The first mate of the Pride of Baltimore told a federal inquiry today of the terrifying and frantic moments as the 90-foot ship sank off Puerto Rico 10 days ago: how within seconds the crew members lost their ship and provisions and how they struggled in the water for hours trying to inflate damaged life rafts.
The first mate, John (Sugar) Flanagan, said the suddenness of the sinking, less than 90 seconds after the replica of a 19th century Baltimore clipper was hit by a wind gust of between 70 and 80 knots, confounded the set routine for abandoning ship and left the crew without life jackets or emergency radio beacons and with few provisions.
"We were sailing a long nicely," he said, "and all of a sudden we were on our way over."
Flanagan was the first to testify in an investigation by the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board into why the nine-year-old schooner, owned by the City of Baltimore, sank last week on its return from a European tour with the loss of its captain and three crew members.
The Coast Guard announced today in Miami that the search for the four missing crew members had been suspended.
Flanagan told the panel that Capt. Armin E. Elsaesser III tried to turn the ship away from the wind to cushion the blow of the sudden gust. But he said Elsaesser lost control as one side of the ship sank lower in the water.
As the ship went over, crew members scrambled to the high side in what Flanagan, 27, described as "kind of a scary situation." But within 20 seconds of the gust, he said, the ship was on its side and the masts were in the water.
Flanagan said that for a few seconds after that, the Pride appeared to right itself, but that it was only settling deeper in the water. Within a minute, he said, it was gone.
As the ship began to capsize, Flanagan said, Elsaesser ordered him to release the life rafts from their fastenings at the stern. Flanagan said that he had to dive about eight feet under water to release the latches, but that the rafts did not come free. He said he was beaten back during several dives by the violent swinging of the ship's huge wooden tiller. As he surfaced to warn other crew members of the danger, he said, the two life rafts popped to the surface.
One was quickly inflated by pulling an orange cord, but was punctured by a piece of the ship's rigging, he said. The second raft had faulty valves and did not inflate, Flanagan recounted, and the provisions it contained were quickly scattered.
Eight members of the crew, eager to stay together, swam around the two "deflated gobs of rubber" and stuffed the provisions and cans of water they could find into their pockets.
Flanagan said that one of the crew members found a five-gallon jug of water floating in the debris and grabbed it, but that it was later lost when the line they used to attach it to the life raft came unfastened.
The first mate said the crew swam for 2 1/2 hours, trying in vain to inflate the punctured raft. Then they turned to the other raft and, after using their mouths to blow air through the broken valves for another 2 1/2 hours, managed to inflate it. He said the job was difficult even though the waves were not high -- between four and seven feet -- and the winds had subsided to about 35 knots within a half- hour.
Flanagan was asked few questions about the general seaworthiness of the Pride. But he said there was nothing to indicate that the ballast of cement blocks, iron and cobblestones used to keep the ship upright had shifted. The hatches on deck were all sound, and all but the small hatch into the aft cabin were fastened shut, he said.
Flanagan said the normal routine of reporting the ship's position by radio to Pride officials in Baltimore was abandoned when the Pride reached the Caribbean because it seemed that they were in home waters. The captain was supposed to radio the nearest vessel at about 4 p.m. the day of the sinking, he said.
Flanagan said that because crew members kept their life jackets on their bunks, they were not readily accessible in the sudden storm.