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The Wreck of the Chester Polling


Green water rolled over the bows, along the deck, breaking thunderously on the superstructure. Chester A. Poling struggled to climb 30 foot waves, cresting some, crashing through the rest. On January 10, 1977, the 281' coastal tanker had departed Everett, MA while still taking on ballast. The weather was foul, but Captain Charles Burgess had seen worse, and felt they could safely make home port in Newington NH.

Pounding northeast past Cape Ann, Massachusetts, into howling wind and mounting waves, Poling was handling badly. Captain Burgess decided to pull in to Gloucester harbor and wait out the storm. He ordered a turn to port, and with the waves now ramming her broadside, Poling struggled towards Eastern Point Lighthouse, marking the harbor's entrance, and safety.

Just before 10 AM, with no warning, a crack echoed through the ship. Captain Burgess later said he recognized the sound immediately... heard it during W.W.II when his ship was torpedoed. Looking towards the stern, he saw exactly what he expected... and feared. Whether from poor ballasting, old age, or a freak wave... the ship had broken in two... and the stern, still under power, had jackknifed the ship, and then broken off. It was already drifting away.

Grabbing a bull horn, the Captain yelled to the crew on the stern that help was on the way.... and then radioed a "Mayday". His call for help set in motion a heroic effort by the men of Gloucester Coast Guard, the pilot boat Can Do and the crew of a Coast Guard helicopter. At first from the cabin of the drifting bow section, and then with a hand-held radio, Captain Burgess gave direction to the efforts to take his crew off the two halves of the ship.

Franticly passing ideas back and forth on the radio, the rescuers groped for a safe way to take the crew off. It was nearly impossible to maneuver close to the ship's halves without being smashed against the side by the huge waves. The rescue soon took on an extra note of urgency. The bow was sinking rapidly, while the stern section began drifting ever closer to Dog Bar Breakwater. It was clear that if she struck, all hope was lost for those aboard.

Some of the crew were taken off by the boats pitching dangerously in the wintry seas. They climbed into rafts and were pulled to the rescuers. The rest were lifted off in slings by the helicopter, swinging helplessly in savage gusts as they were hoisted from the ship's deck. Two men fell into the sea, one disappeared, and the other was dragged out, apparently dead.

The stern section went down in 100' of water, before it could hit the breakwater. The bow sank farther out, in much deeper water. When the rescuers and the rescued returned to Gloucester they found a fire had tied up most local ambulances. Channel Two's TV truck was providing coverage, and the driver consented to transport the body of the man recovered from the water, to Addison Gilbert Hospital.

Somewhere between the Coast Guard Station and the hospital, the frozen crewman revived, surprising the truck's driver, and providing a satisfying end to a day filled with the heroism of the helicopter's crew, Gloucester Coast Guardsmen and the men of the Can Do.

When she went down Chester Poling was an aging, graceless, coastal tanker... a sort of "spinster of the sea". During the 16 years she has rested on the bottom, a remarkable transformation has taken place.

We drifted over her resting place, and the depth finder spiked. The hook caught on the first pass, and we stared down white anchor line angling into the deep. It was our first time on her this spring, the water deep and cold, everyone a bit nervous.

As we started down the anchor line, visibility seemed good, at least 30 feet, with Spring's first green tinge of algae. Twenty feet down the line and we shivered. Below the warmer surface layer, the water was colder.... and gin clear. The shiver wasn't just from the cold. Spread out 60 feet below us, was the spectral stern section of Chester Poling.

Running nearly the length of the 165' hulk is a catwalk. It's easy to imagine crew members scrambling it's length, heading for the temporary high ground of the stern. After 16 years in the sea, it's covered... every square inch... with colorful anemones. Brown, white, orange... a colorful rainbow sitting astride the bare tank deck.

Squat, angular lines of deck gear have been softened by a layer of colorful marine life. Bright green sponges and orange tunicates transform mundane pieces of corroded metal into living jewels. Pink soft corals cling to her hull. Later in the summer schools of pollock will swirl above, while cod and hake swim in her tanks and the crews quarters. Today there are just cunner, curious, pesky.

On the tank deck, valves and hand cranks are just as the crew set them, stray pieces of fish net cling to ladders, testimony to draggers who've passed unknowingly.

Beneath the decks, the crews quarters and engine room remain intact. Dark, with beams of light entering through the portholes, small cunner cruising delicately amidst railings and pipes. Everything loose is long gone, taken by the first to dive the wreck. Still, under a thin layer of silt... it's easy to pick out the galley, the engine room controls, and the head. Ghostly, not so very different than when Poling was a living ship.

Most New England wrecks are either in water too deep to be reached by sport divers, or have been crushed to rubble by wave action in shallow water. Many are capsized, making it difficult to visualize them as the ships they had been.

The Poling is unique. The stern section came to rest upright on a sandy bottom, 100 feet of water deep enough to protect her from the waves, shallow enough to be reached by moderately experienced divers. Other good New England wrecks are much farther from shore, requiring long boat rides

Once in awhile there is some current, but local charter operators have added 2 moorings, making the descent easy, and simplifying the 10 foot safety stop most divers are making.

Several years ago, attempting to find Poling, we missed her on the first attempt. Pulling our way down the line to see what the anchor had caught, we found ourselves in a huge trench... left by the wreck when she slid down an underwater slope during the Great Blizzard of 1978. Lying in the sand were pieces of Poling's deck gear, ripped off as she slid by.... and an ancient clay pipe.

For hundreds of years, from the fisherman who dropped his pipe, to the men who saved Poling's crew, Gloucestermen have gone to sea. More than 10,000 have died at sea. Five of the crew of Can Do died only a year later, trying to save the crew of another tanker caught in a storm.

There she lies... resting just off Dog Bar Breakwater, within sight of the Gloucester's famous Fisherman's statue... blanketed with color and life. Without grace or beauty in her first incarnation, perhaps now a fitting underwater monument to all those who've risked their lives trying to rescue "those in peril on the sea".


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