MESQUITE SUNK 20 YEARS AGO TODAY
Friday, December 4, 2009, 11:55 am
By Ryan Bentley News-Review Staff Writer
During its service on the Great Lakes, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mesquite regularly tended to the buoys that help watercraft avoid navigational hazards.
But 20 years ago today, Friday, Dec. 4, the 180-foot-vessel — which had been using Charlevoix as its home port for nearly a decade — fell victim to one of those underwater hazards itself.
In early December 1989, the Mesquite was working buoys on Lake Superior — a territory normally handled by the Duluth, Minn.-based Coast Guard tender Sundew, which was in drydock for maintenance at the time.
Shortly after 2 a.m. on Dec. 4, the Mesquite ran aground off Keweenaw Point in the same shallow waters marked by a seasonal buoy that the crew had just retrieved.
With the hull breached, water began penetrating the ship’s lower reaches immediately. The ship continued pounding against the shoal on which it was lodged.
After attempting for several hours to free the vessel and control damage, the crew of 53 abandoned ship.
“We had done everything we could possibly do at that point,” said Mark Simmons, who was a chief boatswain’s mate on the Mesquite at the time of the grounding and now lives near Petoskey.
Two small boats carried aboard the Mesquite were used in shuttling the crew to the Mengal Desai, an Indian-flagged freighter bound for Duluth that had been asked to stand by.
Three Mesquite crew members who’d been injured during the ordeal that morning were airlifted from the freighter to a hospital in Hancock.
Following the crew’s abandonment, rough weather further damaged the Mesquite, and it was then declared unsalvageable. In mid-1990, the ship was deliberately sunk in about 120 feet of water off the coast of the Keweenaw Peninsula, and now is one of numerous wrecks that serve as diving attractions as part of the Keweenaw Underwater Preserve.
A Coast Guard formal board investigation said the immediate cause of the vessel’s grounding was failure by the officer of the deck and the commanding officer to properly carry out and supervise standard navigational practices while operating in unfamiliar waters at night. Investigations led to punishments for Mesquite’s captain Richard Lynch, engineering officer James Thanasiu and Susan Subocz, the officer on deck at the time of the grounding.
Looking back, several who served on the Mesquite don’t tend to place blame for the grounding in specific hands.
“It takes more than one person to ground a ship,” said John Kramer, a former Mesquite crew member who now lives in Wolverine. “The captain is ultimately in charge.”
At the same time, “I had nothing but good to say about the captain,” he added.
Simmons, too, noted that he respected the captain, and that he believes the officer on deck took unnecessary heat for the incident.
“She was a great lady,” he said, adding that the crew also was contending with unfavorable weather on the morning of the grounding.
Kramer noted that the Mesquite was covering waters normally handled by another vessel that December, and that crew fatigue perhaps was at play on the morning of the grounding.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is how many hours you work when you’re on a ship like that,” he said.
When the Mesquite went out of service, the Coast Guard’s fleet of seagoing buoy tenders on the Great Lakes was reduced from five to four.
One of those remaining, the Acacia, was reassigned from Grand Haven to Charlevoix. She remained there until her 2006 decommissioning.
The Mesquite’s story has been told in at least one book and one television documentary. Still, to Kramer, “it is odd how many people who are familiar with the lakes and are on the lakes every year are unfamiliar with the Mesquite and what happened.”
Kramer, who was assigned to five different units during his 9 1/2 years in the Coast Guard, added: “(The Mesquite) was the best unit I ever served on, and (its crew was the) best group of people