By Bob Trapani, Jr.
This is a personal account during a winter 2001 nor’easter that struck the mid-Atlantic region as witnessed from atop the Cape Henlopen Ship Reporting Tower. Weather forecasters touted the developing disturbance as a possible “Storm of the Century,” and for a few anxious hours during its approach to the Cape region, the storm indeed flexed its raging muscle against the defenseless coastline of Delaware. Ravaging seas, furious winds, battering torrents of rain and an element of sinister unknown enveloped the helpless beaches, which served only to heighten the anxiety of the coastal community before the low pressure system eventually fizzled meekly into the night.
On the sandy point of Cape Henlopen there stands a converted World War II Fire Control Tower that now serves as the Cape Henlopen Ship Reporting Station. The tower is owned by the Maritime Exchange for the Delaware River and Bay in Philadelphia and is jointly staffed by personnel from the Maritime Exchange and The Pilots’ Association for the Bay and River Delaware in Lewes.
The ship reporting tower communicates directly with all commercial shipping traffic arriving or departing the waters of the Delaware Bay, and promptly documents and disseminates the pertinent voyage information to maritime entities such as the U.S. Coast Guard, shipping agents, tugboat operators, etc. The on-duty Pilot watchstander also coordinates boarding notification procedures for each pilot assigned to an inbound vessel in accordance with Federal law that requires all foreign-flagged vessels to accept onboard a professional and knowledgeable pilot to ensure safe transit upon the domestic waters of the Delaware Bay and River.
It is within the scope of this operation that I perform the duties of Vessel Dispatcher for the Maritime Exchange (2000-02). Ever since I began my part-time employment at the Cape Henlopen Ship Reporting Station, I have waited with bated breathe for the “good fortune” of happening to be on watch when our region experienced a tempest of immense proportions. That wishful day finally arrived on the night of March 4, 2001 in what weather experts were referring to as the much-ballyhooed “storm of the century.” This ominous low-pressure system was taking direct aim at the mid-Atlantic and promising a day of reckoning on the Delaware coastline, potentially unlike any seen before in the annals of the First State. When all was said and done, the nor’easter might have been more aptly named the greatest “dud” of the century; however, for a few brief harrowing hours, the storm refused to show its cards, and thus began its onslaught with a horrifying facade of torrential rain, suffocating winds and high seas.
The following is a personal account which I maintained in between my watch duties, which was highlighted by my affixation on what effects the storm was having on the nearby Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse. The rugged lighthouse stands only 0.54 miles off Cape Henlopen and was fast becoming an unfortunate victim in what now seemed like an aquatic world gone mad. The account begins at the top of my evening watch...
1700 Hours: My watch begins with approximately an hour of daylight remaining to visually observe the rapidly building tempest out over the Atlantic Ocean. The on-duty Pilot Watchstander – George Long, asks me “if I am ready for some action.”
1705 Hours: Horrendous breakers emerge hundreds of yards offshore and display both a furious action and insatiable appetite for soft sand as they roll in toward the defenseless beaches at Cape Henlopen.
1711 Hours: An unrelenting rain is made even more ominous by a shadowy gray atmosphere. The brute strength of the nor’easter is becoming quite evident as it slams into the south end of the offshore outer breakwater wall with awesome force. Meanwhile, Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse, which occupies the same south end of the breakwater wall, will now face yet another game of roulette with its fortunes of survival from the latest prodigy spawned by Father Time’s endless cycle of seasonal storms along the Atlantic Coast.
1720 Hours: The black pair of binoculars sitting atop my desk suddenly become an extension of my vision as my eyes scan the chaotic horizon in between job duties. My attention is balanced between answering phones and ensuring ship reporting data was properly being entered into the computer system, to being riveted on the murky image of Harbor of Refuge Light, which was now standing sentinel amidst the perilous swells that swallowed the entire south end of the breakwater wall.
