Going Critical
by Gene Leboy

“Critical mass is the amount of radioactive material necessary to sustain a chain reaction.”

“Oh, no, Dan, can’t they even get that second one started?” I yelled over all the noise, as one of the Coast Guard crewmen pulled desperately on the starting lanyard. Their high capacity pump coughed half-heartedly. The engine din of the two Coast Guard cutters, which were standing by close aboard to my boat, the howling of the wind and the slap of the waves, made it difficult to hear anyone speak.

I had ordered four of my friends to safety, into the tender, an 18 foot Boston Whaler, while Dan and I stayed aboard. The tender was now standing by about 50 yards away. About an hour before, I’d radioed for assistance, because the bilge pumps were not keeping up with the water rising in the old wooden vessel. The first CG cutter had arrived about twenty minutes later and transferred a pump to my boat. Two CG ratings had jumped aboard with it. But they had been unable to coax more than a few exhaust sounds out of that pump. The cutter had radioed ashore for a second pump. When that one, arriving on a second cutter, showed the same aberrant behavior, I yelled into Dan’s ear, “I’m gonna take one more look below for the cat, before the water gets much higher in the cabins. See if you can help them get that damn pump started!”

“Jesus, don’t get caught down there; she could roll any time!”

“Yeah, don’t I know it. I’ll just be a second. Have to see if there’s any chance of finding Katie.”

I dropped down the companionway steps into the swirling maelstrom of water in the main cabin. The level was now about two feet above the floorboards; this boat didn’t have long - before she reached that critical point of instability. I had to be careful or I’d be gone. I waded forward, the length of the long vessel’s main cabin, and looked at the bunks of the sleeping cabins, forward. Because of the shape of the hull, up forward, the water was not quite as high here. No cat.
I opened the doors to the forward storage, in the eyes of the boat, but did not enter. Too much junk, and if I got caught in there, I’d never get out. I sloshed my way back through the heavy, rolling vessel, and looked in the engine room, the main head, the galley, the main sleeping cabin and the fuel and water tank compartments. If the vessel rolled over now, at least I could get out through galley skylight.

Continuing aft, I looked into the large guest cabin and its head. Here, the bunks were not yet under water. Again, no cat. The only remaining places I could think of were the many lockers I’d not opened and the lazarette storage aft. I wasn’t insane or panicked enough to start opening things up. That would surely keep me below long enough to get killed.

I made one more trip forward, through the big main cabin, and climbed up the steps to the forward companionway.

In the chaos on deck, the Coasties were still struggling with that pump, and one of the cutter commanders was shouting, through his loud-hailer, for them to come back aboard before the whole works went under. I made my way aft on the slanted deck and yelled, “No soap, Dan, she must have scooted into some corner and drowned.”

Just then the forty-ton vessel gave a shudder and rolled to starboard. Dan and I were tossed overboard. The two CG ratings scrambled up, just as the boat rolled, and they perched on the port side. The depth here in the channel was only about sixteen feet, and, with a beam of twenty feet, a good portion of the big boat’s port side remained sticking out of the water. The Coasties hadn’t even gotten wet, but Dan and I were swimming. The Whaler approached slowly and picked us up. One of the cutters came alongside the wreck and took of the two ratings. The Whaler, with all six of us aboard, followed the two cutters into the Coast Guard shore station.

After I was given some dry clothes I phoned my insurance carrier and arranged for a salvage company to survey the wreck the next morning. We six survivors spent the night in a nearby motel, well south of Annapolis. Wallets, money, other personal papers and a good deal of luggage, had been taken off in the Whaler.
The next morning we gathered at the Coast Guard shore station to wait for a report from the salvage diver. About 10 a.m., we received a radiotelephone call. It was from the salvage boat, “Is the owner there?”

I took up the microphone; “This is Captain Leboy.”

“Well, sir, you’ll be glad to know I’ve got one very angry and wet cat here!”

When the dive boat came ashore, we heard the whole story. The salvage diver had gone down and removed the galley skylight. He then entered the hull, which was still sitting on its starboard side. He came up in one of the portside sleeping cabins, which, because part of the hull was still not submerged, had its porthole out of the water. There, sitting on a piece of floating wreckage was a mewing cat. The diver opened the porthole and tried to put the cat out on deck. “Folks, you ever try to put a cat that’s gone critical, through a porthole?”

He told us he had grasped the cat to his chest, dived down, swum through the galley skylight and then put the cat up on deck. I had to buy him a new wetsuit. It was indeed fortunate that I did not have to buy the diver a new thorax.

When Katie was dry and cuddled in my arms, she started to purr in her old familiar manner.

Dan, and my other four friends, rented a car and set off, north, back to Philadelphia. The luggage, they had taken off in the Whaler, filled that car. I rented a second car. Katie groomed contentedly on the seat next to me.

When I reached Annapolis, I became tired and decided to stay the night. I carried Katie into the lobby of The Olde Annapolis Hotel and asked the desk clerk for a room, “Oh, Sir, I’m terribly sorry, Sir, but we cannot accept live animals.”

I then proceeded to pour out my tale of woe. I didn’t state my curiosity about whether they would accept dead animals. The clerk was adamant.

I went outside, unbuttoned my shirt and stuffed Katie in the front. As I refastened the shirt, Katie shifted, squirmed and meowed vociferously. I returned to the hotel desk and again, asked for a room. The clerk stared long and hard at the gyrations going on at the front of my shirt. “Please sign the register here, sir.”

Gene Leboy lost his big Skipjack, off Thomas Point in the Chesapeake, in 1977.