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Tug-o-War: Don Henry & The Good News
Don Henry is a man who has seen it all. He has been a free diver, hard hat, salvage and tug captain since the end of World War II. The sea has trained every movement of his body, conditioned every reflex of his quick and piercing eyes. Even now in his retirement, his mannerisms and features are razor sharp, prepared for any quick action the sea might send his way. About 70 years old, he is still a strong hulk of a man that moves with great agility. Your hand will sink into his as he shakes it in friendly greeting. His white hair is crewcut short. He examines you like he’s viewing a prospective crewman. His frank eyes hold nothing back. The tone of his kind invitation to sit down almost sounds like a command, and makes you feel it is best never to experience his displeasure. His eyes return frequently to the sea, to the topic of tugs, their design and history. But out of all the seas he has traveled, he has never been able to explain one incident back in 1966 while traveling through the Bermuda Triangle. His story has never changed since he first told it. He offers it in a straightforward manner, and he is not given to theoretical digression. The following is a transcript, as noted in a conversation with him back in 1992. The pictures are those taken of him during his reenactment for Alan Landsburg in his 1978 Documentary Secrets of the Bermuda Triangle, in which he played himself.
Well, we were heading to the Miami-Lauderdale area where I had a salvage company at the time called Sea Phantom Exploration. We were on return trip from Puerto Rico, with a barge in tow. My tug was the Good News. She was a 160 foot tug with a lot of power, 2,000 horsepower. The barge itself was about 2,500 tons. We had it on a 600 foot towline. It had carried petroleum nitrate, but it was empty now. We were over the Tongue of the Ocean area— that’s part of the Bahamas— about 3 days out of Rico. It was daytime, in the afternoon. I had been on the bridge for sometime since the morning, so I had gone to my cabin for a little rest which is just aft the bridge. While I was in my cabin, I heard a great deal of commotion coming from the bridge. The crew were hollering and screaming. I came running out onto the bridge and yelled “What the hell is going on here?!”
The chief officer was there, and he said ‘take a look at the compass, Cap.’ I walked over and looked. The gyro was spinning in a clockwise motion, and the magnetic compass was going completely bananas. I had never seen anything like it before. I knew a compass could tumble but never saw that on a boat. You just don’t get that much acceleration, especially on a tug. I had captained tugs since World War II, so I knew this was something weird. . . .The magnetic compass was simply going around and around. It wasn’t the weather. The sea had been flat calm. Visibility had been good. It was somewhat cloudy but the clouds were high up. There were no storm clouds, cumulus and such. We also had an electronic drain at this time, I guess you’d call it. Whatever it was, it drained everything. We had no communications of any kind over the radios. There were no lights. We lost the generators— they were running but produced no energy. There was just nothing. There was also a case of fifty batteries I had picked up in Rico that I just had to throw away. They were completely shot. This we found out later. We didn’t know this at the time. During whatever this was, I went out on the bridge . . .I was going to check on the tug but the sky caught my attention first. There was no horizon now; You couldn’t see where the sky ended and the water began. It looked as if there was no ocean; and there was no sky. I mean, as if it were all one, blended together. I looked down on the ocean. All I saw was foam; it was like milk. The sky was the same color. There was just no definition between the two as there always is, so that’s why I say there was no horizon. I automatically looked aft to the barge; it was a reflex reaction. But there was no barge! We had felt no snap. And we would have because if a barge like that had been severed from a tug pulling it with all its power, you’d take off like a scalded cat! I knew it had to be there but I couldn’t see it. The towline was leading back the way it was supposed to be, but there was simply no barge. I ran to the afterdeck, then down to the towing deck, and started to pull the towing hawser— You can’t pull a 2,500 ton barge of course— but you can tell if something is attached. It was. The line was tight. It was very taught. There was something on the other end all right. I still couldn’t see it though. There was a fog or something around it, like clouds, and the towline was running aft into that. I’ve likened it to the old Indian rope trick. The towline was just sticking out of a fog. . . but the fog was no where else. It was just around where the barge should be. The water was also more choppy immediately around where the barge should be. That was enough for me! I ran back up to the bridge and kicked those throttles full ahead. It wasn’t like ‘full ahead and clear for action’: it was full ahead and let’s get the hell out of here! I had heard about the Bermuda Triangle at this time; most every seaman about those waters had. I thought, my God I don’t want to be another statistic! We plowed ahead . . .or tried to. It seemed that something was pulling us back. It was like being in the middle of two people pulling on your arms. We were trying to go forward under our power but we were being restrained. When you’ve been at sea for any amount of time, especially on tugs, you get a feel for it; you can tell when it is moving and when its being restrained; there is a vibration in a ship that is there all the time; you can tell when its going and when it isn’t.
“What the Hell is going on here?!”
“Take a look at the compass.”
Barking out orders!
Something is there . . .but invisible!
Now coming out of this thing was just like coming out of a fog bank, gradual but steady. We could see the horizon again. We got everything back: the radios, the lights, the generators. We got the damn barge back. The line was leading back to it. That fog was gone. I went back and tugged on the towline. The barge was solidly attached. We had a 3 and half inch towline on it and it hadn’t split. It was still intact. We plowed ahead for some time. As soon as we got out of that spot, I went back to make sure everything was all right, that the line hadn’t weakened at the coupling during our struggle. I put a boat over the side and went back. The barge was warm, much warmer than it should have been. It wasn’t hot. I mean, you could touch it. But it was warmer, much warmer than would have been normal. Like I’ve said, I was never leery about sailing the Bermuda Triangle afterward. It’s the thing that happened. The whole incident took only about, oh, I don’t know, 7 to 10 minutes, from the time I came onto the bridge until the barge came out of that fog. I mean, it scared the hell ot of me, but I’m not leery about going back down in there. You can’t avoid the area anyway. I’ve been captaining tugs and salvage operations from Puerto Rico to Canada. Its just something that happened and it made me into a ‘believer.’
Question: Had you ever experienced any changes like this in your compass before?
Not like this. I know they can spin around one complete time before coming on course again, if you pass over a large wreck or something. If you sit on a wreck they can go crazy. I salvaged Japanese warship wrecks in Tokyo Bay after the war so I know what it’s like. I’ve heard that compasses still spin over Iron Bottom Sound near Guadalcanal from all the ships that were sunk in the battles there. A magnetic compass points toward true north from the magnetic pole, a gyro compass sets up its own magnetic field and points north. We later checked for a power flux that might have influenced the compass, but there had been any. We would keep a constant watch on our generator, to guard against that thing. If something like that goes unnoticed, you can go off course. In the Bahamas that can be bad since there are dangerous shallows.
Question: Where were you when this “weird experience,” as you call it, happened?
We were over the Tongue of the Ocean. It was over 3,000 feet deep where this happened.
Question: Did you think something extraordinary had happened?
Hell yes! I knew something big was going on, but once was enough! I couldn’t think of anything else but ‘My God, I’m next!”
Enough for me!
Going for the throttles.
Author’s note: This article is taken largely from a transcription of Don Henry. I finally went over it in detail in preparation for my upcoming book. It is written as he was in 1992. Since then, sadly, Captain Henry has passed away, in 1999.