1725 Hours: The onslaught of a storm gone mad continues. The tower shudders and “moans” with each powerful gust of wind that buffets its masonry construction. All the while, Pilots continue to board inbound ships amidst the building seas with a precision, dedication and fearlessness known only to their profession.
1736 Hours: The torrents of rain and the sinister clutches of approaching darkness begin to make it difficult to visually make out the white superstructure of Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse. Despite the chaos reigning supreme all around us outside, George and I remain warm and dry inside the confines of the Cape Henlopen Ship Reporting Tower. The ghastly sounds produced by the tempest are interrupted from time to time by the crackling voices of ship captains communicating with the Pilot Watchstander as they approach the Pilot Boarding Area – some 10 miles south of Harbor of Refuge Light. At this moment, one can only wonder what types of emotions are racing inside the pilothouses of the foreign seafaring vessels that are desperately making a run for the “calmer” waters inside the Delaware Bay.
1740 Hours: I take a moment to look back to my left at the Delaware Breakwater East End Lighthouse. To my surprise, I noticed flocks of seagulls hunkered down atop the breakwater wall, cautiously nestled between the crevices of the massive rocks that make for a safe haven as the birds seek to ride-out the storm. It was as if they too sensed the building drama and decided to cease all attempts at sharing the disturbed airspace with the furious nor’easter – rather opting to secure a front row seat upon the far-less sea-swept inner breakwater wall.
1742 Hours: The pilot motor launch operators are now reporting “8 to 10 foot seas out here and building.” The wind gauge records sustained 40+ mph winds, with gusts over 50 mph. Meanwhile, another glance toward Harbor of Refuge reveals a rouge wave slamming the caisson base of the light with such force that its violent watery remnants are sent spouting skyward some forty feet up and over the solar panel bolted to the main deck of the structure. Meanwhile, relentless wave action continues to buffet the entire outer breakwater wall – each time sending a momentary artistic liquid spray airborne that reaches out many yards over the wall towards Lewes Harbor.
1750 Hours: George Long, the Pilot Watchstander, talks about the weather system being comprised of a “complicated low formed by several lows converging together.” Technical analysis aside, all I knew was we were in the middle of a “good one” that showed no signs of relenting anytime soon. Once again with the assistance of my trusty binoculars, I observed a fishing vessel running for cover and seeking to anchor just inside the north end of the outer breakwater.
1757 Hours: The VEGA VRB-25 optic inside the lantern room of Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse activates at this moment – though its normal brilliancy is somewhat reduced by the murky atmosphere and hard-driving rains. The pending darkness now begins to envelop the lighthouse, with only a flashing light every 10 seconds to indicate the structure is still standing strong and defiant in the face of this maelstrom.
1800 Hours: A pilot motor launch operator hails the Cape Henlopen Ship Reporting Tower to report the seas are now some “10 to 12 feet and building – its getting rough out here!”
1812 Hours: Winds remain at sustained readings of 40+ mph, with gusts over 50 mph.
1820 Hours: Nightfall has now doused any traces of daylight. The darkness joins forces with the angry elements to heighten the drama being played out on center stage at sea. At this point, with visibility but a memory, one must rely solely on the steady voices manning the bridge of inbound ships and the pilot motor launch operators that race across the crackling airwaves in order to determine how vicious the storm continues to become.
1826 Hours: The captain of a Cape May-Lewes Ferry radios the Pilot Watchstander and asks for the current wind speed as he approaches the Lewes terminal. At this precise moment, a strong gust of wind strikes the tower with terrible force – shaking the structure in an unnerving manner and wildly vibrating the entire contents inside our work area. I then lean back in my chair on wheels and stare in amazement at my computer monitor visibly rattling atop the desk for a few sustained seconds. For whatever reason, I reached for my binoculars to scan the blackened horizon – in vain I might add, for the friendly lights of Cape May and Brandywine Shoal, neither of which will be seen for a few more hours as the “storm of the century” rages on.
