Press "Enter" to skip to content

In Our Waters – The Rescue of the “Gumersindo”

Lieutenant Commander Lucien B. Green, master of the Training Ship Empire State, ordered the cadet helmsman to alter course and place the bow into the sea. A few moments later, he ordered that the engines be slowed to bare steerageway. He offered a silent prayer to the heavens as he thought and contemplated about the health of his cadets in sick bay. Aft and below decks, Dr. E. D. Pearson, the training ship’s surgeon stood aside the operating table. A cadet pharmacist stood at the ready at his side. On the operating table was Cadet Gordon E. Smith. Dr. Pearson had prepared the young man with sedatives. Dr. Pearson slowly turned to the cadet pharmacist. “Scalpel please.”
Three months earlier, on June 6, 1933, the T.S. Empire State, with one hundred and forty-five cadets aboard, set out from the waters of New York Harbor on its annual training cruise. Under the tutelage and watchful eyes of Lieutenant Commander Green and his officers, the young cadets would continue their training to become deck and engine officers. After clearing New York Harbor, the T.S. Empire State headed south and called upon Hamilton, Bermuda for its first liberty port. After a few days on the island, the T.S. Empire State headed east across the Atlantic Ocean. After a port call in Plymouth, England, the cadets voyaged south to Le Harve, France. Superintendent of the New York Merchant Marine Academy, Captain J.H. Tombs, United States Navy, retired, joined the training ship at that port for the remainder of the cruise. While on her course to Gibraltar, the T.S. Empire State encountered a terrific gale as well as the fishing vessel Gumersindo.

On the morning of August 3, 1933, while approximately sixty-miles northwest of Cape Finisterre, a cadet on the bridge reported a fishing vessel off the bow. As the cadet spied the boat, he spotted a signal in her halyards. Lieutenant Commander Green, who was pacing along the bridge, focused his binoculars on the vessel. Suddenly, the craft sounded a distress signal. Green ordered the issuance of a return signal. In short order, the T.S. Empire State maneuvered to take a closer look at the wayward fishing boat. As the training ship drew near the fishing boat, the nature of her distress became readily apparent. As the stern of the fishing vessel rose out of the water in the heavy swell, it was clear that the propellor had been lost. Lieutenant Commander Green took stock of the situation. With heavy seas and gale force winds whipping the waves, he would not be able to launch one of the training ship’s launches to affect a rescue. Instead, the training ship would have to take the foundering fishing vessel in tow.
Lieutenant Commander Green passed word to his officers and cadets. First, they would release oil upon the swells to attempt to calm the seas.1 In short order, a messenger line was rigged with floats and pitched off the stern of the T.S. Empire State. Green took the training ship on a wide arcing turn as the messenger line paid out over the stern. The fishermen fished the line from the swirling seas and began heaving in the line. With the line successfully aboard the fishing boat, Green ordered the cadets to pass the towing hawser. Once the heavy line was secured aboard the fishing boat, Green altered his course for the nearest safe haven. Using the messenger line, a tank was used to ferry fresh water and fresh food to the fishing boat, finally identified as the Gumersindo. With the “high mountains and precipitous shores of Northwestern Spain,” Green was hoping to utilize the natural lee to assist in his towing operation. As the T.S. Empire State reached the shallows, a dense fog enveloped the ship. Constant soundings by the cadets were completed to ensure safe navigation. Additionally, the cadets utilized the ship’s radio direction finder to obtain bearings from beacons ashore. As the training ship and her stricken tow crept along the rocky shallows toward Vigo, a note from the Gumersindo was brought to the bridge. Lieutenant Commander Green opened the note and read it. Green learned that the twelve fishermen had set out aboard the Gumersindo on July 18th, 1933 from Vigo. After clearing Cape Vilano, the Gumersindo was lashed by a violent storm. Despite the conditions, the fishermen were successful in stocking the holds with a bounty of fish. Leaving the fishing grounds off Ireland in her wake, the Gumersindo was making progress homeward when on July 30th, the propellor shaft broke and propellor was lost.
Attempts to anchor were fruitless. After nine hundred fathoms of anchor line had been paid out, the anchor parted the line, and the Gumersindo drifted further out to sea. The fishermen rigged the mast with blankets in an attempt at garnering wind with their make-shift sails. This too proved a failure. The men, the captain related, had all but given up hope. Water aboard the fishing boat was putrid and the only food stores remaining was their fresh catch. The cadets and officers of the T.S. Empire State had provided solace and respite from their weary situation.
“Received your message,” the note continued. “We communicate to you our most fervent thanks for saving our lives. Also we advise that we alone, on Gumersindo, on account of the shaft being broken and the propellor lost, can by no means navigate without the assistance of some steamer, for this bark has no sails. Those on board are made of sleeping blankets. We expect tug at entrance of Vigo.” Signed “your faithful servant.” In gratitude, the fishermen passed over enough fish to provide all hands aboard the training ship two meals of fresh fish. The T.S. Empire State, as she neared Vigo, spotted a tugboat outbound. A few hours later, the tugboat, dispatched by the Gumersindo’s owners, took the wayward fishing boat under her control, and began the last leg of the rescue. With the Gumersindo’s tow line passed to a tugboat, the T.S. Empire State began her voyage home.
With the successful rescue in her wake another problem arose. In addition to Cadet Gordon E. Smith’s diagnosis of appendicitis, another cadet, Roland MacKenzie of Dobbs Ferry, New York, also took ill. Smith required surgery if he was going to have a chance of survival. After the successful underway operation of Smith, by the skillful hands of Dr. Pearson and his cadet pharmacist, a determination was made that Cadet MacKenzie, though his situation precarious, could wait for arrival in New York, especially if the T.S. Empire State could arrive in port, post-haste.
Lieutenant Commander Green scanned over the charts. After careful counsel with his officers and crew, full steam ahead was ordered. Upon her arrival at Quarantine, Cadets MacKenzie and Smith were transferred via launch to the Marine Hospital at Stapleton, Staten Island. Cadet MacKenzie was operated on almost immediately, to alleviate his dire situation. As both cadets began their recovery, the T.S. Empire State, her cadet compliment now numbering one hundred and forty-three, steamed toward her destination. Several hours later, the T.S. Empire State passed over her mooring lines at her berth at the Navy Yard in Brooklyn, New York. The eventful three-month cruise had come to an end. While the T.S. Empire State annual cruise of 1933 is largely remembered because of the diligent and professional actions of the cadets in the rescue of the Gumersindo, the lives of two of her own cadet compliment were also among those saved on the annual training cruise, in our waters.

Stephen B. Luce Library Archives. “Gumersindo” file. SUNY Maritime College, Throgs Neck, New York.

The New York Times.
“145 Marine Cadets to Return Friday,” August 27, 1933.
“Ship Races to Save Cadets on Cruise,” September 1, 1933.
“Lieut. Comdr. L.B. Green,” February 25, 1945.
The Times Union.
“Rescued at Sea by State Training Ship,” August 28, 1933.
“145 Cadets Here on Training Ship,” August 31, 1933.