A Brief History
On January 28, 1980, the United States Coast Guard proved that their big brother, the United States Navy, does not have a monopoly on maritime blunders or misfortune. Sadly, this particular “Naval Oops Moment” came at the cost of almost half the crew of the USCGC Blackthorn, a sea going buoy tender designated WLB-391 when the Coast Guard ship collided with the SS Capricorn, a tanker ship causing the Blackthorn to roll over and sink.
The Blackthorn, an Iris class buoy tender, was born during World War II, commissioned in 1944 as a Great Lakes ice breaker. She was soon reassigned to buoy tender duties in San Pedro, California, and later reassigned to Mobile, Alabama before her final assignment in Galveston, Texas. In 1979, the 180 foot ship was sent to Tampa, Florida for an overhaul, which was completed in 1980. Immediately after her overhaul, the 950 ton ship was ready to report back to duty when on the fateful evening of January 28, 1980, she was attempting to leave port and enter Tampa Bay when she encountered the 605 foot long tanker, SS Capricorn. Lieutenant Commander George Sepel, Captain of the Blackthorn was below decks to inspect a problem with the newly installed propulsion unit, the bridge in the command of Ensign John Ryan. The Coast Guard ship (also referred to as a “cutter”) had just been passed by a larger Russian passenger ship leaving the port when Blackthorn encountered Capricorn. Normal maritime procedure is for ships to pass each other “port to port” (like we drive on the road in the USA), but proximity did not allow for such a maneuver.
Investigators theorized that the bright lights of the Russian ship obscured the vision of those on Blackthorn’s and Capricorn’s bridges, leading to a turn to port by Capricorn making a normal “port to port” passing of the ships impossible. Capricorn signaled to Blackthorn that the ships should pass “starboard to starboard,” but the whistle blasts were mistaken by Ryan on the Blackthorn. The ships clumsily maneuvered into a collision with each other as Blackthorn attempted to avoid the collision.
Bad enough as a ship to ship collision is, the impact was fairly minor despite the enormous difference in the size of the ships. Unfortunately, an unlucky circumstance doomed the Blackthorn as the Capricorn’s anchor was positioned ready for release and smashed into the side of Blackthorn. The anchor got caught on the Blackthorn, tearing a much larger hole in the smaller ship and yanking Blackthorn over onto its side, ending up with Blackthorn capsized and sank, taking 23 of the 50 men aboard to the bottom.
Coast Guard investigators determined Captain Sepel was at fault for the accident, having left an inexperienced officer in charge of the ship during a transit of an unfamiliar and heavily traveled waterway. Both the Capricorn and the Blackthorn were found to have violated normal sea going procedures, especially as to signaling to each other and for keeping to their respective sides (starboard side) of the channel.
Despite the blunders involved with creating another Naval “Oops Moment,” the Coast Guard tradition of heroism in the face of danger was magnificently upheld by Seaman Apprentice William “Billy” Flores, a new recruit aboard the Blackthorn who saved multiple lives aboard the stricken vessel by opening the life jacket locker for his shipmates and securing a hatch with his own belt to allow the escape of otherwise trapped sailors. Sadly, while saving his shipmates Flores lost his own life. At first overlooked by officials concerned with what had gone wrong, Flores was eventually recognized for his heroism by being posthumously awarded the Coast Guard Medal, the service’s highest peacetime award, albeit a whole 20 years later (January 28, 2000). In 2010, the Coast Guard announced Flores would be honored anew by the naming of a Sentinel-class fast response cutter in his name.
The United States Coast Guard is a highly professional and effective branch of uniformed service men and women that regularly risk their lives to save others and protect the borders of the United States. The Blackthorn sinking proves that even these highly skilled sailors can sometimes have an “Oops Moment,” a topic we have covered numerous times on our website.
Questions for Students (and others): Do you know anyone that has served in the Coast Guard? Do you know which branch of Government the Coast Guard is part of? (Hint, not the Department of Defense.) Do you know anyone that has been rescued by the Coast Guard? Does Cleveland, Ohio, have a Coast Guard Station? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Beard, Tom. The Coast Guard. Universe, 2010.
Bonner, Kit, Carolyn Bonner and Kermit Bonner. Great Naval Disasters: U.S. Naval Accidents in the 20th Century. Zenith Press, 1998.
McCarthy, Tom. The Greatest Coast Guard Rescue Stories Ever Told. Lyons Press, 2017.