Ws saw no others and the weather was fine until well after dark when it began to deteriorate rapidly.
By the time I came on watch at 2000 there was a stiff wind blowing spume from the tops of rapidly enlarging waves, combined with a gloomy haze that lowered visibility to the point whwere it was anybody's guess as to how far you could see. By now the ship was taking water over the bow quite frequently so the lookout was standing his watch on the flying bridge. The afternoon iceberg had been dismissed as a freak, forgotten, and we were making full speed of eighteen knots. Purdent seamanship called for reduction in speed in view of the poor visiblity, but purdency on the way home from weather station had the effect of greatly lowering the crew's respect for their captain. In fact, the engineers on watch were doing every thing they could to squeeze an extra few tenths of a knot from the ancient diesels.
The grey visibility and creepy atmosphere prompted me to spend a minute or two every so often staring at the bridge radar screen, which was a repeater of the main screen under constant observation by a crew in the radar room. The repeater was shrouded in a black curtain to hide its emitted light from the rest of the bridge and every other source of necessary light was kept at a minimum and masked as much as possible. Smoking wasn't allowed, because even the flare of a cigarette was detrimental to night vision. Chances of seeing another vessel in that part of the world were only slightly better than finding one in the Sahara, but watchstanding procedure was dictated by Murphy's Law, not the law of probability.
I was wrapped in with the radar screen when I heart the laundry operator come onto the bridge to inform the quartermaster that he had secured the laundry for the night. The laundry was fitted with a watertight door and every time a watertight status changed it was noted in a log kept on the bridge for that purpose. The laundryman stayed to pass a few comments with the quartermaster. I could hear them conversing in low tones, and then he said in a very loud, clear voice, "What is that dead ahead?" There was nothing on radar.
It was only a few steps to the portholes lining the front of the bridge and, with no conscious thought of moving, I was standing at one, peering into the gloom. For a few seconds I couldn't see a thing until my eyes readjusted, and then I saw what appeared to be a water spout. I remember the sensation that one section of my mind was observing another part as it slowly rejected that possibility by considering the area of the world and time of year. Sunddely my eyes focused sharply and the waterspout resolved itself int the grey area between the spires of a twin-pinnacled iceberg we would soon be attempting to halve. I experienced a totally new life sensation and, if there had been time for introspection I could have dismissed all previous encounters with fear as mere apprehension. This was the real thing and it was occupying a large portion of my ability to think. Fortuanately, the little piece of brain not occupied with fright carried on automatically and gave orders for left full rudder and stop engines. Reversing engines in the available time frame was impossible with the type of plant. The extreme heel to port and the sudden quieting of the engines immediately relayed my feelings to everyone else on board and I soon had a lot of company on the bridge. No one else, including the lookout, ever saw anything until the iceberg was passing close aboard to starboard.
The captain presented an official letter of commendation to the laundryman, a high accolade in those days. There is no question he was the hero, but there are a couple more pieces of information that still remind me of how little it takes to turn a close call into disaster. He didn't have to come to the bridge to report his door secured, he could have done it by phone from below. Worse, alcohol consumption made him totally irresponsible, a personality trait that later brought about his early release from the service. There was illicit alcohol on board and nothing to prevent him from having a bottle in the laundry, stoned to the ears as the ship hurried to destruction.
In today's drugged and irresponsible society, can any sailor look at his shipmates and not wonder where they might be, and in what condition, at the moment fate has one of them slated for a hero's role?
Copywrite 2009, John Alden Dearden