1828 Hours: U.S. Coast Guard Group Eastern Shore broadcasts a mayday received from an unidentified vessel off Chincoteague, Virginia. Simultaneously, Coast Guard Cape May continues to try and reach the CGC POINT HIGHLAND underway off the coast of New Jersey via radio.
1830 Hours: The running lights of ships at anchor in Big Stone Beach Anchorage are now completely obscured – only the sweeping beam from Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse can be seen from the point of Cape Henlopen where our storm-buffeted tower resides.
1849 Hours: The pilot motor launches are now taking a beating inside the more “protected” outer breakwater as well, reporting “7 to 8 foot seas” rounding the cape inside the confines of the outer wall. My computer monitor continues to periodically rock atop the desk, while desktop reading lights flicker badly with each round of wind that is ceaselessly assaulting the tower. The voice of a Coast Guard Group Baltimore Watchstander breaks the momentary silence with a disturbing broadcast, stating a tug and barge have just been reported missing in the storm.
1858 Hours: The wind gauge inside the ship reporting tower is now fluctuating so wildly that it has become increasingly difficult to obtain a fix on the direction of the wind. The latest reading records a gust exceeding 60 mph. The torrential rain, rolling seas and reduced visibility now places a greater emphasis on the white beam emitting from Harbor of Refuge as a solid point of orientation for pilot motor launches returning from a pilot boarding mission at sea.
1905 Hours: Just south of Brown Shoal, a pilot motor launch carefully approaches the outbound vessel Perseverance, who is leaving the Delaware Bay for Savannah, Georgia. With its halogen spotlight providing much-needed light, the motor launch noses up to the huge, rolling container ship. The pilot then hustles down the swaying Jacobs Ladder – at which time I’m thinking, “There is no way I’d trade places with the pilot disembarking the pitching vessel.” One can only imagine the occupational dangers associated with pilots having to board vessels in such violent weather and seas. As the Perseverance passes close to Harbor of Refuge Light, it projects a ghostly appearance of a floating island, seemingly devoid of its hull, which was concealed by walls of raging water. My thoughts again begin to race as I ponder what types of challenges await the vessel as it steams directly into the face of the tempest on an open sea.
1915 Hours: The Pilot office confirms a decision to the Pilot Watchstander to hold all vessels in their anchor zones until further evaluations could determine what track the nor’easter would take.
1916 Hours: As George Long and I continue our work, we hear something above the roar of the storm slamming the metal catwalk on the tower’s exterior gallery. George quickly identifies the rattling sound as the plastic bucket fastened to the structure’s pulley system that assists in bringing provisions aboard the tower. This means George and I will have to venture out from our warm and dry environment for the first time all night in order to secure the bucket. We carefully opened the metal door leading to the threshold of the chaotic maelstrom and gingerly stepped out on the slippery steel grating of the catwalk. Instantly, the harsh reality of a biting 37 degree temperature working in concert with a 50 mph wind caused me to utter the evening’s best understatement to George when I stated, “Wow, we’ve got to be careful out here!” As I braced myself against the powerful force of the wind, I decided to peer to the south where I spotted the faint running lights of an approaching vessel named Tundra Consumer. The ship sailed from its last port in Puerto Limon and would soon be calling on Pier 5 Broadway up the Delaware River in Philadelphia. Before common sense coaxed me back inside the tower, I stood staring at the powerful floodlights affixed to the catwalk and watched how they illuminated the wild rain racing horizontally by the tower. Though one could not see the ocean a mere few hundred yards away from our position, the deafening sound of pounding surf was enough to inspire even the most laid-back imagination as to the terrible conditions at water’s edge.
1923 Hours: The launch services at Big Stone Beach notify the Cape Henlopen Ship Reporting Tower that they are canceling service for the remainder of the evening due to the worsening marine conditions.
