A weather forecaster said today it seems likely the Pride of Baltimore was struck with a sudden fierce blast of wind called a "microburst" before it sank two weeks ago off the coast of Puerto Rico. There was no way the ship's crew could have predicted it, he said, and the winds could have been so powerful that they rendered the crew helpless.
Raymond E. Biedinger, a National Weather Service forecaster based in Miami, testified before a Coast Guard inquiry into the loss of the city-owned sailing ship and four of its crew. He said the surviving crew members' description of the unexpected hurricane-force winds that sank the ship within two minutes "has all the indications that it was a microburst."
He said the phenomenon, which has been recorded with winds of 200 knots -- has never been appreciated until it was implicated in airplane crashes in recent years, including the crash of Delta Flight No. 191 at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport in August 1985. While microbursts are probably occurring all the time, he said, they are so scattered, short-lived and small in area that few people experience them.
So far, five of the eight surviving Pride crew members have testified at the inquiry here, and all have reported that there was nothing alarming about the weather until the sudden wind struck and their 90-foot Baltimore clipper began to tip over. All five were experienced sailors, but none had witnessed wind of such frightening strength.
"It was like a wall," deckhand Susan Heusman of Towson said this morning. "I had never felt wind like that before." Another deckhand, Dan Krachuck of Springfield, Pa., said today that "you could not look into the wind," it was so strong. Krachuck said he had weathered a hurricane for 72 hours in the Atlantic two years ago. "This wind was the same intensity," he said, "but it happened in a few minutes."
On the morning of the sinking, crew members testified, the ship sailed through winds of about 30 knots and, with reduced sail, handled the weather easily. Biedinger, the weather forecaster, said the off-shore weather forecast for the area that morning indicated winds of 15 knots, based on reports from ships in the area and satellite photographs, with winds stronger in scattered thunderstorms.
Biedinger said the noon forecast, issued soon after the Pride had sunk, warned of "strong wind gusts and rough seas" in areas of scattered thunderstorms, but was otherwise the same as earlier predictions. He said it was impossible for the Weather Service to make detailed, localized predictions for the open oceans, let alone predict microbursts. In the scale of the oceans, he said, a microburst "is less than a speck of sand on this floor."
Biedinger said microbursts, still in an infancy stage of study, apparently occur when a mass of cold air suddenly descends from high clouds, strikes the earth's surface and radiates outwards. Microbursts can be as small as a few thousand yards in diameter, he said, and last just a few minutes. Several crew members have described the sudden wind as a "white squall" -- a high wind without the dark storm clouds normally associated with squalls. Biedinger said a microburst could fit that description.
Crew members testifying before the inquiry agreed there was no time to carry out the procedures for abandoning ship they had rehearsed for this European cruise.
Life jackets and survival suits -- designed to keep those who wore them floating and protected -- were stowed in each bunk, but in the suddenness of the sinking they were "inaccessible," Heusman said. There was also no time to grab the two emergency radio beacons stored within arm's reach of two hatch entrances to the ship, she said.
All crew members have complained about the life rafts. One raft was punctured by the ship's rigging and had to be discarded, while valves on the other apparently blew out as the raft automatically inflated. The crew spent several hours swimming in the water as they reinflated the second raft by mouth.
Crew members suggested the rafts should come with instructions that are firmly attached -- the English instructions washed off, leaving them to cope with French and Spanish. They said the valves were faulty, and would leak if somebody knocked against them.
John (Sugar) Flanagan said that, in the future, he wants to load his life rafts personally with the provisions and gear he wants.