In the pre-dawn of New Year’s Eve 2018, fire broke out on the 650-foot Panamanian-flagged car carrier SINCERITY ACE underway in the Northern Pacific. Fire is one of the greatest threats at sea. The vessel, which was roughly 1,800 nautical miles northwest of the Hawaiian Islands, alerted the U.S. Coast Guard of its intent to abandon ship due to the rapidly intensifying blaze.
The perils at sea are many, which is why mariners of all nations rapidly respond to distress calls, knowing that every second counts in saving lives. The U.S.-flagged vessel GREEN LAKE, also a vehicle carrier, was 54 miles away and rapidly responded to the distress call. GREEN LAKE is a vessel in the Maritime Security Program (MSP), overseen by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration (MARAD). The MSP is a keystone of U.S.-flag commercial seapower, maintaining a fleet of 60 modern ships, active in trade, yet ready “on call” to meet U.S. defense transport requirements or rapidly respond to other emergencies at sea. Its captain, William Boyce, and his crew of 20 – including two Midshipman from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy – undertook an 18-hour-long rescue in deteriorating weather conditions at tremendous risk. They ultimately saved the lives of seven of the SINCERITY ACE’s twenty-one crewmembers.
For their courageous efforts, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration awarded the Gallant Ship Citation Award and U.S. Merchant Marine Medals for Outstanding Achievement to the Captain and Crew of the GREEN LAKE in ceremonies at the U.S. Customs House in Lower Manhattan on November 1, 2019. The Gallant Ship Citation was established by Executive Order in 1944 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for vessels “participating in outstanding or gallant action in a marine disaster or other emergency to save life or property at sea.” Roosevelt established the award to recognize merchant mariners, who endured the highest casualty rate of any service in WW II – 1 in 26. Only 42 vessels, including GREEN LAKE, have been designated as a Gallant Ship in the past 75 years. The last award was made in 1995.
When the GREEN LAKE arrived, it found SINCERITY ACE burning throughout most of its length, with crew members trapped on the forward deck by billowing smoke. The furious fire made the decks so hot, they melted the bottoms of the crews survival suits, which are essential to survival after abandoning ship. The trapped crew members were forced to climb 100 feet down mooring lines to the water. They escaped the fire and heat of the deck only to arrive in rough, unforgiving seas.
As the GREEN LAKE rushed to pick up survivors, it fought 17- to 20-foot waves and stiffening winds, which made the rescue more dangerous and challenging. The high wind and waves combined with the GREEN LAKE’s high freeboard and bluff sides to made it difficult to maneuver and lift survivors to safety one by one. The rescue lasted from 2 am to 8 pm with the entire crew working tirelessly to get 7 survivors aboard.
Nine others were rescued by four other ships: the EAGLE, a liquefied natural gas tanker, and two other vehicle carriers, NEW CENTURY 1, VENUS SPIRIT, and a bulk carrier, GENCO AUGUSTUS. Sadly, despite these efforts, five SINCERITY ACE crewmembers lost their lives. Two Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules aircraft and a Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft also participated in the search for survivors. All are to be commended for their efforts.
As the citation for their Gallant Ship Award reads: “…The courage, seamanship, and ingenuity of (GREEN LAKE’s) captain and crew bring honor upon themselves, their ship, and the U.S.-flag fleet.” It is well-deserved recognition, but accolades are the farthest thing from a mariner’s mind when the life of another is at stake. For as long as men and women sail the seas, mariners will act without hesitation to save the lives “of those in peril on the seas.”
These seafarers have earned our thanks and admiration.