1928 Hours: Seas are now reported to be 12 to 14 feet and building at the Delaware Bay weather buoy.
1939 Hours: The vessel Tundra Consumer arrives at the pilot boarding area 1.5 hours late due to the rough sea conditions. The Pilot Watchstander asks the operators of the motor launch how conditions are for them. The two men in the launch confidently state, “We’re ok, we can handle this.”
1943 Hours: Every four hours, the Pilot Watchstander and the Maritime Exchange Vessel Dispatcher are required to log the current weather conditions – that duty is now recorded in our computer database as, “36 degrees, winds out of the east at 45 mph, barometer at 29.73, visibility less than five miles and of course, very rough sea conditions present.”
1957 Hours: At this point, the weather takes another interesting twist. George swivels around in his chair towards me and says; “Do you hear that? It sounds like its beginning to sleet.” Sure enough, the precipitation was now an icy mix of rain and sleet.
2000 Hours: A foreign flagged vessel docked in Philadelphia calls the Pilot Watchstander asking about weather conditions at the cape. The captain also wants to obtain a recommendation from the Pilots on whether to sail or to stay at anchor. The Pilot Watchstander explains to the captain that he is not permitted to make that decision for him.
2017 Hours: Winds are still blowing at a sustained 45 mph, with consistent gusts ranging from 50 to 60 mph.
2024 Hours: I redirected my attention from the storm for a moment to the fact that all this “activity” was making me hungry. With a 180-degree swivel of my chair, I was off to the kitchen for a snack – chocolate chip cookies and a ginger ale soda. On the way back to my seat, the phone rings – a shipping agent wanting to ascertain an estimated arrival time for vessel on the “due list.”
2032 Hours: Back to the kitchen to make a fresh pot of coffee for the Maritime Exchange Vessel Dispatcher soon to arrive as my relief at the top of the hour.
2035 Hours: Harbor of Refuge’s beam continues to sweep the turbulent point of Cape Henlopen, while providing a fleeting glimpse of the sopping wet sand and churning seas a few hundred yards away from our position on land.
2039 Hours: The coffeepot emits a gurgling sound – indicating the hot beverage is ready to serve! The aroma of freshly brewed coffee permeates the entire watch area, a most welcomed pleasure for the senses on such a stormy and cold night. Time for one last cup before my watch ends. After adding one teaspoon of powdered cream and sugar to my java, it’s back to my desk and the change of watch duties.
2041 Hours: Rain is now blowing harder than ever – with its intensity revealed as it travels horizontally by the orange-tinted floodlights. At this moment, a wind gust of 65 mph rocks the tower and causes it to make a ghastly sound from the terrific vibration.
2044 Hours: Without warning, the tower violently shudders once more and the desktop lights wildly flicker as the storm sideswipes the structure with the strongest wind gust of the night – 70-plus mph! I immediately turn to George and say, “Wow, now that was a good one!” As the weather conditions continue to deteriorate, the Pilots never miss a beat. Despite seas that are now a healthy 14 to 16 feet, these maritime professionals remained intensely focused on their work at hand.
2046 Hours: The wind-swept air traveling up the circular shaft of the tower continues to make a hideous “moaning” sound, as the structure remains in a constant state of sustained vibration for a period of a few minutes on end. I then notice a set of lonely headlights slowly approaching the tower from the road below – my relief had arrived.
2049 Hours: I officially pass my watch to the next Maritime Exchange Vessel Dispatcher.
2050 Hours: Time for one last walk outside on the catwalk for a 40-foot elevated “look” at the raging tempest. In seconds I was soaking wet and holding firmly onto the handrails, which was a good thing, because at that moment, another 50+ mph gust decides to test my grip on the safety rail. Wow! Harbor of Refuge’s light permits one last glimpse of a furious ocean, white with foam. The time had come for me to make my way inside and down the spiral staircase to my minivan and head back home to Lewes. Closure had come to a memorable night of standing “in harm’s way with no place to hide.”
Created August 2002