By MARK ALAN LOVEWELL
BEARING DRIFT: A Story of Tragedy, Heroism and How Thirty-Four Sailors Rescued the U.S. Coast Guard. By Peter Sloan Eident. Pirate Press. 350 pages, $29.95.
It was Oct. 20, 1978 and author Peter S. Eident was fresh out of the Coast Guard officer’s school, 22 years old. He ventured onto the 125-foot cutter Cuyahoga in Yorktown. It was his first night on the job on a Coast Guard ship. Only a few hours later, in the waters of Chesapeake Bay, his ship was hit by a freighter. When hit, the ship not only sank, it rolled over and then sank, killing 11 of the 28 aboard.
While he continued on with the U.S. Coast Guard, having an adventurous nautical career that would take him afar, the nightmare of that night stayed with him. His sense of loss, his awareness about the harm bad judgment can bring to any situation, set him on a path eventually to write this book.
Bearing Drift is his personal story, with 20-20 hindsight, about that night and the events that followed. It is also a tale about the Coast Guard as an institution with troubles and its efforts to right itself after embarrassing and costly errors. It is a tale by a man who, like many who leave the Coast Guard, still loves being a “Coastie.” It is a tale about a man’s journey growing up on a changing Cape Cod, learning about human error, and trying to make sense of it so others may be more aware. It is more than a mariner’s tale for mariners.
Though the collision isn’t a Vineyard tale, anyone who appreciates the waters around Martha’s Vineyard and life on the sea will enjoy reading what the author has to say. Anyone who appreciates the value of bay scallops, quahaugs and alewives will feel they are on familiar shoreline. Mr. Eident’s personal accounts of growing up in Falmouth, thinking of Woods Hole and the rest of the Cape as next door, and his experiences on crafts on Nantucket and Vineyard Sounds, bring the reader into his way of thinking.
The book contains the stories about the tragic sinking of the SS Andrea Doria in July of 1956 and the grounding and sinking of the Argo Merchant, an oil tanker, not far from Nantucket in December of 1976. For those who may not remember, the Andrea Dorea was hit in calm seas in fog, in a day when radar was available and used aboard. Still, a preventable event took place. He gives attention to the reasons these events occurred and their impact.
The Coast Guard cutter Cuyahoga, the centerpiece of his tragic tale, was launched in 1927, and spent a few years chasing rumrunners. Later she was used by the Navy and escorted President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s sail through Buzzards Bay in the presidential yacht. The Cuyahoga was a smart-looking old cutter. Unfortunately, human error sinks more vessels than the age of the craft.
Mr. Eident usually spends his summers on the Vineyard. He lives in Connecticut and works in the Middle East, in Abu Dhabi, as a financial adviser for companies seeking product relationships with foreign countries, which in his profession is called an “offset specialist.”
Pirate Press, the publisher of the book, is Mr. Eident’s way of presenting his tale. Pirate Press has no address listed in the book. While it took him three years to write it, a lot of energy also went into trying to market it with a publisher, he told the Gazette last week. The creation of Pirate Press solved that problem. The book is available at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven, Artie’s Cafe in Falmouth, at the author’s Web site, petereident.com, and at Amazon.com. This author, a talented writer, made a huge effort to write and publish his book.
Mr. Eisert told the Gazette: “In the publishing world, everyone said this really is three books. It is a book about the Cuyahoga. It is a book about the history of the Coast Guard. It is the story of growing up on the Cape. I said, no, these stories are all tied together.”
In this case, the writer has better sense. Bearing Drift is an assembly of many stories of a man growing up on the water, working on the water and sharing his perspective about the foibles of people in predicaments on the water.
No one volunteers to participate in a ship collision. No one begins their day thinking it will happen. But it is human error, not bad weather, not holes in the bottom of the vessel, that brings most vessels down. What is remarkable about Mr. Eident’s tale is that he explores the instances where human error contributes to disaster.
Errors don’t happen only to other vessels; they can happen to any vessel. Sometimes it is a stream of errors, sometimes not so many. At the end of each chapter, Mr. Eident has several paragraphs devoted to The Error Chain, an assembly of linked elements that like a chain make a bad event. In his own words: “To avoid the mistakes and diminish the hazards, you need to recognize what’s happening and break the chain.”
For any mariner, for any person who relies on experience and skill, this is a good read.
In the last pages of the book, he wrote: “We all want to blame someone when something bad happens. When I started writing this book, I wanted to become another muckraker, like Upton Sinclair. I had spent countless days raking actual muck, clamming on the Cape as a kid. But the only thing I found in my muckraking was a clam that had made the benign mistake of planting itself in front of my rake.
“Here is the problem: This is not fiction ... I’m not John Grisham, so I can’t create and reveal evil people. This is nonfiction, and the tale that is the truth doesn’t come together nicely. Instead, the truth, even when it involves the deaths of good men, is just a bunch of happy and sad stories about people making benign mistakes.
“When I was young, I demanded justice; now that I’m old, I hope for mercy.”
You don’t have to love boats and dramatic tales to enjoy this wonderful book. All you need to appreciate these stories is familiarity with someone who got caught in the middle of a couple of small, bad decisions.